Even the sea of people is symmetrical.
Despite, or perhaps because, of the sense of claustrophobia they evoke, images of huge crowds are always fascinating. Even more mesmerizing still are those occasions when tens of thousands of people gather together in an act of devotion. The peaceful multitude shown here has gathered for the annual Eid celebrations in India. With the staggering backdrop of India’s Taj Mahal, these spellbinding images make for some truly unforgettable viewing.
Eid-ul-Fitr (often known simply as Eid) means “festivity [after] breaking the fast.” It refers to the last day of Ramadan, when the month-long pattern of fasting between dawn and sunset is broken with festivities that include prayer, charity and feasting. The Muslim holiday has its own special Islamic prayer (salah), which consists of various parts and is usually held in a huge hall or open space. As we can see from these amazing images, thousands of worshipers choose the Taj Mahal as the setting for their Eid salah.
It looks like a never-ending sea of people.
The Taj Mahal, in the city of Agra in Uttar Pradesh, is a prime example of Mughal architecture, which had its golden age during the reign of Emperor Shah Jahan from 1628 to 1658. Indeed, the Taj Mahal – erected during his reign – is still regarded as the most famous and remarkable example of Islamic architecture in South Asia today. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983, this awe-inspiring marble mausoleum is considered one of the seven wonders of the modern world. Famously, Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal after the demise of his third wife, nicknamed Mumtaz Mahal, or "jewel of the palace", who died giving birth to their fourteenth child in 1631.
The impressive Taj Mahal mosque.
It happened that Shah Jahan’s grief over the death of his wife coincided with a period of prosperity for the Mughal Empire, meaning no expense was spared when it came to building a mausoleum for her. Thousands of artisans and craftsmen worked with the best materials from all over India and Asia, with neither cost nor transportation logistics proving a deterrent. Construction began in 1632, a year after Mumtaz Mahal’s death, and ended around 1653. Dominated by the white marble on the outside, the Taj Mahal is also famous for its sumptuous inlay work of precious and semiprecious gemstones – a tradition in the region up to the present day.
Don't miss the neat rows the pilgrims form.
The images in this gallery of Muslim pilgrims praying on the occasion of Eid-ul-Fitr were taken on October 2, 2008. If you're wondering why there's no sign of the post-card-perfect, all-white exterior for which the Taj Mahal is famous, it's because the Eid prayers are not held at the mausoleum but at the mosque, which is part of the Taj Mahal complex.
The aerial view shows the Taj Mahal like a polished jewel in between the mosque and the jawab.
Flanking the Taj Mahal on the western and eastern walls are two almost identical red sandstone buildings – the one on the west side being the mosque, or masjid, and the other being the jawab, literally: the answer. While the function of the latter has been debated (it might have been a guesthouse), the most likely explanation – given Shah Jahan’s obsession with symmetry – is that the jawab's main purpose was that of architectural balance.
The Yamuna (also Jamuna or Jumna) river provides a natural border for the complex. The giant gate to the north is the entrance most visitors use, from which vantage point they have the trademark view of the Taj Mahal with the long canal stretching out in front.
A sea of men.
The fact that we’re seeing only men praying in these images is no coincidence. Though both men and women pray in congregations during salah, they do so in segregated groups. Devotees stand or kneel in parallel rows, facing Mecca, the direction or qibla of which is indicated by the mosque’s mihrab, a wall niche specially designed to fulfill that purpose.
Praying on the banks of the Yamuna River.
Of the two red sandstone buildings flanking the Taj Mahal, only the mosque contains a mihrab. Another distinction is that the jawab's floors evince a geometric design, while the floor of the mosque displays 569 outlines of prayer rugs, in black marble.
Thousands of devotees during Eid prayers at the Taj Mahal.
In keeping with Mughal mosque designs of the period, the Taj Mahal mosque’s grand hall is divided into three spaces: a main hall in the middle and two smaller sanctuaries on each side. All three of these areas in the Taj Mahal open up into the enormous white domes we can see in these images.
Jama Masjid in Old Delhi.
Though thousands of pilgrims congregate at the Taj Mahal during Eid prayers, it is the Masjid-i Jahān-Numā (also known as the Jama Mosque and pictured here) in Old Delhi that likely takes the bulk of the devotees in India, it being the country’s biggest and best-known mosque, with a courtyard that can accommodate 25,000 worshipers. It’s no coincidence that the two buildings bear a resemblance to one another: they were both built by Shah Jahan, with the Taj Mahal complex erected as a monument to his earthly love, and the Jama Masjid built in devotion to his love for God.
Like a marvelous marzipan birthday cake, the Taj Mahal majestically sits atop the banks of the Yamuna river.
Though the brilliant white marble of the Taj Mahal's tomb tends to overshadow the rest of the complex, it should not be forgotten that the mosque and jawab are impressive buildings in their own right. As these images show, these imposing structures manage to dwarf even thousands of devotees.
And after the festival, it is business as usual with a few tourists venturing into the mosque.
As for Shah Jahan, he was sadly only able to enjoy the Taj Mahal for a short period of time. Not long after building was completed, he was deposed by his third son Aurangzeb, and placed under house arrest. Legend has it that he spent his final days of captivity gazing at the Taj Mahal – though we’ll never know if the sight of it comforted or aggravated him. After Shah Jahan’s death, his son at least had the courtesy to bury his father in the mausoleum alongside his beloved Mumtaz Mahal.
Pilgrims galore in Mecca
While the crowds at the Taj Mahal may be small compared to the millions who travel annually to Mecca (pictured above), there's no doubt that the sight of so many pilgrims gathered together in a single place is breathtaking – especially at such a beautiful site, one of the wonders of the world.