Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Love From a Stone Heart

Our SpiceJet aircraft split the morning sky efficiently, like a human imagination, the swath of its slice producing dichotomies out of continuity, segregating perceptions, separating grayscale from color. Through the west window, night reigned, a white moon refusing to let its luminescence spread through a black world. Through the east window, a bleeding sky gave birth to a sun, and clouds rejoiced, setting their droplets ablaze. The males in our group sat on one side of the aisle, the females on the opposite, and we sleepily stole glances at the beauty of each others’ windows.

When we landed in Delhi, we feasted on warm dosa and began the sightseeing. The main attraction was the new Akshardham Swaminarayan Temple, an almost-finished religious center built from the sweat of 55,000 volunteers over 7 years. Security at the temple was more daunting than that of the airport – any cameras, cell phones, and “hanging purses” were not allowed through, presumably to discourage photography, conversation, and unauthorized hangings via leather strap. Finally through the metal detectors, we were greeted by the largest temple complex in India, a maze of sculptures and ornate pillars modeled after the finest of ancient carvings, a self-proclaimed revival of stone artistry. The carvings indeed rivaled those of Delwada in intricacy, and mesmerized the eye with their sheer size and number. Unblinking stares and gaping mouths wandered on our arched necks, struggling to take in the magnificence.

However, the faded stone only gave an illusion of chiseled antiquity. Inside the walls beat the electronic heart of technology, its copper veins giving life to the temple’s tales. One need not bother recreating spiritual stories from rock sculptures, for the temple has lifelike animatronic robots that tell you about the birth and growth of the Swaminarayan philosophy. One need not read ancient scriptures, for the complex includes a gigantic movie screen to show you a brilliant film on the life of the original Swaminarayan, a film with more special effects than Bollywood has ever seen, in a hi-tech auditorium complete with wireless headphones to provide English translation for the Hindi-impaired. One need not walk barefoot to see it all, for there is a boat ride to navigate you through a wax-figure history of India’s cultural accomplishments. It’s a dichotomy of austere ancience and flamboyant modernism, an unlikely combination of Delwada, Imax, and It’s A Small World, but somehow this new religio-Disneyland sews it all together seamlessly.

Since Akshardham was so impressive, I was afraid that the Taj Mahal (our next major stop) would be overshadowed. However, when we set eyes on the 17th century tomb of love the next day, it seemed clear that not even Akshardham could surpass the breathtaking beauty of that comparatively simple, sincerely mysterious monument of Agra. The Taj beamed back at our happy faces in calm marble confidence, secure in its position as the most famous of Indian shrines. Here cameras clicked wildly, and hanging purses swung innocently on women’s shoulders. Our guide, propelled by flesh and not robotics, recounted the tale of Shah Jahan’s love for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, how he built the Taj to honor her dying wish for a lavish grave, and how soon thereafter he was imprisoned by his son and thus prevented from building a black Taj Mahal counterpart for his own body across the river.

The Taj Mahal stands as an icon of undying love. However, Mumtaz was Shah Jahan’s third wife, to say nothing of his 400 mistresses. Our guide assured us that Shah Jahan disowned his harem after Mumtaz’s passing, but somehow the facts taint the romance. His son imprisoned him for many reasons, one of which was the Shah’s tendency to spend money building monuments instead of on his people. The son was no virtuous lad either – he killed his brothers before imprisoning his father so he would be heir to the throne, apparently a common practice in those days, so that a winner-take-all game of Survival of the Psychopaths decided which of a king’s sons would inherit the kingdom. But forget about the blood and the multiple partners, and what you’ve got is romantic (Undying Love’s ingredients may contain artificial colors and preservatives).

We left Agra and drove to Jaipur, passing along the way Bollywood-like fields of golden yellow flowers, which I watched carefully in case a prancing actor emerged from the shrubbery. Jaipur is the Pink City of India (more of a sienna), boasting palaces and forts of red sandstone, which we traversed while our guide wove more tales of violence and multiple lovers, the bread and butter of kings. When we got hungry, our guide took us to restaurants conveniently situated next to large tourist shops, and soon a pattern of cunning deals between shop-owners and drivers became apparent, reminiscent of Bangkok. We walked the halls of kings, we shopped, we eventually gave in to fatigue and returned to Ahmedabad.

It is fascinating how the actions of men are oft forgotten, yet their proclamations are preserved and polished in stone. Diamonds are promises, marble sculptures reminders, and since both outlast the reality of love's vagaries, both are honored with symbolic value. We consider a "heart of stone" to be cold and unfeeling, yet we choose to promote ideals of love with the very same materials, wearing them on our fingers, decorating our temples with their permanence. If the heart of stone outlasts the lover's emotions, the meaning of our symbols may always be at the mercy of a sculptor's skill.


Anonymous Mansi said...

I want to thank you for your Taj Mahal picture, it is different than most, and it makes me feel like I am there too. It's a great angle, and the weather looks perfect!

6:27 AM  

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