The octagonal tower is embellished with trellised windows. In the chiaroscuro of Agra’s midday light, each arched screen scintillates with the sophistication of pointelle lace. Peering through one of the eyelets, I can see the distant minarets of Taj Mahal floating in a heated haze along the banks of the Yamuna River. It is the same scenery Muhammad Khurram, better known as Shah Jahan, watched over mournfully for eight years as a prisoner inside his sybaritic palace, Agra Fort. I imagine the deposed emperor perched against the window, gazing at his deceased wife’s monument and contemplating the unintended consequences his consuming love had produced. For twenty-two years Shah Jahan lavished the Mughal imperium’s largesse upon his marble Aphrodite, never giving a thought to his court spending more than its revenue. Felled by illness in 1658, his bejeweled world shattered.
Every action has an unintentional consequence. Displeased by his father’s extravagance, Shah Jahan’s third son, Aurangzeb took advantage of the potentate’s ailment. He gathered an army, murdered his brothers, and imprisoned the recovering sovereign. In fact, for those eight years Shah Jahan was confined to this single room, an elegiac room, simple yet replete with loveliness.
“The rest of Agra Fort is majestic in its faded grandeur, haughty with the memory of victory, but inside this room deep sorrow resides.”
I can feel it as I hear the susurrus of a handful other visitors inside the inlaid Musamman Burj. Their figures hidden in deep shadow glide in and out of the room, soft-footed, heads bowed, whispering as if they, too, sense the weight of lost love and lost hope within these walls.
Perhaps Aurangzeb thought it a fitting punishment that his father gape upon the profligacy of his wasted authority. Mired in his profound love for Mumtaz Mahal, Shah Jahan could have not dreamed that drama would occur in the aftermath of completing his mausoleum or know the true cost of erecting those gleaming walls. A few birds fly across the façade of the Taj Mahal, ebony specks flecking the ivory purity of the marble. I remain in my sequestered alcove and wonder if Mumtaz’s husband regretted the pain and desolation that arose from his testament to enduring love. I would like to believe that while he scanned that shimmering sarcophagus across the Yamuna River, he remembered only his former happiness. That despite his incarceration he had no regrets.
Pondering the emperor’s fate, I wonder what aftermath my actions have unwittingly caused. As a frequent traveler, I am aware that I have a damaging impact on the world: the planes I fly emit harmful carbon dioxide, the sights I visit decay with every touch of my fingers, and the locations I stay deal with my refuse long after I pass through. I am part of the relentless cycle, and though I take steps to offset my footprint, they feel trivial and inconsequential. I love exploring new cultures and discovering new destinations, but the unintended consequences of a nomad’s life looms large and unresolved. I remain unaware of so many other effects my life has churned out.
“Their repercussions may haunt me someday, but I refuse to remain locked inside my room, afraid of what might be.”
I wish to live an examined life and to do so I must try to determine all sides of the equation, and obtain all the facts possible before actively participating. It is uphill work, but I cannot let that discourage me. If an inadvertent aftermath imprisons me, I want to be able to correct the consequences and not wonder, “What if.” I want to persist in stepping outside my boundaries, in fully understanding my world so that I can look beyond my own narrow loves and desires. Here, inside the beguiling room at Agra Fort, I watch the sun fading the domed minarets of the Taj into rose-gold and understand that there is a difference between the truth of our actions and how we see those actions. The pale tomb and this subdued apartment speak to me about the inviolate law of unintended consequences and the necessity of building a multi-faceted reality.
Shah Jahan’s love for Mumtaz is not only on display at Taj Mahal, but is also manifest in the rooms at Agra Fort. During her lifetime, her husband built her resplendent Turkish style baths deep within the quietude of the palace. Known as the Palace of Mirrors (Sheesh Mahal), the spa chambers are embellished with thousands of mirrors placed upon columns, walls, and ceilings. Marble fountains, gold reliefs, and glass mosaics render an ethereal ambience especially when lit by candles.
Has an action you have taken resulted in an unintentional consequence? Do you think Shah Jahan would have built his memorial if he knew beforehand its true cost?