A Taj Mahal tour, complete with shower caps

Visitors to India's well-known monument are knee-deep inhistory, but their shoes never touch the floor.

Countless millions of people have shuffled around the Taj Mahal, filled with awe at the heart-tugging power of this monument of a king to his beloved wife. But it was my special privilege to shuffle around wearing clear plastic shower caps over my shoes.

Our guide, Shika, was handing out cloth strap-on shoe covers, to protect the white marble from our worldly shoes.

"The charge is minimal, five rupees apiece," said Shika, strapping on a pair over her delicate leather sandals. "Oh, but it seems they've run out of the cloth ones," she said, turning to me, "so perhaps you could wear these." She dangled the shower caps mischievously.

Given the alternative -walking barefoot under a sky full of pigeons -I donned the shower caps with a grin.

I told myself that nobody would be looking down at my feet, not with such a magnificent view in front of us. Few buildings have the raw emotional power of the Taj. Fewer still can match its ability to live up to its billing. In a few words, the Taj was built to enthrall.

Photographers have a field day here. Writers do too, although there's no accounting for taste. Novelist Aldous Huxley, on a visit in 1926, dismissed it saying, "I am very little interested in the expensive or the picturesque." Poet Rabindranath Tagore, by contrast, described it as a solitary tear suspended on the cheek of time. I tend to lean toward Tagore.

As we walked, and gawked, Shika filled us in on the Taj's fascinating history.

The Emperor Shah Jahan, who reigned from 1628-1658, had a number of wives, but his favorite was Mumtaz Mahal, whose name means "the chosen of the palace." When she died in 1631, giving birth to her 14th child, Shah Jahan was heartbroken, and quickly set about building the most beautiful mausoleum in the world for her.

Some legends have it that Shah Jahan planned to build an identical mausoleum for himself, across the silty braids of the Yamuna River, a Taj composed of black marble. But before he could sit down with architects and blueprints, his son Aurangzeb took the reins of power and imprisoned Shah Jahan in a palace not far away. With his eyesight fading, Shah Jahan would spend the rest of his days gazing mournfully at his wife's tomb.

Other versions of history

If all this sounds like a plot to a sappy Hindi movie, it should be noted that along the way someone added a darker ending. My wife, Kashmira, and I heard one version in which the emperor asked his architect if he could build a greater building than the Taj he had just finished. Wisdom would surely have urged the architect to say no, but pride had the louder voice, and the architect replied that yes, there was always room for improvement. Dumb move. Legend has it the emperor had the architect executed, and then ordered the hands of all the craftsmen to be chopped off, so they could not repeat their work either.

"A lot of people have asked about that story, but there appears to be no truth to it," said Shika, much to our relief. "After all, he was planning to have a Black Taj built for himself across the river."

Ah yes, the Black Taj. Thank goodness.

Aside from its romantic origin, the Taj is famous for its ability to shimmer in a wide array of colors. In mornings it is pink and peach. At noon it is a shocking white. By dusk, it turns a purple. And under a full moon, it turns a brilliant blue.

The closer you walk to the Taj, the more detail you see in the white marble.

There are irises carved out of the marble walls. There are roses made of inlaid coral and cornelian, with vines of turquoise swirling around. Each supporting column bears a verse from the Koran, written in swirls of black onyx. At the center of the hall is the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal, and just to the side, almost as an afterthought, is the tomb of Shah Jahan. Both white marble caskets are elaborately decorated, and at certain times of the day, they are dappled in sunlight from the carved marble screens high above.

To Muslim purists, the very presence of roses and vines and flora in architecture are an affront. Like some Orthodox Jews, most Muslims shun any graven images of living things. Most mosques and religious art tend to be geometric and nonrepresentational. But the Moghuls were not your everyday Muslim conquerors.

"The Moghuls made a specific effort to absorb parts of Hindu culture that appealed to them," said Shika, a Hindu. "Unfortunately, this tolerant attitude was not maintained by Shah Jahan's son Aurangzeb. He was much more religious, and treated the Hindus and other religions brutally." Perhaps it is not surprising that Aurangzeb's reign marked the beginning of the decline of the Moghul empire.

Princess Di was here

After our tour, Shika led us to a spot where the old and new world's collide. It's the white marble bench in front of the Taj where Diana, Princess of Wales, posed a few years ago, all alone. She and Prince Charles had planned to visit the Taj on their 10th wedding anniversary, but apparently there were some worthy ribbons to be cut back home. Today, that bench is the hottest ticket in town, and just as soon as one group finishes posing, another group pounces.

The minutes passed as we Americans hesitated, and finally, Shika lost all composure.

"You've got to be aggressive," she told us. Then, like a bolt of lightning clothed in saffron silk, she pounced at the bench. She lined us up, framed us with the Taj in the background, and clicked. I shudder to imagine her reaction if one of us had blinked.

On the way out, long after tugging off my frayed shower caps, I walked backward through the immense gate, to keep the Taj in view for as long as possible. And for a moment, I imagined old Aldous, sniffing at the ostentation of the Moghuls, but suddenly turning around for just... one... more... look.

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