The Taj Mahal Story

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To people the world over, the Taj Mahal is synonymous with India. It is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular buildings of the world. Renowned for its architectural magnificence and aesthetic beauty, it counts among man’s proudest creations and is invariably included in the list of the world’s foremost wonders.

The throne room was empty. Emperor Shah Jahan did not display himself in finely embroidered robes at the royal window that day, nor did he sit with his concubines in the Jasmine pavilion enjoying the drama of an elephant fight in the river beds. He canceled all appointments and went directly into his rooms, where he locked the doors behind him for eight days refusing to take any food or wine, and the only sound that the ministers who gathered outside his apartments could discern was a low, continues moan. On the ninth day the doors opened, and to the surprise of everyone who had known the worldly ruler, Shah Jahan emerged speaking of the impermanence of life and of a desire to renounce his title and become a homeless fakir- this from the same man who, a few years earlier, had cut down four brothers to gain the throne. A strange physical transformation had also taken place: the emperor’s back was now bent in a peculiar way and his hair, which had been raven black, had turned totally white. Shah Jahan ordered his entire kingdom into mourning. A pall of solemnity hung over North India, and all popular music and public amusements, all perfumes, cosmetics, jewelry, and brightly colored clothes were forbidden. Offenders, no matter what their age or rank, were arraigned before a court tribunal; if their behavior was judged disrespectful to the memory of the queen, they were executed. So intense was this obsessed man’s passion for his dead wife that he mourned her for almost ten years. It was recorded by an historian that “when she died, he was in danger to die himself.”

According to one popular legend, the story goes back in 1607 to the Royal Meena Bazaar, a private marketplace attached to the palace harem, where the women of the aristocracy purchased the dyes, oils, and waxes. Inside these walls no male dared trespass, for if he were caught he might expect – at the very least – to lose his hands and feet on the executioner’s block. However, certain dates were set aside as “contrary days,” when everything was done in reverse; and then, for one or two uninhibited days a month, the Royal Meena Bazaar opened wide its gates and became a public pleasure ground.


On one such day the handsome prince Khurram from the royal Mughal household came there to take his pleasure. Just sixteen, the prince was already a veteran of one war and a poet. His singing voice and his mastery of Koranic calligraphy were both well-regarded, and he had learned the principles of architecture so well that he was often asked to design balconies and municipal warehouses for his father, the emperor Jahangir. If he did enjoy attending executions in his father’s underground torture chambers, and if he was especially fond of watching the spectacle of death by strangulation, he was, after all, a Mughal prince. Accompanied by a string of fawning courtiers, he caught a glimpse of a girl hawking silk and glass beads. She was fifteen, named Arjumand Banu Begam, lovely and high born, the daughter of the prime minister (wazir) Asaf Khan, a powerful and suspicious statesman; only the highest in the land would dare flirt with his daughter. For a moment Khurram remained motionless, looking steadily at the young woman then, without a word, he drew ten thousand rupees from his sleeve, took the piece of glass, cut as a diamond, turned, and vanished into the ground, carrying the stone and the girl’s heart with him. The next day Khurram made an unusual and bold request to his father: in those days one did not marry for love alone. He sought the hand of Arjumand in marriage. It is said that Jahangir smiled mysteriously – recalling perhaps his own love for Nur Jahan – and silently raised his right hand in assent.

Arjumand was born in her father’s harem in 1592 and grew up there in the manner of all daughters of aristocrats. She studied the Moslem holy books, Islam being the official religion of the Mughals (it was a standard part of each child’s education to memorize parts of the Koran).

One year after the request was granted, Prince Khurram was indeed married – but not to Arjumand. His first wife was a Persian princess. Members of the royal family could not pick their wedding days and were indeed fortunate if they could choose their wives. The marriage arrangements depended on external political considerations, on military coalitions, alliances, fat dowries, or family ties, all of which were first checked against the stars by the emperor’s astrologers. Then too, Moslem law allowed every man four wives; moreover, any respectable Mughal nobleman, if he did not wish to have his virility or solvency questioned, was expected to keep many concubines as well. For a prince, monogamy was impractical and unacceptable.

For five years Khurram and Arjumand waited. He grew into a startlingly handsome man and she matured into a lady of gentle temperament. For the entire period before their marriage they were not allowed to meet, and they passed the full five years of their engagement without ever once laying eyes on each other again. Finally, on March 27, 1612, when all the calculations of the astrologers were in accord, the long anticipated event took place. To show the great esteem the emperor felt for his new daughter-in-law he bestowed on her the highest of honors, a new name. Henceforth she was to be known as Mumtaz Mahal, “Chosen One of the Palace.”

After their wedding, the prince was with Mumtaz Mahal day and night. She was beautiful and demure; the royal poets wrote that her loveliness made the moon hide its face in shame, while the stars extinguished their light in fear of being compared to her radiance. She was so intelligent that she soon became a political adviser to her husband. She was charitable, giving food to the peasants and silver to the beggars who called to her each morning outside the brick walls of the palace. She was compassionate, every day drawing up lists of helpless widows and orphans and making certain that the prince attended to their needs. She was generous, supporting hundreds of poor families and arranging pensions for hundreds more. She was, in short, a model of feminine virtue.

Meanwhile Khurram ascended to the Mughal throne on the 4th of February 1628. Shah Sultan Khurram became Shah Jahan, Emperor of the World.

During their nineteen years together, Mumtaz Mahal gave Khurram fourteen children, only seven of whom survived. In 1630, during the third year of Shah Jahan’s reign, she died after childbirth while accompanying her husband in a campaign to crush a rebellion.

Legend says as Mumtaz Mahal lay dying, she asked four promises from the emperor: first, that he build the Taj; second, that he should marry again; third, that he be kind to their children; and fourth, that he visit the tomb on her death anniversary. He kept the first and second promises.

Construction began in 1631. Emperor Shah Jahan depicted the Taj in these words:

“Should guilty seek asylum here,
Like one pardoned, he becomes free from sin.
Should a sinner make his way to this mansion,
All of his past sins are to be washed away.
The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs;
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.”

For twenty-two years over 20,000 workmen and master craftsmen from India, Persia, the Ottoman Empire and Europe labored to construct the Taj Mahal. The material was brought in from all over India and central Asia and it took a fleet of 1,000 elephants to transport it to the site. Spread over an area of 42 acres (17-hectare) the total cost of construction came out to be approximately 32 million Rupees at that time. If converted to current currency rates the cost would exceed trillions of dollars. The site was chosen near the capital of the Mughal monarchs 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. But the beauty of Taj Mahal is also tainted by the gory fact that the hands of some of the master craftsmen were amputated, to ensure that the perfection of the Taj could never be repeated ever again!

Surprisingly, the origin of the name “Taj Mahal” is not clear. It is generally believed that “Taj Mahal” (translated as “Crown of the Palace”) is an abbreviated version of her name, Mumtaz Mahal.

The Taj Mahal is an integrated complex of structures; the most recognized constituent being the white domed marble mausoleum. It is one of the greatest examples of Mughal architectural style which blends characteristics from Persian, Ottoman, Indian, and Islamic cultures.

The main focus of the Taj Mahal is the tome. Made of a white marble it rests on a plinth, a support block which consists of a symmetrical building. It also boasts an arch shaped doorway and is covered by a large dome. The base is a huge cube-shape structure with chambered edges and is 55m on either side. Every side of the buildings is completely symmetrical. Four minarets, tall slender towers frame the tomb from all four corners. The main chamber contains the artificial toms of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan: their actual graves are at a much lower level.

The most visually impressive feature is the marble dome that surmounts the tomb. It stands at 35m and is further accentuated as it sits on a drum that is 7m high. The lotus design found on top of the dome, serves to further accentuate its height. Smaller domed kiosks are placed at each of the four corners. The columned bases of the kiosks provide light to the interior. As with many tall building built during that time period the Taj Mahal was built with protective strategies. The decorative features where built to fall away from the tomb in the event of a building collapse.

The exterior decorations of the mausoleum are breathtaking. They were created using various techniques which included stone inlays or carvings. “In line with the Islamic prohibition against the use of anthropomorphic forms, the decorative elements can be grouped into calligraphy, abstract forms or vegetative motifs.” Persian calligrapher Amanat Kham created the calligraphy that can be found in throughout the Taj Mahal: at the gate it reads, “O Soul, thou art at rest. Return to the Lord at peace with Him, and He is at peace with you.”

Not long after the Taj Mahal was completed Shah Jahan was put under house arrest at Agra Fort by his son Aurangzeb. Aurangzeb did bury his father next to his wife. Mumtaz and Shah Jahan are laid in a plain vault, with their faces turned toward Mecca. “Nine names of God are to be found as calligraphic inscriptions on the sides of the actual tomb of Mumtaz Mahal, in the crypt including, ‘O Noble, O Magnificent, O Majectic, O Unique, O Eternal, O Glorious…’ The tomb of Shah Jahan bears a calligraphic inscription that reads; “He traveled from this world to the banquet-hall of Eternity on the night of the twenty-sixth of the month of Rajab in the year 1076 Hijir.”

Parts of the Taj Mahal had collapsed into ruin by the end of the XIX century. During the Indian rebellion of 1857 it was disfigured by not only British soldiers but also government officials. British viceroy Lord Curzon oversaw a restoration project which also included the gardens surrounding the complex. The project was completed by 1908. A short time later, the building was once again in danger of great damage. To protect it, two times the government constructed scaffolding around the Taj Mahal: first, in expectation of an air attack by German and subsequently Japanese Air Forces in 1942; and second, in the hopes of misleading bomber pilots during the India-Pakistan wars of 1965-1971.The only threat surrounding the mausoleum in present times has come from environmental pollution.

The Taj Mahal is cited as “the jewel of Muslim art in India and one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world’s heritage.” In 1983 it became a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site. Up to four million people visit this magnificent place annually.

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