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AGRA
In a suburb of little houses beyond a great open square stands a gateway—a monumental portico of pink sandstone inlaid with white marble, on which the texts from the Koran, in black marble, look green in the intense light.

On entering this portal, lo, a miraculous vision! At the end of an avenue of dark cypress trees stands the tomb of Mumtaj-Mahal, a dream in marble, its whiteness, crowned by five cupolas that might be pearls, mirrored in a pool edged with pink stone and borders of flowers.

The whole mausoleum, the terrace on which it stands, the four minarets as tall as light-towers, are all in dead white marble, the whiteness of milk and opal, glistening with nacreous tints in the brilliant sunshine under a sky pale with heat and dust.

[Pg 205]

Inside, the walls are panelled with mosaic of carnelian and chalcedony, representing poppies and funkias, so fragile-looking, so delicate, that they seem real flowers blooming in front of the marble. And marble screens, carved into lace-work, filling the high doorways and the windows, admit a tender amber-toned light.

Under the central dome sleeps Mumtaj-Mahal, the well-beloved sultana, for whom Shah Jehan erected the most beautiful mausoleum in the world.

A marble balustrade, of flowing design and astounding delicacy, exquisitely harmonious and artistic, encloses the white sarcophagus, which is inlaid with mindi and basilic flowers in costly agate, linked by inscriptions looking like lacings of narrow black braid. This balustrade alone, in the Taj, under the marble pile which forms the tomb of the empress, and on which 20,000 craftsmen laboured for twenty years, would, in its indescribable beauty of workmanship, have amply fulfilled Shah Jehan's vow.

On the outside, all round the lower part of the monument, carved borders frame flowers of pale mosaic in the walls; the ornament is in such faint relief that at a short distance it is invisible, and the Taj is seen only in the perfect elegance of its[Pg 206] proportions. The mausoleum is built on a broad terrace of white marble at a height of 270 feet, overhanging the Jumna; and the impressive, harmonious outline commands the plain from afar.

Legends have gathered round the Taj Mahal as about every old building in India, and this one seems to me not impossible in its barbarity.

When the last stone was placed, Shah Jehan sent for the architect and went with him to the top of the mausoleum.

"Could you design another tomb as beautiful as this?" asked the emperor.

And on the man's replying that he would try, the sultan, who chose that the monument should have no rival, caused the architect to be thrown into the Jumna on the spot, where he was dashed to pieces at the foot of his masterpiece, which remains unique.

The fort, rising from a rock wall of rose-red sandstone, is reached by a series of drawbridges and bastions, now no longer needed and open to all comers.

The central square, formerly the Sultan Akbar's garden, is now a parade-ground for soldiers, and barracks occupy the site of ruined palaces. Still[Pg 207] some remains of ancient splendour are to be seen that have escaped the vandals.

Here, a white marble mosque with three flights of open arcades, with white domes to roof it, is paved with rectangular flags, each bordered with a fillet of black marble ending in an arch-like point, immovable prayer-carpets turned towards Mecca. Behind the marble lattices that form one wall of this mosque, the women of the zenana come to hear the moollah recite prayer.

Under a loggia, flowery with mosaics of jasper and carnelian, the emperor, seated on a white marble throne embroidered with carving, administered justice. At his feet, on a raised stone flag, the divan, his prime minister took down the despot's words, to transmit them to the people who were kept at a respectful distance under a colonnade, forming a verandah round the imperial palace.

And this morning I had seen in the place of Akbar or Jehangir, a sturdy, blowsy soldier, in his red coatee, his feet raised higher than his head, spread out in his wicker deck-chair, and reading the latest news just brought by the mail from Europe.

The sultana's mosque is quite small, of translucent milky-white marble, and close by it is a[Pg 208] red wall, hardly pierced by a narrow window with a stone screen, behind which Shah Jehangir was kept a prisoner for seven years.

Dewani Khas, the great hall of audience, on columns open on all sides to the sky and landscape, overlooks a pit about thirty paces away where tigers and elephants fought to divert the sultan and his court. At the threshold is a large block of black marble—the throne of Akbar the Great. At the time of the incursion of the Jats, who drove the emperor from his palace, as soon as the usurper took his seat, the stone, the legend tells, split and shed blood; the iridescent stain remains to this day.

Above the throne, in the white marble wall, is a round hole, the mark of a cannon-ball at the time of the Mutiny. Out of this came a parrot, gravely perching to scratch its poll; then, alarmed at seeing us so close, it retired into its hole again.

Further on we came to a courtyard surrounded by a cloister, where the market for precious stones was held. The empress, invisible under her wrappers of gauze as thin as air, and surrounded by her women fanning her, would come out on her high balcony to choose the gems that pleased her for a moment by their sparkle, and then disappear into the gardens behind insurmountable walls. In another court, a[Pg 209] pool kept stocked with fish gave Shah Jehangir the pleasure of fancying he was fishing.

At one corner of a bastion of the rampart rises the Jasmine tower, the empress's pavilion, built of amber-toned marble inlaid with gold and mother-of-pearl. A double wall of pierced lattice, as fine as a hand-screen, enclosed the octagon chamber; the doors, which were of massive silver jewelled with rubies, have been removed. The golden lilies inlaid in the panels have also disappeared, roughly torn out and leaving the glint of their presence in a warmer hue, still faintly metallic. Recesses in the wall, like porticoes, served for hanging dresses in, and low down, holes large enough to admit the hand, were hiding-places for jewels, between two slabs of marble. In front of the sultana's kiosk, basins in the form of shells, from which rose-water poured forth, go down like steps to a tank below.

The subterranean passage leading from the empress's rooms to the mosque, has in the roof a thick flagstone that admits a subdued glimmer as through amber or honey, lighting up all one end of the dark corridor.

The sultan's bath is lined with panels of lapis lazuli framed in gold, and inlaid with [Pg 210]mother-of-pearl, or looking-glass, and the walls have little hollow niches for lamps, over which the water fell in a shower into a bath with a decoration of scroll-work. And in front of Jehangir's room, again a series of basins hollowed in the steps of a broad marble stair, where a stream of water fell from one to another.

We saw the Jasmine tower from a corner of the garden in the glow of sunset. With its gilt cupola blazing in the low beams, its amber-hued walls as transparent as melting wax, and its pierced screen-work, it looked so diaphanous, so fragile, that it might be carried away by the evening breeze. And beyond the pavilion, above the ramparts carved with huge elephants, lies the old Hindoo palace, deserted by Jehangir for his house of pale marbles—an endless palace, a labyrinth of red buildings loaded to the top with an agglomeration of ornament supporting flat roofs. And pagodas that have lost their doors, a work of destruction begun by Aurungzeeb. One court is still intact, overhung by seventy-two balconies, where the zenana could look on at the dancing of bayadères. Perfect, too, is the queen's private apartment, with two walls between which an army kept guard by day and by night.

[Pg 211]

A road between ancient trees and green fields which are perpetually irrigated leads to Sicandra-Bagh. Here, at the end of a wretched village of huts and hovels, is the magnificence of a stately portal of red stone broadly decorated with white; and then, through a garden where trees and shrubs make one huge bouquet, behold the imposing mass of the tomb of Akbar the Great. The mausoleum is on the scale of a cathedral. There are two stories of galleries in pink sandstone crowned by a marble pavilion with lace-like walls; and there, high up, is the sarcophagus of white stone, covered with inscriptions setting forth the nineteen names of Allah.

Near this tomb is a stele with the dish on the top of it in which the Koh-i-noor was found. In the crypt of the mosque, at the end of a passage, is a vaulted room lined with stucco and devoid of ornament, and here is the burial place of Akbar, a mound covered with lime. The sarcophagus above, at the foot of which the Koh-i-noor once blazed, is but the replica of this.

This cell is as dark as a cellar, barbarously squalid. But to all our questions the moollah who was our guide only replied:

"Nothing could be fine enough to be worthy of[Pg 212] Akbar, so this was made in a hurry that he might at least rest in peace without delay."

In the heart of Agra towards evening people were busy in the square of the Jumna Musjid stretching pieces of stuff over rather low poles to form a tent. Then in long file came the labourers from a famine-camp, with their sleep-walking gait, their glassy eyes, their teeth showing like those of a grinning skull. Rags in a thousand holes scarcely covered the horrors of their fleshless bodies.

The children of the bazaar watched them pass, holding out in their fingers scraps of food—the remains of cakes, green fruit, or handfuls of rice, and the famishing creatures quarrelled for the morsels, frightening the little ones, who fled. Then they disappeared silently under the awnings, filling the air with a smell of dust and pepper, scaring the pigeons away from the pool for ablutions, and the birds fluttered up in dismay in the rosy sunset glow, seeking some other refuge for the night.


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