The Taj Mahal: Few buildings anywhere in the world can elicit as strong a picture in the mind’s eye as this architectural testament to love. Set in white marble, the mausoleum commissioned by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century appears almost ethereal as it rises from a nearly 17-hectare Mughal garden in the Agra District of the present-day Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
Agra is the former capital of the once thriving Mughal Empire (1526-1857), which was made fabulously wealthy by gems. And Shah Jahan was heir to this wealth. Art historian and author Milo Beach once wrote, “Jewels were the main basis of wealth, and there were literally trunks of jewels in the imperial treasury, trunks of emeralds, sapphires, rubies and diamonds. Shah Jahan inherited it all.”
Although Shan Jahan’s reign was marked by peace and prosperity – to the point of opulence – he became grief-stricken when his second wife Arjumand Banu Begum, who was also known as Mumtaz Mahal (“Chosen of the Palace”), died during childbirth in 1631. The emperor was said to be so heartbroken he nearly abdicated the throne. The court mourned for two years and Shah Jahan vowed to commemorate his love for Mumtaz with a building unlike any the world had ever seen.
He succeeded. Indian poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore described the building, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, as “a tear on the face of eternity.” Tagore’s admiration is universally shared. The Taj Mahal is so widely esteemed that even in majority Hindu India the building has taken on immense symbolic importance to the nation’s identity.
The building continues to exert its pull on the Indian imagination, as reflected in last week’s news that grieving husband Faizul Hasan Kadari, 77, has vowed to use his life savings to erect a 5,000-square-feet replica of the memorial in his garden in memory of his wife Tajammuli Begum. In the process of building his own personal Taj, Faizul has sold off family heirlooms and dipped into his life savings, but has since run out of funds, leaving the memorial in a state of near completion.
The Taj Mahal inspired Faizul with good reason. The great tomb embodies the highest realization of Mughal architecture – a hybrid of Islamic, Persian, Ottoman Turkish and Indian styles. Indeed, it is considered the ultimate embodiment of Indo-Islamic architecture. The structure’s heightened aesthetic vision speaks volumes about the dedication of the Mughal emperor who commissioned its construction.
In A History of Architecture, Sir Banister Fletcher describes it as follows:
“The Mausoleum of the Taj Mahal at Agra stands in a formally laid-out walled garden entered through a pavilion on the main axis. The tomb, raised on a terrace and first seen reflected in the central canal, is entirely sheathed in marble, but the mosque and counter-mosque on the transverse axis are built in red sandstone. The four minarets, set symmetrically about the tomb, are scaled down to heighten the effect of the dominant, slightly bulbous dome. The mosques, built only to balance the composition are set sufficiently far away to do no more than frame the mausoleum. In essence, the whole riverside platform is a mosque courtyard with a tomb at its center. The great entrance gate with its domed central chamber, set at the end of the long watercourse, would in any other setting be monumental in its own right.”
As Fletcher describes it, the interior is no less impressive, with dim light filtering in through marble lattices to “respond with extraordinary subtlety to changing light and weather.”
In 2007, the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World were replaced with the New 7 Wonders of the World. The Taj Mahal is unsurprisingly numbered among them – alongside Christ Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, the Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu in Peru, Petra in Jordan, the Pyramid at Chichén Itzá in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and Rome’s Colosseum.