THE MOST BEAUTIFUL OF BUILDINGS
Once upon a time there lived an Arab woman named Arjumand Banu. We know very little about her, except that she lived in Agra, India, and was the Sultana of Shah Jehan, the greatest of the Mogul emperors. She must have been a good woman and a good wife, because, after eighteen years of married life, and within twelve months after his accession to the throne, in 1629, she died in giving birth to her fourteenth baby. And her husband loved her so much that he sheltered her grave with a mausoleum which, without question or reservation, is pronounced by all architects and critics to be the most beautiful building in the world - the most sublime and perfect work of human hands.
It is called the Taj Mahal, which means "The Crown of the Palaces," and is pronounced Taash Mahal, with the accent on the last syllable of the last word. Its architect is not definitely known, but the design is supposed to have been made by Ustad Isa, a Persian, who was assisted by Geronino Verroneo, an Italian, and Austin de Bordeaux, a Frenchman. They are credited with the mosaics and other decorations. Austin designed and made the famous peacock throne at Delhi. Governor La Fouche of that province, who has carefully restored the park that surrounds the building, and is keeping things up in a way that commands hearty commendation, has the original plans and specifications, which were discovered among the archives of the Moguls in Delhi after the mutiny of 1857. The records show also that the tomb cost more than $20,000,000 of American money, not including labor, for like those other famous sepulchers, the pyramids of Egypt, this wonderful structure was erected by forced labor, by unpaid workmen, who were drafted from their shops and farms by order of the Mogul for that purpose, and, according to the custom of the time, they were compelled to support themselves as well as their families during the period of their employment. Thousands of those poor, helpless creatures died of starvation and exhaustion; thousands perished of disease, and thousands more, including women and children, suffered untold distress and agony, all because one loving husband desired to do honor to the favorite among his many wives. The workmen were changed at intervals, 20,000 being constantly employed for twenty-two years upon this eulogy in marble. The descendants of some of the artists engaged upon its matchless decoration still live in Agra and enjoy a certain distinction because of their ancestry. Forty or fifty of them were employed by Governor La Fouche in making repairs and restorations in 1902, and a dozen or more are still at work. It is customary in that country for sons to follow the occupations of their fathers.
The road to the Taj Mahal from the City of Agra crosses the River Jumna, winds about among modern bungalows in which British officials and military officers reside, alternating with the ruins of ancient palaces, tombs, temples and shrines which are allowed to deface the landscape. Some of the fields are cultivated, and in December, when we were there, the business of the farmers seemed chiefly to be that of hoisting water from wells to irrigate their crops. They have a curious method. A team of oxen hoists the buckets with a long rope running over a pulley, and every time they make a trip along the well-worn pathway they dump a barrel or more of much needed moisture into a ditch that feeds the thirsty ground.
The roadway is well kept. It was made several centuries ago, and was put in perfect order in 1902 on account of the Imperial durbar at Delhi, which brought thousands of critical strangers to see the Taj Mahal, which really is the greatest sight in India, and is more famous than any other building, except perhaps Westminster Abbey and St. Peter's Cathedral at Rome. The road leads up to a superb gateway of red sandstone inlaid with inscriptions from the Koran in white marble, and surmounted by twenty-six small marble domes, Moorish kiosks, arches and pinnacles. This gateway is considered one of the finest architectural monuments in all India. Bayard Taylor pronounced it equal to the Taj itself.
You pass under a noble arch one hundred and forty feet high and one hundred and ten feet wide, which is guarded by a group of Moslem priests and a squad of native soldiers who protect the property from vandals. Having passed this gateway you find yourself at the top of a flight of wide steps overlooking a great garden, which was originally laid out by the Mogul Shah Jehan and by Lord Curzon's orders was restored last year as nearly as possible to its original condition and appearance. About fifty acres are inclosed by a high wall of a design appropriate to its purpose. There are groups of cypress equal in size and beauty to any in India; groves of orange and lemon trees, palms and pomegranates, flowering plants and shrubs, through which winding walks of gravel have been laid. From the steps of the gateway to the tomb is a vista about a hundred feet wide paved with white and black marble with tessellated designs, inclosed with walls of cypress boughs. In the center are a series of tanks, or marble basins, fed from fountains, and goldfish swim about in the limpid water. This vista, of course, was intended to make the first view as impressive as possible, and it is safe to say that there is no other equal to it. At the other end of the marble-paved tunnel of trees, against a cloudless sky, rises the most symmetrical, the most perfect, perhaps the only faultless human structure in existence. At first one is inclined to be a little bewildered, a little dazed, as if the senses were paralyzed, and could not adjust themselves to this "poem in marble," or "vision in marble," or "dream in marble," as poets and artists have rhapsodized over it for four centuries.