24 August 2013

Seven Wonders of the World: Taj Mahal, Agra

In Life Magazine (Vol 13, 2, June 2013)’s quest to find the Wonders of the Man-Made World, India’s Taj Mahal came fourth. So who created this masterpiece and why? Enperor Shahjahan (1592–1666) was one of the greatest of the Moghul rulers of India. In 1612, aged 20, he married his second wife, his beloved Arjuman Banu Begum. He inherited the Islamic throne from his late father in 1628 and his wife became the Empress Mumtaz, mother of 14 children.

When the Empress Mumtaz died in childbirth in 1630, Shahjahan was grief stricken. To display his eternal grieving, the widower ord­ered the building of the most beautiful mausoleum on earth for her. As a result, the Taj Mahal was beautiful Moghul architecture. It was completed during the 1630-52 era and took the combined labour of 20,000 workers. The finest sculpt­ors, masons, craftsmen and calligraphers were invited from all over Persia, Ottoman Empire and Europe. Money was no object.

Entrance gate into the Taj Mahal

The vast complex started at the main gateway, a massive red sand­stone edifice that was 30 metres high. The gateway had in its top small cupo­las and was decorated with calligraphy. Note the flanking octagonal towers and the marble cupola at the top of the gate. The door was made from different types of metal and studded with knobs. Like the int­erior of the mausoleum itself, the gate had white mar­ble inlaid with precious gems. Koranic inscriptions were made from black marble.

Immediately after the gateway, Shah Jahan built a lush green garden that extended from the front gateway as far as the plinth of the royal Tomb. This garden was based on the Islamic belief in Paradise having four rivers, running with water, milk, wine and hon­ey respectively. The garden alone covered half the tot­al area of the mausoleum complex.

The Taj Mahal was created out of a crisp white marble, imported from Rajast­han’s quarries; caravans of elephants had to transport the raw material into Agra. Red sandstone was brought from Fateh­pur Sik­ri, jade and crystal travelled all the way from China, turquoise came from Tibet, jasper was imported from the Punjab and Sri Lanka supplied the precious jewels for the inlay work.

Taj Mahal, reflected in the garden pool.

Mumtaz Mahal’s actual tomb inside was placed on its own marble plinth, which rested on a red sandstone platform below the dome. Four very tall pillars rose up from the corners of a high, white marble plinth and were topped with 8 windowed cupolas, just like the throne of God in paradise.

When Shahjahan was alive, he planned to build his own tomb facing the Taj across the River Yamuna, out of black marble. But after his death, son Aurangzeb put his parents's tombs together. Shahjahan's cenotaph was placed to the left and higher than that of his wife, but both tombs were finely inlaid with semi-precious stones. Finally a marble trelliswork screen surrounded the two graves.

To the left of the Taj is a red sandstone Friday mosque, the centre for prayer and sermon for all the local Muslim citizens of Agra. The building's most interesting feature was white marble where the artists added exquisite calligraphy, the name Allah and quotations from scriptures inscribed.

To the right of the central Taj, they built a guest house that was similar to the arch­it­e­c­ture of the Friday mosque. But as it faces away from Mecca, it was clearly never intended for prayers. White marble bulbous domes, on the Frid­ay mo­s­que, the guest house and the Taj itself, link the three buildings into an integrated whole.

Friday mosque, facing towards the Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal was completed in 1652 while Shahjahan was still able to enjoy its beauty. But he lost his throne in 1658 when he became ill. His ungrate­ful son Auran­gzeb (1618-1707) saw the opportunity to immediately grab the throne and imprison his father! Shahjahan spent the last 8 tragic years of his lonely life under house arrest at nearby Agra Fort, nursed by his eldest daughter. The widower could look longingly at the beautiful, distant Taj Mahal across the valley, but he could not approach the building.

In Victorian times, the Taj Mahal might have started fraying visibly at the edges, so the British viceroy Lord Curzon ordered that money be spent to renovate the buildings and gardens. Appropriately the complex was declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. I have only one complaint. It took the women just a few moments to get through the security check. My husband and the other men, alas, were in the security queue for 30 minutes each.





9 comments:

Andrew said...

I doubt I will ever see it. I imagine it is one of those buildings that looks so much better in photos than with a close inspection.

Pat said...

Some sons are way too impatient to see their fathers give up the throne or family business. Poor Shahjahan.

Hels said...

Andrew

I know what you mean, but no, it is absolutely worth seeing the Taj Mahal architecture and gardens. But the climate is such that most travellers would be uncomfortable except for Nov, Dec, Jan and Feb.

Hels said...

Pat

Some sons are ungracious snots. When Shahjahan was enfeebled by illness, all four sons wanted the throne and slugged it out in battle. Aurangzeb killed all his other brothers, and imprisoned the rightful emperor until he died eight years later.

Worse still the new emperor showed none of his father’s religious tolerance nor was he interested in his father’s great patronage of the arts.

Parnassus said...

It seems that the key to the Taj Mahal was the elegance and beauty designed into the building, not the extent of its cost, although it is elaborate. It makes you wonder why so few buildings even approach this kind of grace and proportion.

Hels said...

Right! Grace and proportion, even in beautiful Islamic architecture, is rarely as visible as in the Taj Mahal.

And I would add another question - when people voted for The Seven Wonders Of The World, why did they not include more graceful and well proportioned examples. The Great Wall of China and Stonehenge are stunning, but not necessarily graceful.

sajal agarwal said...

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Hels said...

sajal

I don't do advertising, so I need to know why you think people would enjoy the architecture, gardens and history of the Taj Mahal.

Hels said...

World Visits blog has wonderful photos of the Taj Mahal at different times of the day and evening, reflecting the architecture's different moods.

See http://world-visits.blogspot.com.au/2012/02/the-taj-mahal-in-india-symbol-of-love.html