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Architectural Wonders of India

Notes from Robert Ivy, FAIA, Editor-in-chief


My first sight of the Taj Mahal hit with superhuman force, unburdening me of a lifetime's pent-up emotions and expectations. Up until the moment when we turned and caught a glimpse of it looming inevitably, its outline traced against the mercurial evening sky, a black cutout form poised against the magenta night, or the blue sky offered up a domed flyspeck, off across Agra. Jostling for space in my mental landscape were the primary hues of postcards or pages from the World Book, and the monochromatic scenes from Richard Halliburton's pulp-wonderful Book of Marvels, in which he sneaked a moonlit reverie behind the locked garden walls: Childhood still lurked just below the surface of this adult.

Then, there it was, a glistening sugarloaf of a building, combining the presence of all colors, both reflective and absorbing its own light---the embodiment of white, white, white. So large it dwarfed the arching portal leading to the gardens far ahead; so large that human form merely peppered its base.

From where I stood, it leaped and danced, from its settled podium up to the solid mass of its body, where arched niches carved shadowed recesses and repeated its harmonies, then around in a domed sweep to its tip. Anchored by four spires, one at each corner, for muezzins who would never come, punctuated by rooftop pavilions and smaller spires, this mausoleum sang a cosmic song, suggesting order, amplitude within bounds, and direction. It humbled me, as great art can, with the realization that geometry points toward truths that we have ignored, and that beauty is a real and potent force, even in this debased and imperfect world. It took my breath away.

My trip to the Taj occurred on the final day of a five-day whirlwind trip to the subcontinent, where we had been guests of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, a triennial event. As with other such gatherings to celebrate architecture in or for the Islamic world, held in various sites worldwide, our host had prepared visits to noteworthy architectural monuments, including the Taj. In our case, the awards proved to be a Mughal feast.


The awards ceremony itself took place in Delhi at another mausoleum (think how funerary structures dominated early civilizations). Humayun's Tomb (1569), erected by the ruler's widow Hamida Banu Begam, predates Shah Jehan's memorial to his wife Mumtaz Mahal by almost a century (1631-1648). For the contemporary occasion, which included not only the Aga Khan himself and his invitees, but the Prime Minister of India, the domed, polychrome structure had been illuminated for a private son et lumière. The assemblage consisted of an international coterie in full native finery, from saris woven with cloth of gold to an African chief in robe and cap. Counterpoised against this magnificent 16th century backdrop, the moon rose full, while the Silk Road ensemble coaxed their plaintive instruments. Not even an emperor could match the rose-petal strewn drama.

Subsequent travels included a ceremony at the massive Mughal fortifications in Agra, whose Red Fort (built by Akbar in 1565, added to by Shah Jehan in 1630-55) gave new insight into the word, "heft." There the red sandstone walls, many feet thick, rose with hieratic emphasis, once cradling the treasury of an empire-Shah Jehan's wives, and the Peacock throne, his seat of justice. As if to underscore the otherworldliness of this lost hegemony, green parrots swept through the air calling at sunset, seeking their roost, while a tribe of monkeys paraded around the walls, peering down at our sober gathering. Where had the empire fled to?

Our final destination was a deserted city on a hill. Close your eyes from the heights at Fatehpur Sikri, a town constructed in the 1570s to become the Mughal capital from 1571-1584, and you could be at Vézélay, in France, were it not for the calls from the mosque. Following the emperor Akbar's lead, the court removed to this aerie spot to honor a holy Sikh who had predicted Akbar's first male son and heir. When he left, the red sandstone buildings remained. Restored, solitary, and urbane, this ghost town encapsulates history and almost speaks.

Touring this rich array of cities, fortifications, and funerary monuments only skims a fraction of India's architectural wealth; however, the analogies with other historical monuments is striking. The Red Fort, which surveys the Yumana River, bears close resemblance to China's Great Wall, or to the Alhambra, all of which came from a period of expansion and conquest. However, they also contain typological similarities with European fortifications from the same period (think of the Loire valley, with its turreted chateaux, or of 16th century England).

Towers, like those at the tombs, or the mosques, crop up in Italy (at Torcello, outside Venice, or San Gimigiano for example), at religious structures and fortifications. Simplistic as such a question may sound, what worldwide developments elicit similar building forms? Do the answers lie in the evolution of technology, or of building systems, or in philosophy? Visiting actual architecture consistently stimulates us to ponder and to wonder, confounding our expectations, both feeding us and leading us to hunger for more.