Monday 13 July 2020

A is for Agra

To think of India is to think of the Taj Mahal.  But like all masterpieces it is unique and atypical.  It says nothing of the general.  To begin to appreciate it, and to understand the culture which produced it, a context is needed.  Singularities can only be seen for what they are against a background of the commonplace.

Agra is at least typical of India in two respects.  The scale is vast.  From the Cantonment station to the town centre is miles; along the way there are the endless small shops with their cheap and gaudy wares.  And like many other towns, Agra possesses three cardinal elements that symbolise the great forces which have shaped North India: a massive Moghul fort, a reminder of past secular glories; a major religious building, testimony to the endless piety and architectural ambitions of the Muslim emperors; and a railway station, one of the most enduring legacies of the Raj, and possibly the most important for India's future.

Agra fort would be impressive by any standards; but its true statue emerges only in comparison with other red sandstone fortresses.  The great Red Fort in Delhi looks shoddy beside it.  Partly it is a question of setting: Delhi's fort sits next to a huge sprawling bazaar: the frenetic churning masses overwhelm the silent masonry.  At Agra, the fort stands in splendid isolation, with only a few hawkers' stalls by the gate.

Inside, passing through the deathly stillness of Jahangir's palace, you arrive at the great Diwan-i-Aam, or public audience hall.  Its marble forest of pillars and intricate carved roof seem to hark back to an earlier design, where ornate canopies hung from simple poles. In front lies a spacious court, lushly green and dotted with great spreading trees, a curious hybrid of mosque and college court.  Flights of green parrots wheel screeching overhead; incurious monkeys sit picking at flies.

From all the river terraces of the palace, a great white ghost further down the banks of the Yamuna constantly haunts the vision.  Everywhere in Agra, the presence of the Taj Mahal makes itself felt.  You cannot escape it: here as elsewhere, sooner or later you must confront your cherished images of India with dirty reality.  And yet few icons emerge more pristine than the Taj.  From the very first glimpse of its white shimmering marble through the great gateway to the gardens, it stands self-contained and untouched by all our preconceptions.  It floats serenely above itself in the long watercourse, framed by four sleek minarets set a little apart, as if in humility, and the two flanking sandstone mosques. Behind, there is the incomparable backdrop of the river Yamuna, its banks glistening wanly in the sun.

Apart from the sense of consummate perfection, the abiding quality of the building is sensual yearning: the Taj Mahal is an erotic monument to a beloved wife.  The secret lies perhaps in the dome which rises up as perfectly-formed and as tactile a a young woman's breast. It is this clash of austere stone with passionate intent which lends it such power.  That, and the shock of cool white stone set in a baked plain of redness.  Context is everything.

A Partial India: A to Z

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