Postcard from … the Taj Mahal

By Patrick Scott

The Financial Times            Feb. 17, 2018

With no artificial lights, the only way to see the Taj at night is under a full moon ©

It is shortly before 11pm in northern India and security officers shouldering AK-47s are ushering 50 of us toward the large main gateway leading to the Taj Mahal.

We are the lucky few being allowed in to view the Taj by moonlight — the only way to behold India’s most popular and stunning monument at night.

Where other great attractions — the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, the Lincoln Memorial and the Giza pyramids, to name but a few — are artfully illuminated after nightfall, many of them with sound and light shows, the Taj remains in the dark. Artificial lights attract bugs, which would stain the white marble façade with excrement (as happened when security lights were erected and then lowered two years ago).

However, unknown to many tourists, a strictly limited number of visitors are admitted at night each month on the full moon and the two nights before and after.

In the daytime, as one enters the sandstone main gate, the reddish hue of the interior provides a stunning contrast for the pearl-like lustre of the image in the distance. Framed in the arched doorways, the monument — with its onion dome, columned cupolas, arched portals and quartet of minarets — seems to hover like a perfectly symmetrical ivory castle in the sky.

But at this hour, the main gate is ablaze with spotlights shooting down from above the doorways, one in front as we walk in and one behind as we walk out on to the terrace. The brightness makes it hard to even see the Taj itself, until a couple of minutes later the lights are slammed off in unison. We line up along a railing in the warm, still air, eyes slowly adjusting.

IMG_3650Ohhhh. Wow,” several people say in unison. “It’s beautiful,” declares one.

Although there is an eternal quality to it, the Taj was built in the mid-1600s by the Muslim ruler Shah Jahan as a memorial tomb for his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died delivering their 14th child. Meant to be a replica of her dwelling in the garden of paradise, it is described as the world’s greatest monument to eternal love, and the finest example of architecture from the Mughal empire, which ruled India in the 16th and 17th centuries.

As we stand on the sandstone terrace, the moon is high and white, over our right shoulders. We are not permitted to walk the gardens to the tomb, some 250 metres away, and the intricate details on the façade — the Koranic verses around the entrance, the swirling floral patterns above the arches, the honeycombed windows — are hard to make out. But the form and architectural mastery of the structure are visible; a sparkle of light emanates from a hanging lamp inside.

Tourists in our group — a few Americans, seven Brits and the rest Indians — aim digital glowing screens, catching the tomb’s cloud-grey image in the long reflecting pool. A bird caws. Music and chanting float on the air from a nearby Hindu temple.

“Is it what you expected?” I ask Sue Watson, a retired financial analyst from Hartford in Cheshire. “Yes, it’s amazing. It’s magical.”

The calm that embraces us belies a controversy over the origins of the monument that has been making headlines of late. A group of Hindu lawyers, in a court case resurrecting an old nationalist theory, claims that the site was originally a temple to the god Shiva, stirring extremist resentment against its Muslim heritage. The Archaeological Survey of India, the custodian of the Taj, in August last year told the court that the claims are “concocted”. In land and construction records “there is no mention of any temple being here, nor are there any structural remains of one,” Bhuvan Vikrama, the Archaeological Survey of India’s superintendent in Agra, told me.

On the bus back, Jafar Husain, a surgeon in Agra, was underwhelmed. “One would like to believe it shimmers,” he said, “but it doesn’t actually shimmer.”

Still, it was serene and a unique experience, even if our visit late last year was not during one of the best months for night viewing (September and October and from February to June).

The minarets and façades have just emerged from a two-year cleaning project; the pollution-stained dome is next up for cleaning, due to start in the spring, the first time scaffolding will coat the dome since the 1940s. “It’s kind of a historic moment,” said Vikrama.

Perhaps, for visitors who come next year, when the restoration is complete, the Taj might truly shimmer in the moonlight.

Details The moonlight tours last 30 minutes and are limited to eight per night, from 8.30pm until 12.30am. A maximum of 50 visitors are allowed in each half-hour slot. Tickets cost Rs750 (£8.30) for foreigners, and must be bought in person a day before the viewing. The Taj is closed on Fridays. For more information, see tajmahal.gov.in/nightview.html

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