CAUTION: SPOILERS AHEAD
The story takes place in Agra, India in 1648. Humayun and Babur are two Imperial guards on night watch standing sentinel outside of the nearly completed Taj Mahal before it is unveiled to the world. The two of them are not allowed to gaze upon its beauty, only guard it with their backs turned towards the towering edifice. The two lifelong friends spend their nights bantering, dreaming, and scheming about what more their lives could be. They both hope for more prestige, more impressive roles within the Imperial Guard. Humayun reveals that there has been a royal decree that nothing as beautiful as the Taj Mahal shall ever be built again. To assure this, the Emperor has ordered that the 40,000 hands that worked to complete the Taj Mahal shall be cut off. Babur wonders who will have to take on the horrifying task. As the dawn rises over the Taj Mahal, so does the understanding that Humayun and Babur will be the ones to do it. Against the rules, the two men turn to look at the wonder behind them.
We find Humayun and Babur just after they have completed the unthinkable task. Babur chopped and Humayun cauterized - a distinction between the tasks that Babur insists is “different”. Humayun has trouble with his vision after starring at flames and charred flesh, and Babur has trouble relaxing his hands from clutching a blade all night. As the two clean and dispose of the severed hands, they dream about flight and banter about hypotheticals to distract themselves. Babur has the growing realization that if they’ve cut off the hands that created the most beautiful thing in the world, then Beauty is dying and they’ve killed it. As Babur becomes increasingly upset, Humayun calms him by washing his face and head and getting him fresh clothes.
The next night, Humayun arrives to find Babur already there and haunted by their shared experience. Over the course of the evening the two discuss how this horror might result in an increase in title and rank, and the privileges that would come with that - not the least of which is accompanying the Emperor to the Imperial Harem. Babur suggests that they use this opportunity to kill the Emperor, since he is the one who ordered the dismemberment. Amidst Humayun’s objections, Babur then suggests that the two of them run away together. Humayun resists, resulting in Babur loudly slandering the Emperor. In a desperate plea to stop his friend from doing something rash, Humayun calls for guards to take Babur to confinement.
Humayun visits Babur in confinement, and reveals to him that he begged the authorities to have mercy on Babur’s life. Mercy was granted, but Humayun has been ordered to take Babur’s hands. Babur pleads with Humayun to think of another way, but Humayun, shaken and desperate, chops off Babur’s hands, cauterizes them, wraps them, and leaves as Babur wails.
Ten years later, Humayun stand guard alone. Odd noises and sensations start occurring around him - rustling in the leaves, birdsong, voices on the wind, deep rumbles from the jungle, a cacophony of sound. And Humayun finds himself suddenly between two worlds. Babur appears and the two of them stand in awe of the power of nature and the overwhelming beauty of the world. Suddenly the sound of wings takes over the space as a vast number of birds fly over them. It is a spiritual experience. As the birds fly away, the sounds of nature fade away and it is quiet again. Humayun stands guard alone, trying with all his might to hold on to the experience, and the memory of his friend. He stands there for a long time, in silence as lights fade to black.
(synopsis inspired by language from Milwaukee Rep)