What! There Are TWO Love Stories in Agra?
I came to Agra on a day trip from Delhi, intending to see the famous monument to love, the Taj Mahal. But I left with two love stories, not one.
You see, I also visited the other Agra tomb: The Tomb of I'timad-ud-Daula. And because of that, my Agra itinerary could not have been better, than if I had planned it in advance!
- UNESCO Heritage Site: The Taj Mahal
- Tomb of I’timad-ud-Daulah: The ‘Baby Taj’
- The Marble Artisans of Agra
- The Taj Mahal vs the 'Baby Taj'
UNESCO Heritage Site: The Taj Mahal
When I arrived in Agra, obviously the first order of business was to visit the Taj Mahal itself. I knew it was one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. I had to expect the discomfort of crowds.
There are apparently three different approaches to enter the Taj Mahal complex. My driver suggested the East Gate, which is supposed to be the least crowded. And indeed, that one looked like a normal (but quite beautiful) street. It didn't look choked with people.
But, there were still a lot of people at the ticket counters and passing through the checkpoints. So I have no idea what the conditions would be like for the crowded gates. I began to wonder if the beauty of the building was enough to offset the stress of the heat and the crowds.
And then there were the entry procedures and restrictions.
Taj Mahal Entrance fees
- Foreigner: 1000 Rs
- Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Maldives, Bhutan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Thailand, and Myanmar (SAARC and BIMSTEC countries): 530 Rs.
- Indian: 40 Rs.
- Children below 15 yrs old enter free.
*Note: Taj Mahal is closed on Fridays.
Foreigner and SAARC tickets come with shoe covers and bottled water (of course, I shunned the plastic bottled water and had my own refillable bottle with me; there are refill stations inside). The shoe covers are required for when you get up on the marble platform of the Taj Mahal. They are disposable, but I couldn't think of any way around it. I guess the tourist numbers are just too many for the Lucknow approach of shoe guards.
You can also book tickets for the Taj Mahal online, which I would have done had I known it, because any way to avoid any part of the crowds is a good thing. (Actually, you can do this for any of the monuments under the care of the Archaeological Survey.)
There is supposed to be Wifi inside the complex, but I didn't try to connect.
This is also where you would get a guide, if there are any official ones left. It seems best to pre-arrange a guide if you tend to prefer this. I did not get one.
Getting into the Taj Mahal
Getting into the Taj Mahal at a time more or less close to midday is a production in itself. Agra is a tourist town, and draws tremendous crowds all the time.
I did this visit as a day trip from Delhi by train. It takes another hour just to get to the East Gate from the railway station. Getting the ticket is about another half hour. So even with a morning train from Delhi, arriving at 9:30AM, by the time you actually get to the gate you're looking at 11AM plus.
Then, at the gate, you will undergo security checks. This page gives an excellent summary for what you cannot bring into the Taj Mahal. The reasons broadly relate to security, keeping the complex clean, and prohibiting pro camera work. So basically, don't bring whatever you can't bring into the cabin on an international flight (except a filled water bottle, which is ok), and leave all notions (and equipment) of movie-making behind.
This line is very long, and very tedious. If you're doing this as a day trip, just don't bring any of that stuff and travel super light, to shorten your own inspection time. And don't bring food. They will take it away.
Inside the Taj Mahal complex
Then, when you get in, you join up with the rest of the people who came in from the other two, more popular gates. Entering through the grand gate, you get your first view of the Taj Mahal at the end of the famous long pool.
Unlike in the Red Fort of Delhi, you are not allowed onto the garden lawns - only on the paths. This is probably due to the sheer numbers of tourists.
On top of that, while in the garden, you would also be approached by professional photographers offering their services. I guess if you want this kind of service, this is convenient.
As for myself, I was expecting to be left alone to gaze upon the work of art that is the Taj Mahal. The things I want to photograph are often highly specific, and I can't be bothered to explain it to another photographer. So this was annoying to me. Especially after already having spent a stressful morning travelling from Delhi (hey, I'm not a morning person!) and passing through multiple knots of crowds, under the blistering hot sky of August.
I did have a few photos of myself with the Taj Mahal. But I got them the old-fashioned way. A young Indian family - a young couple with a baby - asked me to take photos of them. And in return they offered to take mine.
How can I explain how beautiful it is?
I'm not detailing all of these obstacles and annoyances just to whinge. This is all necessary context so bear with me.
So anyway, by this time I was beginning to question whether this world-class monument was really worth the trip. I was grumpy, and I was having flashbacks to the cool mountains of Annapurna and its warm and frank rural hospitality.
But here's the thing.
As you approach the Taj Mahal, and the details begin to define itself - so subtle, never overshadowing the alabaster paleness of the white marble - those annoyances melt away.
There are no angles, no part of the edifice that was not beautiful.
The Taj Mahal that I got was a white one, because I came at midday, on a fairly blue sky day. People say that if you went at sunset or sunrise, the white marble takes on a different cast, because its slight translucence takes in the coloured spectrum at those times.
Even so, when I examine the images of the white Taj Mahal that I took, it's quite remarkable how responsive it is to filters and image adjustments. Slight tweaks have more of a visual effect than other photography subjects. And yet, each of those tweaks, I would swear are all faithful versions of the real Taj that I remember.
At close examination, its beauty still holds up. The marble is carved with flowers in bas-relief, but also with intaglio arches. There are pietra dura wreaths forming frames at select locations in the design, giving small touches of colour to break the marble whiteness of the building.
It was like Annapurna after all, in that I forgave all the suffering once I laid eyes on the prize.
A beautiful gem needs a beautiful setting
The sign of a good architect, is that he/she knows that the design is not just about the building itself (although it is essential). The design is about the entire experience of the building. The landscape around it, the views on approach. The buildings that need to be there, and the other buildings that have to be added to maintain the aesthetic.
A lot of monuments fall short because either the designer failed to take into account these things, or the successors did not understand it and failed to preserve these crucial handmaidens of their iconic buildings.
But the Taj Mahal does not suffer these failures. All of its buildings are intact. The approaches to the gates are intact. The lines of sight intended by the architect are intact. There is no part of the experience that was not beautiful and graceful. Even the places where you get directed to the bathrooms and the water filling stations are graceful.
The Taj Mahal as a monument to love
The Taj Mahal is famous for being the symbol of the romantic love between the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan and a Persian noblewoman, Mumtaz Mahal. They met and got engaged as teenagers, but since there would not be an astrologically auspicious time for the wedding for five years, he waited until he was 20 to marry her, which was like forever at that time. (Meanwhile he married two other women).
However, when they eventually did marry, it was a fabulously happy marriage, which lasted about 16 or 17 years until Mumtaz Mahal died delivering their 14th child. The loss of his wife was what impelled Shah Jahan to concentrate his architectural passion into the construction of the Taj Mahal.
It was where he finally interred his wife, and where he was eventually laid to rest himself, by her side.
I don't really feel it, here's why
I guess I'm glad that the monument got built. Its architectural and marble craftsmanship beauty is such that you really don't care why it got built. But to be perfectly honest, I wasn't clear on the link between grieving love, and awesome yet limited-purpose buildings.
I mean, I get that the man loved her exceedingly. He had to, to approve such phenomenal spend from his royal treasury. (Hopefully it was expense that could be spared). But it tells me nothing whatsoever about her - what was she like? why was she beautiful to him?
Now if he had built a mosque, or a library, or a botanical garden, or a university, or a series of zawiya, or a theatre, then I could see something of who she was as a woman. But the tomb gives me nothing about her. Him maybe, but not her.
And another thing.
I'm actually glad I made this stop last. If this was emblematic of their great love, then I don't understand how two reasonably benevolent and competent royals who were a happy married couple, managed to raise an intolerant despot like Aurangzeb, who imprisoned his own father and did such things as boil people alive, which has remained a trauma in the nation's memory until today, such that even a casual traveller like me still learn about it. There, I said it.
I'm well aware that up until recent times, childcare expectations were not the same, especially for royalty. But still, I'm not used to supervillain origin stories that involve them coming from happy and loving parents. So I can't help but wonder if this great love was just about each other, and never spilled over to the care of those around them.
Tomb of I’timad-ud-Daulah: The ‘Baby Taj’
My driver asked me where I would like to go next, after lunch. I had him for the day, so I had a freer hand on which monuments I would visit. The Red Fort of Agra? The site of the Black Taj? Or perhaps the other Agra tomb, the 'Baby Taj'? It's just about possible to do all three.
But I don't like to rush my tours. I would rather be selective, and soak in a few spots. So he suggested that I skip the Red Fort, since I said I had already seen the Red Fort of Delhi.
But the 'Baby Taj' intrigued me, as it was 'like the Taj Mahal', but very different, a precursor. He said that it was also a lot less crowded because it was more obscure. Most people would go to the Red Fort, and Fatehpur Sikri, and that would already wipe out a day.
An under-visited hidden gem? I was sold.
Passing by the Red Fort of Agra
Along the way we passed by the Red Fort, high up on a hill. My driver offered to stop for a moment so I could take photographs from the base of the hill.
The columned protrusion that we saw was where Shah Jahan supposedly liked to be. From there he could look towards the Yamuna river, upon the tomb of his beloved wife.
My driver also pointed out a smaller piece next to it, which was supposed to be where the Taj Mahal's architect was imprisoned. Legend has it, so that he could not design another building to rival the Taj Mahal. He too, was allowed to look upon his life's greatest achievement during his lifelong incarceration (note: there is no actual historical evidence for this).
If you do choose to go to Agra Fort, the entrance fee is 500 Rs. for foreigners.
Getting into the 'Baby Taj', the other Agra tomb
We soon arrived to the 'Baby Taj'.
Entering the Tomb of I'timad ud-Daulah was a lot more straightforward than the Taj Mahal. Also located by the Yamuna River (but on the opposite bank), this tomb is smaller and much more intimate in its layout.
The entrance fee for foreigners is 250 Rs.
There is also supposedly a 25 Rs. charge for a video camera. I was asked at the ticket check, even though no one else was asked. I doubt that this applies to camera phones, since the signage at the Taj Mahal suggested that it was more for bigger cameras, like for serious videography.
How can I explain how charming it is?
Despite being called the 'Baby Taj', unlike the many other edifices and buildings across India (or even outside India) which try to copy the Taj Mahal's architectural style, this tomb is not one of those copies. In fact, it was built earlier.
The builder of this tomb was a woman. Empress Nur Jahan, stepmother of Shah Jahan, built it to inter the remains of her family. Although the tomb is named after her father, unlike the Taj Mahal, it is a family tomb. Her mother is also interred there, as are several other relatives.
It has a completely different look and style, more latticed and lacy and feminine. The inlay work is intricate, giving the impression of a building that is finely embroidered. In fact, the quality of the pietra dura art far surpasses the Taj Mahal's, in my opinion. And the marble lattice windows just blew my mind.
Within, the shadowed interior splits into chambers connected by short passageways, each one hosting different tombs. Although it is dark inside, the interior walls and even ceilings are richly decorated with the best artistry of the Moghul craftsmen. The mood is close, but not oppressive.
The tomb is not designed to be viewed from afar. It houses spaces for people to actually come visit the memory of the departed.
Walking in the gardens of the Tomb of I'timad ud-Daula
However, I could also see why the driver said it was very like the Taj Mahal. It is also a symmetrically laid out mausoleum, with symmetrical gardens. The quality of its artwork is equal to the Taj Mahal, not a poor imitation or a less developed prior art. But in terms of scale, it is smaller - hence, 'baby' Taj.
Within its walls is a garden that is yet to be fully restored to Nur Jahan's original concept. The pools are not running with water, for example. I thought, maybe I would return someday, when they finished restoring it. I wanted to see what Nur Jahan had meant the gardens to be like.
There is a peacefulness to the mausoleum complex. I stayed a lot longer in this place than I thought I would. I felt the smaller scale made it truer to its purpose, and less extravagant on the empire treasury. The Tomb of I'timad ud-Daulah felt more intimate and welcoming.
As if on cue, I watched as two brothers ran a light chase around an aqueduct in the garden.
No children ran playing in the Taj Mahal garden.
The badass Mughal empress you didn’t know about
When I was there, I discovered that the Baby Taj was built by the wife of an emperor - Jahangir, father of Shah Jahan. She was related to both Shah Jahan as well as his wife Mumtaz Mahal of the Taj Mahal - one by marriage, and the other by blood.
At the time, the family relationship descriptions caused me to glaze over, taking me back to my childhood and my mother explaining to me exactly how the relatives we were visiting for Eid were related to me, and to each other, and to God knows how many other people, until I forgot all of it through sheer information overload.
But in order to write this article, I went to look it up to get it straight. Who was this empress Nur Jahan?
And whaddya know, I discovered an even more interesting romantic story than the Taj Mahal story.
Nur Jahan, the Persian empress of the Mughal Empire
It turned out Nur Jahan was a Persian noblewoman whose father served in the Mughal court under Emperor Jahangir's father. She was highly educated, intelligent, witty, strategic, and brave (like, she used to go tiger hunting with the men and was a legendary crack shot).
Now I know you guys are going to find this difficult to believe in our era, but there seems to be consensus that the emperor was attracted to Nur Jahan because of those things.
Yes, I meant to type 'because'. In another time and place, those were things that were desirable in a woman. Like, he'd marry you kind of desirable.
The Mughal Power Couple
Instead of feeling threatened by her actually being more skilful at 'emperor-ing' than himself, Emperor Jahangir gave Nur Jahan a lot of trust in co-administering the empire - at a level that has never been given a Mughal consort before her, or since.
For example, she held court together with him, or even alone if he was ill. He trusted her with the imperial seal, and coins bore her image. This just does not typically happen, in any monarchic system.
Jahangir was not exactly the most competent of the Mughal emperors. In fact, he struggled with a drinking and drug problem.
Yet, even though this was an even more patriarchal and misogynistic era than today, he openly trusted her intelligence, competence, wisdom, and loyalty absolutely. And his trust unlocked all the bonus abilities of a Power Couple.
I will wait now for you to recover the remains of your blown mind.
A more interesting love story
But that's not all. The story between her and Jahangir is way more interesting as a romance than the Taj Mahal story. I would say it's like a much more complicated and higher stakes version of a Jane Austen novel. Or maybe Brontë.
Jahangir was not Nur Jahan's first husband. She was in her 30s when they married. And she was his 20th wife - although they married no one else after each other. She was widowed when he married her, reportedly after he tried to put her in his harem. So this is not the typical Disney fairytale pairing of teenagers.
It isn't clear whether they met before and fell in love, but went their separate ways, and were later reunited by fate. Or whether they met when she was widowed and he was smitten instantly. Or whether she was reluctant when she first came in the service of the dowager empress, but was won over after 4 years. Maybe she was even like, nu-uh, I'm not going in a harem for this concubine nonsense - empress or bust!
Whichever is the real version, it is still way more interesting than the Taj Mahal story. I mean, you have good backstory and characterisation for both leads. Enough said.
A woman in love
Like Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, their marriage also lasted about 16 years. (Yes, I did the math). Nur Jahan may or may not have borne Jahangir children - but definitely not 14 children. But she was not just a consort furthering her own interests.
When her husband got captured, she mobilised an army to get him back, entering battle herself on a war elephant. Although she lost the battle and was also captured, her intelligence still came to their rescue. Not only did she escape, but she also organised an army under the nose of her captors, and finished the rescue.
And even after Jahangir died, and the power balance shifted, she remained loyal to him.
This was a woman who was super intelligent, and had control of the richest empire in the world. She could have strategised anything she wanted. What did she do?
She actively supported her husband's rule, made him look a better emperor than he was, stayed through his addictions. She adopted his child Shah Jahan and grandchild, and went to war to rescue her husband. And when he died far from home and was buried in Lahore, she built her own tomb there, so that she would be buried near him. Not in this one with her family.
Let me tell you something. However they ended up together, that was a woman who greatly loved a man. She just didn't say it in words.
And that man loved her back, precisely for being her. He took great political risks to honour her.
As a woman, I found their story devastatingly romantic.
The Marble Artisans of Agra
I had a little bit of time left, after visiting Nur Jahan's family tomb. My driver asked if I would like to visit another monument.
But after the two Tajs (Taj's? Tajes?), I did not feel like seeing another one. I felt it would ruin the symmetry of the day.
Seeing me hesitate, he asked if I preferred to visit the artisan shops instead. Among others, the marble artisans who were the present-day custodians of the Mughal arts that were display on the two monuments.
There was a rightness to that. I wanted to see what has survived of the remarkable artistry of their ancestors.
The Mughal marble inlay craft, today
My driver brought me to a place where they also tell you about how the pietra dura work is done. It is actually quite simple in theory, just requiring a great deal of marble working skills. A design is etched on the marble base, and carved out. Then, in the empty space, pre-cut pieces of semiprecious stones are laid in.
Today, the subsequent generations of the original artisans continue the inlay art. With improved tools, I think in fineness it can even surpass the work on the Taj Mahal.
There was no obligation to buy, and I did not feel harassed at any time. The inlaid marble display plates are lovely - especially the ones with mother-of-pearl. But they are quite expensive. Nor does it really fit anywhere in my apartment, unfortunately.
However, they also sell a simpler version of the art in the form of marble fridge magnets. This was both suitable for my apartment as well as falling within my price range.
The Taj Mahal vs the 'Baby Taj'
Inevitably, the question of which tomb is 'better' comes up for reflection. I actually thought about this off and on for a long time, about the different ways each tomb made me feel. Over the space of a year, my views shifted and changed.
I reflected on how the overwhelming beauty of the Taj Mahal feels a bit like you're invited, but to admire some other person's love that doesn't involve you. Kind of like your Facebook feed if you have a lot of peers who like to post 'relationship pictures' and OTT weddings.
I would say that the Tomb of I'timad ud-Daulah is like when you see the more real and communal face of love in the Facebook feed. Modestly sharing life milestones with loved ones who are far away. Thanking close friends and family for helping with the kids while your significant other was in the hospital. Telling them about a charity run you're doing in memory of a parent who passed away of cancer.
They're both beautiful. But they honour different things.
How the poem of Pablo Neruda somehow shed some insight
When I was preparing to go to Chile last year, my Guatemalan-American friend insisted that I read Pablo Neruda poetry, to prepare to visit Santiago and Valparaiso. At least one. So he took it upon himself to recommend the translation of a poem that he felt was the most moving of all of Neruda's poems. "I'm not a sensitive guy," he insisted. "But even I cried at this. You have a heart of stone if you read this and didn't cry."
But I didn't cry. And he has never let me go on that. "Heart of stone," he would reiterate whenever it comes up.
The thing is, I read the poem.
All of it.
But where he found moving words of a man consumed by a great love for a woman he had lost, I read in between the lines. I saw a man who didn't do anything to make the woman feel loved and appreciated while she was there with him. And then he lamented most dramatically after she left to be with someone who appreciated her.
At least, I guess the poet was honest enough to leave those details in. Even though he loved her that much, the poem was just a passive sort of regret. He was not impelled by this love to win her back, even though she was not married to this new guy or anything.
So, I wasn't feelin' it. I didn't get it. I told him so. And though he could logically accept my reasoning and see where I was coming from, he could not explain why it was still wrong and it was the most beautiful love poem ever, and I have a heart of stone.
For him, that he dedicated his best craft to her, and his longest emotional attachment, even in her absence, was the pinnacle of male affection.
It occurred to me that maybe, just maybe - men and women see romance differently.
A man's great love, and a woman's great love
So here we have a tomb built by a man who greatly loved his wife. An architecture lover who could afford to spare no expense to build exactly what he wanted to honour her. And that's what he did.
And there we have a tomb built by a woman who was loved like that. A woman who effectively controlled the same level of resources, who was also a patron of architecture in her own right. So much so that it was idiomatic. But the empowerment of that love impelled her to build not just palaces, but also gardens, and great caravanserais for travellers into the land. And when she did build a tomb, it was for her family. Not for him.
My epiphany was that it is not a competition. The two together formed a beautiful asymmetry.
In its most basic biological-familial sense, the male's highest expression of love is to dedicate all his earthly resources to his mate. And the female's highest expression is to take those resources and use it to amplify creation to support him - whether it is 14 children or an abundant and prosperous nation.
That's why these things are 'romantic' in courtship.
The very fact that it is not the same is what is beautiful. It is what gives our species a momentum, rather than the stagnation of equal sameness.
When it is the right way around, and not broken by distrust, the very asymmetry of male and female loving creates the most beautiful and abundant human partnership.
And so, without planning to, in the one day I was in Agra I managed to visit not one, but two of the most beautiful buildings (and love stories) in the world.