The Emperor Imprisoned

The smell of spicy-sweet incense, the heat that soaks beyond bone marrow into DNA, the smooth-sharp crack of HindiGujaratiMarathiMalayalamWhoKnowsWhat over the constant background of horns. These combine to hold me in each moment. I never have a TV feeling, never a moment that could have been on a screen. Every pore and nerve ending is whispering, screaming, sighing, or laughing. And they are all saying the same thing: India.

We toured around the Taj Mahal, walking all of the way around below it before climbing the wooden stairway built over the marble stairway. Once atop the broad base of the Taj, the artistry of the designers and builders shifted something in me, just like my first view from outside the gate, the glowing Taj Mahal framed perfectly in a dark entryway.

The Taj Mahal is a piece of art, surrounded by more art. The Taj Mahal is a crypt, but it lives. Never before have I truly loved a piece of death-art, but this place is homage, not just resting place. It is love, not loss.

We spent an hour and a half or so there and then walked to the Agra Fort. One piece of information that had stuck with me was this: Shah Jahan, the ruler who caused the Taj Mahal to be built, was imprisoned by his son in this fort. He was given rooms from which he could see the Taj, but was never allowed to visit.

Shah's View

Where I loved the Taj as art, I loved the Fort as function. It is a real, defensible fort, with real battlements and small openings from which you can hope to decimate an attacking group before having to face the remainder. But in addition to the actual fortress (still host to a garrison of soldiers and closed in that area to visitors), there are living quarters. Walking through the spacious rooms, pausing before some intricate pietra dura, looking into shallow holes under cutouts in the marble, I could feel the living history of the fort.

There was a serious and sad edge to my enjoyment, however. As much as I liked looking at the clever waterways running through the resting rooms, I wished the water itself was running. The living areas of the Agra Fort look abandoned and unhappy about it. The gardens, baths, and all of the rooms needed bustling life, water, flowers, furniture, artwork, jewelry, clothing, carpets…all of the items that turn empty marble spaces into havens of comfort and real human spaces.

Well, in my imagination, at least, I can see the life of an imprisoned emperor, closed into a fort with his wives and assorted retinue. Restless, pained, but given every comfort he required. I can see the swirls of social life, political intrigue, and the moments of helpless joy when, though he knows that he will die a prisoner, he is impaled on a shaft of love, of pride, of hope.


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