The Taj Mahal is an ivory-white marble mausoleum on the south bank of the Yamuna river in the Indian city of Agra.
The Taj Mahal was commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (reigned from 1628 to 1658) to house the tomb of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal; it also houses the tomb of Shah Jahan himself.
The tomb is the centerpiece of a 17-hectare (42-acre) complex, which includes a mosque and a guest house, and is set in formal gardens bounded on three sides by a crenelated wall.
Construction of the mausoleum was essentially completed in 1643, but work continued on other phases of the project for another 10 years. The Taj Mahal complex is believed to have been completed in its entirety in 1653 at a cost estimated at the time to be around 32 million rupees, which in 2015 would be approximately 52.8 billion rupees (U.S. $827 million).
The construction project employed some 20,000 artisans under the guidance of a board of architects led by the court architect to the emperor, Ustad Ahmad Lahauri.
The Taj Mahal was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 for being “the jewel of Muslim art in India and one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world’s heritage”.
It is regarded by many as the best example of Mughal architecture and a symbol of India’s rich history. The Taj Mahal attracts 7–8 million visitors a year and in 2007, it was declared a winner of the New 7 Wonders of the World (2000–2007) initiative.
The Taj Mahal was commissioned by Shah Jahan in 1631, to be built in the memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died on 17 June that year, giving birth to their 14th child, Gauhara Begum.
Construction started in 1632, and the mausoleum was completed in 1643, while the surrounding buildings and garden were finished five years later.
The imperial court documenting Shah Jahan’s grief after the death of Mumtaz Mahal illustrates the love story held as the inspiration for the Taj Mahal.
Architecture and design
The Taj Mahal incorporates and expands on the design traditions of Persian and earlier Mughal architecture. Specific inspiration came from successful Timurid and Mughal buildings including the Gur-e Amir (the tomb of Timur, the progenitor of the Mughal dynasty, in Samarkand), Humayun’s Tomb which inspired the Charbagh gardens and hasht-behesht (architecture) plan of the site, Itmad-Ud-Daulah’s Tomb (sometimes called the Baby Taj), and Shah Jahan’s own Jama Masjid in Delhi.
While earlier Mughal buildings were primarily constructed of red sandstone, Shah Jahan promoted the use of white marble inlaid with semi-precious stones. Buildings under his patronage reached new levels of refinement.
The exterior decorations of the Taj Mahal are among the finest in Mughal architecture. As the surface area changes, the decorations are refined proportionally.
The decorative elements were created by applying paint, stucco, stone inlays or carvings. In line with the Islamic prohibition against the use of anthropomorphic forms, the decorative elements can be grouped into either calligraphy, abstract forms or vegetative motifs. Throughout the complex are passages from the Qur’an that comprise some of the decorative elements. Recent scholarship suggests that Amanat Khan chose the passages.
The calligraphy on the Great Gate reads “O Soul, thou art at rest. Return to the Lord at peace with Him, and He at peace with you.”
The calligraphy was created in 1609 by a calligrapher named Abdul Haq. Shah Jahan conferred the title of “Amanat Khan” upon him as a reward for his “dazzling virtuosity.” Near the lines from the Qur’an at the base of the interior dome is the inscription, “Written by the insignificant being, Amanat Khan Shirazi.”
Much of the calligraphy is composed of florid thuluth script made of jasper or black marble inlaid in white marble panels. Higher panels are written in the slightly larger scripts to reduce the skewing effect when viewed from below. The calligraphy found on the marble cenotaphs in the tomb is particularly detailed and delicate.
Abstract forms are used throughout, especially in the plinth, minarets, gateway, mosque, jawab and, to a lesser extent, on the surfaces of the tomb. The domes and vaults of the sandstone buildings are worked with tracery of incised painting to create elaborate geometric forms.
Herringbone inlays define the space between many of the adjoining elements. White inlays are used in sandstone buildings and dark or black inlays on the white marbles. Mortared areas of the marble buildings have been stained or painted in a contrasting color which creates a complex array of geometric patterns. Floors and walkways use contrasting tiles or blocks in tessellation patterns.
On the lower walls of the tomb are white marble dados sculpted with realistic bas relief depictions of flowers and vines. The marble has been polished to emphasize the exquisite detailing of the carvings.
The dado frames and archway spandrels have been decorated with pietra dura inlays of highly stylized, almost geometric vines, flowers and fruits. The inlay stones are of yellow marble, jasper, and jade polished and leveled to the surface of the walls.
The interior chamber of the Taj Mahal reaches far beyond traditional decorative elements. The inlay work is not pietra dura, but a lapidary of precious and semiprecious gemstones.
The inner chamber is an octagon with the design allowing for entry from each face, although only the door facing the garden to the south is used. The interior walls are about 25 meters (82 ft) high and are topped by a “false” interior dome decorated with a sun motif.
Eight pishtaq arches define the space at ground level and, as with the exterior, each lower pishtaq is crowned by a second pishtaq about midway up the wall. The four central upper arches form balconies or viewing areas, and each balcony’s exterior window has an intricate screen or jali cut from marble.
In addition to the light from the balcony screens, light enters through roof openings covered by chattris at the corners. The octagonal marble screen or jali bordering the cenotaphs is made from eight marble panels carved through with intricate pierce work.
The remaining surfaces are inlaid in delicate detail with semi-precious stones forming twining vines, fruits, and flowers. Each chamber wall is highly decorated with dado bas-relief, intricate lapidary inlay and refined calligraphy panels which reflect, in little detail, the design elements seen throughout the exterior of the complex.
Muslim tradition forbids elaborate decoration of graves. Hence, the bodies of Mumtaz and Shah Jahan were put in a relatively plain crypt beneath the inner chamber with their faces turned right, towards Mecca. Mumtaz Mahal’s cenotaph is placed at the precise center of the inner chamber on a rectangular marble base of 1.5 by 2.5 meters (4 ft 11 in by 8 ft 2 in).
Both the base and casket are elaborately inlaid with precious and semiprecious gems. Calligraphic inscriptions on the casket identify and praise Mumtaz.
On the lid of the casket is a raised rectangular lozenge meant to suggest a writing tablet. Shah Jahan’s cenotaph is beside Mumtaz’s to the western side and is the only visible asymmetric element in the entire complex.
The complex is set around a large 300-meter (980 ft) square charbagh or Mughal garden. The garden uses raised pathways that divide each of the four quarters of the garden into 16 sunken parterres or flowerbeds.
Halfway between the tomb and gateway in the center of the garden is a raised marble water tank with a reflecting pool positioned on a north-south axis to reflect the image of the mausoleum. The elevated marble water tank is called al Hawd al-Kawthar in reference to the “Tank of Abundance” promised to Muhammad.
Elsewhere, the garden is laid out with avenues of trees labeled according to common and scientific names and fountains. The charbagh garden, a design inspired by Persian gardens, was introduced to India by Babur, the first Mughal emperor.
It symbolizes the four flowing rivers of Jannah (Paradise) and reflects the Paradise garden derived from the Persian paridaeza, meaning ‘walled garden.‘ In mystic Islamic texts of the Mughal period, Paradise is described as an ideal garden of abundance with four rivers flowing from a central spring or mountain, separating the garden into north, west, south, and east.
Most Mughal charbaghs are rectangular with a tomb or pavilion in the center. The Taj Mahal garden is unusual in that the main element, the tomb, is located at the end of the garden.
With the discovery of Mahtab Bagh or “Moonlight Garden” on the other side of the Yamuna, the interpretation of the Archaeological Survey of India is that the Yamuna river itself was incorporated into the garden’s design and was meant to be seen as one of the rivers of Paradise.
Similarities in layout and architectural features with the Shalimar Gardens suggests both gardens may have been designed by the same architect, Ali Mardan. Early accounts of the garden describe its profusion of vegetation, including abundant roses, daffodils, and fruit trees.
As the Mughal Empire declined, the Taj Mahal and its gardens also declined. By the end of the 19th century, the British Empire controlled more than three-fifths of India and assumed management of the Taj Mahal. They changed the landscaping to their liking which more closely resembled the formal lawns of London.
Myths around Taj Mahal
Ever since its construction, the building has been the source of an admiration transcending culture and geography, and so personal and emotional responses have consistently eclipsed scholastic appraisals of the monument.
A longstanding myth holds that Shah Jahan planned a mausoleum to be built in black marble as a Black Taj Mahal across the Yamuna river.
The idea originates from the fanciful writings of Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, a European traveler who visited Agra in 1665. It was suggested that his son Aurangzeb overthrew Shah Jahan before it could be built. Ruins of blackened marble across the river in Moonlight Garden, Mahtab Bagh, seemed to support this legend.
However, excavations carried out in the 1990s found that they were discolored white stones that had turned black. A more credible theory for the origins of the black mausoleum was demonstrated in 2006 by archaeologists who reconstructed part of the pool in the Moonlight Garden. A dark reflection of the white mausoleum could clearly be seen, befitting Shah Jahan’s obsession with symmetry and the positioning of the pool itself.
No evidence exists for claims that describe, often in horrific detail, the deaths, dismemberments, and mutilations that Shah Jahan supposedly inflicted on various architects and craftsmen associated with the tomb. Some stories claim that those involved in construction signed contracts committing themselves to have no part in any similar design.
Similar claims are made for many famous buildings. No evidence exists for claims that Lord William Bentinck, governor-general of India in the 1830s, supposedly planned to demolish the Taj Mahal and auction off the marble. Bentinck’s biographer John Rosselli says that the story arose from Bentinck’s fund-raising sale of discarded marble from Agra Fort.
Another myth suggests that beating the silhouette of the finial will cause water to come forth. To this day, officials find broken bangles surrounding the silhouette.
A theory that the Taj Mahal was designed by an Italian, Geronimo Vereneo, held sway for a brief period after it was first promoted by Henry George Keene in 1879 who went by a translation of a Spanish work Itinerario, (The Travels of Fray Sebastian Manrique, 1629–1643).
Another theory that a Frenchman, Austin of Bordeaux designed the Taj was promoted by William Henry Sleeman based on the work of Jean-Baptiste Tavernier. These ideas were revived by Father Hosten and discussed again by E.B. Havell and served as the basis for subsequent theories and controversies.