Taj Mahal, Agra, India

Snatch a ticket to Agra from New Delhi, and catch the express train. For about another 250 minutes you travel across a couple of bygone centuries of dramatic scenes of history and misty, musical legends,  and now you are in Agra, once the capital of the Mughal Empire and the seat of the famous Taj Mahal, one of the stunning seven wonders of our planet. In another long moment of excited expectation, you will be in front of what poet Rabindranath Tagore, Asia's first Nobel Laureate, whispered in his inimitable words as "a teardrop that glistened spotlessly bright on the cheek of Time", and what Edwin Arnold, the remarkable English poet exclaimed as "not a piece of architecture…but the proud passions of an emperor's love wrought in living stones." The term 'Taj' has been known all over the world, and is an Indian emblem and symbol of superlative charm and quality.

Where does this out-of-the-ordinary structure stand? When was it built and how? By whom? For what?

It stands as an ethereal dream on the bank of the legendary river Yamuna, near the Great Red Fort of Agra city, Uttar Pradesh state of India. Its construction took the builders 22 years to complete it (from 1631 to 1653). About 22,000 workers were engaged for the construction, and 1000 and odd elephants for the transportation of materials etc. The construction was in Islamic architectural style. It is estimated that an amount of about Rs.320 milion was shelled out from the treasury towards the expenses.  If this is converted into the present currency rates, the amount could easily touch trillions.                                                                                                                             

The Taj Mahal, praised all over the world eloquently, and honored by UNESCO as a prime heritage property, and as one of the top wonders of the world, is nothing but the tomb of a queen who died too soon, and built by her husband and emperor, in her memory. The queen was Mumtaz Mahal, a beauty of Persian origin and the daughter of the prime minister of the emperor; and the emperor? Emperor (Shihabuddin Mohammed) Shah Jahan, whose original name as a prince was Khurram, the most favored son of Emperor Jahangir, and the grandson of Akbar the Great of the Mughal Dynasty of India.

Shah Jahan was the fifth emperor of the Dynasty (The founder of the line was Babur, 1526-30, the second was his son Humayun, 1530-40 and 1555-56, the third was Akbar the Great, 1556-1605, and the fourth Jahangir, 1605-1627). Shah Jahan's period of reign (1628 -1658) was the golden era of Mughul Architecture and other arts.

What made Emperor Shah Jahan build this lavishly elegant, uniquely magnificent memorial for his queen? It is a touching love story and is familiar almost for everyone in India. It has been taught in schools. It has been narrated in various literary and art forms, and the theatre, cinema and other performing arts made it all the more popular. All the same, let us have another brief look at it now:

Shah Jahan was Prince Khurram (to mean 'the joyous'), before his accession to the throne, and was highly popular among the officers and the people alike as he was handsome, well educated, very intelligent and talented. After becoming the emperor, he happened to meet the beautiful Arjumand Bano Begum at a New Year festival, and fell in love with her. He married her and renamed her as Mumtaz Mahal, meaning 'the chosen one'. Shah Jahan had three regular wives, but this fourth was the most beautiful of all, and bore him fourteen kids. The Emperor and the queen led a life of being together always. Wherever he went she accompanied him, because he could not think of a minute without her. That was the intensity of his love for her and her love for him.

There was a rebellion in Behrampur, an area under his empire, and the emperor had to go there to quell the uprising. It was soon after the birth of their fourteenth child. But the queen, as usual, accompanied him. But she became sick and died too soon. The emperor was in deep distress. It was his life's strongest crutch of love that he lost in her death. Before her death, she made him give her four promises to fulfill in the event of her death - the first, that he build a beautiful tomb for her; second, that he should marry again; third that he be kind to their children; and the fourth, that he visit the tomb on her death anniversary.

The Emperor kept his word given to the lovely partner of his life. The construction for the tomb on the banks of the river Yamuna began too soon. The design was approved. The architects were amply honoured in cash and gifts. According to the palace records, the translucent white marble was transported from Rajasthan, the colored quartz from Punjab, Jade and crystal from China, the peacock blue gemstone from Tibet, the shiny blue Lapis Lazuli from Afghanistan, the sapphire from Sri Lanka, and the camelian from Arabia, according to the palace registries. The gem stones were to be used in the inlays. According to some records, as many as 8 different varieties of semi-precious and precious stones were used in decorating the Taj with inlays.

Who was the designer of this magnificent structure?

Some say it was Shah Jahan himself. But have a look at the Taj – and you will find that only a professional could have designed it. Shah Jahan must have a role in the finishing time of it, or he must have supervised the execution of it. More than that, Shah Jahan, in spite of being very intelligent, imaginative and all that, could not have done anything in the genesis of the classic. It is only natural that the ruler's name is thrust upon a particular object of creative excellence. Historians found that Shah Jahan consulted experts from the Middle East and Europe as he planned his legacy. Whatever it might be, these Mughal historians who spent a lot of time and energy in chronicling the Taj Mahal had mentioned some 37 designers and architects to have contributed substantially towards the creative realization of the Taj. Some of the names mentioned in certain books are:

Ismail Afandi of the Ottoman empire, a premier designer of domes and hemispheres.

Ustad Isa of Persia and Isa Muhammad Effendi of Persia

Puru from Benarus, Persia, a supervising architect

Quazim Khan of Lahore, who cast the solid gold finial

Chiranjulal from Delhi, chief sculptor and mosaicist

Amanat Khan from Persia, chief calligrapher. His name is inscribed at the Taj gateway.

Some others say the designer was an Iranian architect. Opinions abound. There has been a myth galore about it. Books and articles on the Taj are full of such propositions. But there has been no evidence for any of these. According to one source, an Augustininan Friar had suggested that it was an Italian architect named Geronimo Veroneo who designed the Taj, for the emperor. But there was o evidence. One gentleman, a goldsmith, named Veroneo did come to India, during the rule of Shajahan's father Jahangir, but he could not reach Agra, and on his way to Lahore he died. Several Europeans had visited the Taj under construction. None of them had mentioned the name of such a designer or architect or one connected with the work. If a European was involved with the building of such a beautiful structure as the Taj Mahal, he could definitely have mentioned it somewhere. Moreover, there has been no mention anywhere about an Italian designer who was well-versed with the Indo-Persian style of designing structures.

As is known, Shah Jahan kept his word given to his beloved queen who departed for ever, and according to the records, the work on the construction began right earnestly, in 1631 and was completed in 22 tortuous years.

Every bit of the Taj has been recorded and explained by people of various levels – authorities in government, historians, travelers, observers, critics, poets, and other writers and the like. They were all stunned by the grandeur of the magnificence that was Taj. "The monument rises on a high sandstone base", describes an observer, "on which rests the famous dome flanked by four tapering minarets." The writer goes on to extol the workmanship with which the interior had been done: "within the dome lies the jewel inlaid cenotaph of the queen. So exquisite is the workmanship that the Taj has been described as "designed by giants and finished by jewelers.'

In getting the Taj designed, Shah Jahan was very particular that it should be a unique structure. Thus the design combined the Persian style and the Indian style of Mughal period. It is recorded that the tomb of Timur in Samarkand and some other tombs like the one of Itmad-Ud-Daulah's were inspirations. The Mughal buildings were usually in red sandstone, but Shah Jahan was particular that his constructions go in for white marble. The best example is, naturally, the Taj with inlays in very expensive precious and semi-precious stones. 

The Taj comes into view as standing on a high red sandstone base topped by a huge white marble terrace upon which you have the wondrous dome in marble, guarded on the four corners of the building's space by four large and tall towers called minarets, rising to more than 40 meters, all four tapering into the blue, blue sky. The height of the dome, 35 meters, is of the same size of the base of the building. An impressive lotus design adds wonderful charm to the distinctive beauty of the dome. Four smaller domes in the four corners underline the definition of the uncommonness of the dome. The structure as a whole has a symmetrical beauty. Have a closer look. You will find the great monument of love as if it is slowly rocking. You can also find the whiteness of the marble acquiring a mysterious sheen! Lustrous!

The exterior of the Taj is simple and at the same time elegant, and strictly in accordance with the Islamic instructions. No human figures and no humanized animal figures. And the images there are all calligraphic forms. Experts have concluded that the calligraphy is based on the thuluth script. At the gate, you will read, if you know thuluth, "O Soul, thou art at rest. Return to the Lord at peace with Him, and He at peace with you!"

The interior of the Taj is decorated in a manner as simple and elegant as the exterior is. There would not be any elaborate decorations of the graves, and that is the demand of tradition. 

On her death Mumtaz was buried at Behrampur. Since Agra was chosen as the site for her tomb, the emperor ordered that her grave uprooted as it was from Behrampur and transported to the new site. And after 22 years, and after all the artistic endeavors and ceremonies strictly in accordance with the Islamic prescriptions, the grave of the queen was transrooted within the dome and there lies the jewel-inlaid cenotaph of the queen.

Taj Mahal! Who gave the monument such a magical name? Who, other than the emperor himself? The monument for his wife should bear which other name than her name? Taj Mahal is Mum-taj mahal. In Persian, the word taj means Crown and mahal means place. And so this is the place where the crown of monuments is, where the crowning glory of ethereal beauty is!

Everything in the Taj is symmetrical, but there is one object that is asymmetrical – the casket of the emperor. After the completion of the Taj, the emperor was deposed by his son and the son put the father in the Great Red Fort. During this period of imprisonment, Shah Jahan was not allowed to visit his wife who lay in the tomb, nor was he allowed to enter the Taj. What all he was allowed was to have just a reflected view of the Taj, reflected on a gem stone. And that was the punishment the son gave to his father!

The Taj is a play of colors. The dome is of white marble. But the tomb is set against the river and its environs, and it is this which changes the color from hour to hour. At night, when the moon envelops the world with its magical yellow, the "teardrop" twinkles as a magnificent jewel. When the day breaks and the Sun begins his great pageant, the "monument of eternal love" turns pink with all the cool fragrance of dianthus. As the evening moves slowly in, the magnificence of the Taj, "finished by the jewelers" radiates a rare whiteness of the sparkle of a silvery star. In the moonless starry night, the "the display of the Creator's glory" seems to be the lone Pole Star, offering the shore of comfort for the ship-wrecked navigator.

Emperor Shah Jahan himself inscribed his description of his Taj Mahal in his own words:

"The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs and makes sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes. In this world this edifice has been made to display, thereby, the Creator's Glory."

And he wrote down these poetic lines too:

Should guilty seek asylum here

Like one pardoned, he becomes free from sin.   

Should a sinner make his way to this mansion,

All his past sins are to be washed away.

The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sights,

And the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes.

In this world this edifice has been made

To display thereby the creator's glory.