In all my travels this year, the one constant feature has been the dazzling array of art that I’ve had the pleasure of seeing. The red sandstone arches of Agra fort and Fatehpur Sikri; the marble splendours of Dargah-e-Salim Chisti and the Taj Mahal; the sculpted courtyards of Patan; the animist sculptures of Unakoti and Chabimura; the charchala temples of Udaipur and the luminous murals of Alchi are all wondrous creations. More than that, they’re the repositories of something fine, an elusive enquiry into the nature of form.
I’m no art historian or an aesthetician, but the one common thing to these diverse artefacts seem to me to be a certain combination of taste, and an intrinsic understanding of context and harmony.
I started the year with a trip to Agra, that eternal harlot of tourism fetish. I came away amazed at the self-confidence and nous of the Mughal artisans and a feeling of overwhelming sadness at the extent to which we have debased this once-magnificent imperial capital. The one thing I learnt wandering through the pavilions of the Agra Fort and the gardens around the Taj is that for artistic expression to achieve greatness, context is everything.
Thus, the best views of the Taj Mahal in all its ethereal glory really do come from two places- the eastern ramparts of the Agra fort, situated across the great bend of the Yamuna, and from the charbagh—the garden—surrounding the monument.
From the fort, the Taj looks like a fever dream of Haroun al Rashid, its bulbous dome rising up to meet the sky. During sunset, it positively glows, gigantic, dominating everything around it. It hovers like a vision, somewhere between the parallel lines of earth and sky. The takht or throne of Jahangir, which forms the focal point of the eastern court of the fort, obviously existed before that emperor’s son and successor Shah Jahan had even thought of building the Taj. So, when Jahangir held court hear, in the Diwan I Khas, the horizon had looked very different. Just bare ground perhaps, or a grove of trees. From here, it really does look just the way Rabindranath Tagore had described it, “A teardrop on the cheek of time.”
The view from the charbagh is something else, showcasing the Taj in a completely different light. I visited the monument very early in the morning, and walked around the complex, as the frosty soft light of dawn gave way to a golden glow as the sun climbed higher. A few hours later, the Taj shone white and majestic, the only time it seemed to transcend all context, a peerless special effect peeking out from behind the canopy of the garden.
Something that’s often forgotten, is that the Taj is a sum of its various gorgeous parts. Take the pishtaqs for example. These giant arched gateways frame the four sides of the monument, crowned by slender spires called guldastas. Within each pishtaq are smaller windows, with stunning marble lattice work on their façade that serve as curtains. If you stand just under an arch and look up, the marble positively flows up from the surrounding walls to a tip. It’s a stunning visual trope, one of delicate lines of marble somehow defying gravity, and becoming fluid. I was again by this sense of the infinite, as if these tangible lines somehow continue into space, never meeting. Repeated on all four sides, this sublime trope adds an extra dimension to the Taj’s already fearful symmetry.
If the pishtaqs give it form, then the florid calligraphy, the geometric shaped tiles and the pietra dura inlay work on the spandrels framing the tops of the arches give it depth. Words fail me to describe the delicate beauty of these individual elements, although these are wrought on a gigantic scale. The flower motifs droop and swoon, the pietra dura motifs run like sinuous three-dimensional tendrils; and when these are recreated elsewhere on the monument in fine lines of marble, the effect is the same.
Inside the mausoleum, on the walkway around the octagonal innermost chamber that house the false tombs of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, these designs are recreated on a more intimate scale. The slanting rays of the rising sun filter through the marble jail or screen to light up the motifs, inlaid with semi-precious stones. I was lucky to have gone on a day when the crowds weren’t huge, but there were enough people there. Yet the sheer beauty of the surroundings hushed everyone present, and again I was struck by the reason for the art- you’re supposed to stop and stare, and keep staring till you’re head swims.
The mosque to the left (west) of the Taj, is more in the spirit of the peerless red sandstone work of Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri. It is architecturally balanced on the other side of the Taj by another building, identical in form, but serving the function of a guesthouse. The mosque is a marvel in itself, divided into three distinct hall areas, with the middle one with the mihraab or the niche that faces Mecca being the largest. The same motifs recur here, but here the inlay work is either in red sandstone, as towards the base of the many arches, or in the form of inlaid painting that play games of visual illusion with your eyes. The central hall again evokes architectural ideals of the infinite. Three steps facing the mihraab disappear into a wall, the concave inside of the main dome a marvel of capricious lines and circles as they, like their marble brethren on the Taj’s pishtaqs, flow upward and onwards into space.
The Taj may have become a cliché, but my visit reminded me that it is, surrounded by a vanished world of broad river, woods and a handsome city, a physical representation of the ineffable, an articulation of the inexpressible.