If the plan to close the Taj Mahal goes into effect, it would reduce this over-the-top mausoleum -- built by Shah Jahan (fifth emperor of the Mughal dynasty) to mourn his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal -- to a mere postcard silhouette instead of the spiritual experience it can be.
Even a recent rise in admission prices doesn't deter floods of tourists from shuffling through the Taj Mahal -- three to four million tourists every year. Between the crowds and the air pollution that's eating away its white stone facade, tourism officials are considering closing this 17th-century landmark to the public, leaving its fabulous domed symmetry -- that graceful center onion dome, the four smaller surrounding domes, the slender punctuating minarets, the serene reflecting pool -- visible only from afar.
When you pass through the red-sandstone gatehouse, you enter tranquil Persian-style hanging gardens, a welcome respite from the hectic city outside. When you get up close, you can see that what seemed like a sugar-cube white building is in fact marvelously ornate, with exquisite detailing covering the marble inside and out-a technique called pietra dura, which came from either Italy or Persia, depending on which scholar you read. Islamic crescent moons, Persian lotus motifs, and Hindu symbols are gracefully combined. Past the central pool rises the arched octagonal building containing the tomb of Mumtaz, its white dome ringed by four minidomes. Two red mosques flank the mausoleum on either side, one required by the Muslim faith, the other a "dummy" built for the sheer love of symmetry.
Only when you enter the buildings can you view the interiors' stunning lapidary decoration, inlaid with precious stones-agate, jasper, malachite, turquoise, tiger's eye, lapis lazuli, coral, carnelian. Notice how the panels of calligraphy, inlaid with black marble, are designed to get bigger the higher they are placed, so the letters appear the same size to a beholder on the ground level. When Shah Jahan himself died, his tomb was placed beside Mumtaz's, the only asymmetrical note in the mausoleum chamber. The two tombs (oriented, of course, toward Mecca) are surrounded by delicate filigreed screens, ingeniously carved from a single piece of marble.
Shah Jahan placed this memorial beside the Yamuna River, despite the constant risk of flooding, because it was next to the bustling market of the Tajganj, where it is said he first saw Mumtaz selling jewels in a market stall. Work started in 1641, and it took 20,000 laborers (not to mention oxen and elephants) 22 years to complete; its marble came from Rajasthan, the precious stones from all over Asia. In the late 19th century, the badly deteriorated Taj Mahal was extensively restored by British viceroy Lord Curzon; what will today's Indian government do to preserve this treasure?
Contact: Tajganj, Agra (tel. 0562/233-0496)
Where to Stay: Welcomgroup Mughal Sheraton, 194 Fatehaabad Rd., Taj Ganj, Agra (tel. 0562/233-1701; www.welcomgroup.com). Jaypee Palace Hotel, Fatehabad Rd. (tel. 0562/233-0800; www.jaypeehotels.com).