Only a few more days to go and The Serpent’s Tooth comes out … Going to the places associated with its story – the love between Shah Jahan and Mumtaz and the tragedy that overcame them – was unforgettable. Imagine a moonlight garden planted with creamy, fragrant, night-flowering blossoms. Water ripples along marble channels and over waterfalls lit by oil lamps flickering in niches behind the veils of water. Plumes of spray from fountains create a cooling mist in the warm air of an Indian night. At the far end of the garden, a vast lotus-carved octagonal pool overlooks the broad curve of the Jumna River. The pool captures a perfect reflection of a perfect building just over the river – the Taj Mahal.
The Moghul Emperor Shah Jahan laid out this garden – the Mahtab Bagh – over 350 years ago. On moonlight nights he arrived by boat from the nearby Agra Fort to wander among the groves of trees. From a marble pavilion at the edge of the octagonal pool he gazed at the melancholy beauty of the Taj Mahal itself – or at its silvered reflection in the water. As he gazed, he remembered his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal, ‘Chosen One of the Palace’ who had died aged thirty-eight giving birth to their fourteenth child and was buried in the Taj – the luminous tomb he had created for her.
For many years this garden lay forgotten, its pools and pavilions crumbling beneath layers of silt. Then, in the 1990s archaeologists uncovered evidence that it was designed as an integral part of the Taj Mahal complex. Today the gardens are open and just a short boat ride across the amber-coloured Jumna from the Taj to the opposite shore where wading birds pick daintily among the reeds and small boys play cricket with makeshift bats.
Though the garden’s pools and water channels are empty, you can picture how they looked in Moghul times. Conservationists have planted 10,000 trees and shrubs, including the richly scented white champa – a member of the magnolia family that blooms at night – and the flowerbeds are again a vivid, jostling mass of nasturtiums, pansies, marigolds and stocks. It’s aserene place from which to contemplate the Taj and sense the feelings of love and loss that created it.
The Agra Fort was, of course, the setting for Mumtaz’s brief, happy years as empress – Shah Jahan only ascended the throne three years before her death. I walked up the steep ramp that leads through a soaring red sandstone gateway above which kettledrums once boomed to herald the arrival of the emperor aboard his imperial elephant. With its one and a half miles of dragon’s teeth battlements, turrets and sheer seventy feet high walls, the first impression is of a great fortress built for strength not luxury as indeed it was – by Shah Jahan’s grandfather Akbar. However, the hugely wealthy and equally aesthetic Shah Jahan remodelled the imperial apartments, creating a suite of airy white marble pavilions overlooking the river.
In them, Shah Jahan and his empress lived a luxurious life, bathing in marble bathhouses or hammans flowing with rosewater and eating from jade dishes. – (The jade had a practical purpose too. It was supposedly an antidote to poison). When Shah Jahan, ablaze with gems, dispensed justice to his subjects in his pillared chamber of public audience, an equally glittering Mumtaz watched from behind a carved purdah screen. The riches of an emperor whose treasuries were piled with rubies, emeralds and sapphires and who commissioned the golden Peacock Throne to showcase his choicest gems stunned European visitors to Agra. A French doctor, allowed into the harem to treat an inmate, wrote that it was impossible to find his patient’s pulse because of the ropes of gems coiled around her arms.
The Agra Fort reminds us that by the end of his life Shah Jahan had lost not only Mumtaz but also his liberty. His son Aurangzeb deposed him and confined him in the very apartments he had built. They made an exquisite prison. Wandering through them I marvelled at the colours of the flowers inlaid into the white marble that are as vivid as when the craftsmen first sliced the leaves and petals from semi-precious jewels. The marble floors and pillars are cool to the touch. Sunlight filters through thin, flower-painted marble panels that soften its harshness to a subdued radiance.
Loveliest of all is the bronze canopied octagonal tower where a fluidly carved, marble pool fills the centre of the floor and sculpted friezes of swaying irises and yet more jewelled flowers overlay walls and pillars. The ageing emperor may have taken comfort from the supreme artistry but most important of all, from this tower he could see the Taj Mahal floating mirage-like beyond the ox-bow bend in the Jumna.
The nearby mausoleum of Mumtaz’s Persian grandfather Itimad-ud-Daulah and his wife, completed in 1628 just four years before work on the Taj began, is a delicate jewel-box of a building. Though much smaller and different in shape to the Taj, it’s also clad in gleaming white marble and its walls and floors are intricately inlaid with polished semi-precious stones – cornelian, lapis lazuli, jasper, onyx and topaz.
The much grander tomb of Shah Jahan’s grandfather Akbar, five miles northwest of Agra at Sikandra and completed in 1612, also evokes the Taj. Set within a vast walled garden inhabited by deer, monkeys, squirrels and screeching green parakeets, it lacks the Taj’s grace and symmetry but I think the architect combined ox-blood sandstone and milky white marble to striking effect.
It’s clear from many accounts that the Taj’s perfection fascinated people from the very moment it was created – and it still fascinates. However familiar the image, how ever many times you visit it, as you walk through the red sandstone gateway and see the pale mausoleum float into view, something catches in the throat. It’s impossible not to marvel at the faultless symmetry, the shining white marble, the swelling teardrop dome and not to be moved. One female visitor told her husband ‘I cannot tell you what I think for I know not how to criticise such a building, but I can tell you what I feel. I would die tomorrow to have such another over me’. Sitting in the Mahtab Bagh towards sunset, watching purple shadows steal over the Taj as the sweetness of champa flowers perfume the soft evening air I found it hard not to agree.