Discovering exotic countries is always a thrilling experience, as the first associations we get with the word ‘exotic’ is something wild, far-away, and mysterious. However, exotic countries are not always godforsaken jungle where lianas entwine with boa constrictors and dangerous animals wait for you under every shrub. Some of the exotic destinations possess a unique culture dating back to thousands of years ago, and therefore it is not only their tropical nature but also their ancient treasures worth exploring.
One of such captivating countries is India, the land which hosted one of the earliest civilizations and served as a crossroad for commercial and cultural routes. Apart from experiencing the specific Indian culture in real life in the ancient streets of its settlements, it is also worth to take a deeper look in Indian history, society, and tradition by attending one of the country’s multiple museum. Standardly, the most widespread idea occurring to anyone who thinks of Indian cultural heritage is going to the Taj Mahal, the world-famous mausoleum constructed in memory of a beloved wife. Nevertheless, there are certain points at which the Taj Mahal loses in comparison with the National Museum of India, and based on this comparison I would rather advise visiting the latter.
One of the main issues that motivate us to go travelling and to explore various museum collections is the search for diversity. The variety of experiences we go through allows us to obtain a wider range of impressions and is therefore more captivating. What the Taj Mahal can offer its visitors is a rich illustration of architectural forms and designer principles of its time. Although people standardly think of the Taj Mahal as a big white marble dome, the Taj Mahal is in fact a much larger complex comprising the tomb itself, a large garden with a pool and multiple flowerbeds, and several outlying buildings. The latter serve as mausoleums for other wives and servants, as well as a mosque and a guest house.
Although the secondary constructions represent curious artifacts in themselves, the major attention of the visitors is drawn to the main tomb. Surrounded by four minarets, the marble dome is splendidly decorated both outside and inside, with fanciful carvings and inscriptions in calligraphy running all around its high walls. Architecture and design are the two arts that celebrate their triumph in this masterpiece. As compared to the sights of the Taj Mahal, the National Museum of India represents a much more varied scene to its visitors. Set up by the Indian government in the forties of the previous century, this museum is located in the capital city of New Delhi and is the biggest in the country. Its enormous collections comprise over two hundred thousand exhibits of both Indian and foreign origin and span over more than five thousand years of history.
Among the treasures of the National Museum of India are over eight hundred sculptures dating from as early as the third century BC and up to the late nineteenth century AD. Numerous miniature paintings along with items of everyday life reveal the practical secrets of the daily routine of the peoples who have inhabited India. From the point of view of diversity, the National Museum of India is a much more attractive place. Unlike the Taj Mahal which is purely about architecture and design, the National Museum features both the art and the everyday life of various Indian people at various times. When visiting a museum, we expect to get acquainted with unknown cultures and to discover the versatility of various traditions. Constructed in the mid-seventeenth century, the Taj Mahal represents only one epoque in the art and culture of India.
Continuing the traditions of early Persian and Mughal styles in architecture, the Taj Mahal develops their pompousness and splendor by incorporating marble and semiprecious stones in its lining and incrustation. The decorative designs in the main tomb mix the traditional Persian and Hindu elements, and the minarets outside are erected in the best traditions of Islamic mosques. Islamic topic is also developed in the inscriptions on the outside walls of the Taj Mahal tomb, featuring passages from Qur’an.
This mix of various traditions literally bewilders the visitors, and without an experienced and knowledgeable guide it is hard to figure out what is meant by the multiple symbols of various cultures united in the complex of Taj Mahal. Contrasted to the bewildering cultural mix of the Taj Mahal, the cultural epoques and styles represented in the National Museum of India are neatly systematized on the one hand and much more diverse on the other hand. For one thing, the galleries of the National Museum of India feature separate exhibitions that are dedicated to certain civilizations, religious denominations, or time periods. An example of such systematization can be seen in the special exhibitions of Harappan civilization, or of the Buddhist art, or in the special collection that highlights the intricacies in evolution of Indian scripts and coins.
In addition to such systematization and clear separation of cultural trends, styles, and periods, the National Museum of India can also boast a widest range of cultures represented in its exhibitions. Thus, not only the classical Hindu art is to be observed in the galleries of the museum, but also an excellent collection of items belonging to the North-East tribal lifestyle can be found among the exhibits. In addition to Indian art forms, the visitors can get acquainted with the art objects of Pre-Columbian and Western art made by such legendary peoples as the Mayas and the Incas, as well as coming from Indonesia, Egypt, and countries of the Persian Gulf. The cultural diversity represented in the collections of the National Museum of India will satisfy our curiosity not only about the multiple Indian traditions but also about those extending far beyond the country’s borders. Visiting a museum is definitely an outstanding event for each of us since it produces the excitement of learning and the perspective of drawing inspiration from what we see and learn. The specific nature of the Taj Mahal as a mausoleum evokes rather an emotional than a practical response.
The whole image of the complex as a work of art and its purpose as commemoration of a loved one inspires an attitude of distant reverence to it rather than that of active participation. The mysterious calligraphic inscriptions on the walls and the richly ornamented cenotaphs in the Taj Mahal sooner confuse us than explain anything of the traditions and life of those who created them. While for a dedicated orientalist such a building may represent a treasure to study and scrutinize, we — laymen — can only look in awe at it and wonder about the mysteries it hides under its intricate carvings. As opposed to admiring the purely aesthetic beauty of the Taj Mahal, exploring the treasures of the National Museum of India represents a great practical value as well. The excitement of finding out about the details of the daily life adds much emotional value to the experience. In the vast depositories of the National Museum of India, each of us can find something of personal interest. For example, the girls can admire the fabulous collection of artfully printed, dyed, and embroidered Indian textiles and find out how they are used in real life. The for ‘the real men’, there is a section featuring the finest Indian arms and armor, including weapons not only for people but for animals as well.
The especially creative natures will be thrilled by the large collection of national Indian musical instruments. In addition to detailed guided tours on each of the section, the museum offers free film shows and educative workshops which make the learning process even more exciting. Such increased sense of participation provides much more inspiration for our own creativity and therefore is much more productive. Last but not least, in our expectations we imagine a visit to a museum as an enjoyable experience and not just a tick to put next to the ‘cultural event’ preplanned in our curriculum. For a group of young people, a visit to the Taj Mahal may turn out far from relaxed and enjoyable. The reasons for such uneasiness are the multiple limitations and restrictions imposed on the visitors by the Taj Mahal administration. For one thing, the Taj Mahal attracts so many visitors that safety measures have to be kept strict: not simply arms or smoking items, but also such simple devices as iPods and MP3 players are prohibited on the territory of the complex.
No chewing gum is allowed, let alone eating or drinking. This may turn very unhandy in the hot tropical climate when you are yearning for a sip of water every now and then. Bags bigger than purses should be kept in lockers at owner’s risk. Religious traditions require that you enter the Taj Mahal either barefooted or wearing shoe covers.
Altogether, such limitations, together with the religious image of the site, do not make the Taj Mahal a place where you feel much physical and psychological comfort. The National Museum of India is rather a secular place of interest than a religious shrine and therefore offers much more comfort to its visitors. Although you need to comply with the standard museum rules, you still have the right to discuss what you see and share your impressions with your classmates immediately.
The Taj Mahal rules hardly allow such opportunity since silence should be kept inside the tomb. In addition, in case of bad weather you can stay safely under the roof of the National Museum, while if we go to the Taj Mahal there is a chance of soaking in the rain as we walk through the gardens to the nearest parking space which is quite some distance away. Obviously, the National Museum provides more opportunities for really enjoyable and informative pastime. Upon assessing both museum options from the point of view of their diversity, cultural variety, opportunities for active participation in learning and for shared enjoyment, it becomes obvious that the National Museum of India is the place to visit for our class. The variety of experiences it can offer suggests the idea that each student can find something appealing to his or her individuality in the National Museum.
Therefore, this chance for everyone’s personal development increases the emotional and learning value of such a museum visit and arises a hope that we can share the enjoyment all together.