The area between Agra, with the Taj Mahal, Rajasthan with its Maharaja palaces and the city of Amritsar in the north, with the Golden Temple complex in the state of Punjab, is considered the imaginary golden triangle of historic monuments. This is only a short list of the tremendous cultural heritage present today in India.
The Taj Mahal
The Taj Mahal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983, means the ‘Crown Palace’, the most recognizable Indian building worldwide and one of the seven modern Wonders of the World. It’s considered to be the most perfect work of its type, a jewel and the masterpiece of Indo-Islamic architecture. This style gave it its thought-through composition and a setting within the 17 hectare (42 acre) landscape, as well as a genius layout. It epitomizes the perfect treatment of space and proportion, beauty of selected materials, absolute harmony of all architectural elements and details and, ultimately, its masterful construction and artistic execution.
The elevated bank of the Yuman River near Agra was selected as the site for placing the tomb of the Mughal Shah Jahan’s favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died prematurely in 1631. Legend says that after twenty years of perfect love, the ruler collapsed with sorrow after her death and, after several weeks in isolation, decided to build a memorial celebrating their unique love. He called in architects and artists, but none of their proposals satisfied him.
He concluded that only someone who had experienced the same destiny could capture such a perfect design. He learned of a famous architect who was very much in love with his wife. Using intrigue, the ruler had her murdered and then proposed to the architect the creation of a tomb for the joint memory of their beloved wives. Thus, a project satisfying the ruler was born. Yet the author of the work himself died prior to finishing the construction and under mysterious circumstances.
The siting of the building is a unique aesthetic experience and its majestic beauty is strengthened by its symmetric setting on a high platform on the northern side of an extensive square garden, with a cross layout of a water surfaces, reflecting the building. The entire monument is built from the purest white marble in Makrana, Rajasthan. Arranged in such a way that, with its backdrop of blue sky, it changes from pink tones in the morning to blues at noon and orange hues before the sunset.
Twenty thousand of the finest craftsmen and artists from around the world created this gem over nearly twelve years. The marble is inlaid with precious stones that came from Baghdad, Egypt, Russia, China and Persia. Four minarets, topped by an eight-sided pavilion, support the symmetry of the entire complex and are erected with a slight tilt away from the central building, so that in case of an earthquake, their collapse wouldn’t damage the mausoleum.
The onyx-inlay calligraphic writing on the marble façade is not noticeable from a distance. The writing and regular ornaments increase in size toward the top, creating an optical impression that all lines and motifs are equally large. Its monumental entry gate empathizes the depth of the space and panels inlaid with precious stones in the arch reflect the changing light that provides the mausoleum its aura of mystery. The huge and intricate filigree walls of the royal tombs are carved from a single piece of marble and set in a perfect octagon. The flood of carver floral motifs symbolizes the main theme of a paradise garden.
The neighboring mosque and guest palace of red sandstone on each side of the tomb intensify the unearthliness of the central building. The ruler is said to have spent the rest of his life on the opposite bank of the river in the Agra fortress, with a view of his wife’s tomb, having been imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb, who assumed the throne. The ruler’s remains were then laid in the Taj Mahal when he died, thirty years later.
Harmandir Sahib – the Golden Temple
The Golden Temple is the location of the Sikh Holy Scripture and the Granth Sahib is a landmark of Amritsar and justly so, considered by the Sikhs do be the most beautiful temple in the world. From an architectural point of view, the temple symbolizes a reverse lotus bloom. This is explained by the fact that the white buildings surrounding represent the lotus petals, the golden temple the center of the bloom. The reverse concept could be explained by water not surrounding the bloom but being in the water and, in this case, the water is inside the nectar pond.
The temple has a unique atmosphere, thanks particularly to the singing continuously heard from the central gilded building. Here, the main priests take part in singing from the Guru Granth Sahib’s Holy Scriptures. The Granth Sahib book has a very busy life and rests on a special throne in the outer building. Before dawn, priests ritually wake it up and carry it to the Golden Temple on a handbarrow, while constantly fanning it. There they continue with the reading – singing from the previous day. Their singing is pleasantly accompanied by musical instruments and amplified throughout the complex by speakers. It is naturally also broadcast in a live program on a religious channel. Exactly at 11 pm, the procession picks up again and, accompanied by musicians, carries the book to rest in its ‘bedroom.’
No other state in India offers such a bounty of exquisite palaces and fortresses. Rajasthan was the trade crossroad with the Arab world and the largest concentration of wealth, culture and architecture in India. The Thar Desert was formerly ruled by three large kingdoms – Jaisalmer, Jodhpur and Bikaner. The forested south hosts the fairy-tale fortresses of Udajpur, along with lakes and palaces, as well as national parks known for their tigers.
The capital city Jaipur, also called the Pink City, thanks to the color of of the most important building façades, is a maze of bazaars, palaces and historic monuments. Tradition and the modern age blend here, motorcycles passing camels in narrow streets, older people in turbans mingling with youths in jeans. The Wind Palace, Hawa Mahal is the heart of the city, a bizarre building with a depth of one room. It was built by the aesthete and ruler, Savai Singh, on the edge of the palace complex, in order for women from his harem to be able to watch the busy street life below without being seen. Today, this decorative façade is the icon of Jaipur.
Jantar Mantar is a massive astronomical observatory from the middle of 18th century, said to be the most realistic and logical landscape made of stone. Thanks to their construction as immense brick structures, the astronomical instruments resist vibrations and even today are very accurate. The complex contains more than ten constructions for various astronomical purposes (time keeping, eclipse prediction, monitoring star positions, etc.). As an example, the Samrat Yantra cannot be overlooked. It is a right-angled triangle, the hypotenuse of which is parallel to the axis of the Earth. On both sides are brick quadrants for measuring sun-shadow. This is supposedly the largest sun-dial in the world. We found the accuracy to be within 2 minutes on the marked tracks. Thanks to its unique significance and form, the entire complex was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010.
The Amber Fort, located immediately above the city of Jaipur, is a palace and fort that served as the seat of Rajasthan rulers for over 200 years. Its robust fortifications, from the 11th century, follow the edge of a natural peak. The beauty of the palace complex lies in the diversity of its buildings, as gradually built by individual rulers. The Sun Gate leads to a spacious courtyard, where we take an elephant-ride through the passageway. These luxurious, richly decorated palaces are surrounded by Mughal-style gardens and hold sculptures and exquisite artifacts of inimitable craftsmanship and beauty.
Another wonderful monument is the Jaisalmer Fort, the Golden City of Camels, located in the restless border area of southern India and Pakistan, in the state of Rajasthan, in the Thar desert. The most remote part of the desert hides the lonely oasis of Jaisalmer, reminiscent of the stories of One Thousand and One Nights. This is not a cliché, but actually one of the most romantic cities in India. From a distance, Jaisalmer seems like a mirage, with a dominant fort built of yellow sandstone. The sun reflecting on its walls gave it the name Golden City.
The perimeter of the fortifications covers five kilometers, with a total of ninety-nine defense towers. The labyrinth of stone streets within the forts is so narrow that two camels can scarcely pass one other here. The fort is settled by approximately four thousand people, mostly from the Brahman casts and soldiers. They’ve lived here for entire generations and, in the old days, fought on the side of the Maharajas. Both casts live in their own houses, in separate quarters.
Up until the division of British colonial India, Jaisalmer was located on an important caravan route that brought it great wealth. Local tradesmen showed off by building palaces called haveli. In the beginning of the 18th century there seemed to be a race over whose haveli would be the most luxurious. Just like the city walls, the havelis are built from yellow sandstone. That stone masonry is so delicate that, from a distance, they appear to be wood carvings. Each haveli is decorated with richly detailed small balconies and windows protected by stone bars with filigree-thin decorations. Through them, the women of the tradesmen could observe the street-life without being seen by strangers.
Most Hindus go to pray each morning in the almost 800 year-old temple of Lakshmi Mata. Before they begin the day’s work, they bow to the goddess for blessing. The space between the temples and palaces then fills with the ever-present salesmen of typical Rajasthan carpets, decorated with small mirrors. Another local product is wooden marionettes. Even though today’s Jaisalmer is an important destination for travel agencies, you will not find crowds of white people here. There are mostly tourists from India here.
A cultural-heritage journey through Rajasthan must be completed in Udaipur, a city in the south with one of India’s most wonderful palaces, situated in the middle of a lake. These days, it is one the most exquisite and romantic hotels in the world, where servants, all descendants of the original palace servants, ensure complete comfort to their visitors.
Author and photos: Iva Drebitko
Next time: India – Life Style, final Part III.
There are no comments yet. Why not be the first to speak your mind.