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Guest: Taj Mahal, India
the Taj Mahal in Agra, India

A Love Story in Marble
The Taj Mahal

Story and photographs by Julio Natividad

ell the world about your love for me." Legend has it that these were the dying words of Mumtaz Mahal to her husband, the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. The latter had been fighting a campaign in the Deccan Plateau in 1631 when his favorite wife suddenly succumbed after giving birth to their fourteenth child. The emperor was so grief-stricken and inconsolable that he even considered abdicating the throne and living as a recluse. Eventually he fulfilled his deceased wife's request to build a monument in her honor and succeeded in building the most famous mausoleum in the world and one of its most recognizable buildings.

My wife and I had dropped by New Delhi on our way to Katmandu, Nepal, when our Indian friends encouraged us to visit the Taj Mahal. Reasoning that a visit to India would be incomplete without seeing one of the Seven Wonders of the World, we made the trip from New Delhi to Agra, site of the Taj Mahal in four hours, mostly on the excellent national highway. When we reached Agra it was well past 12 noon but since lunch in South Asia is usually taken at around 2 PM, we arrived just in time for lunch at a restaurant in the city. We were served a meal with an Indian name that is literally translated a "feast for kings." And what a king-sized meal it was with seven different kinds of naan bread as well as seven different servings of lamb, chicken and vegetable curry dishes. We ended up not eating for the rest of the day and having a very light breakfast the following morning.

the main gate and a red sandstone building, the Taj Mahal complex
The Taj Mahal is actually a complex of buildings and gardens. At left is the darwaza or main gate leading to the reflecting pool. The structure on the right is one of the identical red sandstone buildings on the sides of the mausoleum.

Taking 21 years and more than 20,000 workers to build, the Taj Mahal is actually a complex of buildings and gardens although the white domed marble mausoleum is its most familiar feature. The complex is bounded on three sides by red sandstone walls with the fourth side open and facing the Yamuna River. The main gate or darwaza is of red marble and leads to a large 300 square meter garden with a reflecting pool that mirrors the mausoleum. There are also two exactly similar red sandstone buildings on both sides of the mausoleum - one a mosque and the other a building that may have served as a guesthouse but was constructed primarily to preserve the architectural symmetry of the whole complex. Such was Shah Jahan's penchant for symmetry.

a closer view of the Taj Mahal
This picture gives an idea about the scale of the mausoleum. All guests are asked to
remove their shoes when walking on the mausoleum grounds.

The iconic feature is, of course, the marble mausoleum. The large, white marble structure consists of a symmetrical building with an arch-shaped doorway topped by a huge onion dome 60 feet in diameter and 80 feet in height. Directly under the dome is Mumtaz Mahal's tomb with Shah Jahan's tomb next to hers. Four 130-foot high, white marble minarets on each corner of the square base of the mausoleum complete the appearance of this architectural wonder. Closer inspection of the exterior of the mausoleum and its interior reveals elaborate decorative elements containing passages from the Qur'an. Semi-precious stones were incorporated into these decorative elements. Sadly the marble of the Taj Mahal is slowly turning to yellow in color due to pollution. The Indian government has been trying to control this by applying strict emission standards in the area.

the Agra Fort or Red Fort
The Agra Fort or Red Fort, home of the Mughal emperors.

The Taj and its accompanying complex of structures is just one of many Mughal-era buildings in Agra. As the capital of the Mughal Empire from 1526 to 1658, Agra houses three World Heritage sites. One of them is the Agra Fort, sometimes called the Red Fort because of the color of the sandstone material used for its construction. Commissioned by Shah Jahan's grandfather Akbar in 1565, it is actually a walled city-palace only 2.5 kilometers away from the more famous Taj Mahal. The great Mughal emperors lived in and governed the empire from this place. In a sad footnote to the Taj love story, Shah Jahan ended up being imprisoned in the fort for the remaining eight years of his life by his own son Aurangzeb, the last of the great Mughal emperors. This took place after a lengthy battle for succession to the throne between Shah Jahan's sons. (Shah Jahan had favored another son instead of Aurangzeb who then proceeded to eliminate all other claimants.) Given the luxury of the fort, imprisonment within its confines would not seem to be such a harsh punishment and, furthermore, Shah Jahan would get an excellent view of the Taj Mahal just over two kilometers away. But such are the intrigues that surround royalty, then and now.

vaulted hall at entrance to Akbar the Great's Mausoleum
The vaulted hall of the entrance to the main tomb complex, Akbar the Great's mausoleum, Sikandra, Agra.
The Mausoleum of Akbar the Great is another Mughal architectural showcase built in 1605-1613, in Sikandra, a suburb of Agra. As befits Tartar tradition, Akbar himself started its construction around 1600. Like the Taj Mahal, Akbar's tomb is actually a complex of buildings built mostly of red sandstone. The four minarets are of white marble and predate those of the Taj Mahal whose architectural design it has partly influenced.

The Mughal emperors have certainly created a wealth of legacy in India that resonates not only in that country. And the love of a Mughal's ruler for his wife still rings out all over the planet to this day.

 

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FEEDBACK FOR PATTI

I enjoy your newsletters -and particularly Patti Nickell's article about the 'Pudding Club' in the Cotswold's. An old friend of mine is taking a holiday there this year and plans to try their Jam Roly Poly and Spotted Dick - amongst many!

--- John & Maggie - UK

FEEDBACK FOR JULIO

The way I read this article, you stayed at the "Breeze and Waves". Do you have any pictures of the cottages, and would you recommend to some first time visitors to Caramoan?

--- Richard Simons, Stockton, CA

Hi Richard,

Breeze and Waves was still under construction when I stayed there in Feb. 2010. It should be finished by now. You can see pictures of the resort on this page. We got to stay in one of the small cottages in the picture. I'll recommend it to budget travelers but you might want to look at other options. We chose it because of its location right by the beach. You can try other resorts in the Caramoan town proper (you have to get a ride to get to the beach and the jump-off point to go island-hopping but it's a relatively short distance). There are also two higher end resorts located on a cove and very near the islands: Gota Village Resort (unfortunately there is something wrong with their website right now) and its twin resort Hunongan Cove. Caramoan is a relatively new tourism development so resorts are just now being built.

You can go to this site for a good list of choices for accommodations in Caramoan.

I should add that it might be good to go to Caramoan (and almost anywhere in the Philippines) during the dry season from December to May. June to November are the typhoon months and sometimes typhoons will still come during early December.

Julio

* * * * *

Hi, I'm planning to go to Caramoan this coming May. Would you know the number of Breeze and Waves Cottages? Thanks!

--- Ann, Manila, Philippines

Hi Ann,

Breeze and Waves' phone number is 0908-2911072. Look for Freddie. Hope you have a grand time at Caramoan!

Julio

FEEDBACK FOR WENDY

For Nature's Playground: The South Island of New Zealand

Hi Wendy,

In winter, Heritage Heights Apts. now offers free shuttle service to and from Queenstown 24/7 to guests without cars. We own a 7-passenger 4-wd Toyota Highlander used specifically to taxi guests up and down the hill during winter months. We also run advance purchase winter promotions which include a 4-wd rental.

If any of your readers head over this direction, I will enjoy extending Heritage Heights hospitality!!

Cheers

--- Ailey, Owner, Queenstown, NZ

* * * * *

New Zealand text and pix top drawer! Almost as good as making the trip. ( but one still wants to. . . ) Full of useful detail. Only trouble with the website: It's tough figuring out which feedback goes with which article, and the more there are, the tougher it gets!

--- Ken W., Camarillo CA

Thanks Ken..."álmost" is right, you really have to experience the South Island firsthand. Granted this piece is long, but still all I can think about is how much I left out! I agree abut the relevancy factor re the feedback--it can be confusing...sometimes I have a "Wait a minute...what?" moment myself.

Thanks for writing,

Wendy

* * * * *

Okay Wendy, from now on whenever you book your travel, please reserve space for me. I will carry your luggage, bring you cold drinks, massage your shoulders, and change the film in your camera (oops, I guess you don't have to do that anymore). Wonderful ideas and recommendations. Can you get to New Zealand from Boston in less than a week?

--- Carl A., South Easton, MA

Ha ha ha Carl, you're quite the comedian! But you'd be surprised how short that flight feels. I suspect Qantas isn't the only airline who's figured out that 3 movies, 2 full meals, lots of snacks and a complimentary travel pack (eye mask, warm socks and neck pillow) equals a quiet, well-behaved cabin. It really isn't bad. Just fly direct--pick the shortest flight w/ no lengthy layovers and you'll be fine. Re: signing on as my Super Sherpa...why not? I think you know I seldom travel in anything less than Party mode. There's just that pesky background check...

Thanks for writing,

Wendy

For Excellence Riviera Cancun:

Wendy, I truly enjoyed your info especially since we leave in a week to celebrate my 50th Birthday. Was it necessary to make reservations at the restaurants? Was there a dress code for the restaurants? What would you recommend not missing while there? Was the spa experience worth it? Did you travel away from the resort while there? Thanks,

--- Kim P. Fuquay, Varina, NC

Hi Kim.

Sorry for the delay in responding...you had heavy competition with the holidays. Reservations at Excellence restaurants are not necessary and you will not find a wait. The dress code is basically no bathing suits and flip-flops...with a decided a mix of atmospheres. Mostly the open-air beachside spots are super casual, the rest slightly more formal. Truly, as long as you are clothed, I don't think you'd be turned away anywhere, though most people seemed to enjoy dressing up at night...I suspect more for their own pleasure than any sense of decorum.

The spa experience was worth it, though my favorite part wasn't the actual massage. The precursor was a 45 min. or so rotation from sauna to a series of (kind of wild) water jets which was very different and very cool, not just for women. In its' entirety, and with the serenity of the beach/champagne/strawberries, it was memorable.

We did not travel away from the hotel this trip, but the hotel is very helpful in arranging day excursions to fit your desires and you do not have to book these until you arrive.

Have a great time!

--- Wendy

FEEDBACK FOR NINO

I enjoyed Nino's contribution, since we all read about the frightening terrorist attack. Having travelled somewhat through India years ago, I am continually impressed with this country and the gentle spiritual aspects of this nation. Some day I look forward to going back. Nino has encouraged me. Thank you!

--- Yoka Y., Westlake Village, CA

FEEDBACK FOR RUSH & CHUCK

Dear Mr.s/counselors Brown and Koro,

Thank you for a very informed and succinct article on motorcycle accidents and the law. It inspired me to think about getting a motorcycle, but not have an accident. But, if I do I am now well informed with the basics of what to do providing I do not perish in the accident. Any tips about that too?

--- Unnamed

Dear Rush and Chuck,

I wish I had read your article before our camping trip the Friday prior to President's Day.

My wife and I were in a car accident on our way to a camp ground. We were "rear-ended" and the impact caused our car to crash into the car in front of us. The contents of the truck that we were riding scattered onto several lanes. It's a miracle our two dogs decided to stay inside the car. My wife and I were shaken up badly but despite the mess, I was still able to walk out of the car. I got the license plate of the driver in front of me but, to my surprise, after reviewing the little damage on his car, he then sped off. I didn't know you could do that! The driver who hit me from behind gave me his information and then he too left the scene without saying good 'bye. When the police arrived all I had to go by was the little information I had jotted down which I hope was truthful. What if it was bogus? What if I had written the plate number incorrectly? How would that affect my insurance? What if we were unconscious, who would have written down all that information?

I do have one suggestion if you are injured in an accident. The police asked if my wife wanted an ambulance to bring her to the hospital but we declined the offer. I remembered when I rode an ambulance years ago that it was not a comfortable ride. I was strapped to the stretcher and there were all sorts of medical equipment dangling noisily above me. As long as you are able, it is a more relaxful ride inside a car. Besides, isn't there a fee for ambulance service?

--- Dave S. of Pasadena, CA



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