The Taj Mahal

One of the Most Beautiful Mausoleums in the World

A picture of the Taj Mahal in India on a bright and clear day.
The Taj Mahal on a bright and clear day. (Photo by Mukul Banerjee / Contributor / Getty Images)

The Taj Mahal is a beautiful, white-marble mausoleum built by Mughul emperor Shah Jahan for his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Located on the southern bank of the Yamuna River near Agra, India, the Taj Mahal took 22 years to build, finally being completed in 1653. The Taj Mahal, considered one of the New Wonders of the World, astounds every visitor not only for its symmetry and structural beauty, but also for its intricate calligraphy, inlaid flowers made of gemstones, and magnificent garden.

The Love Story

It was in 1607, that Shah Jahan, grandson of Akbar the Great, first met his beloved. At the time, he was not yet the fifth emperor of the Mughal Empire.

Sixteen-year-old, Prince Khurram, as he was then called, flitted around the royal bazaar, flirting with the girls from high-ranking families that staffed the booths. 

At one of these booths, Prince Khurram met 15-year-old Arjumand Banu Baygam, whose father was soon to be the prime minister and whose aunt was married to Prince Khurram’s father. Although it was love at first sight, the two were not allowed to marry right away. First, Prince Khurram had to marry Kandahari Begum. (He would later marry a third wife as well.)

On March 27, 1612, Prince Khurram and his beloved, whom he gave the name Mumtaz Mahal (“chosen one of the palace”), were married. Mumtaz Mahal was not only beautiful, she was smart and tender-hearted. The public was enamored with her, in part because Mumtaz Mahal cared for the people, diligently making lists of widows and orphans to make sure they received food and money.

The couple had 14 children together, but only seven lived past infancy. It was the birth of the 14th child that was to kill Mumtaz Mahal.

The Death of Mumtaz Mahal

In 1631, three years into Shah Jahan’s reign, there was a rebellion underway, led by Khan Jahan Lodi. Shah Jahan had taken his military out to the Deccan, about 400 miles from Agra, in order to crush the usurper.

As usual, Mumtaz Mahal, who was always by Shah Jahan’s side, accompanied him, despite being heavily pregnant. On June 16, 1631, Mumtaz Mahal, in an elaborately decorated tent, gave birth to a healthy baby girl in the middle of the encampment. At first, all seemed to be well, but it was soon discovered that Mumtaz Mahal was dying.

As soon as Shah Jahan received news of his wife’s condition, he rushed to her side. In the early morning hours of June 17, 1631, Mumtaz Mahal died in his arms.

Reports say that in Shah Jahan’s anguish, he went to his own tent and cried for eight days. Upon emerging, some say he had aged, now sporting white hair and needing glasses.

Mumtaz Mahal was buried right away, according to Islamic tradition, near the encampment at Burbanpur. Her body, however, was not to stay there long.

Plans for the Taj Mahal

In December 1631, when the feud with Khan Jahan Lodi was won, Shah Jahan had the remains of Mumtaz Mahal dug up and brought 435 miles (700 km) to Agra. The return of Mumtaz Mahal was a grand procession, with thousands of soldiers accompanying the body and mourners lining the route.

When the remains of Mumtaz Mahal reached Agra on January 8, 1632, they were temporarily buried on land donated by nobleman Raja Jai Singh, near where the Taj Mahal was to be built.

Shah Jahan, filled with grief, had decided to pour that emotion into an elaborate, exquisite, expensive mausoleum that would rival all those that had come before it. (It was also to be unique, being the first large mausoleum dedicated to a woman.)

Although no one, main architect for the Taj Mahal is known, it is believed that Shah Jahan, who was already passionate about architecture, worked on the plans himself with the input and aid of a number of the best architects of his time.

The plan was that the Taj Mahal (“the crown of the region”) would represent heaven (Jannah) on Earth. No expense was spared to make this happen.

Building the Taj Mahal

At the time, the Mughal Empire was one of the richest in the world and thus Shah Jahan had the means to pay for this huge venture. With the plans made, Shah Jahan wanted the Taj Mahal to be grand, but also, built quickly.

To speed production, an estimated 20,000 workers were brought in and housed nearby in a newly built town for them called Mumtazabad. These workers included both skilled and unskilled craftsmen.

At first, builders worked on the foundation and then on the giant, 624-foot-long plinth (base). On this plinth was to sit the Taj Mahal building as well as the two matching, red sandstone buildings (the mosque and the guest house) that flank the Taj Mahal.

The Taj Mahal building, sitting on a second plinth, was to be an octagonal structure, first constructed of brick and then covered in white marble. Like in most large projects, the builders created a scaffolding to build higher; however, what was unusual was that the scaffolding for this project was built of bricks. No one has yet figured out why.

The white marble was incredibly heavy and quarried in Makrana, 200 miles away. Reportedly, it took 1,000 elephants and an untold number of oxen to drag the marble to the Taj Mahal building site.

For the heavy marble pieces to reach the higher spaces of the Taj Mahal, a giant, 10-mile-long, earthen ramp was built.

The very top of the Taj Mahal is topped with a huge, double-shell dome that reaches to 240 feet and is also covered in white marble.

Four thin, white-marble minarets stand tall at the corners of the second plinth, surrounding the mausoleum.

Calligraphy and Inlaid Flowers

Most pictures of the Taj Mahal show only a large, white, lovely building. What these photos miss is the intricacies that can only be seen up close.

It is these details that make the Taj Mahal astoundingly feminine and opulent.

On the mosque, guest house, and the large main gate at the southern end of the Taj Mahal complex appear passages from the Quran (often spelled Koran), the holy book of Islam, written in calligraphy. Shah Jahan hired Amanat Khan, a master calligrapher, to work on the inlaid verses.

Masterfully done, the finished verses from the Quran, inlaid with black marble, look soft and gentle. Although made of stone, the curves make it look almost hand-written. The 22 passages from the Quran were reportedly chosen by Amanat Khan himself. Interestingly, Amanat Khan was the only person who Shah Jahan allowed to sign his work on the Taj Mahal.

Almost more amazing than the calligraphy is the exquisite inlaid flowers found throughout the Taj Mahal complex. In a process known as parchin kari, highly-skilled stone cutters cut intricate floral designs into the white marble and then inlaid precious and semi-precious stones to form interwoven vines and flowers.

The 43 different kinds of precious and semi-precious stones used for these flowers came from around the world, including lapis lazuli from Sri Lanka, jade from China, malachite from Russia, and turquoise from Tibet.

The Garden

As in many religions, Islam holds the image of Paradise as a garden; thus, the garden at the Taj Mahal was an integral part of the plan to make it heaven on Earth.

The Taj Mahal’s garden, which is situated to the south of the mausoleum, has four quadrants, divided by four “rivers” of water (another important Islamic image of Paradise), which gather at a central pool.

The gardens and “rivers” were supplied with water from the Yamuna River by a complex, underground water system.

Unfortunately, no records have survived telling us what plants were originally planted in the Taj Mahal’s garden.

The End of Shah Jahan

Shah Jahan stayed in deep mourning for two years but even after that, the death of Mumtaz Mahal still deeply affected him. That is perhaps why the third of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan’s four sons, Aurangzeb, was able to successfully kill off his three brothers and imprison his father.

In 1658, after 30 years as emperor, Shah Jahan was usurped and placed in the luxurious Red Fort in Agra. Not able to leave but with most of his usual luxuries, Shah Jahan spent his last eight years staring out a window, looking at his beloved’s Taj Mahal.

When Shah Jahan died on January 22, 1666, Aurangzeb had his father buried with Mumtaz Mahal in the crypt beneath the Taj Mahal. On the main floor of the Taj Mahal, above the crypt, now sits two cenotaphs (empty, public tombs). The one in the center of the room belongs to Mumtaz Mahal and the one just to the west is for Shah Jahan.

Surrounding the cenotaphs is a delicately-carved, lacy, marble screen. (Originally it had been a gold screen but Shah Jahan had that replaced so that thieves would not be too tempted.)

The Taj Mahal in Ruins

Shah Jahan had enough wealth in his coffers to support the Taj Mahal and its mighty maintenance costs, but over the centuries, the Mughal Empire lost its riches and the Taj Mahal fell into disrepair.

By the 1800s, the British ousted the Mughals and took over India. To many, the Taj Mahal was beautiful and so they cut gemstones from the walls, stole the silver candlesticks and doors, and even tried to sell the white marble overseas.

It was Lord Curzon, the British viceroy of India, who put a stop to all that. Rather than looting the Taj Mahal, Curzon worked to restore it.

The Taj Mahal Now

The Taj Mahal has once again become a magnificent place, with 2.5 million people visiting it each year. Visitors can visit during the daytime, where the color of the white marble seems to change depending on the time of the day. Once a month, visitors have the opportunity to make a short visit during a full moon, to see how the Taj Mahal seems to glow from within in the moonlight.

 In 1983, the Taj Mahal was placed on the World Heritage List by UNESCO, but it now suffers from pollutants from nearby factories and from the humidity from the breath of its visitors.

 

References

DuTemple, Lesley A. The Taj Mahal. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company, 2003.

Harpur, James and Jennifer Westwood. The Atlas of Legendary Places. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989.

Ingpen, Robert and Philip Wilkinson. Encyclopedia of Mysterious Places: The Life and Legends of Ancient Sites Around the World. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1999.