Thoughts While Gazing at the Taj Mahal

An American tourist in India has an unexpected realization: the famous monument is a piece of sculpture

ALTHOUGH my father was an architect, I have had to travel to India to be struck forcefully by the notion of a building as sculpture. I always understood, of course, that a building - or a complex of buildings (which is what the Taj Mahal really is) - constitutes a form or forms in space.

But I've never before visited a complex of structures that so fully demonstrates this concept.

"Form follows function," wrote Frank Lloyd Wright and, influenced by him through my father, I've always thought of the functional aspect of buildings - that they were designed to house specific human activities.

As far as function goes, the Taj is a tomb. It was built in the mid-17th century by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to house the body of his favorite of some two dozen wives.

But being a tomb is only part of this monument's function. Sitting here in the garden at 6:30 a.m. on a balmy winter morning, I understand that the Taj Mahal has another function. It is designed to announce: "I am. I am beautiful, intriguing. Behold me."

It is the function of the Taj to be sculpture. Symmetry as an artistic strategy

Beautiful, yes. Intriguing? Definitely. But also rigidly symmetrical. One side serves as a mirror image of the other. The effect is one of balance and equilibrium, of serenity and order in the world.

Perhaps this effect is appropriate for a sculpture/building serving as a tomb. Especially here in India, where jumble, disorder and noise present themselves at every turn.

Still, this morning the symmetry of the Taj bothers me. I wonder what the effect would be if one of the four minarets were substantially shorter than the others.

Sitting before the red sandstone mosque on the eastern flank of the Taj, I count the number of portal-like friezes along the base of the building: 33. I recall counting 11 domes atop the great gateway leading into the garden. Hmm. Eleven must have had numerological significance in the Mughal Empire.

And I am reminded that figures in odd numbers - domes, portal-like friezes, stories in pagodas - please the eye more than do figures in even numbers. Hmm: 11, 33. But the Taj does have four minarets and two mini-domes.

Suddenly, looking along the facade of the Taj - I am exactly in line with it - I glimpse a slight outcropping of red sandstone. It is the edge of the balancing mosque on the western side of the tomb. Quickly I turn around. A replicating outcrop of wall juts out behind me on the eastern mosque.

I am amused, delighted.

For "intriguing," the Taj Mahal is very predictable. If you place yourself at the center of the tomb's symmetry, you can feel as if you are watching life from the surface of a mirror.

But I am put off, too. As an artistic strategy, symmetry binds the artist. No possibility of surprises. Every element replicates itself; it has its balancing explications. Symmetry does not free the viewer's spirit; instead, it places that spirit inside a prison.

We walk around sculpture. And it is best to walk around the Taj Mahal. This walking shatters the symmetry. As we move, the forms of the Taj move in relation to each other.

For me, it is more pleasing to see the four minarets in disequilibrium. This is possible if I stand well off to the side. Then the four appear as a repetition of the same shape, but in different sizes and in varied relationship to the other forms on the building. Monumentality as an artistic strategy

A dome, two mini-domes, four minarets. These forms are not all that different from a three-minute egg set in an egg cup, a pair of salt-and-pepper shakers, and four long-stemmed flowers set in separate vases.

The form of a boiled egg in an egg cup is so familiar that we hardly see it as form; it's merely an egg in a cup. But how might we react if that cupped egg was 100 times its actual size? We would probably stand in awe of it.

So it is with the Taj Mahal. As a monument, it is monumental. Grandeur that dwarfs us demands our admiration.

At half its actual size, the Taj would have much less than half its impact. Less may be more in some forms of art, but the Taj Mahal is proof that, at least in monumental art, more is also more. Has it been oversold?

How could it not have been? The Taj Mahal has become a logo for India. There are Taj Mahal hotels and restaurants and heaven-knows-what-elses all over the world.

What started as a work of art has become a product label, a cultural icon. In some strange way you have already experienced the Taj before you ever arrive here.

When you actually do arrive, you already know what you're supposed to feel: "Wow! Gee! Incredible!" The Taj has become a cliche, and so you respond aptly - in cliches.

Being here is not all that different from what you're already so familiar with. So, actually seeing the tomb, you feel a little cheated. Still, it is a singular work of art

Walking about the building as the sun comes up, you realize that your unhappiness with rigid symmetry and your distress with the over-familiarity are merely quibbles.

The tomb has a majestic serenity. You wish you could visit it several times a week. For a couple of years.

It's frustrating that, having circumambulated it at sunset and now again at daybreak, gawked at it for maybe three hours total, you must now dispense with it. Cross it off your list. Seen that.

You'd like to see it in rain and in heat. Build a relationship with it.

I have a sculpture on my dresser: the head of an African woman carved out of wood. I picked it up in a market in Coquilhatville (now Mbandaka in Zaire) one afternoon. It's stood on my dresser for more than a decade.

I live with that sculpture. I look at it now and then, study it sometimes, catch it in different lights, watch shadows changing on it.

I live with that sculpture, but it's not overly familiar. Other people haven't told me what it means.

I wish I could have that kind of relationship with the Taj Mahal.

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