The other day, I was talking with a colleague about photographing places that have been photographed many times before. He wondered out aloud about finding innovative ways to represent that most photographed of all places, the Taj Mahal.
He’s a good friend, so I let him in on a secret, and I’ll tell you too if you promise to keep it to yourself. I hadn’t told him — or anyone — before, and I still wonder whether my mind and my memory were playing tricks with me.
I can scarcely believe it myself.
Over many years I had photographed the Taj repeatedly, and one wintry afternoon I started to examine my images. I had recently ordered new spectacles, and thought my sight was deceiving me. Every time I photographed the Taj, something ever so minute looked just a little different from the times before, as though a slight movement of tectonic plates had shifted minute parts of the building. Perhaps increasing air pollution had affected my cameras.
So, the last time I was in Agra, I went wandering in the narrow streets behind the Jama Masjid in the crowded Kinari Bazaar area of Old Agra. This is where the famous pietra dura marble inlay work of the Taj Mahal, called parchin kari by the locals, continues to be created to this day by the direct descendants of the artisans brought from Persia in the 17th century to work on the Taj.
I explored the back streets and hidden alleys of the neighborhood, hanging around local marketplaces, asking subtle questions, listening carefully to the answers.
In the course of my inquiries, I became acquainted with a few of the men who still, to this day, work with the semiprecious jewel-inlaid marble that is so evident to those who examine the walls of the Taj. The building is not the white edifice depicted on so many millions of travel posters. It is filled with subtle designs in color.
I purchased a set of inlaid marble coasters from one of the artisans, Ismail Khan. He invited me to his home for tea, where I met his eighty-eight year old widowed mother, Hamidah. She had lived there, in that same house, for all the seventy-two years since her marriage.
As we sipped, I asked her my questions. She suddenly looked stricken, and, raising a finger to her lips, motioned for me to stay silent while her son was in the room. Could it be?
Ismail soon returned to his work, and Hamidah then told me the scarcely believable tale. When she had finished, I returned to my hotel, and prepared to test her story, as strange as it seemed.
That evening I began my preparations. The next night was the full moon, so there wasn’t much time left. In the morning I returned to the Taj to scout, and decided that, after dark, I would row across the River Yamuna and come ashore behind the southeast minar, where I would take cover. Among my things, I took a long black cloak and mask, as well as a small camera that could be hidden in the folds.
I arrived on location, unnoticed, at 11 o’clock. The moon was full. The courtyard around the Taj was entirely deserted, tourists having left at sunset.
I stole along the eastern wall, hugged the minar and waited, from time to time looking surreptitiously toward the grand entrance of the mausoleum.
I didn’t have to wait long. As my watch showed midnight, I saw a few figures approach, small shadows in the dark. In no time at all, there must have been a hundred or more, eventually many hundreds. Not a word. They went silently about their work.
Hamidah had been right. They were jinns, magic creatures that have been part of the mythology of Muslim cultures around the world, as well as the inspiration for poetry and story, from Arabia and Persia to Walt Disney’s Aladdin.
As I watched, they clambered all over the Taj and began to disassemble the monument. Every few minutes, I managed to photograph their mischief, as pieces were suspended in mid-air. The more artistic of the jinns splashed deep midnight blue and Islamic green over the whole scene as a bird flew under the moon.
After several hours, as though by pre-arranged signal, the separated pieces reassembled, and the colors faded. Shortly before dawn, all seemed to be replaced, and the jinns slipped away as silently as they had appeared. Both exhausted and exhilarated by what I had experienced, I stole back to my boat and rowed across the river. I don’t remember my flight to California. I seemed to have floated back home as if on a magic carpet.
It took me years to acknowledge my experience, and I left the film in my camera for at least a decade, not wishing to be confronted with the evidence of what might have been delusional. I had since switched to digital photography.
One day, I called a psychologist friend, Dr. M., and because I so trusted her, told her my improbable story, anxiously watching her expression, fearing a catastrophic diagnosis. She had lived in India a long time ago, and, after a protracted silence, told me she had heard such rumors herself. Her recommendation was to process the film, and face reality.
Only one image survived. Here it is.
© Raphael Shevelev. All Rights Reserved. Permission to reprint is granted provided the article, copyright and byline are printed intact, with all links visible and made live if distributed in electronic form.
Raphael Shevelev is a California based fine art photographer, digital artist and writer on the creative process. He is a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain. He is known for the experimental range of his art, and an aesthetic that emphasizes strong design, metaphor and story. His images can be seen and purchased at www.raphaelshevelev.com/galleries.