A marvel in marble
A TEARDROP ON THE CHEEK OF TIME by Diana and Michael Preston Doubleday, £16.99, pp. 354, ISBN 9780385609470 ✆ £13.59 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655 The Moghul monarchs’ way of life was an extravaganza of such breathtaking splendour that in comparison the Sun King’s Versailles seems understated. Both Shah Jahan and Louis XIV came to the throne in 1643 and their courts had much in common: architectural grandeur, luxury, a love of jewels and a flair for excess. What was unique to the Muslim emperor was his devotion to a consort throughout their long marriage. Her death in childbirth and his desire to create a worthy mausoleum resulted in what many consider the most beautiful building in the world — the Taj Mahal.
A Teardrop on the Cheek of Time (a syrupy phrase from Rabindranath Tagore) gives us not only the story of the Taj, but palace intrigues, marriages and assassinations; military campaigns, the rise and fall of emperors. The authors take the reader at a brisk trot from Tamerlaine to the present day, their considerable research leavened by colourful story-telling. Occasionally, superfluous explanations (‘calligraphy — decorative writing’) carry a whiff of Readers’ Digest, but every page offers a vivid image or telling detail that captures the deeply weird and violent world of the Moghuls. We’re given internecine rivalry; the paranoia, poisonings, tortures and killings; the flaying, blinding, knifing, the general destruction of life, but, above all, the luxury. Never have jewels, fabrics, precious metals and coin of the realm cascaded over the page as they do here.
More intimately, we get a potent sense of the seraglio with its shimmer and glow, its silks and scents and gardens fragrant with pale blooms and the susurration of fountains; the sheen on the skin of a courtesan or consort who — oiled, massaged and perfumed — waited to pleasure the monarch.
Finally we come to the heart of the story, a man so devastated by loss that he contemplated abdication, even death. Mumtaz Mahal bore Shah Jahan 14 children in the 19 years of their marriage. She accompanied him on battle campaigns and rough travels, sharing hardship and danger, often giving birth in remote, primitive places. At the 14th confinement her indomitable spirit failed.
With her death the book changes gear: flamboyant courtly life gives way to architectural specifics, the minutiae of planning, decorating and constructing the marble mausoleum. The architects were Muslim, using design manuals; the builders Hindus, who knew about soil types, ancient techniques of brick masonry and auspicious times to proceed. It took 20,000 labourers 20 years, seriously depleted the royal treasury and split the family disastrously.
From a distance the Taj looks pure white, but the marble is closely decorated with calligraphy, stone carving and inlay. Throughout, interior and exterior, craftsmen inlaid semi-precious stones — mother of pearl, pomegranate flowers of cornelian, leaves of emerald or topaz — a technique similar to Italian pietra dura. Jade came from China, lapis lazuli from the mountains of Afghanistan, amber from Burma. Yaks carried turquoise from Tibet.
Revisiting Agra one long-ago day I decided to enjoy the Taj later, by moonlight and wandered first through the Red Fort. Framed in a window, across the river, the Taj Mahal glowed pearly in the morning light, an object of such ethereal beauty that I abandoned the Fort and made my way to the slender columns and the fragile dome. Alas, that was the one thing Shah Jahan was prevented from doing. Deposed and imprisoned in the Fort by his son Aurangzeb, in the long years till his death he could only gaze across the river at the monument he had created to his lost love. He had planned a grand funeral for himself but Aurangzeb gave orders for his father to be laid without ceremony beside Mumtaz in the marble crypt.
Over time the Taj was neglected, vandalised. Finally Lord Curzon, the British viceroy, undertook a major restoration. It was, he said, ‘an offering of reverence to the past and a gift of recovered beauty to the future’. But the future brings its own dangers: the biggest threat now comes from pollution, and the moisture-laden breath of tourists. When we visit the Taj and sigh in admiration, we are helping to destroy it.
The paperback of Lee Langley’s novel, A Conversation on the Quai Voltaire is published by Vintage in April.