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A Pilgrimage to the Taj Mahal, a 'Poem in Stone'

The Taj Mahal in India has been called a poem in stone, a moon-white dream, a tear on the face of humanity. It was built 350 years ago this year, by a descendant of Genghis Khan, in memory of his beloved wife. For National Geographic Radio Expeditions, NPR's Susan Stamberg visits the world-famous crown palace.

Located in Agra, in northern India about 125 miles south of the capital city of New Delhi, the sandstone palace was built by Shah Jehan, a 17th-century Mogul ruler besotted by his wife, the devoted and loving Mumtaz Mahal (her name means "ornament of the palace.") In paintings, she was depicted as a dark-eyed beauty, in embroidered silk, with a serene smile. She is said to have been the emperor’s favorite wife.

Mumtaz Mahal died in childbirth at the age of 39. Before she passed, she had her husband promise to build something unique in her memory -- a monument to surpass all mausoleums previously built.

Shah Jehan's eternal monument took 20,000 workers some 20 years to build. A perfect symmetry of stone, it reveals itself gradually, framed by various ceremonial gates and arches. Mumtaz Mahal's white marble casket sits dead center inside the tomb. Shah Jehan's lies to the side -- the only unsymmetrical object in the centuries-old dream work.

From a distance, the Taj seems cut from a lacey doily -- all flat and white. Then the light and perspective shift, and the domes begin to bulge and take on dimension. The two million-plus yearly visitors to the Taj stroll its grassy plazas, watching shadows shape the building's moods.

Indeed, the road to the Taj Mahal is jammed with tourists from around the world. Many come to mark a milestone, such as the celebration of a new marriage or the survival of a health scare.

Built as the ultimate expression of love, the Taj has become a site of pilgrimage, a place where visitors bring their dreams and joys and longings, transforming it into sacred space.

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Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.