Study Guide

Beneath a Marble Sky Setting

By John Shors


Agra/Hindustan/Mughal Empire in the Mid-1600s

It's clear while Jahanara is relating her tale to her granddaughters that even though she had been living in self-imposed exile from Hindustan for many years, she still retained a great love for her home. And we don't blame her, because it sounds gorgeous:

Once, musing over his empire, contemplating the splendor he had created, he composed a poem. On the vaulted ceiling above his Peacock Throne he had an artist inscribe in gold, "If there is a paradise on the face of the Earth, it is this, it is this, it is this." Simple words from a simple man. But how true they were.

Sunrise over the Yamuna River has often prompted me to think of Paradise. From the broad shoulders of the waterway I have cherished the sights before me as I might cherish the face of my lover. This morning's views are as inspiring as ever, especially after having been away in hiding for so long. To my right sprawls the magnificent Red Fort. Opposite, awash in the sun's blood, stands the Taj Mahal, neither soaring as a falcon might, nor cresting like the sea. Rather, the mausoleum arches upward, strong and noble, a gateway to the heavens.

In that one glimpse of her hometown, Jahanara describes perfectly the three most important settings of our novel. The first is Agra: the capital city of her father's empire.

We hurried from all ears and before long found ourselves atop one of the fort's mighty ramparts, which had been designed to hold fighting men and offered a splendid view of Agra. Thousands of homes, mosques and bazaars stretched far into the distance before merging with the river or gentle hills. The mosques' minarets rose like giant brown needles into the sky, high enough so the muezzins could be heard far and wide, and high enough that these men could not look into windows of adjacent homes, where views of women might distract them. Built alongside the river, Agra is shaped like a crescent moon. At the Yamuna's banks are mostly palaces, stone and brick with lush gardens. Farther from the river rose the homes of the commoners, as abundant as monsoon raindrops and growing more tightly packed together each year as our city swelled above five hundred thousand. Most distant from the river and its breezes were Agra's slums. From our perch atop the Red Fort, the slums reminded me of a dirty carpet. A seemingly infinite number of hovels rested so close together that it was hard to discern the narrow paths separating them. (4.78)

So, the city of Agra is the jewel of the Mughal Empire (sometimes also spelled Mogul Empire), an Islamic empire in what is now India and Pakistan established by Babur, a conqueror from Central Asia, in 1526. (The empire lasted technically until the 19th century. Also, don't get it confused with the Mongol Empire.) It's the location of the Peacock Throne that Dara and Aurangzeb fight so bitterly over, and it's also where the imperial harem is located—within the walls of the Red Fort:

The living quarters for select women of the Red Fort, the harem was a collection of apartments, gardens, alleys, retreats, terraces and grottoes. No man—except the Emperor, his sons, guests and eunuchs—was allowed into this world. The Red Fort itself was like a lacquered box seeming to contain an infinite number of compartments. Inside the perimeter of the citadel lay the common grounds, mostly bazaars, mosques, temples and courtyards. The fort's interior, segmented by stout sandstone walls, was comprised of more private spaces consisting of apartments and halls and stables. And within the very heart of this dizzying network stretched the imperial harem. (1.1)

The Red Fort is where Jahanara and her siblings spend their formative years studying, playing, and observing the rest of Agra, a city they are both part of and separate from as a result of their royal status.

Now, it's definitely important to have a good idea of what Agra looked like, and of how society was shaped to keep women away from men in both physical and philosophical ways. But if we're being totally honest with you, the time period and the place don't make a huge difference to our story.

If you changed it from India to Japan, or even to feudal Europe, there would still be the same refrain of women having to subject themselves to the whims of the society oriented around male power. And there would also be the overarching theme of conflicting religions or tribes, as well as the theme of the quest to achieve power.

What we're saying, basically, is that the themes Shors touches on are universal. There is one thing about this book's setting, though, that really is pretty specific—and pretty crucial: the Taj Mahal. It's the center of our entire story, and as such, it's almost more of a character than a setting.

Taj Mahal

There really aren't words that can capture the beauty and sheer wonder of the Taj Mahal. No, really—we mean it. You can write paragraphs about the inlaid jewels and the luminous white marble, but you will never do it justice. That's why Shors put a gallery of photos in the book: you need to see it to understand.

Not that Shors didn't try his hardest:

We were well into our fourth year of construction and the parcel of land was beginning to resemble something of beauty. To the far south stood the recently finished main gate. The height of thirty men, it was composed completely of red sandstone. Beyond the gate to the north stretched the ornamental gardens. Since the Qur'an described four rivers flowing within Paradise, Isa had decided to mimic Paradise's loveliness by using two intersecting channels of water to create four identical sections of land. In the center of the four squares sat a round pool, made of white marble and containing koi. The surrounding plots of land were planted thickly with saplings, which would stretch into cypress and fruit trees by the time we finished the main structure. Under their canopies, flowers would blossom. Set between the gardens and the river, the mausoleum rose with the sluggishness of a crippled elephant. But rise it did. The platform, as high as a palm tree, was a massive rectangle of reinforced stone slabs. Though structurally intact, it would be later encased in white marble. Children tried to run from one end of its vastness to the other while holding their breath. Not surprisingly, only a few succeeded in the game. The base of the mausoleum had been finished and stood atop the platform. Isa had designed the building to resemble the offspring of a square and an octagon. A square for the most part, its corners were angled. The eight sides of the mausoleum would be graced with magnificent arches, towering structures that would support the enormous weight of the tear-shaped dome. The arches were scantly begun, and I struggled to envision them rising as in Isa's drawings. Bamboo scaffolding obscured much of the site, hindering my imagination. The scaffolding, intricate and stout, held thousands of men and looked like a colossal birdcage. Certain sections were reinforced with brick towers, and within the towers master builders had fixed pulleys and block tackle. Elephants below pulled ropes to hoist stone slabs upward where men used poles to push them into place. Masons secured the blocks with plaster, and used iron dowels to join them together. (9.1-4)

Even the description we get once the thing fails to truly capture the beauty of the Taj Mahal, beautiful as the description is:

The tomb chamber was the centerpiece of the Taj Mahal and a sight to chill one's flesh. It was shaped as an octagon, with eight arched doorways offering access. A dozen men standing atop each other couldn't have touched the domed ceiling. Blackness should have prevailed here, yet the marble shone as if possessed of a magical transparency, as if each arch and wall were luminous from within. We seemed to stand beneath a white marble sky. The eye of the room was Mother's tomb, though it remained empty. She was buried within a vault far below. Her tomb, a rectangular block of white marble, boasted the most splendid arrangements of jeweled flowers that I'd seen. Garlands of tulips and fuchsias, incredibly rich with detail, would blossom eternally here. (14.42)

Think of it this way. Literature does something that only literature can do: it gives us plots, characters, philosophy, poetic montages of images that spark our brain in surprising ways. But architecture also does things that only it can do. Nothing can convey the full, true beauty of the Taj Mahal—a beauty that goes beyond words—except experience it in person.

This book is a testament to that beauty—but don't be surprised if what really makes you feel the Taj Mahal here is not the description of the building itself, but instead Shors's storyline about the love and sacrifice that went into the creation of that building. See what we mean? It's like Jahanara's life story is a better description of the Taj than…you know, the actual description we get of the Taj.

Mind blown.