The trouble with India’s Taj Mahal is that it has become so overlaid with accumulated meanings as to be almost impossible to see. A billion chocolate-box images and tourist guidebooks order us to “read” the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s marble mausoleum for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, known as “Taj Bibi,” as the World’s Greatest Monument to Love. It sits at the top of the West’s short list of images of the Exotic (and also Timeless) Orient. Like the Mona Lisa, like Andy Warhol’s silk-screened Elvis, Marilyn, and Mao, mass reproduction has all but sterilized the Taj Mahal.
Nor is this by any means a simple case of the West’s appropriation or “colonization” of an Indian masterwork. In the first place, the Taj, which in the mid-19th century had been all but abandoned and had fallen into a severe state of disrepair, would probably not be standing today were it not for the diligent conservationist efforts of the colonial British. In the second place, India is perfectly capable of over merchandising itself.
When you arrive at the outer walls of the gardens in which the Taj is set, it’s as if every hustler and hawker in Agra is waiting for you to make the familiarity-breeds-contempt problem worse, peddling imitation Tajs of every size and price.
All this fosters a certain amount of shoulder-shrugging disenchantment. A British friend who was about to make his first trip to India told me that he had decided to leave the Taj off his itinerary because of its overexposure.
If I urged him not to, it was because of my own vivid memory of pushing my way for the first time through the jostling crowd, not only of imitation-vendors but also of prescribed readings, past all the myriad hawkers of meaning and interpretation, and into the presence of the thing-in-itself. Which utterly overwhelmed me, and made all my notions about its devaluation feel totally and completely redundant.
I had been skeptical about the visit. One of the legends of the Taj is that the hands of the master masons who built it were cut off by the emperor, so that they could never build anything lovelier. Another is that the mausoleum was constructed in secrecy behind high walls, and a man who tried to sneak a preview was blinded for his interest in architecture. My personal imagined Taj was somewhat tarnished by these cruel tales.
The building itself left my skepticism in shreds, however. Announcing itself as itself, insisting with absolute force on its sovereign authority, it simply obliterated the million counterfeits of it and glowingly filled, once and forever, the place in the mind previously occupied by its simulacra.
And this, finally, is why the Taj Mahal must be seen: to remind us that the world is real, that the sound is truer than the echo, the original more forceful than its image in a mirror. The beauty of beautiful things is still able, in these image-saturated times, to transcend imitations. And the Taj Mahal is, beyond the power of words to say it, a lovely thing, perhaps the loveliest of things.