The Taj Mahal (which literally translates to “crown of palaces”) is a tomb set within an elaborate complex officially completed around 1052/1643 for the Muslim Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to commemorate his deceased wife Arjumand Banu Begum, the most beloved of his four wives. The two were betrothed in their midteens, and after marriage she was called Mumtaz Mahal Begum (meaning “chosen one of the palace”). She accompanied Shah Jahan on many of his military expeditions, while observing gender-segregation conventions, and bore him fourteen children. She died in Burhanpur in 1041/1631, and a grief-stricken Shah Jahan oversaw the temporary burial of her body twice before she was finally buried in the Taj Mahal. Shah Jahan was buried next to her when he died in 1076/1666.
It took 12 years, 5 million rupees, and thousands of paid workers from across Mughal India and beyond to complete the complex and the mausoleum, which was called the Illumined Garden-Tomb, or Rauza-i munauwara, in historical sources. The site chosen was located in the Mughal Empire's capital city of Akbarabad (Agra) on the Yamuna riverbank amid dozens of riverfront garden palaces and garden tombs, including the city's imperial fort.
The Taj Mahal reaches 68 meters (223 feet) high and was part of a vast enclosed rectangular architectural complex, 896 meters (2,939 feet) long and 300 meters (984 feet) wide, consisting of the following four interconnected parts:
a riverfront terrace and river dock on which the tomb and two identical flanking buildings (a mosque and a mihman khana [assembly hall]) rested;
a square cross-axial garden with a central reflecting pool, smaller square plots filled with fruit trees (orange, apple, mango, etc.), scented herbs, and flowers (roses, poppies, marigolds, etc.), walkways lined with cypress trees, and water channels with dozens of fountains supplied by the Yamuna River via an aqueduct;
a forecourt where tomb attendants lived; and
a now-demolished bazaar and caravansary, the proceeds from which helped finance the running of the complex in addition to the tributary revenue procured from thirty surrounding villages.
Across the river and along the same axis, Shah Jahan also commissioned a square enclosed garden known as he Imperial Moonlight Garden, or Bagh-i Mahtab Padshahi, that was the same width as the main complex.
Four minarets frame the tomb, which is planned around a central octagonal domed chamber 24.7 meters (81 feet) high and a basement crypt. The ornate marble grave marker of Mumtaz Mahal lies at the center with Shah Jahan's beside her. They are surrounded by an intricate octagonal marble lattice screen, which replaced the original lavish gold one that was first installed. Surrounding the chamber are two stories of eight interconnected smaller chambers.
The tomb is constructed with baked flat bricks and mortar and faced with gray-streaked polished marble slabs joined with iron clamps. The marble is ornamented with flowers, extensive inlaid black onyx rendering calligraphic Qurpanic Arabic, and geometric patterns using various techniques such as Italian pietra dura and relief carving. The dome is made of two domes, a shallow rounded interior one and a tall pointed exterior one. Four smaller pavilion domes are also located on the roof. The tomb's river terrace platform was built with brick and red sandstone. It rests on a series of resilient underground rubble foundation pillars created in sandy watery soil.
Shah Jahan, a prolific architectural patron, helped with the design, but Mir qAbdul Karim and Makramat Khan are officially credited as supervisor of construction and principal administrator, respectively, although an unofficial account cites Ustad Ahmad Lahauri as the master builder. Bibadal Khan was recorded as the goldsmith of the initial tomb chamber screen, and Amanat Khan's calligraphy graces the tomb's exterior. Stonemason inscriptions also reveal Hindu and Muslim names for workers at the site.
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Intended to commemorate a beloved wife, the Taj Mahal is a transcultural monument inspired by the tombs and gardens of Central Asia and Iran, Islamic burial practices, ancient Indian aesthetics, the skills of its Hindu and Muslim workers, the Rajput and Central Asian heritages of its patron, and the garden aesthetics and preservation efforts of the British who made lawns where there were once trees rather than destroying the site as they once threatened. Today, the Taj Mahal is a potent symbol of the Indian nation, a popular but vulnerable international tourist destination, and a world monument unlike any other.
SEE ALSO Architecture; India; Mughals.
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