Memos from Asia

Taj Mahal: A Beautiful Symbol of Emperor Shah Jahan’s Eternal Love for His Wife Mumtaz

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Among the famous mausoleums in the world, India’s 17th Taj Mahal is the most rated architectural wonder. It was built as a symbol of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s eternal love for his wife Mumtaz Mahal.

Taj Mahal, which means ‘Crown of the Palace’ in local Urdu language, has been built on the bank of Yamuna River in Agra of Uttar Pradesh using translucent white marble from Makrana in Rajasthan, famous for its fine quality marble.

Fifth Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (1628-1658 AD) commenced the construction of Taj Mahal in 1631 in memory of his third but the most favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who was a Muslim Persian princess, as per her wish.

The mausoleum was commissioned in 1632 by the emperor and was completed in 1648. However, its works including the surrounding wall were completed in 1653.

Facade view of Taj Mahal in Agra, India. It was commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan (reigned 1628–1658), to house the tomb of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal.

The Taj Mahal, which attracts millions of tourists every year, also houses Shah Jahan’s tomb.

The Taj Mahal was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 for being the jewel of Muslim art in India and one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world’s heritage. The Taj Mahal is considered to be the greatest architectural achievement in the whole range of Indo-Islamic architecture, according to UNESCO.

It was declared a winner of the New 7 Wonders of the World (2000–2007) initiative.

The Taj Mahal incorporates and expands on design traditions of Persian and earlier Mughal architecture.

Construction of the mausoleum

The land to build the Taj Mahal got through an exchange. The Shah Jahan presented Maharajah Jai Singh of Jaipur principality with a large palace in the heart of Agra in exchange for the three-acre land on the bank of the Yamuna.

The previous Mughal buildings were primarily constructed of red sandstone. But Shah Jahan promoted the use of white marble inlaid with semi-precious stones.

It is estimated that over 20,000 workers comprising architects, artisans and workers toiled hard for years together to complete Taj Mahal under the supervision the court architect to the emperor, Ustad Ahmad Lahauri. Its then construction cost was estimated to be about $45,000 (about INR 3.2 crore) which now is assessed at about $916 million (INR 7,200 crore).

It is believed over 1,000 elephants were deployed to transport building materials for the site. The materials for decorations were brought from India and different countries. The translucent white marble was brought from Makrana in Rajasthan, the jasper from Punjab, jade and crystal from China. The turquoise was from Tibet and the Lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, while the sapphire came from Sri Lanka and the carnelian from Arabia. In all, 28 varieties of precious and semi-precious stones were used for the decoration of Taj Mahal.

It took over a decade to complete the works of the plinth and tomb while remaining parts of the complex took an additional 10 years.

Mumtaz Mahal’s tomb

The tomb of Mumtaz and Shah Jahan are the prime attraction of the Taj Mahal. The mausoleum is a large structure built on a square plinth. It is a symmetrical building with an arch-shaped entrance (Iwan) with a large dome and finial on top. Taj Mahal has four such entrances. The basis of all Mughal architecture is Persian in origin.

In fact, the main chamber houses the false tombs of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan. The real graves are located in a sealed chamber beneath the replicas on display all year round.

Interestingly, the original tomb of Mumtaz was built at Burhanpur in Madhya Pradesh, about 800 km south west of Agra. Shah Jahan had shifted to Burhanpur, which is situated on the bank of Tapti River, in the wake of frequent attacks from the enemies. Mumtaz died in Burhanpur after delivery of her 13th child and she was buried there. He built the mausoleum of Mumtaz, known as Ahukhana in Burhanpur.

Later, Shah Jahan wanted to build the most spectacular mausoleum for his wife in Agra. It is said that her body was kept in Agra for over two decades till the completion of Taj Mahal.

The main dome

The marble dome that surmounts the tomb of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz is one of the most attractive parts of the mausoleum. The height of the dome is about 35 metres. The dome is often called an onion dome or guava dome because of its unique shape.

The top of the dome is decorated with a lotus design which also serves to accentuate its height. There are four smaller domed chattris (kiosks) placed at the corners of the main dome. They also replicate the onion shape of the main dome.

There are four minarets around Taj Mahal with each of having a height of about 40 metres. The minarets were designed to keep them slightly outward for protecting the mausoleum in the event of a collapse.

Ivory-white marble main dome and smaller domes of Taj Mahal

The minarets were used to call the believers for prayer and each of them was effectively divided into three equal parts by two working balconies that ring the tower.

The structural beauty and the decorations of Taj Mahal is the glaring example of the Mughal architecture. The decorative articles were created by applying paint, stucco, stone inlays or carvings. Since there is a prohibition for using anthropomorphic forms as per the Islamic norms, Taj Mahal features decorative elements comprise calligraphy or vegetal patterns. The passages of the mausoleum carry verses and passages from the Qur’an giving a decorative look.

The passages were inscribed in Thuluth script by Abdul Haq who was later decorated with the title of Amanat Khan by the emperor.

Interior decoration

The interior chamber of the Taj Mahal features lapidary of precious and semiprecious gemstones deviating from the traditional decoration styles. The interior walls are about 25 metres high.

As per the Muslim tradition, graves are not decorated elaborately. The bodies of Mumtaz and Shah Jahan were laid to rest in a relatively plain crypt under the inner chamber with their faces towards right, in the direction of Mecca.

Mumtaz Mahal’s cenotaph has been placed at the centre of the inner chamber on a rectangular base made of marble. Both the base and casket are decorated with precious and semiprecious gems. Shah Jahan’s tomb is next to Mumtaz and is the only visible asymmetric element in the entire complex.

Mughal garden

The Taj Mahal complex is situated around a large 300-metre square Mughal garden (charbagh). The garden has raised pathways that divide each of the four-quarters of the garden into 16 sunken parterres or flowerbeds. Right in front of the structure, there is a water tank in the centre of the garden reflecting the image of the mausoleum.

Interestingly, most of the Mughal charbaghs or gardens are rectangular with a tomb or pavilion in the centre. However, the Taj Mahal garden has been designed in a different way with the tomb is located at the end of the garden.

Taj Mahal historic monument at sunset as seen from Mehtab Bagh garden on the opposite side of the Yamuna river

The Taj Mahal complex is situated within a strong fortress covering three sides by crenellated red sandstone walls. Its rear side faces the Yamuna. There are mausoleums of Shah Jahan’s other wives, and tomb of Mumtaz’s favourite servant can be found outside the wall.

The main entrance (darwaza) of Taj Mahal was built primarily of marble, and a replica of the Mughal architecture of the earlier emperors. Its archways are similar to that of Taj Maha’s archways.

Son Aurangzeb dethrones Shah Jahan

The tragic part is that the builder of Taj Mahal was dethroned a little while after the completion of the mausoleum. Shah Jahan’s son Aurangzeb uncrowned him and put under house arrest at the nearby Agra Fort.

After the death of Shah Jahan, Aurangzeb buried the emperor’s body in the mausoleum next to his wife as per his wish. Later in the 18th century, the Jat rulers of Bharatpur attacked Agra plundered the valuables of Taj Mahal including the two chandeliers, one of agate and another of silver, which were hung over the main cenotaph and the gold and silver screen. According to a Mughal historian, Kanbo, the gold shield which covered the 4.6-metre-high finial on top of the main dome was also removed during the invasion.

The mausoleum remained neglected for a long period of time. By the end of the 19th century, British viceroy Lord Curzon took initiative for the restoration of Taj Mahal. He had also renovated the interior of the mausoleum and installed a large lamp inside the chamber similar to the one in a Cairo mosque. The garden was also renovated with European-style lawns that still exist there today.

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