I had recently satisfied a wanderlust craving and found myself marveling at the towering glamor of the Taj Mahal in Agra, India. It has beguiled travelers for centuries, defied the imagination enabled by books, and rendered me awed beyond words.
What instantly held my heart captive was its sheer size. The Taj Mahal is an Islamic mausoleum with a height of 73 meters and sits on a 17-hectare complex that includes a mosque, a guest house, and formal gardens. It was commissioned by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to house the tomb of his wife Mumtaz Mahal in 1632 when modern innovations in transport and logistics we enjoy today were yet unheard of. The majestic Taj Mahal relied on elephants to ferry materials, semi-precious stones, and marble from Makrana in Rajasthan, which is about 400 kilometers away, and an estimated 20,000 workers to complete construction that took 22 years.
I surveyed the complex in utter amazement as we walked to the mausoleum. My tour guide continued to enrich my curiosity with his historic tales as I slipped on foot covers to protect the sacred tomb from my shoes’ soiled soles. Suddenly, the tour became a spiritual experience.
From afar, the main tomb and the surrounding minarets are an imposing white marble tribute to Persian and Mughal architecture, but God (or in this case Allah) is in the details. The exterior decorations of the Taj were created by applying stucco, carvings and stone inlays. What I initially thought as black painted calligraphy was actually black onyx when observed up close, indelibly decorating the facade of the tomb with quotes from the Qur’an. Herringbone and tessellation patterns were common, as were lotus and plant motifs, all carved in white marble. The intricate inlay work used semiprecious gemstones such as agate, turquoise, coral, onyx and jade and required specialized lapidary techniques that include cutting, grinding and polishing. The same meticulous process continues in Agra, which has decreed Fridays as off-limits to tourists but not for the artisans and conservation workers at the Taj Mahal.
The local economy of Agra is largely dependent on tourism dollars lured in by the Taj, but its sustainability is in question. Urban legend has it that Emperor Shah Jahan had ordered cutting off one hand of each builder of the Taj so that upstaging the Taj with another monument would be impossible. If factual, such short-sightedness may have imperiled the survival of this heirloom tradition unique to Agra. And with the onslaught of digital technologies and the Internet, interest among younger generations to continue the back-breaking craftsmanship memorialized by their ancestors who built the Taj is rapidly waning.
We can’t blame them. When I visited the Agra Art Gallery after my tour of the Taj Mahal, I witnessed the seemingly blinding and time-consuming stone inlay process on pieces of white marble. The inlay craftsman working the grindstone did not speak a word of English, but the proprietor, Rahul, did and generously gave me the lowdown on semi-precious stones that are abundant in India, the use of henna as the orientation for the inlay, and the formula used to make the glue that permanently attaches and holds the semi-precious stone inside the marble carving. This process has not changed in 387 years. But while maintaining and restoring the Taj Mahal is clearly intact, the manpower, talent, and desire to do it needs to multiply, a challenge that Rahul, his family, and their workers will be forced to take on in the coming years.
The same goes for the pashmina makers and painters that I met at the City Palace in Jaipur, the handweavers of the Philippines that social enterprises such as WVN Home Textiles have employed, and all the traditional craftsmen in developing nations struggling to survive in a globalized world. The discipline and rigorous practice that high-quality artisanal products demand is engulfed by the lure of ease, quickness, and affordability inherent in mass production. It is hard for local mom-and-pop artisans to compete, and much harder to find inheritors of that burden. Their plight brings to light the dangers confronting a nation’s cultural heritage when skilled workers for the craftsmanship that tourists and foreigners are willing to pay top dollar for are diminishing. The hours are long, the methods are tedious and the pay has barely budged despite years of inflation and rising costs. Worse, agents and middlemen take a piece of an already small pie. Why would the son of a grindstone worker take on the cudgels for some ancient bequest when he can earn twice, five times or even ten times more by selling stuff on eBay or its equivalent on his mobile phone?
There are no easy answers, but they exist. Just as we have seen in the slow food movement, the call to go back to basics for the sake of our planet and our health has been heard and is resonating quite well. All things labeled “organic” used to be out of reach price-wise, but today, it is the only option I consider when grocery shopping. With traditional handicrafts, we can embrace the same minimalist narrative by opting for few, expensive but high-quality products rather than filling our lives with plastic or flimsy toys we are forced to discard after just one use. Stonemasonry, ceramics, and handwoven furniture and textiles all have beautiful origin stories to tell, a purpose in our homes and meaning in our lives. These are the things every smart shopper and art appreciator should look out for.
The cultural workforce should see the incentive in promoting arts and crafts from both the business and sustainability standpoint. What stood out at Agra Art Gallery was how they turned the Makrana marble into tables, jewelry boxes and coasters — things that people who traveled far as I did just to see the Taj Mahal would want to bring back as a useful reminder of that rare, mindblowing experience. The government of India has abolished the sales tax on arts and crafts sold at Agra, prompting the traveler to buy on the spot, rather than ordering via email at maybe 3x the cost of normal shipping rates. The gallery ships worldwide so the customer does not have to worry about excess baggage given how heavy genuine Makrana marble is, or any marble for that matter, and how inconvenient it would be to travel with it at the onset of a weeklong journey.
There will always be a market for high-quality travel souvenirs so for tourist cities like Agra, a Tourism 101 elective course at an early age that ideally includes training workshops on stone carving, inlay, and polishing might be worth implementing. This could attract younger people to become local craftsmen, or at the very least, have a deeper appreciation of their culture and national identity. I would certainly have appreciated a home economics course that taught hand weaving, pottery or maybe even cooking regional delicacies, but that was not in my high school syllabus. I was fed algebra, chemistry and physics against my will, and while also important, they are not really useful to my life today. In fact, I have forgotten all about that, but that’s just me.
To preserve our priceless traditions, our annoying predilection to instant gratification must stand aside. We must use our creativity to the maximum, work the long hours and delegate some of those hours by not abandoning technology completely. Nothing good ever came easy, and not all of the technology is bad. Quite similar to writing, only more tangible. When we do have something good in our hands, we need to let the world know. I am not a huge fan of the influencer model but recognize its value and the usefulness of marketing via social media. It is the fastest, easiest and cheapest tool for business at all levels. Any means to save on overhead should be considered by a smart entrepreneur, lest he or she risks pitiful margins for artisanal products that are, by design, unable to scale.
Nothing good ever came easy, and not all of the echnology is bad.
Real joy and satisfaction can be derived from working on something by hand, from handwritten notes and letters to handmade cloth. There is much more thought, care, and love in the outcome. The process is the reward.