As a kid I loved Indian Summers. Somehow that warm weather lingering into the school year was exhilarating and almost liberating, like I wasn't really giving up my days of freedom to sit in a classroom. Summer in India, however, is quite different. Equally alluring - enchanting, in fact - but certainly not because of the weather. Unlike my youth, I wanted nothing more than India's pervasive heat to subside. But if you can get past the heat, India offers beauty in unexpected places.
I say unexpected because my first introduction to India was stepping into a street so busy you wouldn't think it was ever suitable for a pedestrian, thanks to the intense and speeding traffic. Using the sidewalk was not an option - that area is reserved for scooter and motorcycle parking, welding, cooking, sleeping, concrete mixing, tea drinking, tourist hawking - all manner of things. Also, the country's waste disposal planing lacking, to say the least. And, any Westerner is always a target for hawkers trying to sell anything from a taxi ride to handicrafts that supposedly their children worked hours creating. These hawkers are relentless - one taxi literally followed us for blocks, shouting "I only want to help" until we made it to the metro station (if only New York cabs had such enthusiasm!). So, overwhelmed by what we perceived as madness, we began our journey into India.
We were not disappointed. Our first day in Delhi we went to the National Museum (without the aid of a taxi) which has an impressive array of artifacts from across the ages, but one that offered immediate insight into Indian culture was the jewelry gallery. This section showed the practice of Alamkara, Sanskrit for adornment, provided a glimpse as to all those lovely women I would see in India, covered in their bindis, bangles and rings. Alamkara says that "a body devoid of adornment is imperfect. But once decorated with beautiful ornaments, the body assumes form, becomes visible, attractive and perfect." Perfect? Really? That was a bold claim - to say jewelry makes a body perfect. But the belief is there, as I would see throughout our India trek. Maharajahs and maharanis, sultans and courtesans, elephants and horses - all were adorned in their depictions.
Perhaps the best example of extravagant beauty we saw was the Taj Mahal. The tomb of an empress and her emperor, this place is literally the stuff of legends. We arrived very early at the Taj, just before sunrise in hopes of catching a view of its famous light changes. But it was a bleak morning. It rained hard enough when we got off the bus that we all ducked in a cafe that hadn't opened yet (the owners were still sleeping on their cots on the patio and never woke up before we left). When we made it to the gate, we were the first group there, as our guide had recommended, and we chose to visit the monument even with the spattering of rain. This turned out to be one of our best decisions on the trip because for about 20 minutes or so we had the place essentially to ourselves. Walking in to see this enormous monument in the still of the morning was breathtaking. The rain abated at just the right time for us to walk slowly (not run, as our guide said some people do) to the "Diana Bench" where Princess Diana famously posed. I cannot accurately convey the grandeur of this mausoleum. The amount of white marble used could probably fill a quarry, and the amount of semi-precious stones inlaid throughout would easy fill up Tiffany's three times over. Splendor. Grandeur. These words easily come to mind when facing the domes and minarets of Taj. The attention to detail, the geometrical symmetry, the meticulous upkeep - no wonder this is a Wonder of the World.
So how did such a place come to be? The stories of old say it was made out of Shah Jahan I's love for his third and favorite wife, known as Empress Mumtal Mahal of the Mughal Dynasty. Her name means "beloved ornament of the palace" and it seems she embodied that title for her husband, too. Their marriage is described as intense in a deeply loving, romantic way. She was said to be his confidant and constant companion, traveling with him during many of her husband's early military campaign battles, even during her pregnancies. Childbirth would ultimately cause her death, and as their thirteenth child arrived she died, in 1631 AD. This was said to throw Shah Jahan I into an inconsolable state, so much so that he supposedly mourned his wife's death in seclusion for a year. When he reappeared, the toll of that loss was evident in his hair, which had become white and his body, which had become bent. He was also said to give up wearing perfume, richly colored clothes and - wait for it - jewelry, for two years. I would have to do more research to confirm this claim, but since adornment was such a huge part of the culture I imagine that forgoing it was a truly a sign of deep mourning. He made up for it by creating the Taj. Everything about the place is perfect, though it took 22 years to build, and of course, a fortune. It began in the year of her death, the building of marble stone upon stone. Specialty calligraphers, sculptors, stone cutters and architects were brought in from northern India, Syria, and present-day Iran to create the mausoleum. The buildings, the gardens, the layout - everything is in symmetry - with one exception. The graves. Inside the cavernous dome are two delicate marble graves: the empress rests in the center and her husband just to the left. It seemed an odd fit after seeing so much care taken to the rest of the symmetrical designs, but they are buried together, which is what they wanted.
Stranger still, there are no lights, no chairs, no furniture at all in the central dome area or any of the other rooms adjoining the tomb. It was like a palace finished but unfurnished, empty but for the love of two souls.