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The Taj Mahal and the Great Mosque of Djenne

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TO the traveler Agra means stands for, the Taj alone, the most interesting object in India; and, arrived there, one almost fears to precipitate the supreme moment, to put it to the test, to take the first look. There was no inspiration in the gray, cloudy morning or the tedious drive from the hotel in the farthest suburb three miles to the walled garden by the river bank. A sandstone gateway in a long wall admitted us to the serai, or outer court, where cabs and bullock-carts stood and touts, peddlers, and guides squatted waiting for prey, scenting the first tourist rupee of the day. There fronted the Great Gateway, a magnificent sandstone tower in itself worth coming to see, its arch inlaid with white verses and flowers, and a row of airy little bell cupolas fringing the roof-line. We went in through the drafty rotunda of a hall, and straight before us was the vision of beauty, the Taj Mahal–the most supremely beautiful building in all the world–the most perfect creation of that kind that the mind and hand of man have ever achieved-one of the great objectives of travel that does not is appoint, but far exceeds all anticipations–a reward for all the distance one may travel to reach it–recompense for all one endures in Indian travel.

Well as one knows it from photographs and engravings, the reality is as astonishing, as overwhelming, as if he had never heard of it. Even while he first looks through the arch to the white dome above the cypress-trees, it seems too rarely perfect to be real, too incredibly beautiful to be true. It would not have surprised me if the light had faded, a curtain had fallen; or, still less, if one had found he could not enter, that no foot could touch the garden-path or the white terrace, which is mere pedestal for this marvelous work of art. After watching the entrance of some others, we paused for a first steadfast look, and then, all excitement and exaltation, followed the marble path and mounted the half-way platform that affords the perfect view-point, the white wonder reflected in the long marble canal at their feet.

The Taj on its high platform, with the red sandstone mosque at the west, the complementary building or “Response” on the east, and the whole sky space over and beyond the river as background, presents the most harmonious and perfectly balanced composition and is the most admirably placed building in India. The eye travels from feature to feature and detail to detail, and the wonder of its perfection continually grows. The bands of low relief carving, the panels and borders of inlaid work, afford endless study, and one easily accepts the guide’s set story that forty varieties of carnelian are inlaid in one small flower, and that the whole Koran is inlaid, verse by verse, on the walls. There is a whole new set of sensations when one enters the softly lighted, dim white interior, with the echo repeating each word like the response of a chanted service–a single note from flute or guitar a whole theme. A trellis of marble tracery, with inlaid borders, screens the two tombs, low sarcophagi of jeweled marble resting on inlaid platforms. Mumtaz-I-Mahal in the center, where the Great Mogul laid her, and with Shah Jahan at her side are laid away in real simple white tombs in a vault immediately below the sarcophagi; and to them the aged guardian conducts one with a lantern.

The heart of the Sikh city and the soul of its people is the Golden Temple in the center of the sacred tank, the Pool of Immortality, and for beauty and impressiveness this Amritsar shrine is second only to the Taj Mahal. Marble terraces and balustrades surround the tank, and a marble causeway leads across the water to a graceful marble temple whose gilded walls, roof, dome, and cupolas, with vivid touches of red curtains, are reflected in the still pool. One gets the first view from a high terrace by the modern Gothic clock-tower, where the Sikh guards halt one until he has removed his shoes. A bearded giant exchanged our shoes for huge felt slippers that were damp and even wet, and led us around the white terrace.

A century after its erection, this domed tomb of Humayum furnished the model for the Taj Mahal, and one quickly notes the main points of resemblance between this massive red building and the white dream at Agra. Humayum’s tomb stands upon the same sort of high platform, but lacks the slender minaretsat the corners. The red building and its white marble dome are larger than the more delicately modeled, the more ornate, poetic, and feminine structure at Agra. The last scene of the Mutiny was played here when Hobson’s men overtook Bahadur Shah, the fugitive Delhi king, and returned the next day for the princes, shot them, and exposed their bodies in the blood-soaked, corpse-strewn Chandni Chauk. Bahadur Shah lived in exile at Rangoon for forty years, and his son, childless and born in exile, a harmless nonentity was permitted to return to India for the durbar of 1903.

The Great Mosque of Djenne

Djenne was declared a World Heritage site in 1988 due to its numerous fine examples of adobe buildings. Mud structures are still being built all over the city by highly respected masons known as bareys; the Friday mosque in Djenne is the largest mud building in the world. A mosque has existed on the site since the 13th century, and legend has it that the original was built with earth gathered by djinns (local spirits). It was later allowed to collapse by ruler Seku Amadu, who wanted to create a new mosque of his own design. Because it’s against Islamic law to destroy a mosque, he ordered the gutters to be blocked, causing the waterlogged roof to collapse. When the French took control of the city during the 1900s, his mosque was, in turn, destroyed and a third incarnation was built in its place. The replastering of the current mosque with clay and shea butter is now an integral part of Ramadan festivities; locals claim that the mosque in Nando, Mali, is a gift from God that appeared overnight.


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