THE MAJESTIC `TAJ'. Even a hardened traveler is stunned by India's world-famous landmark

By , Staff photographer of The Christian Science Monitor

IF someone tries to describe to you how beautiful the Taj Mahal is, just smile. When you come across the tale of love and devotion behind its creation, just enjoy the story, as a story. Do statistics and descriptions add to the promise of this visual feast?

Oh! The words get in the way. Just forget all the above!

All you really need to know before arriving is that it is in India. Oh, if you insist, the location is just southwest of New Delhi.

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If you are a tourist, this destination is already on the schedule.

If you are in India on business, why fight it? Chances are you may end up there anyhow. It's just the thing everyone does.

Once on the scene, as you stand in the archway, catching that first glimpse, words may be the last thing that come to mind.

After you remember to breathe again, maybe ``harmonious'' or ``gleaming'' or simply ``loverly'' will out.

During an earlier brief visit to India, my taxi driver had assumed that, of course, I would not leave his country without a visit to the famous landmark.

Alas, my schedule was too tight for sightseeing.

But I recently made it to ``the Taj,'' about 12 years after my first visit to India. I now wish that fellow had insisted a little harder and just taken me to see it instead of following my orders.

The sight was well worth waiting for.

Though my eye was admittedly a bit travel-worn and jaded, my first impression was of surprise: ``Oh, it really is worthwhile.'' As it turned out, another Monitor photographer got there within a week. We were on different assignments in India, and, well, doing the Taj Mahal is the thing.

India has been a democracy for 40 years, but before that it was ruled for nearly 200 years by the British, and before that for even longer by the Moguls. The Taj Mahal, a Muslim-style structure in this Hindu land, is a memorial to Mumtaz Mahal, who was the favorite wife of Mogul Emperor Shah Jahan.

Not only did she become the king's chief political adviser and most trusted counselor, but historians say she was always on hand to wipe the royal brow whenever he went into battle.

The empress was widely known for charitable deeds, providing money and food to the needy every morning, and giving funds to a long list of widows and orphans.

But according to recent research by Indian journalist Usha Rai in her book ``Taj Mahal,'' there was another aspect to Mumtaz's nature. As Ms. Rai puts it, the empress ``enjoyed watching prisoners being tortured, especially Christian missionaries.''

The royal pair were ``inseparable'' from the time of their marriage in 1612 until she died during childbirth in 1631. She had asked that he build ``a monument of perfect proportions to symbolize their love.''

Since Shah Jahan had been crowned ``King of the World'' on Feb. 4, 1628, cost was not a consideration.

For the next 20 years about 20,000 master craftsmen and other workers fashioned the mausoleum with materials gathered from within and outside his kingdom. The engineers designed the four minarets to lean imperceptibly outward so that, should they fall, the dome, under which Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan are buried, would not be hit.

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