Woke up early in the morning at Agra to have a Taj dekko. Met with Rajeev ji, an excellent guide – who used to be a physics teacher earlier. He is almost my age – and he took us through the construction aspects of the Taj in great detail.
Akbar’s capital was of his own making – Fatehpur Sikri, not very far from Agra. But there were water problems at Sikri and by Shah Jahan’s times the capital had shifted back to Agra Fort. The teacher in Rajeev gave us an acronym for remembering the Mughal Emperors chronology – Big Horses Always Jump Swiftly Across: Babar, Humayun, Akbar, Jahangir, Shahjahan and Aurangzeb were the first six in the series. 50 year old reigns went out of fashion after Aurangzeb. Between Aurangzeb’s 1705 death and Bahadur shah Zafar’s 1857 overthrow by the British, there were 17 more Mughal emperors.
Our hero in question, Shah Jahan had multiple heroines: two more wives apart from Mumtaz: Fatehpuri and Sirhindi begum. (And also hundreds of concubines, if we were to believe our guide.) Alas, the two aforesaid Begums don’t have any mausoleums to themselves: they had to make do by being the name providers to the two main gates of the Taj. The Fatehpuri and Sirhindi gates are nowadays referred to as the East and West gate. There was also the Siddhi gate (which probably comes for Seedis or steps) which was used by workers. Then there are also the serais or the inns that were used by travellers. There was also a royal serai which is a mirror image of the Masjid on the Western side.
Mumtaz Mahal was Shahjahan’s favourite queen, who used to accompany Shah Jehan even in warzones. She was 8.5 month pregnant when she accompanied Shahjahan for his fighting business in Burhanpur. The poor girl died during this 14th delivery. She extracted 3 promises from Shahjahan on her deathbed: Don’t marry again. Take care of my 7 surviving kids (Aurangzeb was one of them) and make something memorable which is a reminder of the love that we had for each other. After her death, Shahjahan put her into a temporary grave in the Taj gardens. And promised to himself that he would make a model of heaven on earth for her memorial.
The 4 waterways in the Taj garden symbolise the 4 rivers of heaven in which flow: water, honey, milk and wine. (The last is kind of un Islamic – but what the hell, this is heaven.) The water was pumped up to a tank through animal operated water wheels. This water would flow down to the fountains. Matkas were placed below the fountains whose sizes would change as you go away from the water source, the ones closer to the source having smaller matkas – with the size increasing as you went away. Also the nozzle sizes decrease so that velocity increases in inverse proportion. All this was done so that the height of the fountains would be the same across the line.
Shahjahan’s project has something that the Indian IT industry can learn from: project management. Must have gone through major cost overruns: it took 22 years to finish the build. There are 22 small domes on the main gate that commemorate each year of work. (See pic above.) The project finally got completed in 1653. It took 17 years to build the main mausoleum and 5 more years for the masjid and the royal guest house. In 1654, after Shah Jahan had completed the Taj, he was contemplating one more project on the other bank of the Yamuna. This one would be the Shahjahan Mahal, where he wanted his own body to be buried, It would be made of black marble. Now, the first one had already cost Rs. 4 crore, big money even in today’s times. When Aurangzeb objected, Shahjahan overruled him. After all, Shahjahan was still the emperor.
Aurangzeb was probably the only kid on the block who understood the challenges of deficit financing. Maybe the Turkish architects of the Taj had also enlightened him about the Ottoman empire practice of killing off the siblings when the emperorship was transferred. Going by the principles of primogeniture, Dara Shikoh was next in line for succession to the Mughal gaddi. Dara’s severed head was gifted to Shahjahan to mark Aurangzeb’s ascension to the throne. Shahjahan was sent across a couple of km away to house arrest in the Agra fort, where he was only allowed the company of his two daughters, Roshanara and Jahanara. Both the daughters had decided, after seeing all the violence in the family, that bachelorhood was a safer option.
The Taj is a perfectly symmetrical monument, with one small exception. On the inner edge of the top minar, the eastern side has a sandstone wall, whereas the western wall has marble. This was done in deference to Allah, because perfection is something that only He is capable of. An interesting optical illusion happens when you walk towards the Taj when viewing it from the arch of the main gate. The Taj appears smaller as you approach it – as the framing arch size increases in proportion to the Taj.
Taj is taller than the Qutub Minar by 0.5 m. It stands 73 m tall at the central dome (including the height of the half lotus and moon emblem at top of the dome.) I think the motif at the top is made of metal – am not too sure if it was designed to be a lightning conductor. It definitely is one now. The foundation for the Taj is made on 80 sink wells. Logs of special wood have been put into these wells. This is a fairly effective earthquake resisting device. The whole structure is on a platform which is 20 ft high. If you place a heavy weight on a platform it will warp at the center. In order to offset the warp, 4 minarets were placed at the 4 corners of the platform. Fun fact: Minarets are mini leaning towers of Pisa – they all lean 1-2 degree outwards so that in case of any fall it is outwards, away from the main mausoleum.
The red sand stone was mined close to Fatehpur Sikri, but the marble is from Makrana. The Makrana mines are in use even today. No waterways in the Makrana Agra route, so marble had to be brought to the site using elephant power. Wonder How many HP is one EP. Marble is quite hard. There are a lot of drains built into the roofs – the rain water falls on the marble – but has not made a dent in the marble at the spot where it falls. Possibly, the duration of the fall would be only a few hundred hours a year – which is not enough to erode. Marble can be eroded by water – case in point is the famous Beda Ghat at Jabalpur.
We entered the dome to the sound of echoes from tourists who wanted their names literally doing the rounds. The shape of the external dome is bulbous. It is a hollow dome design – with the inside dome being a hemisphere which is located on a cylinder. This is a standard Turkish design: there were Turkish architects employed in the project. Qutub ud din Aibak made a dome with a single wall – and it did not survive too many earthquakes. Wonder how the one at Bijapur has stood the test of time. (MIT Pune’s World peace dome – the largest in the world today – has a lot of iron reinforcements, and hopefully will survive a few earthquakes.) The inner dome roof has star-shaped cut outs in the marble which adds to the aesthetics.
Here is the plan of the main mausoleum. Mumtaz’ tomb is in the center. Shah Jahan later on was buried in the same mausoleum – but his grave is a bit offset. (But taller in keeping with his higher status vis-a-vis his queen.) The actual graves are in the basement – with only replicas on the ground floor. Basement graves are opened up once a year during Shahjahan’s urs. (commemoration in Urdu.)
Glass work inside the mausoleum is from Shahjahan’s time. The inner chamber has a lot of marble inlay work. According to Rajeev, there is a secret glue used for sticking the precious stone pieces into the marble stone grooves. Visited with a shop owner who gave us a tutorial on how the inlay work was done at the Taj. There is a hand operated grinding machine for giving shape to the coloured stones for inlay. Diamond chisels used to chip away at the marble to create the slots which will house these stone pieces. Vijay ended up buying some of his super expensive stuff – in his bid to encourage the moribund tourism industry of Agra.
The screen work near the inner sanctum is quite well done. The marble is polished in such a way that you don’t see any corners in the mesh. An interesting zig zag design on the outer walls tends to make the rhombus section pillar look like it has 6 sides. There are excerpts from the Quran on the walls with alphabets inlaid using single stone pieces. The width of the letters increase as you go from bottom to top. This is to create an illusion in the eye that the entire script has the same size.
The flower motifs used in the Taj are botanical mysteries: some are imaginary, some look like hibiscus and lotus. The lotus flower inlays are the most intricate with one lotus composed of 64 pieces. Cordelian stone flowers are interesting – the stone is translucent and looks good when lighting is provided behind it. There is a geometrical jasmine shape on the main floor outside the mausoleum – which is called chameli farsh. Was told that it looks its best on full moon nights – when the marble reflects the moonlight and the red sandstone around it absorbs light.
There was a grove in the front courtyard garden which was cut down by the British to enhance the view. They have thankfully allowed the trees at the side gardens to exist. Impressed by the marble structure, the Brits did the math and realised that it was worth shipping off to Her Majesty’s Great Britain. They had even started the numbering of the slabs – but when they started digging deeper they realised that even Shah Jahan could not afford a full marble structure. The insides are plain brick work! Mumtaz must have felt cheated, the British surely did feel that way – and so they allowed the Taj to stand where it is.
The crowd had increased by the time we finished our tour. Was happy to note that we were not the only idiots roaming around in shorts on a cold winter morning. There were many younger lasses who wore sleeveless party dresses to be photographed at their romantic best, in this monument of love.
We ended the Taj visit with two rounds of a puri-aloo breakfast – the more tasty one was the famous Beda puri of Agra that Rajeev arranged for us. We then took off from Agra at 1200 hrs in Vijay’s 4 small seater plane. Was my first chhota plane journey. The plane is a 4 seater, made by an Austrian company, Diamond Aviation. Vijay informs me that there have been no fatal crashes reported on this model, ever. This part of the report is being typed on the plane – and I ardently hope that I don’t make history by being involved in the first one. What I liked most about the plane was the fuel efficiency – in kmpl terms, it is better than Vijay’s Audi Q5. The plane returned an average figure of around 10 km per liter in the Agra-Raipur journey. And no tolls!
Taking off from Agra
But I am reminded by Pratik, our pilot, that we should be actually talking of distances in nautical miles (knots) and fuel consumption in gallons. We topped up the tank at Agra which can hold just under 100 liters of rokel – jet fuel in aviation parlance. The fuel burn depends on a lot of variables. One of them is the plane speed. The optimal speed for this plane is around 80 knots – which is around 1.85*80 or around 150 kmph. This is snail speed for those of you who are used to flying in 737s at 800 kmph. But there is a kinda Jonathan Livingstone Seagull feel to travelling at these relatively lower speeds.
Another thing that I liked about the plane was its huge plexiglass wrap around windows. Panoramic view – but most times, the view was only clouds and haze. You need to fly lower to experience better views. But at lower heights there is another danger – bird hits. Being a single engine, single propeller plane – a bird hit means emergency landing, most probably in someone’s field. On the subject of propellers, fun fact: the Diamond’s propellers are made of wood! With a metal lining at the leading edge of the blades.
There is a small luggage storage space behind the rear seats which can take about 3-4 small bags. Overall seating was cramped. I must confess that I got cramps on more than one occasion by sitting in the same posture. I was better off than Vijay because I had my adjacent seat empty – though loaded with bags – and so could do a little bit of stretching. But there was no way that you could do a Titanic pose without breaking the plexiglass around you. There was hardly any conversation that happened. It was like being in a Vipassana class, albeit a very noisy one. Was more than 100 dB inside, thanks to engine and wind noise. Wonder how much the sound levels would reduce in an electric plane. To talk to each other mikes and headphones were provided. The headphones also serve as mufflers. If you don’t use them you will be semi deaf at the end of the flight.
There is a similarity with EVs. The small size of the fuel tank and the transnational distances we wanted to cover ensured range anxiety. There are 2 fuel tanks – one in the left wing and one in the right wing. The engine is connected to the left tank. In order to maintain a balance, fuel is transferred from the right tank to the left tank as the fuel gets consumed. The plane was flown mostly on auto pilot, and Pratik’s task was to ensure that the ATC bureaucracy enroute was informed about our progress. He also would periodically take out his IPad and do the fuel math. How many hours of flying left – and compare that with the current burn rate. The large Garmin GPS display does a good job of showing the outward radius of range.
It was a long flight because of the lower speed. We averaged 110 knots – which is close to 200 kmph. We landed at Raipur with 3 gallons of fuel left, having flown with a 5 knot headwind. Crosswinds don’t affect the plane as much as headwinds, as you change the alignment of the plane to get the vectored direction right. The only time Prateek would go off the autopilot was when we were flying through high clouds. Turbulence can be avoided when you move away from the clouds.
Mid air selfie
We maintained an altitude of 8,000 ft in the Agra Raipur flight. That’s about the altitude of Srinagar. Outside temperature was around 4 deg C. So airconditioning is quite simple – just get the outside air in. – and it did get cold in the evening as we finished almost 4 hours of flying. The plane has a small heat exchanger where the cabin input air runs over the engine and delivers hot air to the cabin. So unlike a car, the AC energy expenditure is zero.
We landed at Raipur around 1630 hrs. The time used in aviation parlance is GMT so that international flights don’t have any confusion about which time to refer to. Checked into the Hyatt, which was about 10 km from the airport. We then had dinner at Shamrock hotel with Mr Hotwani, Power’s Raipur dealer. Enjoyed the vegan food. Tried getting healthy mocktails done without added juices and added sugar. Me and Vijay managed to finish off our drinks – but the Hotwanis left their drinks after the first sips. As Vijay and the dealer talked shop, I listened to the lovely voices of the singers who were performing duty for a function being hosted in our neighbouring tables. We wrapped up dinner quite late at 2230 hrs.
Woke up the next day and walked down to Telibandh which was about 2 km from the hotel. Was interesting to observe how popular the TVS champ is as a delivery vehicle. We also noted the popularity of the EV 3 wheeler. Most of the three wheelers again being used for loads not passengers at that point of time in the morning. The Hotwanis dropped us off at the airport. We had tried our best to get permission for a joyride for them, but there was some VIP movement scheduled. The CM was flying out with his Education Minister, so we were denied permission for the ride.
Chhattisgarh CM plane
We took off for Baramati, 462 nautical miles or 880 km in crow flight mode. ATC first put us on the Raipur Nagpur corridor – and some distance short of Nagpur we were given permission to go direct to Melax. (Not an airport, but a waypoint which has a radio transponder and marks out a corridor of sorts.) Given that we had a longer distance to cover we climbed higher – flying at 10,000 ft instead of the previous day’s 8,000. Incidentally, even heights are used for East West travel and the odd ones for North South travel. All speeds and altitudes are calculated using air pressure, not GPS. This is because there are older planes which are not equipped with GPS – and you need to have a common standard for all planes. There was some talk of ground speed vs air speed. I assume that the air speed is based on Pitot tube calculations and ground speed on GPS calculations.
We were in for an adventure in the Baramati leg. Headwinds of almost 20 to 25 knots. That means more fuel burn. I wish we had got some advance information about headwinds – so that we could have replanned the route with some more fuel buffers – with maybe a stop over in Nagpur. Pratik decided to slow down. We averaged 80 to 90 knots in the second leg. We had planned to do it in 4 hours, but because of headwinds we took 5 hours.
To end with, another fun fact about the plane. Non retractable wheels. Makes you feel safer, as you may not end up doing belly landings if the undercarriage malfunctions. But it has a significant disadvantage in the sense that you have a lot more air friction due to the wheels hanging out. Pratik estimates that if the wheels could be retracted in, then the cruising air speed would go up by 10 to 15%. I remember that one of the commercial plane pilots had forgotten to retract the wheels of his 737 in a Kolkata-Mumbai journey – and had to do an emergency landing at Nagpur to refuel!
Piaggio factory at Baramati
Terra firma @ Baramati
Comments by Isar Qureshi
There are a couple of corrections. I am a Taj buff too and have watched a documentary on the Taj by a foreign team of experts. They came to a conclusion that there wasn’t going to be a black Taj. What Shahjahan planned was to build up a water pond at the Mehrab Bagh and then when you watch from there, you could see the reflection of the Taj as black on the Black Marbles which were underneath the pond. It would have looked like a Black Taj (Siya Taj).
He wanted to be buried at Mehrab Bagh – thus in principle it would have showcased his grave in sync with his wife’s Taj.
The other fact is that the wells were built because water was oozing out during the foundation excavation. The chief architect suggested that they change the location but Shahjahan objected.
Why did he object?
Mumtaz in her dying will had asked our hero to build a magnificent monument on her own land. Own land? Yes – the land of the Taj was a Rakhi gift to her by a Rajput prince who had taken her as a sister. It was common during that era between the Rajputs and the Mughals to have Rakhi doris sent across. So in principle, Shahjahan asked Lahori (the chief architect) not to compromise on the piece of land.
The architect, Ahmad Lahori, then did the unthinkable. He asked himself, what is one thing which can be in water and yet not wear and become stronger and flexible. The answer was Burma Wood and Bamboo.
They dug 80 wells and tied all the wood in ropes ( made of katha ) and then filled up the wells. On that they made the plinth. This ensured that the Taj became flexible and plinth stronger by the day.