Mrs. Rose, my teacher, begins our new social studies unit: the study of India. Sitting in the third desk in the row, I open my blue and orange world history textbook to the page she requests and see an amazing black-and-white photograph I have never seen before: It is the Taj Mahal.
But why is it a black-and-white photograph in this era of ubiquitous color? The answer is that I am recalling one of my sixth-grade experiences from 1955. And this precise moment of introduction to the monument is still so vivid that it doesn't seem out of sync to write about it as if it were in the present.
No "living Technicolor" was needed then to inspire me with an immediate desire to see what Shah Jahan built in memory of his wife, Mumtaz. That morning I distinctly remember saying to myself, "One day I am going to see the Taj Mahal."
Although it took me more than a half-century to fulfill that promise, I finally did get to Agra.
Was I disappointed with the "live" view after all that time? No! The structure exceeded my long-held expectations.
What is it about this glistening Moghul structure that compels attention and even elicits reverence? Its symmetrical beauty, balanced proportion, elegant immensity? Its silhouette reflected in the lotus pool? Its contrast with the surrounding trees? Its framing quartet of 135-foot-high minarets?
Indeed, all of these make the Taj Mahal breathtaking. Its captivating Indo-Islamic architecture inspires awe. The entire panorama - as intended - represents paradise on earth.
Our guide, Veejay, said that it contains 1,100 poundsof gold and cost approximately 40 million rupees. It took more than 20,000 workers to build the monument between 1631 and 1653. The results of their structural expertise and exquisite craftsmanship have survived the centuries.
From afar, this mausoleum looks as if it's built all in white Makrana marble. That is what I had always thought was the sole material of its construction. I walked past one of its four reflecting pools and finally reached the Taj itself. There I discovered carved reliefs of flowers and foliage, as well as calligraphic passages from the Koran in black marble inlay.
Yet, the biggest surprise was yet to come. Using a Florentine technique called pietra dura (hard stone inlay) decoration, skilled craftsmen had created sprays or arabesque patterns of tulips, narcissus, irises, and poppies using various shades of lapis lazuli, turquoise, malachite, agate, jasper, carnelian, and jade. Then they polished these designs with fine emery.
Next fall, my oldest grandson will be in the sixth grade. I hope there is still a social studies unit about India and that his world history textbook will have a close-up "living Technicolor" photograph showing these intricate patterns on the Taj Mahal in addition to the one - perhaps in black and white - from the familiar perspective.
But even if he doesn't study India in class, my digital photos have already convinced him that he must not miss seeing this magnificent masterpiece one day. I told him that if he follows my timing, he will visit Agra in 2057.
With a sparkle in his eyes, he assured me he would get there sooner.
I told him that was one youthful dream he should definitely fulfill - even if he takes as long as I did.