For centuries, the Taj Mahal has inspired poets, painters and musicians to try and capture its elusive magic in word, color and son. Since the 17th century, travelers have crossed continents to come and see this ultimate memorial to love, and few have been unmoved by its incomparable beauty.
A flawless architectural creation
Taj Mahal stands in the city of Agra, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, on the banks of the Yamuna river. It was built in the memory of the beautiful Arjumand Bano Begum, who won the heart of a Mughal prince. She was married at 21 to Emperor Jahangir’s third son Prince Khurram and stayed loyally by his side through good times and bad: in the luxurious royal palaces of Agra as well as the transient tents of war camps.
A memorial to his beloved
In AD 1628, Khurram became king after a bloody battle of succession; he took the name Shahjahan or King of the World and showered his beloved begum with the highest titles. She became Mumtaz Mahal, the Exalted of the Palace and Mumtaz-ul-Zamani, the Exalted of the Age. But Mumtaz Mahal was not destined to be queen for long.
In 1631, Shahjahan went on an expedition to the South and, as always, Mumtaz Mahal accompanied him. But she died in childbirth at Burhanpur. She had borne Shahjahan fourteen children, of whom four sons and three daughters survived. When Mumtaz Mahal died, she was just 39 years old. Shahjahan was inconsolable and contemporary chronicles tell of the royal court mourning for two years. There was no music, no feasting, and no celebration of any kind.
Shahjahan, who was a passionate builder, now decided to erect a memorial marble that the world would never forget. The site selected for the tomb was a garden by the Yamuna river, unshadowed by any other structure. The garden had been laid by Raja Man Singh of Amber and now belonged to his grandson, Raja Jai Singh. By a royal firman, Shahjahan gave Jai Singh four havelis in exchange for the garden. The site was also chosen because it was located on a bend in the river, and so could be seen from Shahjahan’s personal palace in Agra Fort, further upstream.
A Labor of love
Work on the mausoleum began in 1633 and 20,000 workers laboured for 17 years to build it. The most skilled architects, inlay craftsmen, calligraphers, stone-carvers and masons came from all across India and lands as distant as Persia and Turkey. The master mason was from Baghdad, an expert in building the double dome from Persia, and an inlay specialist from Delhi.
The tomb was completed in AD 1650. But, Shahjahan was deposed by his son Aurangzeb in 1658 and imprisioned in the Agra Fort. He spent his last years in the Mussalman Burj looking downstream at the Taj where his beloved Mumtaz Mahal lay. Sixteen years later he, too, was laid to rest beside her.
The Bejeweled Palace
Shahjahan’s two biggest passions were architecture and jewellery and both are reflected in the Taj Mahal. He visualised a building in marble and then had it decorated with semi-precious stones inlaid with the delicacy of handcrafted jewellery. Marble in purest white was brought from Makrana in Rajasthan, yellow marble and rockspar from the banks of the Narmada river, lack marble from Charkoh and red sandstone from Sikri. For the intricate pietra dura the finest gems were collected – crystal and jade from China, lapis lazuli and sapphires from Sri Lanka, jasper from Punja, carnelian from Baghdad and turquoise from Tibet.
Yemen sent agates, the corals came from Arabia, the garnets from Bundelkhand, onyx and amethyst from Persia. Mumtaz Mahal’s final resting-place was ornamented like a queen’s jewel-box.
You enter the Taj complex through an arcaded forecourt where some of Shahjahan’s other queens lie buried. The forecourt also has the Jilau Kana, a bazaar with cloisters leading to the main entrance of the tomb. The imposing gateway is made of red sandstone highlighted with marble and has octagonal kiosks on top. The gateway is an imposing 30 metres high and a fitting entrance to the Taj Mahal. The soaring arch is inscribed with a beautiful design of inlaid flowers and calligraphy.
As you enter the dark octagonal chamber under the gateway, the light streaming in from the opposite doorway draws you towards it. Here, framed by the arch of the doorway, the Taj Mahal reveals itself to the viewer with dramatic power. It stands at the end of a long walkway, framed by landscaped gardens and an ever-changing sky, its snowy marble glittering in the sunlight.
Taj Mahal stands at one side of a garden laid in the tradition charbagh style, with its square lawns bisected by pathways, water channels and rows of fountains. Halfway down the path there is a square pool, its limpid waters reflecting the marble tomb. Unlike other tombs, Taj Mahal stands at one end of the garden instead the centre. This was done deliberately, to leave its vista uncluttered by any other building.
The Main Building
The tomb stands on a marble plinth six-metres high. The four minarets at each corner beautifully frame the tomb. The plinth stands on a high standstone platform and at the far ends of this base are two identical sandstone structures, a mosque to the west and its jawab, or echo, to the east. This was the mehman khana or guesthouse. Thus, the main building is not just of great size but beautifully proportioned and balanced in design.
The octagonal central hall has four smaller octagonal halls round it and is decorated with magnificent inlay and dado panels done in high relief. The bulbous, perfectly-balanced double dome rises to a height of 45 metres and the four chhattris flanking and balancing the high drum give it added height. Taj Mahal rises 75 metres high and is, in fact, taller than the Qutb Minar.
An ornate marble screen, carved so fine that it almost has the texture of lace surrounds the cenotaphs in the central hall. However, as was the tradition during Mughal times, the actual graves lie in an underground crypt directly below the cenotaphs.
Intricacy in design
What is most amazing about the Taj Mahal is the fine detailing. The coloured inlay is never allowed to overwhelm the design, as carvings done in relief sensitively balance it. The ornate pietra dura and relief carvings are of floral, calligraphic and geometric designs. However, flowers remain the main decorative element as the tomb depicts a paradise garden. The skill of the inlay worker is so fine that it is impossible to find the joints, even when as many as 40 tiny pieces of semi-precious stones have been used in the petals of a single flower. Some of the best calligraphy of Koranic verses can be seen around the entrance arches and on the two headstones.
The colors of the Taj
Taj Mahal changes its moods with the seasons and the different times of the day. At dawn, the marble has a delicate bloom in shell pink, by noon it glitters majestically white, turning to a soft pearly grey at dusk. On full-moon away against the star-spangled sky. Monsoon clouds give it a moody blue tint and it appears and disappears like a mirage in the drifting mists of winter.
It can be solid and earthbound, fragile and ethereal, white, amber, grey and gold. The many faces of Taj Mahal display the seductive power of architecture at its best.