Excerpt: One Teardrop Upon the Cheek of Time

The Jolly Pilgrim, Part 5, subchapter 59

Shortly after arriving, Linda announced that as she’d never been to India before she wanted to see the Taj Mahal. We had four days before the wedding and Agra was 1,000 kilometres in the wrong direction. But what Lola wants …

The Mausoleum

The Mughal Empire was the last great imperium to dominate India before the British. Its rise was driven by the new gunpowder weapons spreading across Eurasia during the sixteenth century and it went on to control the subcontinent for 200 years, until the early 1700s.

The empire was founded when Babur (the warlord, not the elephant) led a series of invasions south from Kabul, culminating in his overthrow of the last Delhi Sultanate in 1526. However, the empire’s true creator was his grandson, Akbar the Great, who reigned from 1556 to 1605 and extended its frontiers to incorporate the trading and agricultural wealth of the Ganges plain and the port cities along the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea.

Akbar was also the world’s first great leader to promote reason as the highest value of the state, during a period in which Islam had much to teach Christianity about tolerance and enlightenment. The empire he ruled was one of the richest parts of the world. His revenues were 25 times that of his English contemporary, James I.

It was under Akbar’s grandson, Shah Jahan, that the empire reached its zenith and developed the distinctive synthesis of Islamic, Persian, Indian and Mongol traditions which is reflected in, among other things, its architecture.

The Taj Mahal was built for love. In 1631 Shah Jahan’s favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, died giving birth to her fourteenth child. The heartbroken emperor began construction of the mausoleum (in which they would both eventually be entombed) later that year. It took 20,000 workers and 1,000 elephants 22 years to complete it.

It’s a romantic story. But as Linda pointed out, buildings like the Taj aren’t really about love, they’re about prestige, designed to make a point about the people that build them. Many of the workers who did the actual construction got a raw deal: Shah Jahan removed their thumbs lest they repeat the feat.


We spent a thoughtful afternoon admiring the tomb from every angle, then lay on the grass as the sun went down and the moon came up. As night fell, a black Taj appeared in the pools of its starlit gardens. Finally, as they prepared to close the site, we were shooed away by a good-natured policemen sporting a massive moustache.

Qur’an update: I’ve reached a brilliant bit describing a scene in heaven that takes place after the Final Judgement. A group of men (it’s always men) are sitting around chatting in ‘gardens of delight’ while passing around a drink from ‘a flowing spring’ that is ‘white, delicious to those who taste it, causing no headiness or intoxication’. One of them then mentions a friend he knew back on Earth pre-paradise and they all peer down to see the fellow in question, burning in the fires of hell. How way-out is that?

Yesterday Linda and I explored Agra Fort, a crescent-shaped complex with a forbidding military exterior hiding a paradise of pearl mosques, palaces and the marble tower where Shah Jahan – imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb – saw out his final years.

There we met Jocelyn, a French lady who last night joined us for dinner, along with Milo, a German history professor. We dined on bread and stew above the city’s winding lanes. The main topic of discussion was the economic awakening of India and China. Milo and Jocelyn believed that awakening would cause the inevitable decline of Europe as wealth moved to Asia. I argued that in the future new industries would rise and sources of wealth would be different from those of today.

Not only would Milo and Jocelyn not accept that, they couldn’t even imagine how such an eventuality might come to pass. They saw economics as a zero-sum game in which an industry leaving a country leads to an irreplaceable loss of wealth. A future in which all humanity was materially rich they found genuinely inconceivable. ‘We’ve had our turn, now it’s theirs,’ Milo sighed.

Agra Fort

This conversation was particularly remarkable given that it took place against the backdrop of 50 years during which western Europe’s economies and living standards have reached heights unthinkable during any previous period of history – and that this wealth creation has been almost entirely driven by industries non-existent 200 years ago.

Clearly, living in one of the most stable, safe and fabulously wealthy societies that has ever existed is no proof against pessimism. Fifteen years of underperforming Asia economically has been enough to blind them not only to the age of unprecedented prosperity during which they’ve lived their lives, but also to the transforming two centuries before that, and the eight-thousand-year metamorphosis through which the human story has just passed.

It’s a striking example of how narrowly we think when considering the context of our lives and the timeframes in which we contemplate the events unfolding around us. One imagines those Mughal emperors weren’t such pessimists. Despite their grubby foibles, I for one am grateful to them for their vision, their glory and their enduring monuments to love and death.

An excerpt from the travel and philosophy book, The Jolly Pilgrim.


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