I had visited India many times, and somehow had never seen the Taj Mahal. Of course I had seen it in books, and studied the images and plans, but nothing prepares you for the real thing. Made of a beautiful white marble that appears to change color depending on the light hitting it—sun or moon—the Taj Mahal is an astonishing structure. And, like any great building, it creates its own culture of place. Standing on the southern bank of the Yamuna River, in Agra, it draws a diverse array of people, of all ages, from India and around the world. During peak season, an estimated 45,000 people a day visit. As an urban designer, the scene in and around the Taj Mahal was as interesting to me as the amazing building itself.
Perhaps the most powerful visual aspect of its design is its all-encompassing symmetry. The landscape and architecture are almost magically entwined to create a place of immense presence and spirit.
Approaching the complex I find a large bustling courtyard, filled with people. I notice the tourists tend to go straight to the portal and the terrace with the iconic view, while locals take their time, making an event of their visit, lingering on the ground or on low walls.
Once through the portal, I’m greeted by an all-too-common, but still slightly bizarre, paradox: the great 17th century building meets the very 21st century phenomenon of selfie sticks, cell phone cameras, and the mania for capturing personal events, memories and unique places, all dutifully uploaded to Facebook and Instagram.
As I walk through the complex, navigating the immense crowds, the various platforms, steps, fountains and walls, I become keenly aware that for all the majestic 17th century symmetries imposed by its architects, life in the end is messy and asymmetric.
As we approach the main building, the crowd transforms into a long line, which wraps along the base of the podium, up onto the platform, and then into the heart of the mausoleum. To pass onto the marble surface, we’re required to cover our shoes with plastic protectors. The curious sight of huge crowds, all lined up, wearing plastic slippers, heightens the anticipation and the experience of viewing the shrine up close.
One man, having given up on the slow moving line (like me), relaxes on the warm white marble surface, a perfect vantage point to watch the building change in the late afternoon light.
As the sun sets, I walk back towards the entry, past the marble platforms that form part of the foreground garden. In the fading light, I’m thrilled and amazed by how elegant and elevated the people look: an ordinary crowd ennobled by an extraordinary space.
Moving back into the city, an evening festival begins in the adjacent neighborhood. Memories of the Taj Mahal fade and a glowing purple gateway draws me into the scene. The tourists are gone and the life of Agra goes on.
All photographs courtesy of the author.