#232: EARTH HAS NOT ANYTHING TO SHOW MORE FAIR. In one of my many moments of ignorance, I once asked an Indian man, a travel agent, “So, the Taj Mahal—is it that good?” He immediately and patiently said, “In my world there are two types of people: those who have seen the Taj Mahal, and those who haven’t yet seen the Taj Mahal.” The answer was apposite. Entering the grounds of the Taj through the great south gate, the main building is narrowly framed by an arched entryway; as you go forward, the view expands sidewise, like a cinematic reveal. A waterway leads your eye straight forward; it is one of four, in reference to the four Qur’anic rivers of Paradise; four small gardens flank them, their plantings softening all this rational symmetry. On either side of the Taj are brown sandstone buildings, one a mosque and one a guest house. The Taj itself is made of sandstone, but clad entirely in white marble; it stands on a raised platform, a minaret at each corner, each leaning ever so slightly outward, in case of collapse or earthquake; these too are surfaced in white marble. The effect even in daylight, or seen at night from the Red Fort in Agra, is like a halation. The gardens, the minarets, the clouded light, reframe the building and its entire design every few feet as you walk: the Taj seems not so much a building as a constantly changing event. More than one person competent to judge has called it the most beautiful piece of architecture in the world.
There is of course an immense personal and political drama behind it, and Giles Tillotson’s compact little history, a volume in Harvard’s series Wonders of the World, nestles it neatly into its place both in Indian and architectural history, and deals wisely and knowingly with the dramas, post-Raj and contemporary, that still surround it, kept at simmering heat by India’s current culture wars. The Taj was built by Shah Jahan as a tomb for his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal, but perhaps no one will ever capture how its munificence, its beauty, transcends sorrow, even solace. Above the entry gate are the words of the Qur’an: “O soul, thou art at rest. Return to the Lord at peace with him, and He at peace with you.” The prayers by Mumtaz’s grave implore Allah to allow the faithful to enter Paradise. Wandering the gardens and viewing the Taj, you don’t want ever to be any place else. If any place in the world feels like an answered prayer, this is it.
In the Wonders of the World series, Richard Jenkyns’s volume on Westminster Abbey captures the “Royal peculiar” wonderfully well; rather like Alan Jacobs’s study of the Book of Common Prayer in the Princeton Lives of the Great Religious Books series, it shows how the Abbey has served a variety of sometimes cross purposes, religious, commemorative and national. John Ray’s entry, The Rosetta Stone and the Rebirth of Ancient Egypt, conveys neatly the enormous importance of its place in deciphering the ancient hieroglyphic texts, and the door it uniquely opened into the vastnesses of Egyptian culture. Rosemary Hill’s Stonehenge takes on an almost impossible task, as Stonehenge remains a place, an artifact, of which we really know at best very little of its purpose or origin; instead she treats us to the gallery of people who have so wildly and vociferously fallen under its spell, proving at every turn Jaquetta Hawkes’s mordant comment to be correct, that every age “has the Stonehenge it deserves—or desires.” (Hill’s book climaxes with the recent battles over public access to Stonehenge and its preservation—quite like the ending chapters of the Taj Mahal volume, but much noisier.) This crowd of personalities is in fact a good part of the charm of the Harvard series: in each of the books there are people, often battling in word, theory or deed, all of them caught in the gravitational pull of some great place or object, and some of them quite wonders themselves. The books are educational, entertaining, brisk and compact, and never commit the sin of telling you more than you want to know.
The Wonders of the World, published by Harvard University Press:
Taj Mahal, by Giles Tillotson. 2008.
Westminster Abbey, by Richard Jenkyns. 2005.
The Rosetta Stone and the Rebirth of Ancient Egypt, by John Ray. 2007.
Stonehenge, by Rosemary Hill. 2008.