Cordileone’s pilgrimage to India
India’s oldest mosque
Day 16: Saturday, Jan. 14
We had another early start today, in order to arrive
at the Taj Mahal shortly after its opening. We planned well, as we did
not have to wait long to gain admittance. The global representation of
the visitors alone was worth noting: Poles, Koreans, Brits, fellow Americans,
locals – there was even a group of Buddhist monks leading a group
from, I would guess, Tibet.
The Taj Mahal is as majestic and impressive as its reputations has it.
Built in the 17th Century, its completion took 22 years and 30,000 workers,
5,000 of whom were skilled artisans. The others did the grunt work of
hauling and building and all that goes with unskilled labor, including
hauling 10,000 camel carts of marble across the desert from the town of
Makrana 400 kilometers (250 miles) away for a period of 14 years.
Seeing the Taj from up close, it is easy to understand these historical
facts: it is a huge edifice, covered inside and out with intricate inlaid
stone ornamentation, including passages from the Koran in elegant Arabic
script. They are made in perfect proportion going up the façade
of the building in order to appear the same size all throughout. The entire
complex, in fact, is a study of symmetry, a textbook study of coalescence
of the science of arithmetic and the arts of architecture and sculpture.
The intrigue mentioned above continues inside the building. King Shahahan’s
widow was entombed directly at the center inside the building, to balance
the symmetry. However, Shahahan’s son Jahengir got his last act
of revenge on his father by placing his father’s tomb to the left
of his mother’s and making it larger, thus ruining the perfectly
Even at that, though, there is no doubt that the Taj Mahal rightly deserves
to be listed among the great wonders of the world. And all intrigue aside,
it is another example, and a truly outstanding one, of the heights of
artistic expression that a civilization can accomplish when its shared
faith animates all aspects of its culture and the life of its people.
After our visit to the Taj Mahal, we undertook the five hour bus ride
to Delhi. Before going to the hotel, we stopped to view the Qutub Minar,
a famous tower decorated in six sections rising 721⁄2 meters that
is actually the minaret of the oldest extant mosque in India. They were
built in the 12th Century using stones taken from 27 nearby Hindu and
Jain temples which the builders had destroyed so as to extract the stones.
The remains of the temples are still viewable, as are the animal and human
figures typical of such temples even though the figures were defaced by
the Muslims, who consider them unsuited for the construction of their
houses of worship.
Also interesting in the area of the temple ruins is an iron pillar of
ancient and unknown origin. Despite its antiquity, there is no sign of
rust on it. There is now a fence around it to keep people from touching
it, as it was customary for the devout to put their back to the pillar
and wrap their arms around it from behind and utter their prayers. After
centuries of this devotion, the wear and tear became evident, even on
a surface as hard as iron.
After settling into our hotel, we had Mass (the Sunday anticipated Mass
on Saturday night as some members of the group were leaving for home the
next morning), and then we had our final dinner together.
After dinner we paid a visit to a prominent Sikh temple in the city. While
I did have some understanding of the Sikh religion, I gained a better
idea of it from our brief visit. As we were told, the Sikh religion began
in the 17th Century as a movement of Hindus organizing to fight against
Muslims who were forcing conversion.
They are still basically Hindu in their belief system although, similar
to Muslims, they pray four (rather than five) times a day.
When we arrived at the entrance to the temple compound we removed our
shoes and socks (a requirement) and checked them in. There was a small
pool of water (less than an inch in depth) for people to wash their feet,
and a sink for them to wash their hands, before entering inside the temple.
There were also cloths available to wrap into turbans (for men) and scarves
(for women), as it is required to have one’s head covered, as well
as feel bare, to be inside the temple.
When we arrived inside, a group of men was singing a chant to accompany
the reposing of their book of sacred scripture. A very kind and happy
young man who joined our group to be our guide at the temple, a Sikh himself,
explained that this is part of the daily temple ritual: the book of scripture
is removed from its resting place in the morning and enshrined under a
canopy in the middle of the temple all throughout the day, and then reposed
This temple is most well-known for its service of feeding the poor. Food
is served 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to anyone who comes, no questions
asked. The only requirement is to eat all the food that one takes. This
outreach is supported completely by the members of the temple, donating,
as we would put it, their “time, talent and treasure”: donations
of money and food, and working to prepare the meals and clean up. It was
11 on a Saturday night, and I saw around 50 people of all ages, including
young children, working in the kitchen preparing the food. And that’s
not counting those who were washing the dishes.