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Wanderlust

In the shadow of TAJ

By Vir Sanghvi

In 1992, Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales and heir to the British Throne visited India along with his wife, Diana, the Princess of Wales.

Though this was not widely-known at the time, the Wales’ marriage was in deep trouble. According to her own account (given later to many journalists including Andrew Morton), Diana felt neglected, betrayed and alone.

She retaliated by staging little PR stunts which showed her in a good light while enraging her husband. When Prince Charles made in clear that he did not have the time to visit Agra, the Princess said she would go on her own.

When she got to the Taj Mahal, which security had cleared of all visitors and tourists, the Princess sat alone on a bench, framed by the Taj which loomed majestically behind her.

That photograph was transmitted around the world within hours and made the front pages of many newspapers. It sent out the message that Diana had hoped to convey: she was a lonely, unloved, neglected wife, forced to visit the world’s greatest symbol of love all alone because her husband could not be bothered to share the experience with her.

Even today when foreign tourists arrive at the Taj, they ask to be taken to the ‘Diana bench’. Tens of thousands have since had their own photographs taken there, posing like the Princess with the Taj behind them. For them, the location echoes the most famous love-gone-wrong story of recent decades.

Which is ironic because the Taj is really the perfect symbol of love-that-never-went-wrong; of a love so overwhelming that it led another royal personage, centuries before the Wales’ had their domestic drama, to build one of the most beautiful mausoleums known to mankind.

I thought about these ironies when I went back to Agra a few weeks ago. Till the beginning of this century, the only way to see the Taj was to buy a ticket and brave the tourist hordes who had come to see one of the wonders of the medieval world.

But this time I was at The Oberoi Amarvilās, Agra, a hotel dedicated to the beauty of the Taj. It is one of the few hotels in the world (and the only one I have ever stayed in) where all the rooms face in the same direction: towards the Taj.

You get a view of the monument from every single room and because The Oberoi Amarvilās, Agra is so close to the Taj with only a patch of green separating them, you almost feel that you are sharing a garden with the Taj.

As a consequence I spent nearly all of my time at The Oberoi Amarvilās, Agra, transfixed by the view, staring at the Taj all the time. I ate most of my meals on the open balcony which let me look at Taj. When I woke up each morning I would rush to draw open the curtains so that the sunlight brought a Taj view into the room. And baths took forever because the bathtub had a terrific view of the Taj and I soaked happily in the water while taking in the view that I knew would stay with me all my life.

The thing is: I am no stranger to the Taj. I have seen it up close several times. I have toured the insides of the structure. And I have been fortunate enough to see it lit up in the moonlight for a concert by the musician Yanni.

But these have been tourist visits. You come to Agra. You check in to your hotel. You take a car and go to the Taj. You tour the complex. You come back to your hotel. And that’s it.

The wonderful thing about The Oberoi Amarvilās, Agra is that your experience of the Taj is not restricted to a single visit. The Taj is always there, every time you look out of your window. It doesn’t become a tourist site. It becomes a beautiful neighbour who is always ready to be admired.

Obviously Princess Diana had her own agenda (and all is fair in love and PR) but for the rest of us the Taj is about concentrated emotion, about how great passion can translate into great beauty.

In June 1631, Mumtaz Mahal, the favourite wife of the great Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan died during childbirth. The Emperor was heartbroken and imperial court papers record how grief-stricken he was. Later that year, he decided to commission the grand mausoleum where Mumtaz Mahal would be buried and where their love story would be celebrated.

The Taj complex was built on three acres of land. Over 22,000 stone-cutters, builders and artists were involved in the construction of the structure. The marble was local (from Rajasthan) but the jade and crystal came from China, the Turquoise from Tibet, the sapphires from Sri Lanka and the Lapis Lazuli from Afghanistan. (The stones were embedded into the marble).

The Taj took 12 years to complete though the other support buildings in the complex were still being built even after the Taj itself was ready. By one estimate, the total cost of construction came to one billion dollars in today’s money. (In that era, India was one of the world’s richest countries.)

It was - and probably still is - the most extravagantly beautiful symbol of love ever built by any man for a woman he was crazy about.

It is also the reason we remember Shah Jahan today. The Emperor never quite recovered his old spirits and happiness even after the Taj was completed.

But as Princes Diana reminded us, love and tragedy are never far apart. As Shah Jahan grew older, his son Aurangzeb revolted, dethroned him and made himself the Emperor. Shah Jahan was imprisoned in Agar Fort for eight long years. But perhaps because Aurangzeb respected the love his father had for his mother, legend has it that Shah Jahan was given a room facing the Taj so that he could gaze at it every day. (And perhaps ask the ghost of Mumtaz Mahal how their son could have turned out so wrong!)

As I looked at the Taj from my balcony at The Oberoi Amarvilās, Agra, I wondered about all the events that had surrounded it, from the imprisonment of the man who commissioned it (Shah Jahan died in custody and was buried next to Mumtaz in the Taj) to becoming so world famous that Kings, queens and emperors from all over the globe travelled thousands of miles to see it.

Beauty, and great beauty in particular, always takes your breath away. But when that beauty is combined with so many centuries of history you feel privileged to be part of the story of the Taj.

The Oberoi Amarvilās, Agra is one of the world’s greatest hotels. (Don’t take my word for it, just note how often it appears on lists of the world’s finest hotels.) And yes, judged purely as a hotel, it is outstanding in every respect. The rooms are large and spacious and fitted out with every luxurious amenity you can think of. The service is discreet but genuinely efficient. There are two restaurants and the chef is both experienced and extremely creative.
There is lots to do in Agra. You can tour Agra Fort and walk into the room where Shah Jahan was imprisoned. You can drive to Fatehpur Sikri, a whole township created by the Emperor Akbar (Shah Jahan’s grandfather) to be his capital and then later abandoned (apparently there wasn’t enough water to sustain the court) when the capital was shifted again. Fatehpur Sikri also contains the dargah, which houses the tomb of Salim Chisti, the great Sufi sanit. (The dargah actually predates the rest of Fatehpur Sikri.)
Most visitors to Agra see the Fort and Fatehpur Sikri, each of which is a marvel by itself. And certainly, if you were to stay in most Agra hotels, the Taj would be just one more marvel to rank alongside those two.
But when you stay at The Oberoi Amarvilās, Agra, the Taj becomes the whole point of the trip. You will find that you have to drag yourself away from the hotel and from the stunning omnipresence of the Taj view to go and see everything else that Agra has to offer.

After making so many trips to Agra over the years, I decided not to move out of The Oberoi Amarvilās, Agra much. The building is stunning with elegant gardens and courtyards lit by flaming torches. And the accommodation is so comfortable that I never wanted to stir.
But ultimately, I treat each visit to The Oberoi Amarvilās, Agra as a privilege because I say to myself: I will always be able to see the sights of Agra and hopefully, I will stay in other lovely hotels. But where will I ever live in the shadow of the Taj, seeing it from so close that its beauty overwhelms me?
So I spend nearly all my time on my Taj facing balcony. Because the Taj is a glorious celebration of love.

And The Oberoi Amarvilās, Agra is a celebration of the Taj.

Gallery.

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