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A Beautiful Disaster

By Dave Lather

January 19, 2011


The rising sun changed the glow of the Taj Mahal from a soft orange to a soft yellow while I ate breakfast on the roof of my hostel in Agra. Previously the clerk at the front desk offered to arrange me a rickshaw for a very good price of 350 rupees to the three landmarks I wanted to see. That seemed a little high, but my hotel doesn't have a vested interest in my choice of rickshaw does it? I checked around outside and was offered an initial price of 300 rupees.  After a short haggle we agreed on 200 rupees and set off.  Such is life on the tourist circuit of Northern India. 

Six kilometers outside of Agra in the suburb of Sikandra is a Mughal funerary monument without the Taj’s appeal and renown, yet no less interesting.  Akbar's Tomb is a beautiful disaster. Its’ traditional layout, subtle inlay work, and architectural dysfunction create a unique ambience and demonstrate in grand scale the benefits of cultural diversity in the Mughal Empire at its height of power.  No, Emperor Akbar’s Tomb is no Taj Mahal.  But it was a stepping stone on the way to the construction of the Taj.

The complex is laid out in the Persian Charbagh format also found in other Mughal funerary monuments.  A large, square red sandstone wall surrounds the complex with massive gates placed centrally in each wall.   From these gates four raised walkways containing water lanes symbolizing the four rivers of heaven converge on the tomb.  Large lawns in each corner contain entire herds of antelope and deer ate, lounged, and locked antlers in contests of strength. Right in the middle of a dusty, dirty, noisy city and inside a 400 year old tomb complex, herds of Sambar and Chital acted as though they were in the wild.  The Charbagh design is meant as an elaborate re-creation of heaven as described in the Quran and here shows the influence of Persian art, architecture, and theology on Mughal India.  The Taj complex contains a Charbagh visible immediately to those who enter from the gate facing the Taj directly.

Geometric tile patterns using the same cooling blues and greens found in Samarkand and Esfahan decorate the entrance gates.  Colorful Persian vase and floral frescoes reinforce the theme of life and death inside the gates.  I wandered into the beautifully decorated entrance to the whitewashed tomb of Akbar where a man belted out a traditional hymn; then demanded money be placed on the tomb of Akbar. I wonder where that money goes?  To starving children?  To poor families?  To schools for children in rural areas?  Or maybe, just maybe, it goes right into his pocket.  Such is life on the tourist circuit of Northern India.  Undoubtedly some of the craftsmen working on Akbar’s Tomb were brought in from Persia and the Central Asian steppes of modern day Uzbekistan and Afghanistan.  The majority of artisans were native Indians whose families had been in the artisan caste since the time of Asoka the Great.

The dysfunction of the Tomb’s architecture is an anomaly in the world of perfect symmetry and design in other Mughal monuments. The base is similar to Humayun's Tomb in Delhi which was also built by Emperor Akbar.  This reinforced dynastic legitimacy by drawing a clear link to the dynasty’s Persian and Central Asian roots and between Akbar and his father Humayun.  The second and third levels are visually similar to the Panch Mahal in Fatehpur Sikri in their red sandstone and columnar construction.  Yet both are almost invisible from up close and are completely incongruous relative to the lower and upper levels.  Further above, like a poorly planned layer cake, sit two open air white marble columnar pavilions. These uppermost structures incorporate Rajasthani chattris, also found on the Taj Mahal.

Akbar’s Tomb does achieve those high standards of the Taj Mahal.  But it is charming in a lovable loser kind of way.  The combination of Central Asian, Persian, and Indian styles helped create the greatest monument in India.  Early Mughal rule and architecture mocks the divisive hate filled, anti-pluralist rhetoric of Hindu and Muslim nationalists today.  For me Mughal architecture represented more than just the past.  It was a vision of India's potential future.  In India, as in the rest of the world world great things can be achieved with tolerance and co-operation.

I sat chatting with students and watching the Chital play in the grass and taking in the atmosphere.  I traded my “cool” clickable American pen for a student’s non-clickable blue pen after not having an American quarter to trade for a rupee.  I finished writing my notes and bade the students goodbye.  Silently I hoped they subconsciously took the lesson I did from Akbar’s Tomb.  My nervous, betel nut-aholic, red toothed, rickshaw driver came to me in a huff imploring me to leave. Such is the life on the Northern India tourist circuit.

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