The Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal is one of the most famous pieces of art in the Islamic world. The name is instantly recognized and the myth of its romantic background is well known. But what about beyond the name and the myth? Where did this building come from? Who built it? Why did they build it? Where did the myth come from? Let’s find out.

Courtesy of David Castor

The Taj Mahal is a stunning white marble mausoleum that was commissioned in 1632 by the Moghul Emperor Shah Jahan to be built in Agra, India. The massive undertaking of quarrying, transporting, chiseling, building, and refining took 21 years. It is thought that the chief architect and designer was Ustad Ahmad Lahauri. He used an estimated 20,000 artists and craftsmen from all around India to complete the project. The entire mausoleum complex was finally deemed complete in 1653.

When looking at the Taj Mahal, the first thing a person notices is that the building is made entirely of translucent white marble that has been inlaid with twenty-eight types of precious and semi-precious stones.

  • The marble was brought in from Makrana in the Rajasthan state of India;
  • the jasper is from Punjab, India;
  • the jade and crystal were imported from China;
  • the turquoise from Tibet;
  • the lapis lazuli from Afghanistan;
  • the sapphire from Sri Lanka;
  • and the carnelian from Arabia.

Isn’t it just gorgeous!

Emperor Jahan used this wide variety of stones because he wanted to make this mausoleum as grand and opulent as possible. With the Taj Mahal being built during the height of the Moghul empire, expense was not an issue and none was spared. It is estimated that the total cost of building the Taj Mahal was somewhere around 32 million rupees, which would have been between $400-500 million USD at that time, had USD existed, and translates to over $15.3 billion USD now! Wow!

The second thing people notice when looking at the Taj Mahal is that it was constructed in a traditional Islamic style and is completely and perfectly symmetrical. The use of symmetry expressed simultaneous ideas of pairing, counterparts and integration, reflecting intellectual and spiritual notions of universal harmony. The building was constructed with a minaret at each of the four corners of the raised platform that the Taj Mahal rests on, a large central arch, two domed and columned kiosks called chattri on the roof, an onion dome resting on a cylindrical drum, and an ornamental finial on top of each dome.

Each of the four minarets is 40 meters tall (131.25 feet), separated into three sections by two exterior balconies, and is topped with a small chattri where the Muezzin would stand to recite the Islamic call to prayer. At the apex of the chattri is a lotus design topped with a golden finial. It is interesting to note that each minaret was built to have a slight tilt that angles it away from the mausoleum so they would fall outward should they ever fall.

On either side of the dais on which the Taj Mahal sets are two matching courtyards which lead to two matching structures: one of which is a mosque and the other is a rest house.

Along with the symmetry of the mausoleum, the grounds were also designed to be symmetrical. The grand gardens in front of the mausoleum were designed in a perfect square bisected on each side by a water channel that is flanked by matching flower beds. These four water channels meet in the middle of the grounds at a central pool. The four sections of the garden are then divided into four smaller sections that are each broken up into four more small sections, thus resulting in 16 garden squares. On the east and west sides of the grounds, the water channels end at the entrance of two perfectly matched pavilions.

When comparing an overhead view of the gardens to a Buddhist mandala tapestry, it is plain to see that the symmetry and general design are very similar. The basic mandala form consists of a square with four gates containing a circle with a center point, which describes the general layout of the Taj Mahal gardens. The Buddhist mandala is a device that is used to aid in meditation, which suggests the idea that Shah Jahan wanted the grounds to be a place of meditation and contemplation. The mandala is used as an object to focus on and thus fill the mind in an effort to achieve a pure form of meditation, which is the purpose of the garden grounds.

In support of this idea, Professor Nancy Ross of Dixie State University states, “Walking through the garden is like a meditative journey in and of itself” because “the walking is an important part of participating in the spiritual journey that is … set up here at the Taj Mahal and the sense that as you progress towards the building you receive redemption.” Ross further elaborates and draws a parallel to meditation by explaining, “As you walk toward the garden, the building gets larger and larger and the sense of redemption that comes through approaching the building and visiting the building … becomes ever more present in the mind of the viewer”. The theme of meditation and redemption is given further credence when the layout of the grounds and the journey through them is paired with the description Shah Jahan gave of the Taj Mahal:

Should guilty seek asylum here,
Like one pardoned, he becomes free from sin.
Should a sinner make his way to this mansion,
All his past sins are to be washed away.
The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs;
And the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes.
In this world this edifice has been made;
To display thereby the creator’s glory.”

~Emperor Shah Jahan

While the grounds are a place of meditation and contemplation, they are also a physical representation of Jannah, the Muslim idea of paradise, which contains four rivers: a river of pure water, a river of milk, a river of wine and a river of honey. Each of these is represented by the four water channels that branch off from the main pool. The main pool in the middle of the garden from which the four water channels feed represents the Tank of Abundance. In keeping with this same symbolism, there are four gateways at the Taj Mahal which lead into the grounds. These gates represent the Four Gates of Jannah: the Gate of Repentance (also called the Gate of Muhammad and the Gate of Mercy), the Gate of Suppressing Anger, the Gate of Those Well-Pleased and the Gate of the Right-Hand.

Moving inside the Taj Mahal, the interior was also designed and built with perfect symmetry. While the rest of the building was created with features that are typical of Islamic architecture, the main chamber inside the Taj Mahal was new and innovative. The main chamber inside the Taj Mahal was built in the shape of an octagon with doorways in each face.

Courtesy of Wikipedia

The only non-symmetrical feature is Emperor Jahan’s tomb, which rests just to the side of Mumtaz Mahal’s tomb and was added five years after the Taj Mahal was completed. The tombs were elaborately decorated with a floral motif and with calligraphy denoting who is in each tomb. It is commonly believed that the Taj Mahal was built as a monument to the love Emperor Jahan had for his wife, who died giving birth to their 14th child. Others believe Emperor Jahan had originally intended the Taj Mahal to be a monument to the greatness of his rule over the Mughal Empire and that plans for its construction began before his wife died. Those who follow this line of thought believe his use of the structure for his wife’s tomb was only thought of after her death. In either case, Mumtaz Mahal is the only of Shah Jahan’s nine wives to be buried in the Taj Mahal, which clearly indicates his love and affection for her. The great expense, the extreme attention to detail, and the elaborate design are heavy indicators of love being the purpose behind the Taj Mahal.

In addition to the ornamentation of the caskets, the entire room is covered in representations of flowers, plants, arabesques, and inscriptions of verses from the Quran. The walls are inlaid with precious and semi-precious stones that form a labyrinth of intertwining vines covered in fruits and flowers. This embellishment is meant to be a further representation of the Garden of Paradise in the afterlife.

While the Taj Mahal is an impressive combination of typical Islamic architecture and innovative features, it certainly isn’t the only structure of its kind. Constructing elaborate tombs has been a practice since the time of Ancient Egypt and continues even now.

Examples such as Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi from 1562 and the Tomb of Akbar the Great in Agra from 1613 show that the practice of building mausoleums was done long before Shah Jahan lost his beloved wife. Even before those tombs were created, there was St. Peter’s Basilica (1506), the Treasury of Atreus (1250 BC), the Great Pyramids of Egypt (2630 BC), the Royal Sipan Tombs (300 AD) and the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus (350BC), among many others. When seeking to determine if the general theme and layout is typical or innovative, it is easy to see by comparing the Taj Mahal with Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi.  The basic theme and layout are very much typical of Islamic architecture.

Comparing the two mausoleums side-by-side, the most striking similarity is that both incorporate symmetry and clean lines into their design. Both have an extensive use of geometry in the layout and design of the mausoleums. Similarities in the grounds include the use of four entrance gates into the grounds, the division of the grounds into squares that are further divided into smaller sets of squares and the inclusion of central walkways and elaborate gardens with a four-channel water system. In the construction of the mausoleums, there are similarities there, as well. Both structures are placed on elevated platforms that are extensively decorated with pointed arches and elongated rectangles.  They are both topped with onion domes placed atop cylindrical drums, chattris surrounding the central dome and tall finials extending from the roof of the domes.

Courtesy of Wikipedia

The differences in these structures are as plain to see as the similarities. Whereas the Taj Mahal has a central water feature in the center of the grounds with the mausoleum at the far end, Humanyu’s Tomb is the center of that complex, which is in keeping with the typical construction of Islamic mausoleums. Another major difference is the minarets. The Taj Mahal has grand freestanding minarets that reach half the height of the mausoleum proper while Humanyu’s Tomb only has a series of miniature minarets that extend from the walls of the roof, which are similarly situated on the Taj Mahal. The exterior decor was also done in a vastly different way. The exterior of the Taj Mahal is covered in intertwining vines, elaborate latticework and elegant calligraphic script while Humanyu’s Tomb is decorated with geometrical sandstone features, inlaid marble and simple lines.

For the biggest and most noticeable difference, we look to the colors of the two mausoleums. Humanyu’s Tomb uses colors that are typical and traditional. Red sandstone was the established material for large monuments with accents of white marble, blue tiles and precious and semi-precious stones. The Taj Mahal took a leap forward in the discarding of convention and used only white marble in the construction of the mausoleum, minarets and platform. This innovative use of materials is one of the most defining features of the Taj Mahal.

Overall, the Taj Mahal has features that are both typical of the time and features that are innovative. This mix of features along with the grandness of the mausoleum complex are some of the things that make this structure so important. Perhaps one of the reasons behind the importantce of the Taj Mahal lies in the myth about why it was created. Whether or not it really was created as a declaration of love for his beloved Mumtaz Mahal, that legend gives the Taj Mahal a means of connecting with each person who visits the site. We all understand love and the desire to show our love, so this romantic gesture is a beloved story across many continents.

Another reason the Taj Mahal is so important is because of the great lengths the designers went to to embody the Muslim idea of Paradise. Every aspect of the grounds and the mausoleum represent a part of Paradise for the Muslim world. Hand-in-hand with the representation of Jannah, another reason why this impressive complex is so important is because of its symbolism of the journey of absolvement and redemption. The combination of love, paradise and the journey to redemption make this mausoleum a powerful symbol of life and what each of us strives for in our lives: love, redemption and paradise.

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