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Islamic Architecture
Taj Mahal

Courtesy -- Brend, B. (1991). "Islamic Art". Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

The Taj Mahal

The crowning jewel of Indo-Islamic architecture, the Taj Mahal is one of the world’s most beautiful and beloved structures. The monument was built in Agra, India, for Mumtaz Mahal, the favorite wife of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. Construction of the tomb began in 1632 and employed more than 20,000 laborers for 20 years. During the reign of Shah Jahan, the structure was known simply as the rauza, the tomb. Later, the mausoleum would be called the Taj Mahal, a derivative of the name Mumtaz Mahal.

According to the French jeweler Tavernier, who claimed to had seen the construction of the Taj Mahal from beginning to end, the white marble monument was erected at a time when the resources of the Mughal Empire were such that only the finest materials were utilized for the structure and its embellishment and when the quality of the craftsmanship available in northern India was probably superior to that of any previous period.

Known for its symmetry, the Taj Mahal sits on a raised platform surrounded by four minarets. Inside are delicate mosaic works and marble walls adorned with intricate patterns of inlaid precious stones. The emperor Shah Jahan is said to have celebrated the anniversary of his wife's death in the mausoleum, kneeling before the cenotaph of white marble studded with gems and semiprecious stones, as prayers were offered up for the peace and repose of the empress’ soul.

Mumtaz Mahal, whose name means Chosen One of the Palace, had been more than the emperor’s wife. Indeed, Shah Jahan had a number of wives. But Mumtaz Mahal was the love of his life. She was his best friend and his most trusted political adviser. Mumtaz Mahal bore 14 children; seven of them survived. She died in 1631 after giving birth to a healthy baby girl.

After his wife’s death, Shah Jahan reportedly locked himself in his rooms and refused food for eight days. According to legend, when the emperor emerged from his seclusion, his black beard - visible in many Mughal miniature paintings - had turned completely white.

For the monument to his wife, Shah Jahan chose a site occupied by sprawling gardens on a bend in the left bank of the Yamuna River. Author Christine Moorcroft writes in The Taj Mahal (1998) that Shah Jahan may have chosen this specific site because of its beauty and because there was a clear view of the site from the imperial palace at the Red Fort. Poet Rabindranath Tagore describes the monument as rising above the banks of the river “like a solitary tear suspended on the cheek of time.”

Refuting the romanticism of the aforementioned, many contemporary historians contend that the Taj Mahal is a mausoleum far too imposing to commemorate the memory of one woman, even the favorite wife of an emperor, write Amina Okada and M.C. Joshi in Taj Mahal (1993). Some historians believe, continue Okada and Joshi, that behind the monument’s beauty and majesty of form, behind the purity of its line, and behind the sober refinement of its decoration is an autocratic ruler vaunting his grandeur and munificence to the world. While the monument is clearly funereal, these historians also perceive a symbolic and allegorical significance for the mausoleum - a significance equally accounted for by the omnipotence of a sovereign infatuated with his own grandeur.

Even if the Taj Mahal represents just one more jewel in the imperial crown of Shah Jahan, note Okada and Joshi, the emperor still must be credited with having made of the death of a spouse a symbol of lasting beauty. He bequeathed to India and the world its most beautiful mausoleum.

Following the standard Mughal architectural arrangement, write Sheila S. Blair and Jonathan M. Bloom in The Art and Architecture of Islam (1994), the tomb is set in a large quadripartite chahar bagh garden that measures about 1,900 feet by 1,000 feet. The tomb stands at the north end of the garden along the riverbank balanced by a large gateway on the south. In plan and massing, note Blair and Bloom, the mausoleum refines the model provided by Humayun's tomb at Delhi. However, the great bulbous tomb of the Taj Mahal is set on a higher drum; its octagonal rooms in the corners are more logically connected; and the tomb is framed by four tall minarets.

The carefully balanced image, reflected in the water channel dividing the garden, is enhanced by the superb polish and detailed carving of the marbles, write Blair and Bloom. Built in red sandstone on the sides of the platform and enshrining the mausoleum are two structures: a mosque (masjid) to the west and a guest house (mihman khana) to the east.

Visitors to the Taj Mahal will discover the ingenious, harmonious perspective of the gardens and canals which towers the massive form of the mausoleum. At the intersection of the canals, the shimmering waters of a wide ornamental pool reflect the vaporous silhouette of the Taj Mahal and the outline of the tall, elegant cypress trees, underlining the subtle symmetry of the whole.

In the book Islamic Art (1991), Barbara Brend writes that the mausoleum, flanked by attendant structures, stands on a terrace at the north end of the garden; it is thus seen as the culmination of a perspective, its marble surfaces changing hue as the sun crosses the sky and being reflected in the watercourses.

The Taj Mahal has restrained pietra dura decoration that forms vining floral designs. Above these beautiful floral patterns are extensive calligraphic inscriptions in black lettering. Most of the text is short verses from the Qur'an emphasizing eschatological themes, particularly the Day of Judgment. It has been suggested, write Blair and Bloom, that the epigraphic program designed by calligrapher Amanat Khan was meant to drive home the message implicit in the building's form and location - that the tomb was an allegorical representation of the Throne of Allah above the Garden of Paradise on the Day of Judgment.

The beauty of the pietra dura of the Taj Mahal and of the forts at Agra and Delhi still inspire numerous artists from all over the world. Moreover, write Okada and Joshi, the four canals clearly symbolize the four rivers of Paradise mentioned in the Holy Qur'an and seen by the Prophet Muhammed during his miraculous ascent to Paradise (al-Mi'raj). The symbolic and allegorical nature of the garden and the canals at Taj Mahal is not surprising considering the funereal nature of the monument it enshrines. The Qur'anic inscription on the southern facade of the Main Gate gives unequivocal credence to the comparison of the Taj Mahal with the Garden of Paradise, where the appeased souls of the dead find their ultimate refuge. This inscription says:

(It will be said to the pious): O (you) the one in
(complete) rest and satisfaction!
Come back to your Lord, -- well-pleased (yourself)
and well-pleasing unto him!
Enter you, then, among My honored slaves,
And enter you My Paradise!

- The Holy Qur'an, Surah Al-Fajr: 89:27-30

The Taj Mahal contains 16 chambers, eight each on two levels, that surround the octagonal funerary chamber surmounted by a surbased inner dome. In the funerary chamber are found the cenotaphs of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan, enclosed in a baluster of delicately perforated marble and studded with semiprecious stones. As dictated by Islamic tradition, write Okada and Joshi, the bodies of the emperor and his spouse are buried with their faces toward Mekka (the Holy Muslim city in the Arabian Peninsula) with the husband on his wife's right side.

To a student of Islamic architecture, writes Gavin Hambly in Cities of Mughul India (1964), the first and most enduring impression left by this incomparable monument is its Persian origin. This is architecture in the Safavid style. The Taj Mahal - in its perfection of space and proportion, in the classical perfection of its shape, in its combination of monumentality and delicacy, and in the quality of its decoration - represents the culmination on Indian soil of the Persian genius at work. Hambly quotes art historian, Hermann Goetz who writes:

(The Taj Mahal) “is a work of the finest Safavid taste... Except for the use of the most immaculate Makrana marble which translates the gay and gaudy Persian taste into the dreamy, languid spirit of later Mughal art, there are in the Taj Mahal only a few other deviations from Safavid orthodoxy - the Rajput chahtris around the dome, some differences in the proportion of the dome and dome drum (common, however, in the Deccan), and also the minarets, probably inspired by Mahmud Khilji's tomb at Mandu. It is one of the freaks of history that this 'Wonder of the World,’ which is least characteristic of Mughal art, has become the classic representative and emblem of Mughal civilization.

The construction of the Taj Mahal was entrusted to a board of architects under imperial supervision, as was customary during the reign of Shah Jahan. The architects involved included Abd ul-Karim Ma'mur Khan, Makramat Khan, and Ustad Ahmed Lahwari.

Born in Lahore, Ustad Ahmed was not only a renowned architect but also a mathematician and astronomer of high repute. Besides the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort in Delhi should be attributed to him as well.

Okada and Joshi write that the monument stands as testimony to the technical skills and scientific knowledge of its builders. This is evident from the excellent handling of material and the perfect use of constructional devices: the arches used in raising the grand dome and distributing its heavy weight evenly, the method of laying the foundation, and the subtle manipulation of minute details. The entire complex is planned in such a way that the apparent organic unity of the whole does not obscure the individuality of any part, nor does it detract from the prominence of the Taj Mahal proper.

One more name that remains closely associated with the Taj Mahal, in particular with the superb calligraphic inscriptions displayed in the geometric friezes on the white marble, is that of the ingenious calligrapher, Amanat Khan, whose real name was Abd ul-Haq. This incomparable calligrapher, write Okada and Joshi, came to India from Shiraz, Iran, in 1609. Shah Jahan conferred the title of Amanat Khan upon this Iranian as a reward for the calligrapher’s dazzling virtuosity. In all probability, Amanat Khan was entrusted with the entire calligraphic decoration of the Taj Mahal. During Jahangir’s reign, Amanat Kahn had been responsible for the calligraphic work of the Akbar mausoleum at Sikandra, and for that of the Madrasah Shahi Mosque at Agra.

It is quite possible that Amanat Khan was responsible for the choice of the epigraphs of the Taj Mahal, that is, the Qur'anic verses and other religious quotations appearing on the mausoleum. He signed his work inside the calligraphic inscription on the left side of the southern iwan - Amant Khan al-Shirazi, followed by the date (1638-39 AD). The calligrapher's signature bears witness to his status and renown at the court, since many of his peers remained anonymous.

The sinuous and austere letters in black marble inscribed with heraldic precision on the walls of the mausoleum heighten the whiteness of the marble and undeniably contribute to the ornamental richness and beauty of the edifice. There are 22 different Qur'anic Surahs or verses inscribed on the tomb, more than on any other monuments built during the reign of Shah Jahan. This makes the Taj Mahal an extremely exceptional funeral monument. Moreover, the locations of the calligraphic inscriptions correspond to a precise iconographic plan, Okada and Joshi note.

Also adding to the beauty of the Taj Mahal is the extraordinary delicacy of the floral motifs that embellish the marble surface. These floral motifs are sculpted in marble in sober relief (munabbat kari) or inlaid with semiprecious stones (parchin kari) that produce incandescent reflections. Other diverse kinds of flowers open in graceful arabesques and cover in profusion the imperial cenotaphs and their enclosures showing the dazzling virtuosity of the Mughal lapidaries.

The stone flowers of the Taj Mahal, depicted with a stamp of realism and with a soft lyricism, captivate the visitor with their grace and colorful freshness, write Okado and Joshi. In Islamic culture, flowers and roses are often seen as symbols of the Kingdom of Allah. Thus, the Taj Mahal’s allusion to Paradise can be seen in the motif of flowers carved on the funerary chambers of the mausoleum, as well as on the plinths of the inner iwan. Accompanied by fruit or bunches of grapes, the vases of flowers express the abundance that awaits the faithful in Paradise.

The court poet Abu Talib Kalim, wishing to pay homage to the virtuosity of the imperial lapidaries, wrote these verses to glorify their art:

They set stone flowers in the marble
That by their color, if not their perfume,
surpass real flowers.

In 1663, Francois Bernier, a Frenchman from Angers who spent 10 years in India, wrote about Delhi and Agra, the capital cities of the Empire of the Great Mughals. The Frenchman was very enthusiastic in his description of the Taj Mahal, which he considered far superior to “the shapeless masses of the pyramids of Egypt.” Here is part of his description of the interior of the Taj Mahal:

The inside or concave part of the dome and the entire wall, usually from top to bottom, are covered with white marble. There is not a single spot that is not artistically wrought with its own beauty. Everywhere one perceives yashm or jade, the kind of stones that enrich the walls of the chapel of the Grand Duke in Florence. Everywhere there is jasper and several other rare and costly stones, presented in a hundred different ways, mixed together and set in the marble that covers the wall. Even the black and white marble floor tiles are decorated in like manner, with unimaginable delicacy and taste. 

- Francois Bernier in Voyage dans les Etats du Grand Mogol, new ed. 1981

In the 19th century, many artists in Europe, especially Britain and France, made delicate copies of these monuments in watercolor.

The historians of art refer to the encrustation of semiprecious stones studding the marble surfaces of the Taj Mahal and the forts of Agra and Delhi as 'hard stone', write Okada and Joshi. However, the authors continue, the Mughal and Persian chroniclers called this technique parchin kari. The process involves cutting with extreme care and then shaping thin sections of hard and semi-hard stones into tendrils and floral arabesques. When set in white marble, these cuttings blossomed into delicate, shimmering flowers. The Mughal lapidaries used parchin kari not only for arabesques and floral decoration but also for calligraphy in black marble and for the geometric and abstract motifs that are an integral part of the decoration of the Taj Mahal.

Unfortunately, the precious encrustations of the Taj Mahal aroused the greed of less delicate souls who unscrupulously did their best to appropriate the jewels, write Okada and Joshi. Many flowers with their Cornelian or yellow amber petals are irreparably mutilated, and many richly encrusted corollas are hollow today. At the end of 19th century, a French visitor wrote:

The Taj Mahal has not suffered from the injury of time, thanks to the excellence of the materials and the perfection of the workmanship. The two hundred and thirty years that have elapsed since it was built have not spoiled the luster of the marble nor the countless wonders of the chiseling. All the defacement of the ornamental details is due to the hand of man. The invasions and diverse troubles from which the country has suffered for two centuries have left a deplorable mark on all the monuments of Agra. After the pillage and removal of the precious metals of the portals, balusters, and diverse ornaments, the greed of the grasping soldiery was aroused by the encrustations of semiprecious stones decorating the two tombs and their enclosure. It would be difficult today to find a single flower, a single ornament intact. Tips of daggers, sabers, and bayonets have pierced and broken off fragments of these charming, delicate mosaics. I am sorely afraid that when travel is increased a hundredfold in the interior of India, thanks to the railway, bringing streams of visitors to Agra daily, it will cause irreparable damage to the Taj Mahal.

- F. Devay, 1867, Journal d'un voyage dans l'Inde anglaise (Journal of a Trip Through English India)

One interesting architectural concept, note Okada and Johsi, is that the Taj Mahal, with its picturesque setting, chaste appearance, plastic delicacy, superfine ornamentation, and gentle molding of contours, is a feminine specimen of building art. Scholar E. B. Havell sees in the Taj Mahal an intentional attribute to the 'Lady of the Taj,’ Mumtaz Mahal. Havell writes that the monument’s entire concept and every line of its expression reflect the radiance and beauty of the Emperess. For Havell, the Taj Mahal is India’s tribute to the grace of womanhood, the Venus de Milo of the East. Thus, the Taj Mahal can be interpreted as a glorious and profound symbol of love.

  Mughal Line