Tuesday, December 25, 2007


Agra is a large city of several million, a five hour drive south of Delhi. Mentioned in the Mahabharata, Agra has a rich history, but the modern version is a polluted industrial town of little charm. It reached its peak a few centuries ago when it served as the capital of the Mughal Empire. Babar captured it; Akbar invested it with forts and palaces; and Shah Jahan created Agra’s claim to fame, the marvelous Taj Mahal, justly honored as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.

Perhaps we should thank Mumtaz Mahal for its creation, as it was she who inspired Shah Jahan to undertake the project. Mumtaz, the beloved wife and faithful companion of the emperor, died in 1631 while giving birth to her fourteenth child. It was for her that the Taj was created to serve as a tomb and memorial. Legend has it that on her deathbed she extracted three promises from the grief-stricken emperor: never marry again, take care of their children, and build a monument of magnificence in memory of her. That is exactly what he did along the banks of the Yamuna River, downstream from his palace at the Red Fort in Agra.

The Taj was completed in 1648 and immediately recognized for its beauty. Red sandstone is characteristic of Mughal architecture. That’s why there are “Red” Forts in both Agra and Delhi, but the Taj is made of white marble inlaid with semi-precious stones. Twenty thousand workers and multitudes of skilled craftsmen from throughout Asia labored non-stop to complete the project in less time than it would take modern India to do the same. Fortunately for Shah Jahan, the early 17th century was a time of the great imperial wealth, but sadly, Shah Jahan had little chance to freely enjoy his creation. He was imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb and placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life. It is said that he spent his days gazing upon his beloved Taj Mahal from his window in the Red Fort. (left: view from Red Fort) There is a legend, probably apocryphal, that Shah Jahan was planning to build an identical Taj for himself on the opposite side of the Yamuna, only this time out of black marble.

Except for historians, locals and industrialists, Agra is synonymous with the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort. Why else would you go there? It’s not an attractive town and it seems to be one of those places that people say they are “from,” emphasizing the past tense. The Taj Mahal demands a visit but there are other things to see in Agra other than Mughal architecture (Akbar's tomb at left), one being the Koh-i-noor jewelry shop which I’d like to tell you about. It will only take you an hour or two to see and is well worth fitting into your plans when you go.

The Koh-i-noor sells beautiful gems and its owners are descendents of the jewelers who personally served the Mughal emperors. If you’re lucky, they might show you a necklace of emeralds originally belonging to Mumtaz Mahal, or perhaps you’ll see some of the other startlingly beautiful items that trace their history back to those days of opulence. Did you know that prior to the 1700’s, emeralds and other stones now commonly seen cut with smooth facets were then left uncut. The technology hadn't yet been developed. At least that was so in India. Gems were rolled, tumbled and polished until they became smooth and shiny although I’m not sure if this was true for diamonds. One ring had an emerald about the size of a walnut and Mumtaz’s necklace was composed of a couple dozen emeralds, each about the size of a big almond in its shell. The owners were kind enough to let the Sadhana Devi and Shyama try them on to see how they looked.

Another thing I learned is that almost every type of gem, especially rubies, emeralds and sapphires, is found in India with the exception of opals. This was one reason why India was once considered by invaders and “civilized” Englishmen to be a land of riches and a prize worth conquering. It was the only known source of diamonds until the Portuguese discovered more in Brazil. In fact, the Koh-i-noor (Mountain of Light) is the name of what was once the largest diamond in the world, extracted from the famous Golconda mines in Andhra Pradesh, source of some of the brightest and clearest stones in the world.

By the way, the Koh-i-noor diamond has an interesting history. It was found long ago and it is said to have once been given to Krishna as dowry when he married Satyabhama, daughter of Satrajit. Krishna gave it back to Surya, God of the Sun, from whom it had originally come. Over the years it passed through many hands until it came into the possession of Babar and then Humayun, his son and second of the Mughal Emperors. Humayun was overthrown but managed to escape to Persia, carrying with him only a few possessions, one being the precious diamond. This he exchanged for a Persian army with which he recaptured his throne. The stone eventually made its way back to India to become part of the Peacock Throne before falling into British hands to become part of the Crown Jewels of England. Victoria had it mounted in a tiara you can now see at the Tower of London.

Though the gems are beautiful, it is not for the jewelry I recommend you visit the Koh-i-noor store. Go for the embroidery and you’ll see something unique. They have constructed a special showroom to display seven or eight masterpieces by Shams-Ud-Din, along with dozens of lesser works by his students. Shams was an artist of the highest order who died in 1999, working most of his life in Agra, sometimes for years on one piece alone. His pieces are typically two or three meters on a side and incorporate wildlife scenes and geometrical patterns. The animal scenes you see here are about twelve inches wide and are but four of twenty that border a particularly beautiful piece of embroidery. He refined and expanded upon an old technique of using thread to build up layers, creating texture and depth to give his work a third dimension. Interwoven into the fabric are precious and semi-precious stones with threads of gold and silver. One piece incorporates 27,000 carats, all the jewels and gold supplied by the Koh-i-noor family, which is how they came into possession of many of the pieces that remain outside of private collections.

I asked if any of the works are for sale and was politely told me, “No,” but our host did say that King Faisal of Saudi Arabia asked the same question in 1983 when he visited, hoping to buy one particularly attractive piece. On the spot, he offered $2,300,000 but was denied. Some of the pieces by Shams’ students are fantastic in their own right and can be purchased, but I didn’t bother asking their price. You know the old saying, “If you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it.”

If you come to India and have not been to see the Taj Mahal, I recommend you go. It really is beautiful. If you have time, see the Red Fort too and some of the other places you can read about in the guidebooks. They are interesting if you like that sort of thing, which I do, but if you want to see something unique, go see Shams’ embroidery. You’ll like it.