Like a number of awe-inspiring experiences, coming face-to-face with the Taj Mahal is finally reaching the front of the winding line from which you couldn’t glimpse the attraction. Unlike others, this is quite intentional.
From the time you reach the public entrance at the traffic roundabout until you step under the red sandstone gateway arch, the Taj Mahal is hidden – a veiled bride. Ever so slowly, as though focusing through a telescope, the marble façade imposes itself a little more with each step in the hollow darkness of the cavernous blinkers. Then, at last and all of a sudden, the onion-like dome, manicured gardens and the four surrounding minarets austerely command your entire presence of mind as you step across the breach.
This phenomenon is achieved by the architectural ingenuity of the Southern Gate, which siphons your attention along the arched hallway toward the mausoleum, making it seem farther away at first, then astoundingly near.
In its probably greatest aesthetic feat, the Taj Mahal never appears the same; the marble warmly embraces the dawn’s fog, is crisply reflective at midday and is ghostly pale-blue under the moonlight.
Tour guides recount, as you stand in the bare courtyard before the gateway, how it represents a boundary between the worldly and the ethereal, the external and the internal. For, as wondrous as the objects themselves are, the manipulation of your mind is what elevates this tomb from a remarkable building and shrine to unforgettable art.
Unless you keep your eyes closed, as you walk through the corridor, a sense comes over you – an indelible emptying of thoughts, a stilling focus and an evaporation of worldly concerns. It makes the mausoleum a spiritual experience, not unlike being ensnared by a portrait’s stare.
Art reflects life but can also remind us of what is essential, but sometimes forgotten, in life. Modernity’s approach to boredom, for instance, could do with a lesson. Whether at the doctor’s office or a favourite restaurant, sitting about is no longer downtime but instead spent swiping, double tapping or in some other state of digital distraction. The gateway to our inner-self is, in this way, demolished by deceivingly productive-feeling crevices, each giving way to another until the arch crumbles.
The gateway’s prominence – one must enter through it – tells me such addiction to thought has always gnawed at human minds, and to see the Taj Mahal any other way would be to miss it entirely.
By the same token, it needn’t be one of the Seven Wonders of the World waiting on the other side. In the midst of the quiet mind, surprising gifts are to be found: splendour in the oft ignored and the joys of boredom reinstated.