He joined us on the flight to Adelaide in Singapore. I found myself sitting next to him – he had the window seat, Anya the aisle, and I was in the middle – and we began making small talk.
He was an Indian Australian who had been visiting family and friends and was now on his way home and it soon became obvious that Australia was for him very much home – and not only because he had a good job and was married to a Caucasian Australian.
There was also namely the issue of air pollution.
‘The air pollution’ he exclaimed, ‘it’s bloody awful!’
To emphasize the point, he told me about a visit he had made shortly before leaving India to see the famous Taj Mahal.
‘It is one of the most famous landmarks in India and I had never seen it. Well I went there but I still didn’t see it! The air pollution was so bad! It was as thick as a fog. I was in a group and if it wasn’t for the tour guide I don’t think any of us would have found it. When we got there, all I could see was this wall in front of me. I put my hands on the wall and held them there for a while…that’s as close as I got to the Taj!’
Anya and I had spent years travelling in India (something I hadn’t got the chance to mention) and we had experienced dramatic changes in that country’s history, some of them far from positive, including the air pollution. On our last visit, our flight had been diverted because of the thick cloud of smog over Delhi.
So I could well believe what he told me about the air pollution and hence his recital of his experience at the Taj Mahal, meant to get a reaction from me, fell flat and our discussion moved elsewhere.
Later, as the lights were dimmed and everyone hunkered down for the night, I put my sleeping mask on and lay back and tried to drift off into a slumber …..and instead, found myself reliving the memory of our visit to the Taj Mahal… so many years ago….
It was in the autumn of 1987.
We had spent the spring and summer trekking in the Indian Himalaya and when the first snows began falling on the high passes, travelled to Delhi on local buses and with a week to go before our flight to Amsterdam, took a bus from Delhi to the city of Agra and lodged in a grimy two story budget hotel – with a magnificent view of the Taj Mahal from its roof.
In those days, the number of annual visitors to the Taj Mahal was a tiny fraction of the estimated 7-8 million visitors today (and the population of India was about half of its present billion plus). Wandering around the Taj Mahal, at times all but deserted, made a powerful contrast with the world’s highest mountains, one which was nevertheless in so many ways comparable in terms of sheer power and majesty.
The Taj Mahal, built in the 17th century to house the remains of the Moslem emperor Shah Jahan and his favourite wife, was one of the most beautiful architectural works in the world and one immutably associated with India. Taking 20 years to build and involving tens of thousands of workers and craftsmen (and a thousand elephants), the Taj Mahal was one of the world’s best known mausoleums, along with the Great Pyramid of the Pharoah Cheops at the outskirts of Cairo; and like that famous and far older structure, it was the product of a civilisation pre-occupied with death.
Long before the Taj Mahal was built, grandiose mausoleums featuring domes, archways, crypts and intricate carvings in stone were constructed by rich and powerful Moslem overlords to house their earthly remains. These Moslem overlords, collectively known as The Mughals, originally hailed from today’s Turkey and Iran; they invaded the northern areas of the subcontinent (including today’s Pakistan) and ruled over them for 7 centuries, until the arrival of the British. The remains of the mausoleums they built, beautiful and impressive architectural works and often surrounded by gardens and pools of water (and which we visited in future years) can be seen in many places in northern and central India including Hyderabad and Badami. These mausoleums cannot be seen anywhere else in the Islamic world; they are unique to India and, the era of the Mughals.
For a Mughal man of means, it was crucial to ensure that when he died, he was interned in a mausoleum – along with his favourite wife or wives – and no expense was spared in the construction of these death monuments. A life time and all one’s wealth was devoted to the construction of a mausoleum and along with it, the promise of eternity in Paradise. Being the supreme ruler of India, the Shah Jahan had far greater funds at his command but even then, the construction of the Taj Mahal almost bankrupted an empire.
Why did death and the construction of elaborate dome tombs become such an obsession with the Mughals of India?
Because life in those times, before the industrial revolution and the advances of science, was often so short?
Or was it that the Mughals, born and raised in India, never really felt at home in the conquered land where the majority of people were Hindus and believed in reincarnation – and felt a powerful need to connect with a Paradise borrowed from the Middle East?
The Taj Mahal in any case was the greatest example of the Mughal mausoleums. In its use of space and it’s symmetry of forms it was work of inspired genius. Constructed entirely of white marble rather than stone, its giant central dome was supported by a rectangular building with archways and massive panels of intricate inlay work and was flanked by four high towers resembling the minarets of a mosque. Then the finishing touch: the entire structure set back behind a long stretch of gardens and rectangular pools of water, summoning up visions of Paradise. At once Islamic in its architectural ideas but also unique to India (especially obvious in the wealth of marble inlay work done by Hindu craftsmen), the Taj Mahal was one of the wonders of the world.
Besides its size, vision and beauty there was another less well known peculiarity about the Taj: the vultures. We noticed them from our very first visit, these big, gloomy, dark birds gliding above the main mausoleum and circling the high minaret like towers.
What were they doing there?
Soon enough we discovered the answer to that question.
Unlike the other Mughal mausoleums in India, the Taj Mahal was built next to a major river, the Jamuna. Late in the afternoons, Anya and I began walking along the banks of that river and it was then that it became all too apparent why there were vultures in the area.
Like the Ganges, the Jamuna was a sacred river for the Hindus and it was the wish of many of them, when they died, to be cremated on its banks. Not far from the embankment wall behind the Taj Mahal there were funeral ghats lined with burning, smoking pyres, a dramatic sight in the last hours of the day. But these pyres were how the rich Hindus passed from their existence into the next life. For the poor Hindus cremation was not an option because they couldn’t afford the cost of the wood and ghee, let alone employing a Brahmin priest to recite sacred verses from the Vedas during the cremation. So as a second- best option, they threw the body of their deceased family member into the waters of the sacred river.
The waters of the Jamuna moved slowly but constantly and bloated bodies drifted like pieces of driftwood whilst vultures descended on them and tore voraciously at the flesh and were carried downstream as they fed on their prey. In places bodies drifted to shore and were covered in vultures, whilst pie-dogs hung around, waiting their turn.
Sometimes whilst sitting near the banks of the Jamuna, poor Indians turned up with bodies to commit to the sacred river. These people must have known that the bodies of the departed did not mystically disappear into the Jamuna’s sacred waters but were more likely to be consumed by the vultures. In places the banks were lined with the bones and skulls of the departed.
But then again, the Jamuna was a sacred river – and the vulture was a sacred bird, its worship dating from the time of the great Hindu epic ‘The Ramayana’ – written in about 500 BC – and where it appears as a character known as ‘Jatayu’.
It was a interesting paradox and one which was so essentially Indian: behind the Taj Mahal, an architectural represenation of an Islamic Paradise, a river and a bird sacred to Hindus; a strange hybrid of two very different religions and cultures, a cauldron of history and constrasts…..
The lights came on and breakfast was served.
It was early morning and we were somewhere above the vast arid wastelands of northern South Australia. Out the window was a view of the sun rising over an immensity of desert, an interminable nothingness. I’d been out there and peered into that nothingness and didn’t want to repeat the experience.
Deepak and I exchanged a few pleasantries.
He unlike me had slept.
With the vivid images of the Taj Mahal and the vultures before me, I was almost tempted to raise the subject again. There was a lot on my mind and after all, it had begun with him.
He had visited that famous monument, been shocked at the air pollution and put it behind him, knowing that he had an Australian passport and didn’t need to live in that blanketting fog.
He was escaping. I had some bad news for him.
‘My friend, it’s an illusion to think that the problems of one country can be quarantined from the rest of the world, that we can escape the fate of Jatayu or the Taj Mahal……
What’s happened to them is an apocryphal tale and a warning to all of us..’