The Taj Mahal

By Ahmed, Akbar S. | History Today, May 1993 | Go to article overview

The Taj Mahal


Ahmed, Akbar S., History Today


* If there is one monument of romance instantly recognised throughout the world that speaks to all peoples irrespective of colour, nationality or religion it is the Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal was built by the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, to honour his wife the Empress Mumtaz Mahal. It is assumed that |Taj Mahal' -- |Crown of the palace' -- is an abbreviated version of Mumtaz Mahal's name, (itself meaning Exalted One of the Palace). Court histories from Shah Jahan's time simply called it the rauza (tomb) of Mumtaz Mahal. It was completed in 1648, almost twenty years after she died. But the Taj Mahal can be seen not only as a mausoleum for the empress but also as the glorious climax of Mughal architecture in India. Babur, the founder of the dynasty, had come to india with firm ideas about art and architecture from his ancestral home in Central Asia. Samarkand and Bukhara had been the glittering capitals of his ancestors, Taimur and Uleg Beg. His son, Humayun, was exiled to Iran and returned with Safavid architects and artists. Red stone and white marble -- the Indian contribution to Islamic architecture -- were now blended with traditional Islamic styles and materials. indeed it was Humayun's own tomb, built in the 1560s in Delhi, which began the trend in Mughal architecture to reflect the glory, splendour and power of the empire through the burial place. The running water, the pavilions and gardens can all be seen in Humayun's tomb.

During the reign of Humayun's son, Akbar, the Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri were constructed. Akbar's tomb at Sikandra which was unfinished at the time of his death in 1605, was completed by his son Jahangir. European visitors found it the most notable building in the region until the building of the Taj Mahal.

But it was Shah Jahan's reign which was characterised by a profusion of white marble buildings. indeed it led one scholar to characterise the age as the reign of marble. Although red sandstone and brick remained the major building materials the use of marble is expressive of the high standard of elegance and luxury that governed all aspects of Mughal architecture. In addition to palaces, tombs and mosques, Shah Jahan commissioned gardens, such as the Shalimar in Lahore, pleasure pavilions and hunting lodges, such as the large red sandstone complex at Bari.

Shah Jahanabad, the new fortified city, north of Delhi, was finished in 1648. The Red Fort, also built in Delhi, included many of the features found in the buildings that Shah Jahan created in the Agra Fort. The most celebrated inscription in all of Shah Jahan's buildings is repeated here in the Diwan-e-Khass, the hall of private audience: |If there be a paradise on earth it is here, it is here, it is here'. It is a quotation from the famous Sufi poet, Amir Khusro. The legendary peacock throne stood here until it was carried off in 1739 by Nadir Shah.

Shah Jahan also built the Juma Masjid in Delhi, which stands near the Red Fort. This red sandstone building embellished with much white marble is impressive because of its size and form. In its day it was considered the greatest mosque of India and it was the last great building project of Shah's reign, completed in 1656.

In spite of the wild and incorrect bazaar gossip associated with all Mughal emperors, the builder of the Taj Mahal was a man of culture and learning, highly conscious of his royal lineage. Yet there is a surprising simplicity: his favourite dish was the rather common kitchri, a mixture of rice and pulses; his evenings were often spent with his books; the greatest love of his life was his wife.

For all his wide-ranging interest in art and the spiritual, Shah Jahan was enough of a Mughal to constantly display physical courage. He hunted wild animals, including lions, with a sword. He led armies in battle and displayed great courage in the face of danger.

Shah Jahan's birth was auspicious. He was born under the same conjunction of the planets that had prevailed at the time of the birth of his illustrious ancestor Taimur. …

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