Monday, February 6, 2017

Agra Culture - Erich

Are any of you Batman fans? If so, you certainly know that the Joker is not the Crown Prince of Crime, but rather the Clown Prince of Crime. Of course his throne is, as often as not, in Arkham Asylum. At least after Batman wins. That never seems to last long though, which is probably good for the Batman franchises.

No, we did not see the Joker while in India. Nor did we see Batman. But let me tell you what we did see.

We ended our time in India with a quick jaunt through Agra and then a day to relax in New Delhi. We were flying out of New Delhi toward Kathmandu, Nepal. But we went to Agra to see its most famous (and possibly India's most famous) site: the Taj Mahal.

Much as the Joker is the Clown Prince of Crime, the Taj Mahal is the Crown of Palaces. (Not the Clown of Palaces. Try not to get confused.) However, much like the Joker, it is a most appropriate name. The Taj Mahal is glorious.
See? Glorious! Even with the scaffolding.
You've probably seen many pictures of the Taj Mahal. Some places in the world, when you see them in real life you basically don't see much more than in the picture. But not so with the Taj Mahal. The pictures do not capture the details, the craftsmanship, or even the full big picture.

The Taj Mahal was built to be a mausoleum for a queen. The king, Shah Jahan, loved his fourth wife, Mumtaz Mahal, intensely. He also loved architecture. When she died delivering their fourteenth child, he merged those two loves and began work on building a magnificent resting place for her. The gigantic white building with the curved domes and long slender minarets, the one you always see in pictures, that is the mausoleum. But that is just one of the buildings that makes up the Taj Mahal.

You arrive first at one of the outer gates to the Taj Mahal. These are in red stone, and there are three: the West Gate, the South Gate, and the East Gate. (To the north of the Taj Mahal is a river, so no gate that direction.) Here you pass through security. These outer gates are nice enough, but probably would not make Agra a tourist capital without what was within. (Did you like that use of without and within in the same sentence? I think the Joker would approve.)

Within those gates is a rectangular courtyard, longer to the east and west and shorter north and south. There are walls on all sides with gates of course in the center of each. And the gate to the north is the Main Gate.
View from without, within.
The Main Gate is a tall red gate with many white details about it. It has cupola towers on its corners and a series of small cupola roofs across its top. It's actually a double gate. You walk through the first gate and then you have to walk another 15 meters or so to get through to the second gate and out into the Taj Mahal courtyard.

But even before you step into the Main Gate's first gate, you can see the Taj Mahal through the large opening. It's quite a sight, framed by the pointed arch.
There it is in the distance.
Still, walking through the second gate takes you into a much larger garden courtyard. There are paved paths leading to the famous Taj Mahal building, but grasses, bushes, and trees as well. There are also reflecting pools to really frame the moment. In addition to the flora, we saw bright green birds, kite birds with incredibly long tails, and some sort of bird of prey circling. And there were monkeys running along the walls the enclose this large courtyard.

The Taj Mahal's famous building, the mausoleum, is not alone. It is higher than the courtyard on a raised terrace. But on each side of it is a building. On the east side is an assembly building and on the west is a mosque. Each is large and intricately decorated. In fact, they are mirror images of each other on the outside. Bilateral symmetry is the overarching design idea of the Taj Mahal (with one exception that I will get to later.)
You can see the mosque (left) and assembly (right) peeking above trees.
The two side buildings aren't identical on the inside, but they are almost identical. The inside of the assembly building is basically an open space. In the mosque, there is a structure to indicate which direction the Kaaba in Mecca is, as well as a raised platform from which services can be led and calls to prayer can be made.
This is the mosque. If you want to see the assembly, just look at this picture through a mirror.
Each of the side buildings is made of the same reddish stone, but capped with graceful white domes. The domes themselves have metal spires atop them. It's funny (though not funny in the way the Joker would appreciate), but if these buildings were on their own, they would probably be architectural masterpieces shown in pictures. But since they are merely the sidekicks of the central mausoleum, they just don't get that kind of attention. I suppose this is comparable to Robin and Batgirl, who, while yes everyone knows them, they don't get nearly the play that Batman does. And without him, who would have ever heard of them?

Let's talk about the mausoleum, the famous building most people think of as the Taj Mahal. It is grand even from afar. But as you get closer, you see the incredible amounts of marble, the details in the engraving, and the unbelievable inlays. All along the outside of the Taj Mahal mausoleum, there are places where shapes were carved out of the marble to be filled in with semi-precious stones. But these stones were chosen and shaped so that they make vines and flowers and leaves.
I don't know what stones these are, but each is beautiful.
Some of inlays surround equally impressive reliefs carved from the marble.
Look at those carved flowers!
Other inlays are in geometric patterns that pull your eye into them.
Your eye is so pulled into this rectangle, you don't even see this caption.
It's also difficult to believe that the dome can be that big, that high, and keep standing. (Don't worry, it does.) The mausoleum is framed by four tall minarets that stand slightly shorter than the dome. In addition, the mausoleum building was designed with exactitude in proportions. Its width (from minaret to minaret) is identical to its height. It makes for a very pleasing to the eye image.
The way into the mausoleum
Visitors are allowed into the mausoleum, though they have to either remove or cover their shoes to do so. The inside is much darker, as there are no electric lights. While some sunlight does enter, the ceiling is a solid dome, so it's pretty dim in there. Luckily, you are allowed to use flashlights. That's lucky because you would not want to miss the art of that interior. Unluckily, you are not allowed to take photographs of the inside of the mausoleum. But I guess that just forces people to go visit it to see the real magic.
The east face of the mausoleum
Remember how I talked about the inlays on the outside? Well, they are nothing compared to the inside. As an example, outside a red stone might be cut into a flower. On the inside, several red stones were carved into the individual petals of the flower. And these stones are more precious gems.

Every centimeter of the central room is carved or filled with inlay or inscriptions. This is the room where the tomb of the beloved wife is. It's also where the king himself was buried when he died many years after she did. And that leads us to our one deviation from bilateral symmetry.

When the queen Mumtaz Mahal died, her tomb was placed along the axis of symmetry, centered in the room. It is a rectangular tomb made of marble with carving across every surface. It's beautiful. It lays with its length north and south and its width east and west.

But then when Shah Jahan died, where could they put his tomb? The only way they could have kept the symmetry was to build his on top of hers. But that isn't what happened. Instead, the king's tomb, even more impressive than the original, is placed just to the west of the queen's tomb. So the king, like the Joker, is off-center.

Except Shah Jahan isn't a super-villain. Or if he once was, Batman wasn't his nemesis.

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