India: Behind the Taj Mahal


India: Behind the Taj Mahal

India’s number one tourist attraction and a magnificent example of Mughal architecture? Or a passionate tribute to a woman by her pining husband?

Many people know the Taj Mahal as the former but not so many know it as the latter – and they’re missing out on a rather poignant tale. The subject of much verse and prose, it was described by Bengali poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore as “a teardrop on the cheek of time” while according to English poet Sir Edwin Arnold it was “not a piece of architecture, as other buildings are, but the proud passions of an emperor’s love wrought in living stones”.

The fifth Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan was a powerful and prosperous man. Born in 1592, he was a descendant of Mongol emperor Genghis Khan and the favourite of his legendary grandfather Akbar the Great. He succeeded to the throne upon his father’s death in 1627, with his reign later becoming known as the Golden Age of the Mughals and one of the most prosperous ages of Indian civilisation.

But it was in the year 1607 that Shah Jahan, strolling down the Meena Bazaar in Delhi, first caught a glimpse of a girl hawking silk and glass beads. The girl, Arjumand Banu, was a Persian princess. He was aged 14 and she was 15. It was love at first sight and the two were married five years later. Shah Jahan bestowed on her the title of Mumtaz Mahal, meaning “Jewel of the Palace”. Although he had other wives also, empress Mumtaz Mahal was his favourite and accompanied him everywhere, even on military campaigns. In the year 1631, while giving birth to their 14th child, she died due to complications. While Mumtaz was on her deathbed, Shah Jahan promised her that he would never remarry and would build the world's finest mausoleum over her grave.

Construction began the same year and was finally completed 22 years later, with 22,000 people deployed for the job. The materials were brought in from all over India and central Asia and it took a fleet of over 1000 elephants to transport to the site the white marble, » the jasper and lapis-lazuli, the sapphire, jade and coral that went into making this spectacular tomb. Its creative genius was Ustad ‘Isa, the renowned Islamic architect of his time.

Set on the banks of the River Yamuna in Agra, the Taj Mahal rises on a high red sandstone base, topped by a huge white marble terrace on which rests the central dome flanked by four subsidiary minarets. Within the dome lies the jewel-inlaid funeral casket of the empress. It also houses the casket of the emperor, which was built beside the queen’s as an afterthought and is the only asymmetrical object in the whole of the mausoleum.

Inside and out, the complex is decorated with inlaid design of flowers and calligraphy using precious gems like agate and jasper. The main archways are chiselled with passages from the Koran and flower patterns, while the central domed chamber and four adjoining chambers feature Islamic decoration on many walls and panels.

The architecture and adornments of the Taj Mahal are said to be symbolic of a beautiful woman. The rectangular base is thought to represent the different sides from which to view a woman, while the main gate is thought to be like a veil on a bride’s face, which is lifted to reveal her beauty.

The colours of the Taj Mahal change at different hours of the day – pinkish in the morning, milky white at dusk and sparkling in the evening, when the precious stones inlaid into the white marble on the mausoleum catch the glow of the moon. The structure has even been described by an unknown source as “having been designed by giants and finished by jewellers”. The mausoleum is part of a larger complex made up of a main gateway, a garden, a mosque, a guest house and several other palatial buildings.

While this tale of eternal love captures the imagination of the millions who visit each year, it’s also true that Shah Jahan simply loved to build. Some cynics have even suggested that he used the untimely passing of his wife as an excuse to build the Taj Mahal. During his reign he was also behind the construction of the Pearl Mosque and many other buildings in Agra, the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid Mosque in Delhi.

Whether the emperor’s motivations were driven by love, his penchant for building, or both, the fact is that the Taj Mahal is still one of the world’s top architectural masterpieces, centuries after it was constructed.


Shah Jahan had planned to build another Taj Mahal in black marble on the opposite side of the river bank for his own tomb.

Legend has it that his warring sons refused the expenditure and incarcerated him.

The hands of the master craftsmen were cut off so that the Taj Mahal couldn’t be replicated.

The Taj Mahal is gradually sinking into the Yamuna River.