A Poem in Marble

“India is far away, and we don’t know if we’ll ever get a chance to visit it again.” That’s the thought that fueled the travel madness of our last couple days on the subcontinent. On our way back toward Chennai from Dharamsala, we took a little detour and traveled by train from Delhi to Agra to see the Taj Mahal and Fort Agra then back again to Delhi for a brief overnight before flying to Chennai on our last day in port. It was actually probably a bit more travel in too short of a time span than we’d recommend to anyone else who might be planning a visit, but we’re glad to have seen these magnificent structures.

If you don’t already know the backstory, the Taj was commissioned by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan as a tomb and memorial for his dearly departed wife, Queen Mumtaz Mahal, in the early-fifteenth century. Construction was started in 1631 and was completed in 1653 with the help of somewhere around 20,000 gifted craftsmen from all over India and central Asia. It is a magnificent piece of architecture, described by our Incredible !ndia tourism pamphlet as a “poem in marble” and by Semester at Sea professor Manuel Alvarez as “the absolute perfection of architectural beauty in the world.” We had a lovely time strolling through the manicured grounds and trying to take it all in.

Across the river from the Taj stands Fort Agra, initially built by Shah Jahan’s grandfather, Emperor Akbar. We learned while visiting the fort that Akbar had three wives from three different religious backgrounds: Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. He respected pieces of all the major religions and thought they were all getting at roughly the same ideas, so he created a new religion that incorporated bits of Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, and Judaism. Unfortunately, none of his progeny adopted his beliefs, so the religion died with him. The memory of it, however, lives on in the architectural styles and details of the fort. Nearly every room and wall has decorations and details built in that bring together religious symbolism from all five faiths mentioned above. See if you can spot them in the photo below.

Some of the rooms in the fort are designed so that if you whisper into the corner, the sound travels up and across the arches of the ceiling to the far side of the hall, where another person can stand and truly hear your whispers. Meanwhile, people in the middle of the room cannot hear a thing. We tried out this communication system, whispering sweet nothings in each others’ ears from 50 feet away.

We rounded out our visit to Agra with a trip to our taxi driver’s friend’s carpet factory. We’ve heard that no visit to India is complete without a side trip or two like this one, so we embraced the culture and went along. It actually was quite fascinating to see how various rugs, bedspreads, and clothing were hand-made with looms and lightning fast fingers. The polite man working the loom while we watched even took a little break to let Shannon try tying a few knots. As much fun as it was to learn and participate, she has decided to continue fielding reference questions at the ship’s library desk in lieu of a new career in rug-weaving…at least for now.

Thanks, India. You taught us, inspired us, and flat-out exhausted us. We hope we’ll be able to come back again someday. There is so much more we want to see!

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