The Complete Story of India's 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 breathtaking white-marble mausoleum commissioned 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 and finally reached completion in 1653.

This exquisite monument, considered one of the New Wonders of the World, astounds visitors for its symmetry, structural beauty, intricate calligraphy, inlaid gemstones, and magnificent garden. More than just a memorial in the name of a spouse, the Taj Mahal was a declaration of lasting love from Shan Jahan to his departed soulmate.

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 Arjumand Banu Begum, the 15-year-old young woman 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. Prince Khurram first had to marry Kandahari Begum. He later took a third wife as well.

On March 27, 1612, Prince Khurram and his beloved, to whom he gave the name Mumtaz Mahal (“chosen one of the palace”), were married. Mumtaz Mahal was beautiful as well as smart and tender-hearted. The public was enamored with her, in no small part because she cared for the people. She diligently made lists of widows and orphans to ensure that they were given food and money. The couple had 14 children together but only seven lived past infancy. It was the birth of the 14th child that would kill Mumtaz Mahal.

The Death of Mumtaz Mahal

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

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

The moment Shah Jahan received word of his wife’s condition, he rushed to her side. Early in the morning on June 17, just one day after the birth of their daughter, Mumtaz Mahal died in her husband's arms. She was buried right away according to Islamic tradition near the encampment at Burbanpur. Her body would not stay there long.

Reports say that in Shah Jahan’s anguish, he went to his own tent and cried for eight days without ceasing. When he emerged, he was said to have aged considerably, sporting white hair and glasses.

Bringing Mumtaz Mahal Home

In December 1631, with the feud against Khan Jahan Lodi won, Shah Jahan asked that Mumtaz Mahal's body be dug up and brought 435 miles or 700 kilometers to Agra. Her return was a grand procession with thousands of soldiers accompanying her 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. This was near where the Taj Mahal would be built.

Plans for the Taj Mahal

Shah Jahan, filled with grief, poured his emotion into designing an elaborate and expensive mausoleum that would bring all those that had come before it to shame. It was also unique in that it was the first large mausoleum dedicated to a woman.

Although no primary architect for the Taj Mahal is known, it is believed that Shah Jahan, passionate about architecture himself, worked on the plans directly with the input and aid of a number of the best architects of his time. The intention was for the Taj Mahal, “the crown of the region”, to represent Heaven, Jannah, on Earth. Shah Jahan spared no expense in making this happen.

Building the Taj Mahal

The Mughal Empire was one of the richest empires in the world at the time of Shah Jahan's reign, and this meant that he had the resources to make this monument incomparably grand. But though he wanted it to be breathtaking, he also wanted it erected quickly.

To speed up the production, an estimated 20,000 workers were brought in and housed nearby in a town built especially for them called Mumtazabad. Both skilled and unskilled craftsmen were contracted.

Builders first worked on the foundation and then on the giant, 624-foot-long plinth or base. This would become the base of the Taj Mahal building and the pair of matching red sandstone buildings that would flank it, the mosque and guest house.

The Taj Mahal, sitting on a second plinth, was to be an octagonal structure constructed of marble-covered brick. As is the case for most large projects, the builders created a scaffolding in order to build higher. Their choice of bricks for this scaffolding was unusual and remains perplexing to historians.

Marble

White marble is one of the most striking and prominent features of the Taj Mahal. The marble used was quarried in Makrana, 200 miles away. Reportedly, it took 1,000 elephants and an untold number of oxen to drag the extremely heavy marble to the building site.

For the massive marble pieces to reach to higher spaces of the Taj Mahal, a giant, 10-mile-long earthen ramp was built. The Taj Mahal is topped with a huge double-shelled dome that stretches 240 feet and is also covered in white marble. Four thin, white marble minarets stand tall at the corners of the second plinth and surround the mausoleum.

Calligraphy and Inlaid Flowers

Most pictures of the Taj Mahal show only a large white building. Though still lovely, this doesn't do the real structure justice. These photos leave out intricacies and it is these details that make the Taj Mahal astoundingly feminine and opulent.

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

Masterfully done, the finished verses from the Quran are inlaid with black marble. They are a stately yet soft feature of the building. Although made of stone, the curves mimic real handwriting. The 22 passages from the Quran are said to have been 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 impressive than the calligraphy are the delicate inlaid flowers found throughout the Taj Mahal complex. In a process known as parchin kari, highly-skilled stone cutters carved intricate floral designs into the white marble and then inlaid these with precious and semi-precious stones to form interwoven vines and flowers.

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

The Garden

Islam holds the image of Paradise as a garden. Thus, the garden at the Taj Mahal was an integral part of making it Heaven on Earth.

The Taj Mahal’s garden, which is situated to the south of the mausoleum, has four quadrants. These are divided by four “rivers” of water (another important Islamic image of Paradise) that gather in a central pool. The gardens and rivers were filled by the Yamuna River via a complex underground water system. Unfortunately, no records remain to tell the exact plants in these gardens.

Shah Jahan's Death

Shah Jahan remained in deep mourning for two years and never fully healed after the death of his favorite wife. This gave Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan’s fourth son Aurangzeb the opportunity to successfully kill his three elder brothers and imprison his father.

After 30 years as emperor, Shah Jahan was usurped and placed in the luxurious Red Fort in Agra in 1658. Forbidden to leave but with most of his usual luxuries, Shah Jahan spent his final eight years gazing out a window at the 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 feel tempted to steal it.

Destruction of the Taj Mahal

Shah Jahan was wealthy enough 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 ruins.

By the 1800s, the British ousted the Mughals and took over India. The Taj Mahal was dissected for its beauty—the Britch cut gemstones from its walls, stole silver candlesticks and doors, and even tried to sell the white marble overseas. It was Lord Curzon, the British viceroy of India, who put and to this. 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 visitors each year. People can visit during the daytime and watch as the white marble appears to take on different hues throughout 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 the inside out in the moonlight.

The Taj Mahal was placed on the World Heritage List by UNESCO in 1983, but this protection has not guaranteed its safety. It is now at the mercy of pollutants from nearby factories and excessive humidity from the breath of its visitors. 

Sources

  • DuTemple, Lesley A. The Taj Mahal. Lerner Publications Company, 2003.
  • Harpur, James, and Jennifer Westwood. The Atlas of Legendary Places. 1st ed., Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1989.
  • Ingpen, Robert R., and Philip Wilkinson. Encyclopedia of Mysterious Places: The Life and Legends of Ancient Sites Around the World. Metro Books, 2000.