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THE WONDER THAT IS TAJ

Archaeological Survey of India

Exploring myriad depictions and details of the Taj Mahal

AN INTRODUCTION

Built by Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal, the Taj Mahal (ताज महल, “crown of palaces”) is one of the seven wonders of the world. It is eulogised as the most beautiful building built by the Mughals in India - a country they ruled from 1526 to the beginning of the British Raj in 1858.

Shah Jahan (born, Khurram) was the 5th Mughal emperor of India and ruled from 1628-58. Historians refer to his period of rule as the peak of the Mughal Golden Era, with advances in culture and architecture, administration and territorial consolidation, the precedent of which was set by his father Humayun and grandfather Akbar. Shah Jahan also founded the new imperial capital of Shahjahanabad, today known as Old Delhi.

In June 1631, Mumtaz Mahal (Arjumand Banu Begum) died during the birth of their 14th child Gauhar Begum and popular history suggests that Shah Jahan devasted by this loss, drifted into a long period of mourning before he ordered and oversaw the building of the Taj.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE MUGHAL EMPIRE

The Mughal civilisation, a “fusion of Islamic, Persian, Hindu and Mongol sources (from whence the name Mughal derives) dominated the Indian subcontinent for several centuries and strongly influenced its subsequent development” . The Great Mughals - as they came to be known - Babar, Humayun, Akbar and Jahangir established a stronghold over most of Northern India by 1627. Shah Jahan assumed the title of The Emperor at a time when there was relative peace and the kingdom flourished.

Stepping into the shoes of his father Jahangir, Shah Jahan was “the Quintessential Great Mughal, who by the splendour of his dress and ornaments and his lordly nearing and conduct, personified the opulence and grandeur of the Empire. Under him, the Mughal rumbustiousness was at last tamed under the influence of Persian courtly formalism” Unlike his immediate ancestors, Shah Jahan was staunchly orthodox and played a significant role in unraveling the established Mughal policy of tolerance towards other faiths. Multiple historical accounts mention demolitions and vandalism of places of faith, apart from those that celebrated Islam. Mumtaz Begum is said to have been a powerful administrator, along with Shah Jahan. She is said to have had control over the imperial seal and was closely involved in the running of the empire. The niece of Nur Jahan, she was considered to be formidable and strong-willed but also a woman of utmost beauty. 

Shah Jahan was usurped by Aurangzeb, his son who finds place in Indian history as the least tolerant of the Mughals and perhaps certain facts have been largely contorted over years of historical telling. Aurangzeb's policies and governance exacerbated the less pluralistic and inclusive ways of Shah Jahan and positioned him in the role of a staunchly fundamentalist ruler. It remains tragic however, that a father as great as Shah Jahan was kept captive by this son for the last eight years of his life in the Agra Fort, in quarters that overlooked the Taj.

After his death Aurangazeb had Shah Jahan interred in the Taj Mahal, next to Mumtaz Mahal. The two graves lie beneath two 'false' tombstones, underground. Many believe that Shah Jahan had not planned to be buried with his wife within the Taj and their graves sit asymmetrically in the centre of the monument.

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1. World Heritage Centre, Unesco

2. The Mughal World: Life in India's Last Golden Age by Abraham Eraly, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

The companionship Shah Jahan enjoyed with Mumtaz Mahal, is well documented by the court historian Muhammad Amin Qazwini. Mumtaz Mahal, her adopted name literally translates to 'the chosen one of the Palace'

Qazwini writes, “The intimacy, deep affection, attention and favor which His Majesty had for the Cradle of Excellence [another title of Mumtaz] exceeded by a thousand times what he felt for any other. And always that Lady of the Age was the companion, close confidante, associate and intimate friend of that successful ruler, in hardship and comfort, joy and grief, when travelling or in residence…. The mutual affection and harmony between the two had reached a degree never seen between a husband and wife among the sultans and rulers, or among the ordinary people.”

Shah Jahan was "a generous master who treated his servants with respect, and a far-sighted leader with a strict sense of justice."-British Library Learning Archives
Shah Jahan, a lover of gardens is said to have commissioned 999 of them in Kashmir, during his reign. Of these Shalimar Gardens are preserved as a World Heritage Site in Kashmir and are a highlight on the tourist trail in the Valley.

TAJ- DISCOVERED, DOCUMENTED AND CHERISHED

From the time it was completed till this day, the Taj has captured the imaginations of visitors and the proud residents of Agra - which is evident in how the local economy of this town revolves around tourists at the Taj and other Mughal sites such as the Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri.

There have been some spectacular renditions of the Taj created by artists and photographers over the centuries - celebrating this mausoleum built on the banks of the Yamuna. It is these images that have also helped historians, geographers and archeologists study the movement of the river over the years, its dramatic shrink in size and the extensive gardens that were laid out surrounding the Taj at the time that it was built. Some of these images, find place in this story.

Detail from the Tomb
Detail from the Tomb

ARCHITECTURE

Often described as the most beautiful and perfect building in the world, the Taj is often simplified into an expression of one man's love for his wife. What its multiple architects and builders achieve architecturally, is perhaps worth an elaboration. In its state of being, the Taj stands magnificent and tall and almost awkward sometimes, in its embodiment of a extravagant gesture, that is perhaps also too personal.

Built as a complex of elaborate buildings and gardens, the precinct of the Taj spans over 55 acres. With construction that began in 1632, the Taj was completed in 1648. Over more than 20 years, the Emperor supervised building of what he considered a reflection of the befitting home in paradise for Mumtaz. Set within a four garden plan, the 'Mythical Garden of Paradise' (charbagh), the mausoleum boasts of a perfect onion tomb sat on the central structure, inturn placed on a raised terrace of 22'. This main structure of the Taj (186' wide) is flanked by geometrically fascinating minarets (137' tall) and the entire building is sheathed in marble with inlay work all over. The walls of the tomb are adorned with geometric  and floral motifs, most symmetrical and inscriptions from the Quran in refined calligraphic tradition.

“..Its refined elegance is a conspicuous contrast both to the Hindu architecture of pre-Islamic India, with its thick walls, corbeled arches, and heavy lintels, and to the Indo-Islamic styles, in which Hindu elements are combined with an eclectic assortment of motifs from Persian and Turkish sources.” 

—Marvin Trachtenberg and Isabelle Hyman. Architecture: from Prehistory to Post-Modernism. p223.

In the words of Shah Jahan's early historian Muhammad Amin Qazwini, “..And a dome of high foundation and building of great magnificence was founded - a similar and equal to it the eye of the Age has not seen under these nine vaults of enamel-blue sky, and of anything resermbling it the ear of Time has not heard in any of the past ages..it will be the masterpiece of the days to come, and that which adds to the astonishment of humanity at large..”

Muhammad Amin Qazwini, Padshahnama, British Library Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections

In the central hall of the mausoleum are two false graves, covered by exquisite jaali (lattice) screens. These 'protect' the tombs from the gaze of the onlookers, whilst the actual graves of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal are enshrined a level below, in a chamber directly under the main hall.

“The interior of the building is dimly lit through pierced marble lattices and contains a virtuoso display of carved marble. Externally the building gains an ethereal quality from its marble facings, which respond with extraordinary subtlety to changing light and weather.” — Sir Banister Fletcher. A History of Architecture. p624, 630.

“From our investigations, the reign of Shah Jahan emerges at a time when the visual arts were most consistently and systematically explored as a means of promulgating imperial ideology. The written texts and the arts were seen as equally necessary means to represent the ruler and his state for wider public and to provide a lasting memorial to his fame..”

-Ebba Koch, Taj Mahal: Architecture, Symbolism and Urban Significance; Institute fur Kunstgeschichte, University of Vienna

TRACING ARCHITECTURAL INFLUENCES

The Humayun's tomb (built in 1569-70) is considered the primary architectural precusor to the Taj in India. Built by Hamida Begum for her husband Humayun, during the reign of Akbar, the Humayun's tomb is the first of its kind in the Indian subcontinent. It carries off succinctly the elements of the central dome, geometric symmetrical planning and integrates with these particular elements from Hindu architecture. The chhatris and red sandstone feature with the double dome, arched alcoves, a central octagonal chamber and fine marble inlay to create a monument that still rivals the Taj in its splendour and perfection. 

The construction of this tomb set a new language and introduced the garden tomb to the architectural lexicon of the Mughals.

It is interesting also to note the parallels of power Muslim women enjoyed in the times of the Great Mughal Emperors. While Hamida Begum commissions and oversees the building of the Humayun's Tomb, it is “a measure of prominence of Mughal women.. that it was a Mughal princess who inspired the building of what is certainly the most famous monument raised by the dynasty: the Taj Mahal.”

- The Most Magnificent Muslims, William Dalrymple; The New York Review of Books, Nov 22, 2007

LEFT, BELOW: Humayun's Tomb, Delhi

RIGHT: Taj Mahal

The Biwi ka Maqbara, a monument commissioned by Aurangzeb in Aurangabad for his wife Dilras Banu Begum strongly resembles the architecture of the Taj, yet lacks its pristine proportion and grandeur.

Around the Taj Mahal and the city of Agra, are monuments built by the Mughal dynasties that are diverse and magnificent. Of these, the Agra Fort, The Moti Masjid and Fatehpur Sikri often feature on tourist itineraries.

Explore Fatehpur Sikri through Street View.

It is one of the most photographed monuments across the world and for good reason. The experience of being at the Taj Mahal is far more pronounced and overwhelming than one can imagine. In this age of easy access and constant bombardment of visual stimuli, the Taj is often reduced to a symbol - however reclaims its mantle when one visits it. It never fails to surprise, and never fails to welcome - people from all walks of life, irrespective of their faith or class.

Credits: Story

Narrative — Payal Wadhwa, Designer and Interpretation strategist
Text Sources —
Archeological Survey of India
World Heritage Centre, UNESCO
 The Mughal World: Life in India's Last Golden Age by Abraham Eraly, Weidenfeld & Nicolson
British Library Learning Archive
Muhammad Amin Qazwini, Padshahnama, British Library Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections
 A History of Architecture, Sir Banister Fletcher.p624, 630.
 Taj Mahal: Architecture, Symbolism and Urban Significance; Ebba Koch,Institute fur Kunstgeschichte, University of Vienna
The Most Magnificent Muslims, William Dalrymple; The New York Review of Books, Nov 22, 2007.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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