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Biography of Shah Jahan
Taj Mahal

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The Taj Mahal

 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".

Emperor Shah Jahan built the white-splendored tomb in the memory of his favorite wife, Arjumand Banu Begum, better known as Mumtaz Mahal ("Chosen of the Palace"). She married Shah Jahan in 1612 to become his second wife and inseparable companion, and died in childbirth at Burhanpur while on a campaign with her husband in 1629. Shah Jahan was, it is said, inconsolable to the point of contemplating abdication in favor of his sons. The court went into mourning for over two years; and Shah Jahan decided to commemorate the memory of Mumtaz with a building the like of which had never been seen before.

 Detail of carving on wall of Taj Mahal

The dead queen was brought to Agra and laid to rest in a garden on the banks of the Jamuna River. A council of the best architects was assembled to prepare designs for the tomb. Though some attribute the design to Geronimo Verroneo, an Italian in the Mughal service, evidence suggests that Ustad Isa Khan Effendi, a Persian, who assigned the detailed work to his pupil Ustad Ahmad, designed it. Ismail Khan designed the dome.

The tomb that is higher than a modern 20-storey building took 22 years to complete with a workforce of 20,000. Craftsmen from as far as Turkey came to join in the work. The marble was quarried at Makrana near Jodhpur in Rajasthan. Precious stones were imported from distant lands. A two-mile ramp was built to lift material up to the level of the dome. It is alleged that on its completion, Shah Jahan ordered the right hand of the chief mason to be cut off so that the masterpiece could never be recreated. As one might expect, numerous other legends are associated with the Taj Mahal: thus, according to one story, Shah Jahan desired to have another Taj built across the river, this one entirely in black marble.

The tomb was provided with sumptuous fittings and furnishings, including rich Persian carpets, gold lamps and candlesticks. It is reliably reported and documented that two great silver doors to the entrance were looted and melted down by Suraj Mal in 1764, and Amir Husein Ali Khan carried off a sheet of pearls that covered the sarcophagus in 1720. In a manner of speaking, the pillage of the Taj continues unabated: more recently, the fumes from the surrounding industries have started deteriorating the marble, though various court orders have resulted in industries around the Taj being moved to more distant points. The latest desecration of the monument took place, ironically, in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of Indian independence, when the mediocre rock star Yanni, whose elevator music has attracted a worldwide audience, was allowed to give a live and certainly unprecedented performance at the Taj.

The surroundings of the Taj Mahal have been restored to the original designs of Ali Mardan Khan, a noble at Shah Jahan's court. A red sandstone channel set between rows of cypress trees accentuates the main vista. The main entrance is from the west, but there are two other entrances -- from the east and from the west. The main gateway is a large three-storey sandstone structure with an octagonal central chamber with smaller rooms on each side. The walls are inscribed with verses from the Quran.

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 Mahal is today regarded all over the world as a supreme labor of love.

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 Mahal is still wanting.

 Taj Mahal: A memorial of love
 

 

Long long ago, in a land called Hindustan, reigned a dynasty of Kings as cultured as they were courageous... It isn't that they were without fault they could be cruel and cunning warriors but they were also men of exceptionally good taste, and blessed with the bountiful means to express their vision, they built a splendid empire of beauty, knowledge and grace beyond any known before.

Now there was one among them, known as "King of the World," whose heart's passion burned like fire, and who built a monument for the sake of love that would capture the imagination of the world...

At the age of fifteen, the prince who would be called King of the World met a refined and highborn young girl at a bazaar within the walls of the royal palace in Agra. Court poets celebrated the girl's extraordinary beauty. "The moon," they said, "hid its face in shame before her." For both, it was love at first sight. Five years would pass before the auspicious day chosen for their wedding, and from that moment, they became inseparable companions.

Prince Khurram was the fifth son of the Emperor Jahangir, who ruled in the country now known as India in the sixteenth century. Although the prince was not the eldest son, he soon became the favorite.

But in this world, there is an ancient tradition: sweet pleasure is not without bitterness

In 1631, in the fourth year of his reign, Shah Jahan set out for Burhanpur with his armies to subdue a rebellion. Even though Mumtaz Mahal was in the ninth month of a pregnancy, she accompanied him as she had done many times before. On a warm evening of April in 1631, the queen gave birth to their fourteenth child, but soon afterwards suffered complications and took a turn for the worse. According to legend, with her dying breath, she secured a promise from her husband on the strength of their love: to build for her a mausoleum more beautiful than any the world had ever seen before.

The King cried out with grief, like an ocean raging with storm... He put aside his royal robes and for the whole week afterward, His Majesty did not appear in public, nor transact any affairs of state... From constant weeping he was forced to use spectacles, and his hair turned gray...

Shah Jahan grieved for two years. By official opinion, he never again showed enthusiasm for administering the realm. His only solace would be found in the world of art and architecture, and an obsession with perfection that would last his lifetime. Six months after the death of his wife, he laid the foundation for her memorial across the Jamuna River near his palace in Agra... the jewel of India, the far-famed Taj Mahal.

Pearly pink at dawn and opalescent by moonlight, Mumtaz Mahal's tomb is so delicately ethereal that it threatens to disappear during Agra's white-heat afternoons. In the center of the mausoleum lie the remains of the Empress. Subdued light filters through the delicate screens surrounding her cenotaph and mullahs chant verses from the Koran. It is here that Shah Jahan came with his children to honor the memory of his beloved wife. Here, at last, he found solace.

Shah Jahan created his vision of the world, not as it is, but rather as it should be harmonious, graceful and pure. Inspired by love and shaped to perfection, the Taj Mahal immortalizes one man's love for his wife and the splendor of an era.

Let the splendor of the diamond, pearl and ruby vanish like the magic shimmer of the rainbow. Only let this one teardrop, the Taj Mahal, glisten spotlessly bright on the cheek of time...

(Poet Rabindranath Tagore)

 The postcard picture of Taj Mahal does not adequately convey the legend, the poetry and the romance that shroud what Rabindranath Tagore calls "a teardrop on the cheek of time". Taj Mahal means "Crown Palace" and is in fact the most well preserved and architecturally beautiful tomb in the world. It is best described by the English poet, Sir Edwin Arnold, as "Not a piece of architecture, as other buildings are, but the proud passions of an emperors love wrought in living stones." It is a celebration of woman built in marble and thats the way to appreciate it.

When Mumtaz Mahal was still alive, she extracted four promises from the emperor: first, that he build the Taj; second, that he should marry again; third, that he be kind to their children; and fourth, that he visit the tomb on her death anniversary. He kept the first and second promises. Construction began in 1631 and was completed in 22 years. Twenty thousand people were deployed to work on it. The material was brought in from all over India and central Asia and it took a fleet of 1000 elephants to transport it to the site. It was designed by the Iranian architect Ustad Isa and it is best appreciated when the architecture and its adornments are linked to the passion that inspired it. It is a "symbol of eternal love".

The Taj rises on a high red sandstone base topped by a huge white marble terrace on which rests the famous dome flanked by four tapering minarets. Within the dome lies the jewel-inlaid cenotaph of the queen. So exquisite is the workmanship that the Taj has been described as "having been designed by giants and finished by jewellers". The only asymmetrical object in the Taj is the casket of the emperor, which was built beside the queens as an afterthought. The emperor was deposed by his son and imprisoned in the Great Red Fort for eight years but was buried in the Taj. During his imprisonment, he had a view of the Taj.

As a tribute to a beautiful woman and as a monument for enduring love, the Taj reveals its subtleties when one visits it without being in a hurry. The rectangular base of Taj is in itself symbolic of the different sides from which to view a beautiful woman. The main gate is like a veil to a womans face, which should be lifted delicately, gently and without haste on the wedding night. In Indian tradition the veil is lifted gently to reveal the beauty of the bride. As one stands inside the main gate of Taj, his eyes are directed to an arch that frames the Taj.

The dome is made of white marble, but the tomb is set against the plain across the river and it is this background that works its magic of colors that, through their reflection, change the view of the Taj. The colors change at different hours of the day and during different seasons. Like a jewel, the Taj sparkles in moonlight when the semi-precious stones inlaid into the white marble on the main mausoleum catch the glow of the moon. The Taj is pinkish in the morning, milky white in the evening and golden when the moon shines. These changes, they say, depict the different moods of a woman.

Different people have different views of the Taj but it would be enough to say that the Taj has a life of its own that leaps out of marble, provided you understand that it is a monument of love. As an architectural masterpiece, nothing could be added or substracted from it.

 

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