Photograph by Will Gray, Corbis
Excerpt from 100 Places That Can Change Your Child's Life, by Keith Bellows
"The Taj Mahal shows three faces,” says Nicholas Wapshott, a British writer, journalist, and father. “In the early morning, it is floating in mist, as though sitting on clouds, like a heavenly place. In the middle of the day, the heat is searing, and it’s crowded. You see the Taj Mahal flat on. In the evening, or if you’re lucky enough to be there during a full moon, the white-marble building glistens and shimmers. Once children see the Taj Mahal, they will constantly look at the setting of any building relative to the time of day. It will change the way they see all other buildings from then on.”
A UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the new seven wonders of the world, the Taj is the icon of India. Even children cannot help but set their expectations high for a visit.
Wapshott’s son Oliver, 21, learned about the Taj as a young boy. When his mom, Louise Nicholson, author and lifelong India specialist, returned to London from trips to India, she shared photos and stories with him.
“From the time he could speak, he always called it the ‘Haj Matal’ and drew it at school when everyone else’s favorite building was Buckingham Palace or Big Ben,” his mother recalls.
Oliver’s dream of visiting the Taj Mahal was realized when he was seven, on a hot April day during a trip with his parents and brother.
“A lot of times, visiting these great monuments is anticlimatic, but the Taj Mahal lived up to, and even exceeded, my expectations,” Wapshott says. “There was a feeling that the spirit of the building was still alive, like the original intention of the building—as a symbol of love—was still there.”
The love story behind the Taj: In 1628, Shah Jahan became ruler of the Mughal Empire. His favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal (which means “chosen one of the palace”), was his loyal travel companion. In 1631, while accompanying Shah Jahan on a military campaign to expand the empire into South India, she died in Burhanpur after giving birth to her 13th child.
Grief-stricken, the emperor went into mourning and threw himself into creating a monument to their love. In 1631, construction on the Taj Mahal began. Materials from various regions of India, Central Asia, and the Middle East were brought to Agra, and thousands of workers labored more than 20 years until the structure was completed.
“One of the most magical aspects of the Taj Mahal, and one few visitors take advantage of, is the view of it from across the river,” says Divay Gupta, director of programs for the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage. At Agra Fort, for example, children will appreciate seeing the Taj from across the Yamuna River, just as Shah Jahan did during the last years of his life, after he was overthrown by his son and imprisoned there.
To enter the Taj Mahal complex, visitors must pass through security (do not take anything with you besides cash for tickets and a camera) and make their way to the entry gate, where they first glimpse the Taj Mahal. Wide paths lead to the raised platform in the middle of the garden, then to the mausoleum.
Gupta suggests taking a detour to show children the Taj from a different perspective. “Meander through the garden. It offers very interesting views of the Taj, perhaps what it looked like in the Mughal era. The present clear view and lawns were a British invention; it was otherwise in a thick, wooded area,” he says.
Rebecca Sullivan, an Australian who lived with her family in Mumbai from 2009 to 2011, says that her daughters enjoyed roaming the large grounds and suggests that kids take their own photos.
“The apparent obsession with symmetry in the Taj is easily captured and observed by kids if they have a digital camera. They also can capture the iconic image of the Taj reflected in the water of the pool,” she says. Rebecca’s daughters were impressed by the scale of the mausoleum and by touching the marble and inlaid stones. Eight-year-old Emma says she particularly remembers, “the special boxes where they were buried together forever.”
In the completely symmetrical Taj Mahal complex, the tombs are the only nonsymmetrical components. Mumtaz Mahal’s resting place lies at the center of the mausoleum, and when Shah Jahan died in 1666, his tomb was placed to his wife’s right. “When we saw the tomb, everyone was silent,” Oliver recalls. “While it’s touristy, it felt very religious as well.”
Know Before You Go
The acoustics inside the main dome, which soars to 240 feet, can cause the single note of a flute to echo five times.
The meticulously engineered and decorated Taj Mahal required 22 years of labor by 20,000 workers. And more than 1,000 elephants were deployed to carry construction materials.
In 1648, Shah Jahan moved the capital of the Mughal Empire to Delhi. Despite his devotion to Mumtaz Mahal, he likely did not visit the Taj Mahal again and only saw it from his prison at Agra Fort, after his son Aurangzeb usurped the throne.
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