DELHI – Glancing through travel brochures of India, I found this brief description: “This morning we visit the Taj Mahal, the magnificent tomb built by Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal.”
Ah, so much history, so much romance and pathos, so much architectural and engineering accomplishment in that one sentence which refers to this wonder of the world – the Taj Mahal.
If anything resembles the glamor of the mysterious East, it is incredible India’s Taj.
And so I flew nonstop – from New York to Dehli, close to 13,000 kilometers in 16 hours – to that far-off mysterious land we know as India.
The Taj Mahal is widely recognized as “the jewel of Muslim art in India” and is one of the world’s universally admired masterpieces. In 1983, the Taj became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Before entering the beautiful grounds, I boned up on the story surrounding this monument. The tale of this testimony to love began in tragedy. Shah Jahan’s 38- year-old wife, whom he loved very much, died during the birth of her 14th child, a daughter named Gauhara Begum. With her last breath, Mumtaz whispered to her distraught husband of their everlasting love, and begged him not to marry again. She wanted him to build her a mausoleum resembling paradise.
Mumtaz’s death left the emperor heartbroken, and it is said his hair turned gray overnight. The mausoleum, started in 1632, was indeed built in her name. (Taj Mahal is Persian for “crown of Mahal.”) About 20,000 laborers participated in the building of this work of art, which took approximately 22 years to finish. At each corner of the platform on which it rests stands a slender minaret. The towers are over 40 meters high.
The building itself is around 17 sq.m., and the dome covers the center of the building and measures over 21 m. high.
After his wife died in 1629, Shah Jahan, who ruled from 1628 to 1658, spent the last eight years of his life imprisoned by his evil son, Emperor Aurangzeb, in Agra Fort, looking out over the river to his wife’s final resting place. One should visit the fort to appreciate how, from his prison quarters, Shah Jahan would gaze across the river toward the Taj Mahal, where Mumtaz was buried.
His remains also were later laid to rest in the mausoleum.
Like the long line of silent visitors, we passed into the area where we could gaze through a filigree screen that was set up as a veil around the royal tombs. The bodies of Shah Jahan and his wife lie in the vault below.
At the same time, visiting this famous landmark puts the sojourner into a romantic trance. Not only the structure, but the beautiful and well-kept gardens, enhance the feeling of calmness. Even this peripatetic traveler was relaxed. You don’t push or rush on the grounds of this architectural marvel. The view and accompanying scenery of the Taj will last you a lifetime.
But the site was not always known throughout the world. The British who ruled India carried the fame of the Taj to the corners of the earth and made it a monument of “conjugal love,” and Shah Jahan’s greatest contribution to world architecture.
I also realized that loving couples seem to feel at home here in the sight of this faultless building, constructed on a bend in the River Yamuna at Shah Jahan’s capital of Agra. Most visitors are photographed sitting on the marble bench at the Lotus Pool and my wife and I eagerly obliged custom, as did other couples, young and old, who also posed for photos on this symbol of enduring love.
But woe to the unlucky-in-love ones. When the late Princess Diana visited India in February 1992 with her then-husband Prince Charles, she went to the Taj and allowed herself to be photographed alone on the bench.
According to press reports, she looked “disconsolate and melancholy,” in a place boasting royal romance.
I met people who came to India just to see the Taj Mahal in Agra, a drive of several hours from Delhi, the capital. Most tourists enter the grounds once and move on. But if you have time, you should try to visit the site in the early morning and again in the late afternoon.
Gaze at the Taj each time; the differences in morning and afternoon light will astonish you.
Notice that the semiprecious stones are inlaid into the marble in beautiful patterns using a process known as pietra dura.
Visiting the Taj, I realized that I agreed more than ever with India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, that “India is history” – knowing full well that Jews have been an integral part of the Indian mosaic for centuries.
Not far from the Taj Mahal is one of the most famous sites in the golden triangle of India (Delhi, Agra and Jaipur): Fatehpur Sikri, founded by Akbar the Great, who remains the greatest of the Mughal rulers of India.
This site is one of the most evocative ruins in India, a testimonial to the Mughal Empire, which at its zenith commanded resources unprecedented in Indian history and covered almost the entire subcontinent.
Fatehpur Sikri is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was the political capital of the empire from 1571 to 1578. I found the city, abandoned in the 16th century, deeply atmospheric. It actually is in the middle of nowhere and contains meeting halls, women’s quarters, a courtyard garden and elephant stables.
Fatehpur Sikri was occupied for a mere 14 years before a shortage of water forced its abandonment. Like all lost cities, it stands as a serene poetic place.
Regarding Fatehpur Sikri, I learned from Rabbi Marvin Tokayer, author, scholar and expert on the Oriental Diaspora, that among Akbar’s accomplishments was ridding the dynasty of an onerous poll tax on non-Muslim citizens. He also formed an “ecumenical council,” which, according to Rabbi Tokayer, included delegates who were Muslim, Hindu, Jain and Sikh, and, yes, even one rabbi, though there is no record of his name.
According to reports of travelers in those days, a synagogue existed on the premises.
Moreover, one of Akbar’s grandsons was Shah Jahan, who had seven sons, one of them being Crown Prince Dara Shikoh (1615-1707). The latter prince sought out a guru and found one in a man named Sarmad, a Jew, who lived in Delhi. Dara Shikoh’s brother, Aurangzeb (1658-1707), waged a savage war to be the successor to Shah Jahan. The struggle culminated in the public execution of Dara Shikoh on the accusation of heresy.
One of the implications of Dara Shikoh’s trial was that if he had a Jew as a guru, then he could convert to Judaism – and goodbye to Muslim rule in India! The Muslim court could not tolerate Dara Shikoh’s flirting with being a Jew, so they killed both the prince and his guru, Sarmad – who became the patron saint of Indian poets and is buried behind the Jama Masjid mosque that Shah Jahan built in Delhi. Aurangzeb, as we have seen, consolidated power by putting his father Shah Jahan in prison in Agra fort until he died in 1666.
The jumping-off point to visit Agra is Delhi, the capital of India.
Once Delhi was the most populous city in the world, and today it numbers about 20 million. Highlighted by an economic boom, it is fast turning into a modern metropolis.
Stop off at the Judah Hyam Synagogue at 2 Humayun Road, opposite the Taj Mahal Hotel near the Christian cemetery, in New Delhi. Attorney Ezekiel Isaac Malekar is honorary secretary of the synagogue, and singlehandedly keeps the 10-family Jewish community alive.
“Israel is in my heart, India is in my blood,” Malekar declares.
There is no rabbi, no cantor, no one practicing ritual slaughter and usually no minyan, but there are always services held at 6:30 pm. every Friday in the winter and 7 p.m. in the summer – and on Saturday mornings at 9 a.m., if there is a minyan.
In Delhi, the Chabad House is located at the General Market at T305 Main Bazaar, Pahar Ganj. Chabad headquarters is located on the top of a three-story building and maintains its own entrance with security; it used to be part of the Hare Rama Guest House. The neighborhood is considered an Israeli enclave, with Hebrew signs in store windows and merchants who even know a few Hebrew words. Many rooming houses in the area rent to young Israeli backpackers.
But Delhi is only one of India’s showcases. So don’t linger. Head for the Taj Mahal. As the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore said, the Taj ”is a teardrop on the face of eternity.”
Ben G. Frank, a journalist and travel writer, is the author of the just-published, “The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond,” (Globe Pequot Press); Blog: www.bengfrank.blogspot.com