The romantic history of the Taj Mahal

Reader's Digest Editors

Described by the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore as "a solitary tear suspended on the cheek of time", the Taj Mahal is the crowning jewel of Indo-Islamic architecture

The Taj Mahal is, quite simply, one of the world’s most stunning buildings. This white marble mausoleum in the city of Agra has become the premier cultural icon of India; endlessly photographed, its image is familiar all over the world. Yet people seeing the reality for the first time still gasp at its breathtaking beauty. To architects, the Taj Mahal is the finest surviving example of Mughal architecture (a blend of Indian, Persian and Islamic), unsurpassed in its harmonious proportions and fluidity of decoration. To the rest of the world, it is an enduring monument to love, built by a grief-stricken man after the death of his most beloved wife.

 

A labour of love

The Taj Mahal was constructed in the 17th century. When the young prince Khurram (1592–1666), favourite son of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, met Arjumand Banu Begum, descended from Persian nobility, he was instantly dazzled by her beauty and was determined to marry her. They were betrothed in 1607, when he was 15 and she 14, but had to wait for another five years to marry, until the court astrologers found an auspicious date for the wedding.

Shah Jahan on the Peacock Throne

After they were married, the prince, finding his wife ‘elect among all the women of the time’, gave her the title of Mumtaz Mahal, ‘Jewel of the Palace’. For the next 19 years the couple were inseparable, with Mumtaz, despite her many pregnancies, often travelling with her husband on his military campaigns. The prince took two other wives, but according to court chroniclers, his feelings for Mumtaz ‘exceeded by a thousand times what he felt for the others’. In 1627, when he succeeded to the throne as Shah Jahan, his trust in her was so great that he gave her his imperial seal, the Muhr Uzah.

In 1631 Mumtaz Mahal accompanied her husband on a military campaign to the Deccan and died at Burhanpur while giving birth to their 14th child. Devastated by her death, the Shah went into mourning for a year and built the Taj Mahal in her honour, and the name, which means ‘Crown Palace’, is a derivation of her name. It took 22 years to complete.

Portrait of Mumtaz Mahal

Though his name is now inextricably linked to love, Shah Jahan was as ruthless as any of his ancestors, dispatching four of his brothers on his way to the throne. And he brought his imperial power to bear in constructing his most famous legacy. A team of 22,000 workers – sculptors, stonemasons, carvers, painters, calligraphers, inlayers and others – was recruited from Europe, the Middle East and Asia. At first it was a job of brute strength, bringing the translucent white marble blocks 120 miles (190km) from Rajasthan: 1,000 elephants were used in transporting the materials. Then 28 kinds of precious and semi-precious stones—including onyx, amethyst, lapis lazuli, turquoise, jade and mother-ofpearl—were brought from Russia, Persia, Afghanistan, China and Tibet to decorate his fabulous creation rising in Agra.

The building work was completed in 1653, although decorative additions continued to be made until 1657. The inscriptions on the gateways, mosque and tomb were the work of the renowned calligrapher, Amanat Khan. The chief architect remains unknown, although he is believed to have been Ustad Ahmad Lahauri, an Indian of Persian descent. The overall concept is said to have been the brainchild of the Shah himself, who had apparently loved designing palaces since childhood.

In 1658 Shah Jahan fell ill and was deposed by his son Aurangzeb, who put him under house arrest in Agra Fort, where he ended his days in the company of his daughter, Jahanara Begum. After his death, in 1666, his body was laid to rest alongside that of his wife.

 

Paradise regained

Although it is the mausoleum’s central dome that stays in people’s minds, the Taj Mahal has five main components—the main gateway, garden, mausoleum, mosque and the mosque-mirroring jawab (mirror building). In all it covers 17ha (42 acres) of grounds sloping in terraces down towards the River Yamuna. In accordance with the principles of Mughal architecture, the five elements were designed as a unified entity and no subsequent alterations were allowed.

The Islamic view of heaven is everpresent in the buildings and gardens. The gateway at the southern end of the complex (the original entrance) is adorned with calligraphic verses from the Koran inviting the faithful to enter Paradise. Designed to a precise grid according to the Mughal charbagh (four-garden) style, the gardens are divided into quadrants by waterways, representing the Islamic Gardens of Paradise where rivers flow with water, milk and honey. The four ‘rivers’ are intended to converge at a central marble tank representing Kawthar, the Koran’s celestial pool of abundance. In practice, only the north–south courses contain water, and they create a perfect reflection of the Taj Mahal that has become an enduringly popular image.

 

Central space

The focus of any visit is the central mausoleum. Set on a square platform 7m (23ft) high, this massive white marble structure has four almost identical facades, each with a wide central arch and smaller, peaked arches to the sides.

The magnificent central dome reaches a height of 73m (240ft) and is surrounded by four slender minarets. Steps lead up to the main tomb (visitors remove their shoes before starting the climb), and only as the visitor comes closer does the grand scale of its decoration become evident. Arabic calligraphy fringes the soaring archways, which, along with the walls, are embellished with exquisite examples of the decorative inlay technique of pietra dura (‘hard stone’), in which precisely cut pieces of precious and semi-precious stones are fitted together to form geometric and floral designs. Lapis lazuli, jade, crystal, turquoise and amethyst are used to spectacular effect to create images of vases of flowers and tiny, delicate representations of flowers of paradise that curl and intertwine.

Inside the mausoleum is an octagonal inner chamber in which the marble cenotaphs of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan lie side by side, enclosed by a delicate filigree screen. Muslim tradition forbids elaborate decoration of graves, so the actual tombs are underneath the chamber in a plain crypt that is rarely open to the public. Any disappointment in not seeing these tombs is made up for by the superb inlay work on the false tombs on display, which is among the best in India. In places, as many as 35 different types of precious and semi-precious stones – including coral, turquoise, garnet and malachite—have been used to create individual flowers, with up to 60 fragments used on a single leaf or petal.

 

Symmetry and symbolism

The Taj Mahal is a masterclass in harmony and symmetry, and everything is pleasing to the eye. In the interests of balance, the central mausoleum is flanked to the west by a mosque and to the east by a jawab (‘an answer’—a building mirroring the mosque), both built from red sandstone.

Despite its massive proportions, the mausoleum appears light and airy. The dazzling white marble is offset by the colours of the inlaid precious stones and the black jasper used for the calligraphy, just as the dome is offset by the four minarets, which in turn reflect the fourplan garden.

Mumtaz’s cenotaph is decorated with the 99 names for Allah; other calligraphic inscriptions identify and praise her. On the top of Shah Jahan’s commemorative tomb is a symbolic pen box and writing tablet, the typical funerary accoutrements of the supreme male ruler. In the crypt below, the bodies of the emperor and his spouse are buried with their faces towards the holy city of Mecca, with the husband on his wife’s right side.

In a stroke of genius, the calligraphy running throughout the building is written in a slightly larger script on the higher panels to reduce the skewing effect when it is viewed from below. A charming etching of the calligrapher’s own signature appears at the base of the dome inside the mausoleum: ‘Written by the insignificant being, Amanat Khan Shirazi.’

Some features of the Taj Mahal are so exquisitely designed and crafted as to approach the mystical, leading scholars to ponder on the Taj Mahal’s hidden symbolism. The garden and Koranic references are clearly meant to represent Paradise, but there are many other spiritual allusions. The colour of the Makrana marble used for the mausoleum changes in the sun and in moonlight. According to the time of day, it can appear red, soft grey, yellow, cream or dazzling white. Many modern scholars believe that the effect of the changing colours is no accident, rather that Allah is being represented in the form of light since he cannot be depicted as a person. Studies have been made of the acoustics inside the main dome, which has a reverberation time of 28 seconds—in order, perhaps, for the recited words of the Koran to linger in the air.

More controversially, the rediscovery of an ancient Sufi document once owned by Shah Jahan’s father that includes a diagram exactly mirroring the Taj Mahal has led many to believe that the tomb was planned in advance as a reproduction of God’s throne, and that, far from being a romantic, Shah Jahan was an egotist with delusions of grandeur. Whatever its real origins, Shah Jahan was said to have been so delighted with the building that he had the architect beheaded to ensure that no other building would ever rival it.

Later in his life, he planned to build a black mausoleum for himself on the other side of the River Yamuna. It was to have been every bit as magnificent as the white Taj, and the two were to have been connected with a bridge of solid silver.

Scholars may come and go as they debate the Taj Mahal’s merits and mysticism, but this sublime monument, this masterpiece of Indo-Islamic architecture, will continue to amaze, entrance and delight for many generations to come.