FF20: The Taj effect

Sailors from navies around the world, attending the International Fleet Review, take in the Taj Mahal, Agra. [Buy a print]

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t really want to see it.

In one of the dusty corners of my prefrontal cortex, there’s a cluster of particularly contrarian electrical activity that reacts badly to things that are popular.

The primary reason I avoided Harry Potter in my youth was due to the incessant celebrant chatter orbiting the wizard. In adulthood, subsequent comparisons between Daniel Radcliffe and my personal likeness have plagued me (all over the world, everywhere), cementing my distaste. Wearing round glasses doesn’t help. Potter aside, and regardless of the actual quality of the object of attention, I often find myself subconsciously worming away from the gravitational pull of things one is supposed to like or do.

And in India, the Taj Mahal seems to be the archetypal thing to do.

Despite the size and diversity of the country, its symbolic association with India as a whole is undeniable. It is the quintessence of India’s most touted images and is the tourist’s bucket-list-location par excellence.

The fact that the guidebook predicted my wariness by acknowledging the hype, the many people that come expecting to be disappointed and yet leave with glowy insides, only made me more determined to remain untouched. I would not be like them. I would be like stone.

Walking through the great sandstone arches of the south gate, I soon saw the problem with this stance. In spite of my desperate pursuit of nonchalance, my fight against awe was short-lived. The Taj was Rocky, and I but a child with feather gloves.

Of course, you can learn about the history of Shah Jahan and the passion and pain for his lost wife, Mumtaz Mahal, that fuelled the Taj’s ambitious construction. You can marvel endlessly over the skill and craft poured into the Islamic calligraphy that drapes the building like a scarf. You can get close and examine the pietra dura inlay work that beds thousands of precious stones into floral blossom over the creamy marble. But — and this may well be my most Philistine-like moment yet — India is crammed full of such incredible virtuosities and histories, and yet the Taj seems to move you in a way that completely disregards these details.

Set within the context of the subcontinent’s palaces and forts, it’s relatively plain. There’s very little to see inside, and the two tombs of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz aren’t even their real tombs. They’re underneath. Instead, the psychogeography of the place — or perhaps the psychoarchitecture — is what grasps you as it exercises its geometries of contrast and focus.

Outside swarm crowds, buildings, vehicles, voices, things breaking, things coming to life. A quotidian competition of trade and space and spirit and breath and point of view. While inside, all lines draw the eye towards the Taj’s quiet marble heart. The trees stand to attention in rows like soldiers guarding the moment you first set your sights upon the mausoleum’s great dome. For a moment you’re caught off guard by this illusion, where are all the people?

As you move closer, pools of water create shimmering doubles, projecting the monument’s presence onto a series of living screens, amplifying its dream-like immensity.

Yet the masterpiece of this work is what lies beyond the Taj. And aside from the winding Yamuna river, hidden from view, there is nothing. Cut out against an empty sky, whose twice-daily solar light display seems gracefully choreographed to the drama of the stone, the staging is perfect. We’re so unused to seeing this that it seems unreal. It’s as if an effect or some photoshop trick has been applied to isolate and celebrate the star of the show in a way that’s almost always impossible in real life.

However, there’s something fleeting too about this peace. As if a lesson in the temporary, the crowds creep back into your consciousness as you step away from the locus of symmetry. Hordes of selfie sticks raise to the sky like a spontaneous salute of plastic swords. At one point I turn round to see a man coercively photographing my mother-in-law now sitting on my father-in-law’s knee. It looks like they’re making a heart shape with their arms. I think this is probably a first for Janet and Nigel. But they politely go with it and I look forward to seeing the photographs.

Then, a group of men and women, all wearing subtly varied uniforms of white, neatly walk towards us. The economy of their movements and efficiency of their dress give the impression that they’ve been freshly manufactured from the marble. Then I remember having seen billboards advertising the International Fleet Review. ‘Navies of the world united through oceans’. They flow past with smiles and languages of delight. I wonder whether these mariners, with their life at sea and all its endless horizons, feel as glad as I do to be here.

A group of Brazilian sailors walk past us towards the exit. One of them pauses and glances back for a moment.

’Once in a lifetime’ he whispers.

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