Saturday, March 23, 2013

Mysteries, Secrets and Little-Known Facts of the Taj Mahal: My visit to Agra, travelogue Part-2


You may have heard how Taj Mahal changes its colours but do you know from where you can see the precious stones on the monument sparkle?

The gems in fact dazzle your eyes, each of them reflecting sunlight just like a mirror does.

We wouldn't have known this until the guide told us about it and showed the place from where we could see the affect of the light on Taj.

We had just taken off our shoes inside the premises and had climbed the stairs to reach the platform of the mausoleum. On the left side is the mosque made of red stone and an exact replica of it--the jamatkhana [also called mehmankhana] is on the right.

It was from near the Jamaatkhana, we were seeing the Taj, when the guide told us to look at the top of the structure. The sun rays early in the morning create this magnificent spectacle. We took a few more steps and were now exactly between the jamatkhana and Taj, when we saw the gems shining.

The shine kept on growing. First we saw one or two stones reflecting light. Then more and more. It was an amazing experience. A lady with us was so excited that she began shouting in joy that how her eyes were bedazzled with the 'chamak' [shine]. 

The use of white marble inlaid with semiprecious stones in construction is a unique aspect of Mughal architecture [and civil engineering] during the reign of Shahjehan who promoted it. This is known as pietra dura.

Had we come a bit earlier we might have seen the real impact. Also, had we been late, we wouldn't have seen the phenomenon at all. 

The guide says that the effect of moon is also similar and the 'stones turn into bulbs emitting moonlight', also termed the 'pearl effect'.

From here we moved towards the Taj Mahal. We saw the amazing drainage system--star shaped holes on the floor and the 'parnalas' (spouts) on the building that aren't so easily visible unless someone draws your attention towards them.

It was breezy in the morning. The view of Taj with Jamna [Jamuna, Yamuna] river flowing behind was spectacular. The guide told us about the foundation of Taj. That there were wells dug below on which Taj Mahal was built.


This was what we had earlier heard and also read. But now we were told the reason. One really marvelled for the wisdom of architects and engineers. Close to the boundary from where one could see the Jamna, there was the entry to the 'secret chamber' on the floor.

One could see the stairs going somewhere down into the basement. But it was locked. The passersby were throwing coins into it. Thousands of coins had gathered on the stairs which we could see through the mesh. The policemen who were present nearby looked at us and said, 'Ye hamara ATM hai'.

Taj Mahal overlooks the river Jamuna [Yamuna now] 
Another cop now said jokingly, 'ye sara collection hamare liye hai' [the money is being collected for us'. But why people throw currency here, I asked.

They just do because they see others doing and hence follow it. [Later I saw coins thrown even inside the tomb at the mazaars' replica*].

And everyone has seen someone throwing the coins here just like they throw it from trains into the rivers while crossing over the bridges.

These secret chambers are closed and only the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) officials open it. They take out the coins on a regular basis but how far they go down these stairs is not known. I consulted books on Taj Mahal and later found that these were termed as 'sub-terranian chambers', which were intrinsic part of the structure.

This is one of the two rectangular openings [10.5 feet x 4 feet] which is surrounded by a red standstone lattice rail. Each opening goes to the series of mysterious underground subterranean chambers whose total length is 120 yars. A tunnel like corridor runs rimmediately south of these chambers.


Surprising it may seem but the Taj Mahal is taller than the Qutab Minar. The height of the mausoleum from the ground level [including platform] is around 240 feet [over 73 m*] while the Qutab Minar is around 237.8 feet [72.5 metre] high. I will explain it more in the next post [Part-III].

But because of its design [its too wide and large horizontally as well], the Taj Mahal doesn't look as high compared to a lone minaret [Qutub] with nothing high nearby. The dome of Taj and its top are higher than its four minarets.

In fact, even the height of minarets of the Taj can be discerned only when you reach close to the structure. Just because there are four minarets and the main structure in the midst being equally high, the visual impact of the combined structure is different, and one doesn't think of it in terms of just elevation.


The four huge minarets were constructed with such finesse that they tilt 2 degree away from the building. This was to ensure that in case of earthquake, they would not fall on the tomb. This is just one of the innumerable amazing engineering feats which the makers--engineers, architects, designers and masons, accomplished.

Due to the tomb's vicinity to the river, the foundation had to be kept strong. Else, the structure could sink in mud or washed during the flood. Also, while the construction was going on, to keep the water away during monsoons, the conduits were built.

Series of wells were excavated in which bands of sal wood and masonry were stuffed. This is the first and last such example of hydraulic foundation anywhere in the world. Flowing river is must to survival of Taj. With Jamuna drying, the system [wood in the foundation rotting as it gets dried] would be affected.

The massive weight of the structure is distributed on this amazing foundation that has the wells beneath it. The Jamuna and the dampening effect is necessary to keep the foundation stable. Hence, it is being planned now a days to construct a dam so that the river stream could be kept at a level so that the monument's foundation remains strong.

(* The real graves are underground and were closed long back. Now only people see the replica of the mazaars above) 

[This is second part of the ongoing travelogue. The first part was more about suggestions for travellers and tips what would help visitors to the Taj Mahal. The series of posts on Taj Mahal continues after this post as well]