Salman Rushdie on the enduring beauty of the Taj Mahal

The celebrated writer reminds us that the wonder of India’s iconic mausoleum transcends time—and tourist hordes.

By Salman Rushdie
Published 7 Feb 2023, 09:19 GMT
The Taj Mahal was built between 1631 and 1648 in Agra, India. Mughal emperor Shah Jahan ...
The Taj Mahal was built between 1631 and 1648 in Agra, India. Mughal emperor Shah Jahan had the white marble mausoleum erected to honor his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal.
Photograph by Matthieu Paley, Nat Geo Image Collection

The trouble with India’s Taj Mahal is that it has become so overlaid with accumulated meanings as to be almost impossible to see. A billion chocolate-box images and tourist guidebooks order us to “read” the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s marble mausoleum for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, known as “Taj Bibi,” as the World’s Greatest Monument to Love. It sits at the top of the West’s short list of images of the Exotic (and also Timeless) Orient. Like the Mona Lisa, like Andy Warhol’s silk-screened Elvis, Marilyn, and Mao, mass reproduction has all but sterilised the Taj Mahal.

Nor is this by any means a simple case of the West’s appropriation or “colonisation” of an Indian masterwork. In the first place, the Taj, which in the mid-19th century had been all but abandoned and had fallen into a severe state of disrepair, would probably not be standing today were it not for the diligent conservationist efforts of the colonial British. In the second place, India is perfectly capable of over merchandising itself.

When you arrive at the outer walls of the gardens in which the Taj is set, it’s as if every hustler and hawker in Agra is waiting for you to make the familiarity-breeds-contempt problem worse, peddling imitation Tajs of every size and price.

All this fosters a certain amount of shoulder-shrugging disenchantment. A British friend who was about to make his first trip to India told me that he had decided to leave the Taj off his itinerary because of its overexposure. 

A woman in a traditional sari walks near the Taj Mahal, which is located on the banks of the Yamuna River in northern India.
Photograph by Matthieu Paley, Nat Geo Image Collection
The Taj Mahal is reflected in a phone camera. According to government records, more than three million people visited the UNESCO World Heritage site in 2022.
Photograph by Matthieu Paley, Nat Geo Image Collection

If I urged him not to, it was because of my own vivid memory of pushing my way for the first time through the jostling crowd, not only of imitation-vendors but also of prescribed readings, past all the myriad hawkers of meaning and interpretation, and into the presence of the thing-in-itself. Which utterly overwhelmed me, and made all my notions about its devaluation feel totally and completely redundant.

I had been skeptical about the visit. One of the legends of the Taj is that the hands of the master masons who built it were cut off by the emperor, so that they could never build anything lovelier. Another is that the mausoleum was constructed in secrecy behind high walls, and a man who tried to sneak a preview was blinded for his interest in architecture. My personal imagined Taj was somewhat tarnished by these cruel tales.

The building itself left my skepticism in shreds, however. Announcing itself as itself, insisting with absolute force on its sovereign authority, it simply obliterated the million counterfeits of it and glowingly filled, once and forever, the place in the mind previously occupied by its simulacra.

And this, finally, is why the Taj Mahal must be seen: to remind us that the world is real, that the sound is truer than the echo, the original more forceful than its image in a mirror. The beauty of beautiful things is still able, in these image-saturated times, to transcend imitations. And the Taj Mahal is, beyond the power of words to say it, a lovely thing, perhaps the loveliest of things.

Salman Rushdie, the Booker Award-winning Indian-British-American author of Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses, wrote this for National Geographic Traveller(U.S.) magazine in 1999. Victory City, his first novel since he was seriously wounded in a stabbing attack in 2022, comes out February 9, 2023.


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