Shah JahanMughal emperor, architect of the Taj Mahal

The following is an extract from the travel book A River of Life: Travels through Modern India.

You knew, Emperor of India, Shah-Jahan,

     That life, youth, wealth, renown

All float away down the stream of time.

          Your only dream

Was to preserve forever your heart's pain.

     The harsh thunder of imperial power

          Would fade into sleep

     Like a sunset's crimson splendour,

          But it was your hope

That at least a single, eternally-heaved sigh would stay

          To grieve the sky.

What can I say about the Taj Mahal, I write - it is one of my first postcards home, and I am looking for something sensational - that hasn't already been said? I think about this for a time. For a long, long time. What is there that hasn't been said? Could there be anything? If you catch it at the right time of day, I continue, as much in desperation as anything, with the first blush of dawn in the sky or the last tint of sunset, bathing the white marble dome in a soft and sensual, peachy-pink haze of light, the Taj looks incredibly like an enormous, pert-nippled breast. But I suspect that even that crass observation has been made times before.

My first glimpse of it is a poor one, from one of Agra's many rooftop restaurants. It isn't the best vantage: the only part of it that is visible is that great mammary dome and the tips of the surrounding minarets. Other rooftop restaurants get in the way, as do an unsightly jumble of aerials, hoardings, telephone wires, the backs of fellow tourists sitting sipping cool beers, and streaks of aromatic brown smoke coiling up from stone baked chapatis.

I get a better look at the Taj the next day, an up-close look, a take-my-breath-away one. Sublime? Awe-inspiring? Every inch of it. For the poet Tagore, it was, famously, a "tear on the cheek of time" (or a "teardrop on the face of eternity", depending on which translation you prefer). But a tear that is fading, corroded by exhaust fumes, the white marble turned a blotchy yellow and its surface made friable, flaking away beneath the fine brushes of well-meaning but clumsy restorers. It is somehow consoling to learn that even time's cheek (or eternity's face) isn't safe from the ravages of time. As tourists of all nationalities and walks of life swarm, antlike, about its base, I can't help but be impressed by its quiet magnificence. I recall some of Shah Jahan's other extravagances, dotted about Delhi. Though how can any of them compare to this, his undying monument to love?

For all its splendour and overarching majesty, the Taj is no more than a mausoleum. Shah Jahan himself is buried here, in a crypt beneath showy, empty tombs. It was built after the death of his favourite wife, Arjumand Bann Begum, better known as Mumtaz Mahal, "elect of the palace". She was buried in the crypt alongside her husband. She died after giving birth to their fourteenth child. The mausoleum, originally called rauza-i mannwara, tomb of light, later came to be known by the name of the woman it was built for, Mumtaz Mahal, corrupted over time to Taj Mahal. Following the death of his wife, the emperor was devastated, stricken in ways that have since become cliches - his hair turning white overnight, for instance - all of which have to be taken with the same pinch of salt as the tales about him lopping off the hands of the Taj's creators and putting out their eyes, that they may never build anything finer. He had been designing forts and palaces since he was sixteen, when he could find time between making conquests and adding to the empire inherited from his father, Jahangir, so it is hardly surprising that his love for his wife, rather than being subdued by her death, should instead rise up and spur him on to create this, an unsurpassable monument to her memory.

Shah Jahan, inconsolable, declined in later years, losing the throne to his son Aurangzeb and spending his final years languishing in nearby Agra Fort, gazing wistfully - so the legend goes - at the Taj Mahal in the distance. His permanent and ineradicable tear on the cheek of time.

Read on...

Read the next article about the 1857 Mutiny.

It was at Kanpur, or Cawnpore as it had then been, that some of the worst outrages were committed during the 1857 Mutiny. After months of fighting, the besieged European residents finally agreed a truce and negotiated safe passage to Allahabad, only to be mown down by the forces of the princeling Nana Sahib as they boarded their boats. The women and children were spared, although it was to prove only a brief stay of execution.

Go back...

Read the previous article about The Mughals

Akbar, to whom history has rightly given the epithet "the Great" [...] founded the Mughal empire that was to dominate India for the next one hundred years, through the so-called great emperors of Jahangir, Shah Jahan, and Aurangzeb. Every land has an era of adventurers, buccaneers, conquerors, whose histories are fired in the forge of romantic nationalism and rewrought. For India, that age is the age of the Mughals.

Available for purchase now

Sheldon's account of his overland travels around India, A River of Life, is available for purchase now. Buy the e-book from or, or the paperback from or (also available in other countries, search Amazon for more information).

The first instalment, A River of Life, Book 1: Travels in the North, is available separately (e-book format only) via or The second instalment, A River of Life, Book 2: A Tour of the South, is available via or


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