Saturday, 6 February 2010

Taming the Taj

THE tourist thing. Standing a hundred meters in front of the Taj Mahal and posing with one hand poised as if touching its highest tip. I became the giant, the tourist who conquers one of the Seven Wonders of the World sufficiently to dwarf it while a complicit and more than willing photographer captures the optical illusion.I had sworn not to do it, when the idea was first marketed to me by one of the many photowallahs at the site. But some other guy snuck up while I struggled to frame a good shot with my handy camera and offered to capture a better shot of the building with its reflection mirrored in one of the pools before it.
Soon enough, he had arranged me in a pose that was guaranteed to take best advantage of the available light, then, another one, then with a sneaky smile, he got me to do the ‘tourist thing’ by arranging my hand like a mannequin’s and moving the camera back and forth till he got the required effect. Then came the photography lesson, he had been at the business for over 20 years, he pointed out the best angles to shoot from at different times of the day to take best advantage of the light. Of course he asked for a tip after handing back the camera; of course he asked for more when I gave him the bit I felt was fair enough, but then he smiled and accepted my thanks in lieu of extra rupees.

Taking awkward poses in front of humongous structures is only one half of the story surrounding the tourist thing. The other half will have to be understood in economic terms.
My volunteer photowahalla, had offered information to the effect that I was lucky to have come on a less congested day, I looked round the massive grounds at what I’d considered to be a decent crowd, which he now referred to as a small crowd.
Typically 35,000 people could show up at a time to see the Taj Mahal, the queue to enter the famous tomb was thus usually quite long, hence my luck for showing up on a less crowded day.

Let’s do a bit of arithmetic here: taking an average of 15,000 from his peak figure for sight seers that visit the Taj Mahal and assuming that a third of that number would be foreign tourists (yes, majority of the visitors at the Taj are Indians who pay just 20 rupees compared to the 750 rupees paid by foreigners!) and multiplying that number by the 750 rupees being charged foreigners, the Indian Department of Archaeological Survey stands to earn up to 3.75million rupees which is equivalent to 11.2 m Naira.
Let’s scale it downwards yet again, and assume that sort of revenue will only be generated on three days out of a five-day week.
Then the government of India can expect to earn 11.2 m rupees or 33.7 m Naira in a week.
If my volunteer photographer’s estimate of 35,000 visitors per day on a peak day is correct, and my rudimentary statistical calculations are passable, then we are talking about more than 45 m rupees or 135m Naira in a month and 540 m rupees or 1.6m in a year. (Checking on this later, it turns out the Taj Mahal rakes in twice the amount estimated here).
Staggering figures, yes, but what exactly is the Taj Mahal? It’s a tomb, you know, a grave, the site where someone was buried.
A massive tomb with a massive mosque on one side to ‘sanctify’ the site, a replica of the mosque mirrored as a guesthouse on the other side to keep the ‘symmetry’ and exquisite gardens on extensive grounds that could accommodate a modestly sized town.
With the central dome standing at 45m high and the four minarets that frame the building standing at 47m, employing thousands of labourers and craftsmen under the supervision of a team of architects for 22 years, The Taj Mahal’s magnificence beats the imagination till date, especially when juxtaposed against the … ehm… slightly whimsical raison d’etre behind its construction.

BUILT in the 17th Century by Shah Jahan, the 5th Emperor of the Mughal Empire which ruled most of India from 1526 till 1857 (when the last Mughal emperor was deposed by the British), Shah Jahan like his predecessors had a great taste for architecture and the arts and was known to be a great builder.
He was also madly in love with his wife Mumtaz Mahal, whom he married at 19 and from whom he could not be separated, so much so that upon her death while bearing their 14th child in 1631, he commissioned the most magnificent tomb ever in her memory, as a mark of their abiding love.
In the most outstanding blend of Persian / Islamic and Hindu architectural styles, that typified the architectural bequests of the Mughal period, the Taj Mahal, together with the Majid (mosque) and its twin — the Mehman Khana (guest house), the Darwaza-i-rauza (a three storey gateway) and the mirrored Naubat Khanas (music galleries) that flank the central Charbagh (quadrilateral garden) with its distinctive lotus pool are all bedecked with incredible geometric and floral details in white marble, red sandstone, jade, amethyst, onyx, sapphire, coral and even diamonds sourced from far flung locations.
Located on the banks of the Yamuna river in Agra which was the cultural and commercial capital of the Mughal empire, The Taj Mahal has further consolidated Agra’s position as a major destination in modern day India by being part of the major tourist route called the Golden Triangle which defines the path from Delhi to the pink city of Jaipur and the romantic sleepy town Agra has become.
The Taj Mahal barely survived attempts by an officer of the occupying British forces to take the building apart piece by piece and auction it off in England and the magnificent lawns once hosted great parties by the English elite.
The Taj Mahal has since been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Should all that explain the interest of local and foreign tourists in the massive and richly decorated tomb where Shah Jahan’s grave is located beside that of his beloved Mumtaz Mahal (after whom the Taj is named), generating considerable revenue for the Indian economy, then the irony shouldn’t be lost on us that the entire enterprise, which is now the pride of India, contributed in some way to the decline of the empire that saw its development.
The more Shah Jahan spent of his time and his empire’s wealth on his love gift to his wife’s memory, the more his influence over the large area he controlled dwindled. Meanwhile, taking his obsession with symmetry to an extreme, he had planned to mirror the Taj Mahal across the Yamuna River in black marble.
Age was not on his side however, his declining influence gave room to his sons to squabble for control of the empire which was soon taken over by Aurangzeb, who summarily banished his father to the Agra Fort while struggling to put the empire back on its feet.
Imagine this short speech from son to father: ‘Dad, you’re spending all our pocket money on your girlfriend, now that would have been okay except that she’s been dead for twenty years.
You’re therefore grounded. Go to your room Dad, you shall remain there for the next seven years.’
And remain there he did, at the Red Fort in Agra with his room having a clear view of his beloved monument from across the river Yamuna — The Taj Mahal — at which he stared till he died.

For third world countries struggling to make the best use of the resources available to them and trying to hold their leaders responsible for how those resources are deployed, projects like Shah Jahan’s Taj Mahal would probably be in bad taste in today’s world, and given that even the Mughal empire paid a grave price for his romanticism, then for good reason too.
However, having survived centuries to become a major tourist attraction, especially when you stack the figures, history seems to have justified the love struck emperor in a fine example of that Shakespearean buzz phrase— that the ‘evil’ that men do, will live after them.,

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