The Taj Mahal is the mausoleum of Mumtaz Mahal, first wife of Shah Jehan, the emperor of India. Their relationship is a great love story. She bore him fourteen children and died in childbirth with the last. Shah Jehan loved Mumtaz Mahal deeply in an age when arranged marriages meant that love was uncommon between husband and wife, and he built her mausoleum as a shrine. Not surprisingly, the Taj Mahal is a favorite with lovers and young couples.
The Great Gate is actually a substantial building in itself. Arabic calligraphy over it reads: “You are at rest, O Soul. Return to the Lord in peace with him and him with you.” This is inlayed into the white marble with jasper and black marble. The interior of the Taj is magnificent, with no expense spared. Thirty types of precious and semiprecious stones were incorporated into the inlays, which are delicately and beautifully wrought.
Muslims first settled in northern India in the twelfth century, and from 1527 to 1707 the Mughals ruled an Indian empire of splendid monuments and high culture. The fifth emperor, Shah Jehan (1627–1658), was a Muslim fundamentalist, rejecting his predecessors' policies of tolerance. He tore down Hindu temples to erect mosques, which caused resentment from his Hindu subjects. He did follow a policy of architectural creativity, however, and the Taj Mahal is the finest of the monuments he built.
The Taj Mahal is not only a jewel of architecture, but its placement within gardens with pools, canals, and fountains at the end of a long approach sets it off. The harmonious structure of white marble is decorated outside and in with elaborate floral patterns and verses from the Qur'an, and the massive size of the building is made delicate and light as a result. Four minarets (prayer towers) anchor the corners of the compound. The Taj took eighteen years to build and involved 20,000 workers, including the best artisans in the subcontinent and from Europe. This extravagance led to Shah Jehan's being deposed by his son, and Jehan spent his last years under house arrest, gazing from his window at his beloved wife's shrine. He is buried alongside her in the crypt of the mausoleum (the tomb shrines on the floor level are empty). The decorative motifs are a blend of Hindu and Persian artistry.
Today the Taj Mahal is threatened by the theft of precious inlays and air pollution caused by a nearby refinery. Preventive maintenance has been poor. Since 1983 it has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
To Westerners, the Taj Mahal seems primarily a tourist spot, and the hordes of casual visitors seem to reinforce that. However, it is also a pilgrim site, and every morning at dawn a stream of Indians come to the Taj. These are not Muslims but Hindus from the villages, come to honor the great persons enshrined in the Taj Mahal. They leave flowers and petitions for health, success in exams, and other needs. There is also a mosque on the grounds used by Islamic pilgrims, and Fridays are active with worshippers.
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