The Taj Mahal does not disappoint. It is beautiful. The curves of the dome, the snow white of the marble, the glitter of the inlaid stones, the rippled reflection in the lake, the birds that soar in the bluest of sky, the sunrise silhouette in the dawn light- all of it, every inch, whispers of the love story for which it stands. I am not sure what to think of the romance, nor of the high maintenance Queen, but the architecture sings, lullabies and hums of a liquid gold love. It is post-card perfect from every angle. A true wonder of the world.
And yet, it is afterwards, in the saw-dusty workshop of a sweaty Agra sideroad, that I feel like I have witnessed something really special. Watching a seventy year old artisan work alongside his nineteen year old grandson, shaping tiny fractions of gems and setting them into marble stone, confuses my emotions. Tears spring to my eyes, the lump in my throat swells and a smile splits my face all at the same time. The men’s fingers are rotten and sore from the relentless grinding of the emery wheel. Flecks of sharp stone split their fingertips as they smooth them over the ancient tool, then wash them in a movement so quick it makes my eyes hurt. Desperate not to stain the marble with their sore hands, they keep a dish of water next to the ever-turning spinner.
Every part of the design is shaped individually. The magnolia flower they are working on today has more than 130 pieces and will take 5 days to complete. Once the gems are shaped just right, grooves will be cut into the marble with an iron chisel and the motif will be fitted together perfectly. The stones are set with special glue and, being the ancestors of those Taj Mahal master craftsmen, it is a secret I am sure they will keep well. The glue sticks to the ends of their bloodied index fingers; it is painful work. One mistake, one shard cut too small or misshaped by a fraction, and the family will lose the sale. Watching these artists at work, sitting humbly in the back room of their rented workshed, metres only from the Wonder of the World, I have never felt so lacking in talent or patience. If the Taj Mahal is magical, then it is these craftsmen who are the magicians.
About the Author: Hannah Thompson-Yates: I traveled to Asia for the first time in 2010. Fresh from university in rainy Wales, I was a fair skinned, weak-swimmer with little tolerance for spicy food, cockroaches or long bus journeys. Six months later and I was hooked. Three years later and I still can’t bring myself to leave this wonderful part of the world. I love to travel, write, teach and indulge in serious amounts of sunshine and naan bread.