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If there's a building, which represents a country- like the Eiffel Tower for France, the Sydney Opera House for Australia- then it has to be the Taj Mahal for India.

This most famous Mughal monument was constructed by Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his wife Mumtaj Mahal, Chosen of the Palace. It has been described as the most extravagant monument ever built for love, for the emperor was heartbroken when Mumtaj, to whom he had been married for 17 years, died in 1631 in childbirth, after producing 14 children.

Construction of the Taj began in the same year and was not completed until in 1653. Workers were recruited not only from all over India but also from central Asia, and in total 20000 people worked on the building. Experts were even brought from as far away as Europe-the Frenchman Austin of Bordeaux and the Italian Veroneo of Venice had a hand in its decoration. The main architect was Isa Khan, who came from Shiraz in Iran.

The most unusual story about the Taj is that there might well have been two of them. Shah Jahan, it is said, intended to build a second Taj as his own tomb in black marble, a negative image of the white Taj of Mumtaj Mahal. Before he could embark on this second masterpiece he was deposed by his son, Aurangzeb. Shah Jahan spent the rest of his life imprisoned in the Agra Fort, looking out along the river to the final resting place of his wife.

The Taj is definitely worth more than a single visit as its character changes with the differing lights during the day. Dawn is a magical time, and it's virtually deserted. The entrance is now through a small door to the right of the gate, where everyone has to undergo a security check.

Path leading from the gate to the Taj is divided by a long watercourse in which the Taj is beautifully reflected. The ornamental gardens through which the paths lead are set out along the classical Mughal charbagh lines- a square quartered by watercourses. In spring the flowerbeds by the paths are a profusion of colour. To the west is a small museum housing original architectural drawings of the Taj, arms, miniatures, and some examples of celadon plates, said to split into pieces or change colour if the food served on them contained poison.

The Taj itself stands on a raised platform on the northern edge of the ornamental gardens. Tall, purely decorative white minarets grace each corner of the platform. The central Taj structure has four small domes surrounding the huge, bulbous, central dome. The tombs of Mumtaj Mahal and Shah Jahan are in a basement room. Above them I the main chamber are false tombs, a common practice in mausoleums of this type. Light is admitted into the central chamber by finely cut marble screens. The echo in this high chamber, under the soaring marble dome, is superb.

Although the Taj is amazingly graceful from almost any angle, it's the close-up detail, which is really astounding. Semiprecious stones are inlaid into the marble in beautiful patterns and with superb craft in a process known as pietra dura. The precision and care which went into the Taj Mahal's design and construction is just as impressive whether you view it from across the river or from arm's length.

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