Posts Tagged ‘agra’

Sunrise at the Taj Mahal

Monday, April 20th, 2009

Sadie McVicker is an International Program Manager at Smithsonian Journeys, where she oversees tours to a variety of international destinations. She earned her Master’s Degree in International Relations from L’Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris, while living and working in France for six years. She has worked for several diplomatic missions, including the Embassy of Japan in Paris, as well as those of Singapore and Morocco here in D.C. Click here for more on Sadie.

Taj Mahal at Sunrise. Photo: Sadie McVicker

Taj Mahal at Sunrise. Photo: Sadie McVicker

The greatest love stories in history often share two qualities: tragedy and triumph. I was reminded of this seeming contradiction as I walked barefoot amidst the gleaming marble chambers of the Taj Mahal just after sunrise on an invigoratingly crisp morning with a group of Smithsonian travelers. It is customary to either remove one’s shoes or to wear shoe coverings when entering the Taj. I opted for bare feet, and I didn’t regret it, as walking on the chilly marble provided another sensory layer to an already moving experience. Our insightful Smithsonian Study Leader Minhazz Majumdar illuminated the mysteries and lesser-known details of this one-of-kind monument, which the great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore called “a teardrop on the cheek of eternity.”

The Taj is so magnificent that it is easy to forget at first that it is a tomb, holding the mortal remains of the Emperor Shah Jahan and his beloved Mumtaz Mahal. And yet, it is so much more: a triumphant testimony to the transcendent power of love, captured for time immemorial in sleek marble lines and curves. I have had a lifelong fascination with the Taj, amazed that a man who had many wives was so in love with one of them that he built a temple of love for her which required 22 years and the slow and steady work of thousands to complete.

A carving detail with Arabic calligraphy within the Agra Fort. Photo: Sadie McVicker

A carving detail with calligraphy within the Agra Fort. Photo: Sadie McVicker

Our Smithsonian group had journeyed from the bustling streets of New Delhi to the remote Rajasthani countryside, before arriving in Agra for one of the most anticipated visits of our action-packed Indian journey. The entrance to the Taj bears the inscription, “O Soul, thou art at rest.” A certain reverent quiet came over the Smithsonian group during our visit, as we took in the soaring Mughal architecture and pristine white marble. There is much calligraphic writing throughout the Taj Mahal, enhancing its stunning architectural beauty with an air of mysticism and poetry.
Later in the day, we visited Agra Fort, just across the Yamuna River from the Taj Mahal.  Agra Fort is one of the most significant forts in India and a well-known UNESCO World Heritage site. What is less known is that Shah Jahan spent the end of his life imprisoned there by his third son, Aurangzeb. Shah Jahan’s only wish when he was taken captive was that he be held somewhere where he could look out upon Mumtaz’s tomb, a wish that was granted. Standing in front of his prison cell which has just a few tiny windows that look out upon the Taj, I could almost feel the spirit of the old emperor pacing back and forth in his marble cell, gazing through the drafty windows across the river at his beloved Mumtaz, and longing for the day when he would be reunited with her.

Click here to learn more about travel to India.

Building a Mall by the Taj Mahal?: Dispatch 14 from Extraordinary Cultures

Thursday, April 2nd, 2009

Richard Kurin is the Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture here at the Smithsonian Institution. He is a cultural anthropologist specializing in the study of knowledge systems, folk arts, museums, and development. He is currently Study Leader on our Extraordinary Cultures – An Epic Journey Around the World tour, and will be blogging periodically while traveling. This post is fourteenth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

Dateline: Agra, Part II

A Smithsonian traveler joins in the dance. Photo: Richard Kurin

A Smithsonian traveler joins in the dance. Photo: Richard Kurin

A few years ago there was another threat to the Taj Mahal, a proposal to build a shopping mall and amusement park along the banks of the river, running from the Taj to another world heritage site, the Red Fort. The whole area would be commercialized with stores, rides, food concessions, even roller coasters. The proposal was backed by powerful politicians and “developers”—though one wonders what that term means in this context.

Such was the subject of the most extraordinary performance on our around the world tour produced by Rajeev Sethi especially for our group.

Rajeev is a world class designer. I first worked with him in the 1980s on the Festival of India. He created and designed Aditi—a marvelous living exhibition celebrating the traditional Indian life cycle at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. He designed the Mela or Indian fair, for the 1985 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and then worked with the Smithsonian, Yo-Yo Ma, and Aga Khan’s organization on the Silk Road for the 2002 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Along the way he’s designed pavilions for world’s fairs, museum exhibitions, hotels, movie sets, numerous programs in support of traditional artisans, and government policies.

Singers entertain the crowd. Photo: Richard Kurin

Singers entertain the crowd. Photo: Richard Kurin

Rajeev’s production, held at our hotel amidst giant billboards, stage sets, hanging screens and curtains was called Taj Mall—Agra Bazaar Revisited. This was a truly astounding participatory experience. We walked into a multi-phonic bazaar pulsing with 170 performers singing, dancing, playing music, doing magic, acrobatics, and puppetry, juggling, doing impersonations and other Indian street art—not to mention courtesans wooing admirers or wandering mystics wooing adherents. We were visually overloaded with the sights of weavers, kite makers, pigeon flyers, embroiderers, stone workers, gem setters, talisman makers, street doctors, perfume sellers, wrestlers, bone setters, box photographers, bangle makers, shoe makers, faux vegetable vendors, and numerous others. It was as if all of India’s traditional arts, from every community, from every quarter of the country had gathered in the space of a tennis court and in concentrated, distilled form, presented the best of their work. Hindu village women danced with oil lamps afire and Muslim devotional singers extolled a sufi saint; even a Catholic girls’ choir sang—in both Hindi and English.

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India: Dispatch 13 from Extraordinary Cultures Tour

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009

Richard Kurin is the Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture here at the Smithsonian Institution. He is a cultural anthropologist specializing in the study of knowledge systems, folk arts, museums, and development. He is currently Study Leader on our Extraordinary Cultures – An Epic Journey Around the World tour, and will be blogging periodically while traveling. This post is thirteenth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

Dateline: Agra, Part I

The stunning Taj Mahal Photo: Richard Kurin

The stunning Taj Mahal. Photo: Richard Kurin

It’s always great to see the Taj Mahal—even if you’ve seen it a dozen times before. I saw it first in 1970, and it still takes my breath away. The Taj is a UNESCO World Heritage site, annually attracting millions of visitors; our tour takes us through the gardens into the mausoleum and onto the terrace overlooking the Yamuna River.

The Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, who ruled much of northern India in the mid-17th century, had the Taj built as a memorial for his beloved wife Mumtaz, who died giving birth to her 14th child. The Mughals had enormous wealth and strongly supported a varied musical, culinary, artisanal, and religious culture still with us today. Shah Jahan used native materials and craftsmen, but also brought in those from Persia and Central Asia. He built an architectural wonder out of white Makran marble, with a bulbous dome and flowing ornamentation of inlaid precious stones. Well positioned with surrounding gardens to simulate paradise, it is remarkable for its proportion and for its exact symmetry—save for one feature. It was built by Shah Jahan to house only one grave at its center—that of Mumtaz. Shah Jahan was overthrown by his zealous and fanatical son Aurangzeb, held under house arrest, and later buried alongside his long departed wife. His added grave throws off the symmetry of the memorial!

Photo: Linda Currie

The Taj has long been under threat of the deleterious effects of urban pollution, of opportunists prying out the inlaid stones, of visitors defacing the building and grounds, and of too many tourists wearing down the stone work. A number of steps have been taken over the decades to protect this world treasure—reducing pollution, allowing only electric powered vehicles near the site, and so on. Everyone who has visited the Taj Mahal and might visit it in the future will applaud such measures. We have too little beauty and too much ugliness in the world; we need to preserve what beauty there is, and encourage its ongoing creation.

This post is thirteenth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

Click here to learn more about travel to India.