In the late spring of the next year, in a sprawling cantonment outside the city of Burhanpur, the emperor was directing his troops against Khan Jahan Lodi and simultaneously watching the royal harem for word of his fourteenth child. When the report came, it brought announcement of the birth of a healthy baby girl, but nothing was said of Mumtaz Mahal. For hours Shah Jahan waited impatiently. Still there was no news. A messenger sent to the harem did not return. The alarmed emperor sent another, then a third, but none came back. It grew late, past midnight. Shah Jahan was preparing to go the harem himself when at last a message arrived: the queen was well but very tired, and she wished to be permitted to rest undisturbed for the remaining hours of the night.
The emperor was relieved and he too retired for the night, planning to visit the harem in the morning. But a few hours later he was awakened with the unsettling news that Mumtaz Mahal had suffered a relapse and was calling for him. He immediately dressed and made his way through the maze of war tents, arriving at the harem to find a solemn assembly of doctors grouped around the bedside. The queen was dying.
Everyone was immediately dismissed from the room except for Sati-un-nisa, the queen's favorite lady-in-waiting, and Wazir Khan, her beloved doctor. Wazir Khan feared the worst, he told the emperor, for Mumtaz Mahal had earlier confided to him that she had heard her child cry in the womb before its birth, an ominous portent.
For several hours the emperor sat at the bedside and spoke quietly with Mumtaz Mahal. Toward the early hours of the morning she lost consciousness and before the sun rose she was dead. Legend has it that before dying she extracted two promises from him. One was that he would not beget children on any other wife her death, and the other was that he should build the world's most beautiful mausoleum over her grave. Whether or not the story is true, Shah Jahan certainly had no other children, and he did begin the mausoleum almost immediately after her death.
Work began on the Taj Mahal in 1632. For twenty-two years, 20,000 workers from India, Persia, the Ottoman Empire and Europe labored to construct the Taj Mahal. Spread over an area of 42 acres (17-hectare) the total cost of construction came out to be approximately 32 million Rupees. The site was chosen near the capital Agra, on the southwest bank of the River Yamuna. Although it is not known for sure who planned the Taj, the name of an Indian architect of Persian descent, Ustad Ahmad Lahori, has been cited in many sources.
Surprisingly, the origin of the name "Taj Mahal" is not clear. Court histories from Shah Jahan's reign only call it the rauza (tomb) of Mumtaz Mahal. It is generally believed that "Taj Mahal" (translated as "Crown of the Palace") is an abbreviated version of her name, Mumtaz Mahal. As Peter Mundy and other early travelers refer to the empress in their accounts as "Taje Mahal," the mausoleum may have also acquired the name in the seventeenth century.
The Taj stands on a raised, square platform (186 x 186 feet) with its four corners truncated, forming an unequal octagon. The architectural design uses the interlocking arabesque concept, in which each element stands on its own and perfectly integrates with the main structure. It uses the principles of self-replicating geometry and a symmetry of architectural elements. The five principal elements of the complex namely the main gateway, garden, mosque, jawab (literally "answer"; a building mirroring the mosque), and mausoleum (including its four minarets)- were conceived and designed as a unified entity according to the tenets of Mughal building practice, which allowed no subsequent addition or alteration.
Its central dome is fifty-eight feet in diameter and rises to a height of 213 feet. It is flanked by four subsidiary domed chambers. These four graceful, slender minarets are 162.5 feet each. The entire mausoleum (inside as well as outside) is decorated with inlaid design of flowers and calligraphy using precious gems such as agate and jasper. The main archways, chiseled with passages from the holy Quran and the bold scroll work of flowery pattern, give a captivating charm to its beauty. The central domed chamber and four adjoining chambers include many walls and panels of Islamic decoration.
"The mausoleum of the Taj Mahal at Agra stands in a formally laid-out walled garden entered through a pavilion on the main axis. The tomb, raised on a terrace and first seen reflected in the central canal, is entirely sheathed in marble, but the mosque and counter-mosque on the transverse axis are built in red sandstone. The four minarets, set symmetrically about the tomb, are scaled down to heighten the effect of the dominant, slightly bulbous dome. The mosques, built only to balance the composition are set sufficiently far away to do no more than frame the mausoleum. In essence, the whole riverside platform is a mosque courtyard with a tomb at its center. The great entrance gate with its domed central chamber, set at the end of the long watercourse, would in any other setting be monumental in its own right."
"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."
Two notable decorative features are repeated throughout the complex: pietra dura and Arabic calligraphy. As embodied in the Mughal craft, pietra dura incorporates the inlay of semiprecious stones of various colors, such as lapis lazuli, jade, crystal, turquoise and amethyst, in highly formalized and intertwining geometric and floral designs. The colors serve to moderate the dazzling expanse of the white Makrana marble. The level of sophistication in the art work becomes obvious when one realizes that a 3 cm decorative element contains more than 50 inlaid gemstones.
Under the direction of Amanat Khan al-Shirazi, Quranic verses were inscribed across numerous sections of the Taj Mahal in calligraphy, the center of Islamic artistic tradition. One of the inscriptions in the sandstone gateway is known as Daybreak (89:28-30) and invites the faithful to enter paradise. Calligraphy also encircles the soaring arched entrances to the mausoleum proper. On closer look, the lettering of the Quran verses around the archways appears to be uniform, regardless of their height. The lettering, spacing and density have been customized to give this impression to the beholder. To ensure its uniform appearance, the lettering increases in size according to its relative height and distance from the viewer.
As a tribute to a beautiful woman and as a monument for enduring love, the Taj reveals its subtleties when one explores it at leisure and not hurriedly. The rectangular base of Taj is in itself symbolic of the different sides from which to view a beautiful woman. The main gate is like a veil to a woman's face, which should be lifted delicately, gently and without haste on the wedding night. As per the charming Indian tradition the veil is lifted gently to reveal the beauty of the bride, in the couple's first night together.
The dome is made of white marble, but the tomb is set against an awesome backdrop of the river and it is this background that works its magic of colors, and through the reflection of these colors transforms the view of the Taj. The colors change at different hours of the day and during different seasons. Like a jewel, the Taj sparkles in moonlight when the semi-precious stones inlaid into the white marble on the main mausoleum catch the glow of the moon. The Taj is pinkish in the morning, milky white in the evening and golden when the moon shines. These changes, they say, depict the different moods of a woman.
It has been said of the Mughals that they designed like giants and finished like jewelers, a fact amply brought out in the Taj Mahal. The wife of a British officer, Colonel Slleman, while writing home, described it thus:
"I cannot tell what I think. I do not know how to criticize such a building but I can tell what I feel. I would die tomorrow to have such another over me."
The poet Rabindranath Tagore has perhaps said it best of all:
"You know Shah Jahan, life and youth, wealth and glory, they all drift away in the current of time. You strove therefore, to perpetuate only the sorrow of your heart. Let the splendor of diamond, pearl and ruby vanish. Only let this one teardrop, this Taj Mahal, glisten spotlessly bright on the cheek of time, forever and ever."
References and Further Reading
- Carroll, David. The Taj Mahal (India Under the Moguls): New York, 1972
- Pal, Pratapaditya. Romance of the Taj Mahal: New Delhi, 1989.
- Saran, Shalini. Taj Mahal (Agra, Fatehpur Sikri): New Delhi, 2001.