Taj Mahal: More than a Magnificent Tomb
Amongst the smog and dirt of Agra in India lies the Taj Mahal, arguably the most famous building on the planet. Spending a few hours visiting it does leave anyone disappointed, myself included. I was memorised by the power and ambience of the building and it’s immediate heavenly surroundings. So what about it’s origins? The great white marble structure was created as a mausoleum but new evidence suggests it is more than this. Shah Jahan the ruler of the Mogul Empire in 1631 lost his wife Mumtaz Mahal after she gave birth to his 14th child. After a period of mourning his loss Shah Jahan enlisted the help of some 20,000 men and women to work on the project of building the most beautifully crafted piece of architecture.
It was in part testimony to the vast power of Shah Jahan and the Mogul Empire (over which he ruled) that such a demanding project as the Taj Mahal was ever completed. Shah Jahan was born on the 1000th anniversary of the creation of Islam and birth of Mohamed in 1592. At just the age of 15 he fell in love with Arjumand Banu Begam, the daughter of his father’s Prime Minister and they eventually married in 1612. His wife became known as Mumtaz Mahal ‘Chosen One of the Palace’. In 1628 Shah Jahan took over as ruler of the Mogul Empire. Indeed his name Shah Jahan means ‘king of the world’. However in 1631 the death of Mumtaz Mahal left him so distraught he disappeared for a time into mourning. Shah Jahan dreamt of a way to immortalise his lost love. To glorify his wife he decided to begin work on the central mausoleum that became the ‘Taj Mahal’ (a variant of the queen’s name).
The giant cut blocks of white marble that were used to build the Taj Mahal were transported over 200 miles into Agra by elephant. Other materials were brought in from all around the empire, malachite from Russia, Jasper from Tibet, carnelian from Baghdad and turquoise from Persia. Shah Jahan summoned the best craftsmen in his empire from carpenters through to masons and calligraphers to work on the Taj Mahal. The main structure was completed by 1648 although work continued on for several more years. It was rumoured that the chief architect had his hands cut off so that he did not have the means of orchestrating such a masterful piece of architecture elsewhere.
Upon the outer walls of the Taj Mahal masses of Arabic text are inscribed. The wording is taken directly from 22 passages and 14 chapters of the Koran, the Islamic equivalent of the Bible. Two sandstone mosques flank the Taj Mahal but most attention is drawn to the four giant minarets positioned at the corners of the main structure. More significance has been drawn recently to the symmetric marble-paved gardens. The four main water channels resemble the four rivers of paradise as mentioned in the Koran. It is now believed that the perfection sought after in creating the Taj Mahal and surrounding gardens resembled Shah Jahan’s vision of heaven. He wanted the Taj Mahal to be an exact replica of paradise.
In 1657 Shah Jahan fell quite ill. A great power struggle emerged between his four power-hungry sons each wanting to take over the reign of their father’s empire. One son called Aurangzeb emerged victor and deposed his father and sadly imprisoned him in the Red Fort just up river from the Taj Mahal. Shah Jahan spent the rest of his days within sight of the building that took him 20 years to complete. When he died in 1666 at the age of 74 his body was gently floated on a boat back down the Yamuna River and laid to rest next to his wife. Today they lie entombed side by side in the crypt below the main structure. The two cenotaphs are inside an octagonal chamber that is enclosed by perforated marble screens through which daylight softly filters. To know this story that lies behind the creation of the Taj Mahal I found gave extra special meaning to my visit.