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Shah Jahan and building the Taj Mahal

A white marble tomb built in 1631-48 in Agra, seat of the Mughal Empire, by Shah Jahan for his wife, Arjuman Banu Begum, the monument sums up many of the formal themes that have played through Islamic architecture. Its refined elegance is a conspicuous contrast both to the Hindu architecture of pre-Islamic India, with its thick walls, corbelled arches, and heavy lintels, and to the Indo-Islamic styles, in which Hindu elements are combined with an eclectic assortment of motifs from Persian and Turkish sources.
The masterful architects bring designs before the exalted sight of the Emperor... and since his mind is inclined entirely toward the building, he attends to it fully by carrying out appropriate changes.

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Architects and artisans were summoned to the palace in Agra from fabled lands as far as Baghdad and the Ottoman courts of Turkey: garden designers from Kashmir, calligraphers from Sheraz, stonecutters, sculptors, inlay artisans, dome designers and masons from Bukhara, Constantinople and Samarkand. There were daily consultations; there were considerations and compromises. Above all, there was devotion to the memory of Mumtaz Mahal (Stall, 1995).

To satisfy Shah Jahan's artistic obsession, vast quantities of white marble were mined from the quarries in Rajasthan; red sandstone was carted from Delhi. Precious stones were brought by caravan from all corners of the empire and beyond: jasper from the Punjab, carnelian from Baghdad, turquoise from Tibet; malachite, jade and crystal from Turkestan; pearls, diamonds, emeralds, saphires... over forty types of gems in all (Saksena, 1932).

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A ten-mile long ramp was built through Agra so materials could be dragged to the top of the dome at the construction site. So great was the scope of the project that the city of Mumtazabad grew up around the grounds to house the twenty thousand workers who would labor over twenty years to build this monument.

An immense brick scaffold was erected to support the assembly of the dome, which entailed much labor and heavy expenditure. It was said that this structure alone cost more than the entire work. According to legend, when the Taj neared completion, Shah Jahan was informed that it would take five more years just to dismantle it. He responded by decreeing that anyone who helped remove the bricks could keep them, and the job was completed overnight (Stall, 1995).

The Taj Mahal was built on a parcel of land to the south of the walled city of Agra. Shah Jahan presented Maharajah Jai Singh with a large palace in the centre of Agra in exchange for the land. An area of roughly three acres was excavated, filled with dirt to reduce seepage and leveled at 50 meters above riverbank (Saksena, 1932).

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In the tomb area, wells were dug and filled with stone and rubble as the footings of the tomb. Instead of lashed bamboo, workmen constructed a colossal brick scaffold that mirrored the tomb. The scaffold was so enormous that foremen estimated it would take years to dismantle. According to the legend, Shah Jahan decreed that anyone could keep the bricks taken from the scaffold and thus was dismantled by peasants overnight. A fifteen kilometer tamped-earth ramp was built to transport marble and materials to the construction site. Teams of twenty or thirty oxen were strained to pull blocks on specially constructed wagons. An elaborate post-and-beam pulley system was used to raise the blocks into desired position. Water was drawn from the river by a series of purs, an animal-powered rope and bucket mechanism into a large storage tank and raised to large distribution tank. It was passed into three subsidiary tanks, from which it was piped to the complex (Bernier, 1891).

The plinth and tomb took roughly 12 years to complete. The remaining parts of the complex took an additional 10 years and were completed in order of minarets, mosque and jawab and gateway. Since the complex was built in stages, discrepancies exist in completion dates due to differing opinions on "completion". For example, the mausoleum itself was essentially complete by 1643, but work continued on the rest of the complex. Estimates of the cost of the construction of Taj Mahal vary due to difficulties in estimating construction costs across time (Tillitson, 1990).

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The Taj Mahal was constructed using materials from all over India and Asia. Over 1,000 elephants were used to transport building materials during the construction. The translucent white marble was brought from Rajasthan, the jasper from Punjab, jade and crystal from China. The turquoise was from Tibet and the Lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, while the sapphire came from Sri Lanka and the carnelian from Arabia. In all, twenty eight types of precious and semi-precious stones were inlaid into the white marble (Stall, 1995).

A labour force of twenty thousand workers was recruited across northern India. Sculptors from Bukhara calligraphers from Syria and Persia, inlayers from southern India, stonecutters from Baluchistan, a specialist in building turrets, another who carved only marble flowers were part of the thirty-seven men who formed the creative unit. Some of the builders involved in construction of Taj Mahal are: (Saksena, 1932)

  • The main dome was designed by Ismail Afandi (a.ka. Ismail Khan), of the Ottoman Empire and was considered as a premier designer of hemispheres and domes.
  • Ustad Isa of Persia (Iran) and Isa Muhammad Effendi of Persia (Iran), trained by Koca Mimar Sinan Agha of Ottoman Empire, are frequently credited with a key role in the architectural design, but there is little evidence to support this claim.
  • 'Puru' from Benarus, Persia (Iran) has been mentioned as a supervising architect.
  • Qazim Khan, a native of Lahore, cast the solid gold finial.
  • Chiranjilal, a lapidary from Delhi, was chosen as the chief sculptor and mosaicist.
  • Amanat Khan from Shiraz, Iran was the chief calligrapher. His name has been inscribed at the end of the inscription on the Taj Mahal gateway.
  • Muhammad Hanif was a supervisor of masons and Mir Abdul Karim and Mukkarimat Khan of Shiraz, Iran (Persia) handled finances and management of daily production.

The most beautiful building in the world. In 1631 the emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal in memory of his wife Mumtaz, who died in childbirth. The white marble mausoleum at Agra has become the monument of a man's love for a woman.

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Shah Jahan came to power in 1622 when he seized the throne from his father, while murdering his brothers to ensure his claim to rule. He was known as an extravagant and cruel leader. But he redeemed himself by his generosity to his friends and the poor, by his passion in adorning India with some of its most beautiful architecture, and by his devotion to his wife Mumtaz Mahal - "Ornament of the Palace." He had married her when he was 21, when he already had two children by an earlier consort. Mumtaz gave her husband 14 children in eighteen years, and died at the age of 39 during the birth of the final child. Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal as a monument to her memory and her fertility, but then relapsed into a life of scandalous behavior. This tomb was only one of hundreds of beautiful buildings that Shah Jahan erected, mostly at Agra and in the new Dehli that came into being under his planning (Saksena, 1932).

Many architects have rated it as the most perfect of all buildings standing on earth. Three artists designed it: a Persian, an Italian, and a Frenchman. But the design is completely Mohammedan. Even the skilled artisans who built it were brought in from Baghdad, Constantinople, and other centers of the Muslim faith. For 22 years more than 20,000 workmen were forced to build the Taj. The Maharaja of Jaipur sent the marble as a gift to Shah Jahan. The building and its surroundings cost more than $200,000,000 in todays currency (Stall, 1995).

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Passing through a high wall, one comes suddenly upon the Taj - raised upon a marble platform, and framed on either side by handsome mosques and stately minarets. In the foreground spacious gardens enclose a pool in whose waters the inverted palace becomes a quivering dream. Every portion of the structure is of white marble, precious metals, or costly stones. The building is a complex figure of twelve sides, four of which are portals. A slender minaret rises at each corner, and the roof is a massive spired dome. The main entrance, once guarded with solid silver gates, is a maze of marble embroidery; inlaid in the wall in jeweled script are qotations from the Koran, one of which invites the "pure in heart" to enter "the gardens of Paradise." (Bernier, 1891)

Shah Jahan had begun his reign by killing his brothers; but he had neglected to kill his sons, one of whom was destined to overthrow him. In 1657 his son Aurangzeb led an insurrection from the Deccan. Aurangzeb defeated all the forces sent against him, captured his father, and imprisoned him in the Fort of Agra. For 9 bitter years the deposed emperor lingered there, never visited by his son, attended only by his faithful daughter Jahanara, and spending his days looking from the Jasmine Tower of his prison across the Jumna to where his once-beloved Mumtaz lay in her jeweled tomb (Tillitson, 1990).

The new emperor Aurangzeb was a more pious Muslim than his father Shah Jahan had been. He memorized the entire Koran, spent days in fasts, and campaigned against infidelity. He cared little for luxuries, but, paradoxically, gave the world one of its most perfect works of art: a marble screen inside the Taj Mahal. Native and European thieves robbed the tomb of its abundant jewels, and of the gold railing, encrusted with precious stones, that once enclosed the sarcophagi of Shah Jahan and his Queen. Aurangzeb replaced the railing with an octagonal screen of almost transparent marble, carved into a miracle of alabaster lace. Few products of human art have ever surpassed the beauty of this screen (Lall, 1992).

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From afar the Taj Mahal, with its delicate details, is not imposing. Only a nearer view reveals that its perfection has no proportion to its size. When in our hurried times, we see enormous structures of a hundred stories raised in a year, and then consider how 20,000 men worked for 22 years on this little tomb, hardly a hundred feet high, we begin to sense the difference between industry and art. And perhaps more importantly, we sense the ultimate lesson it offers: beauty and that which lasts, is based on love (Stall, 1995).

According to popular Indian legend, Shah Jahan ordered everyone who was involved in the building of Taj Mahal to be blinded and their arms amputated, so that nothing as magnificent would ever be built again. Soon after the completion of the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan was overthrown by his own son Aurangzeb, and locked up in the nearby Agra Fort. It was here that he spent the rest of his days forlornly gazing out the window at the monument he had lovingly built for his wife (Bernier, 1891).

When he died, his son had him buried next to his wife in the Taj Mahal, an act seen not as an honour to his father’s love for his wife, but to spite his magnificent creation, as this move had indirectly caused a blemish to the otherwise perfectly symmetrical building (Tillitson, 1990).
It was also believed that an identical building was supposed to be built on the other side of the river, across the Taj Mahal. This building was to be built out of black marble, and was supposed to be the final resting place of Shah Jahan himself, but his son took over the throne before the `Black Taj’ could be built. The ruins of dark-coloured marble that can be found across the river were believed to be the unfinished base for the `Black Taj’ (Lall, 1992).

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The town of Agra can be reached via express train from India’s capital, New Delhi, which takes about one and a half hour. Immerse yourself in the magic of the Taj Mahal, preferably in the company of a loved one.

Soon after Taj Mahal's completion, Shah Jahan was deposed and put under house arrest at nearby Agra Fort by his son Aurangzeb. Legend has it that he spent the remainder of his days gazing at the Taj Mahal. Upon Shah Jahan's death, Aurangzeb buried him in the Taj Mahal next to his wife. By late 19th century, parts of Taj Mahal had fallen badly into disrepair (Bernier, 1891).

During the time of Indian rebellion of 1857, Taj Mahal faced defacement by British soldiers and government officials, who chiseled out precious stones and lapis lazuli from its walls. At the end of 19th century British viceroy Lord Curzon ordered a massive restoration project, completed in 1908. He also commissioned the large lamp in interior chamber, modelled based on one in a Cairo mosque. It was during this time the garden was remodelled with British looking lawns that are visible today (Lall, 1992).

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In 1942, the government erected a scaffolding in anticipation of an air attack by German Luftwaffe and later by Japanese Air Force. During the India-Pakistan wars of 1965 and 1971, scaffoldings were erected to mislead bomber pilots. Its recent threats came from environmental pollution on the banks of Yamuna River including acid rain due to Mathura oil refinery, which was opposed by Supreme Court of India directives. In 1983, Taj Mahal was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Taj Mahal in Agra is indisputably the most famous example of Mughal architecture. Described by Rabindranath Tagore as "a tear on the face of eternity", it is in popular imagination a veritable "wonder of the world".

The Makrana white marble of the Taj Mahal assumes subtle variations of light, tint and tone at different times of the day. At dawn it assumes a soft dreamy aspect; at noon, it appears to be a dazzling white, and in the moonlight the dome looks like a huge iridescent pearl. Not surprisingly, then, the Taj is today regarded all over the world as a supreme labour of love (Lall, 1992).

Though the architectural history of the Taj has received much attention, a cultural and political interpretation of the Taj has never been attempted. While it never fails to move and dazzle, one can scarcely forget that its history, like that of other monumental achievements of pre-modern (and even modern) states, is bound to oppression and slavery. Who thinks of the large force of serfs whose labor was exploited to satisfy the love of one man, and how brutal was the repression of the peasantry in order to increase the revenues of the state? Or consider this: is it not oppressive that the Taj charges an admission fee of Rs. 100, an amount that the majority of Indians still do not make in one day's work, for the luxury of viewing it by moonlight? The monument remains the supreme icon of India to the rest of the world, along with the over-population, notorious poverty, and "mysticism" of this ancient land. It is one of India's largest tourist-revenue earners, and no tourist image predominates as that of the visitor snapped in front of the Taj. The image of the Taj appears in countless advertisements, and the Taj has taken on another life of its own. Thus a history of the representations of the Taj is still wanting.

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Bernier, Françoi' Travels in the Moghul Empire A.D. 1657-1668     (Westminster: Archibald Constable & Co.) 1891

Saksena, Banarsi Prasad History of Shahjahan of Dihli     (Allahabad: The Indian Press Ltd.) 1932

Lall, John (1992). Taj Mahal, Tiger International Press

Stall, B (1995). Agra and Fathepur Sikri, Millennium

Tillitson, G.H.R. (1990). Architectural Guide to Mughal India, Chronicle Books


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