The Taj Mahal in Agra, India (started in 1632) is believed to be the pinnacle of Indo-Islamic architecture. Many of us know that it was built by Shah Jahan (the 5th Mughal emperor) for his beloved second wife, Arjumand Banu Begum (known as Mumtaz Mahal) who died during childbirth. However, one cannot help but wonder what exactly drove a man (described as ‘more ruthless than romantic’) to go to such extreme. From the onset it was conceived to be a building that would be remembered for its grandeur for ages to come, a goal that wasn’t cheap (estimated 32-40 million rupees at the time of construction) nor easy (it required 20 000 craftsmen and 2 decades).
The Mughal Empire, founded by Babur, a Turkish ruler, was an Islamic empire in the Indian subcontinent from the early 16th to the 18th centuries after the defeat of Ibrahim Lodi, the last ruler of the Lodi Dynasty. As a new dynasty the Mughals felt a strong need to assert themselves. They were a minority group in an area predominantly Hindu and they believed in the potential of architecture to do so. Right from the start of Babur’s reign he took interest in constructing buildings and started laying out gardens.
In central Asia garden designs originated known as the charbagh or chahar-bagh (In Persian, Ch?r means ‘four’ and b?gh means ‘garden’) influenced by Persian and Timurid Gardens. (14th – 16th century) The quadrilateral, walled in gardens became one of the trademarks of Islamic garden design and was their visualization of paradise as mentioned in the Quran. The space was divided into four main quadrants by interconnecting walkways and a building such as a pavilion or tomb along its central axis. ‘This highly structured geometrical scheme… became a powerful metaphor for the organization and domestication of the landscape, itself a symbol of political territory’ (Ruggles, 2008)
The charbagh was already an established residential garden form in Agra but when the Taj Mahal’s garden was designed, Shah Jahan introduced this concept into the monumental mausoleum setting. Here the design deviates from the traditional charbagh by the placement of the tomb at the (north) end of the garden. The Taj Mahal features a square pool in the center as well as water channels along the axes which provide a view with an exquisite reflection of the Taj Mahal to the visitor upon entering through the forecourt in the south.
Besides the above mentioned deviation, the Taj Mahal’s 300 meter square charbagh is consistent with other traditional elements although it is expanded to an unparalleled scale. The quadrants of the Taj Mahal’s garden were in turn each subdivided into four smaller squares by walkways. The Taj Mahal is situated on the south bank of the Yamuna river with no tree or structure behind to distract from its magnificent form and the contrasting sky behind it.
Across the river is the imperial charbagh garden known as Mahtab Bagh which’ is perfectly aligned with the Taj on the opposite bank. It was built by Babur and later developed further by Shah Jahan to provide another angle to view the Taj Mahal. Should one incorporate the Yamuna as well as Mahtab Bagh, one can argue that the Taj indeed appears to be centrally located in a grander complex. This careful planning speaks to the brilliance of the architects led by chief architect Ustad-Ahmad Lahori. Besides the practicality of a water source for the gardens, the Yamuna also serves to reflect the marvelous white mausoleum. Thereby its reflection could be seen from both the north as well as the south.
Architectural remains from Babur and Hamayun’s (Shah Jahan’s great grandfather) rule reveal both Iranian (Timurid) elements with the traditions of local craftsmen for inlaying red sandstone with different coloured stones and white marble. Shah Jahan, which many argue was the most prolific Mughal builder, incorporated these elements in several of his buildings including the Jama Masjid in Delhi and Agra Fort. Furthermore, during the Mughal rule Indo-Islamic architecture also progressively combined traditional Hindu art like the white and red colour scheme or the inverted lotus at the top of the domes. Also, the chattris that are topped by a gilded finial mixes traditional Hindustani with Persian elements.
One of the key challenges that the builders faced was the location on the banks of the Yamuna. Finding solid ground to build so close to the water is challenging. The architects came up with a revolutionary solution (one still used today). They decided to build a well foundation by digging deep wells down below the water table which they filled with stone. On this base they build stone columns linked together by massive arches. The result was a solid mountain of stone to support the foundation slab. – National Geographic: Secrets of the Taj Mahal.
When approaching the Taj Mahal mausoleum, what initially appeared to be a solid white building gradually becomes an array of intricate detail in sober relief munabbat kari, stones inlays; what is known as pietra dura parchin kari and calligraphy. Because human/animal depictions are forbidden in Islamic traditions, often calligraphic inscriptions and floral patterns are used for decoration. The brilliant Persian calligrapher, Amanat Khan, (whose real name was Abd ul-Haq) was responsible for the extensive calligraphic decorations in black marble that decorates both the south gateway as well as the mausoleum. It is speculated that it was also him who also chose the passages from the Quran most of which emphasizing eschatological themes. According to tajmahal.org.uk, the inscriptions above the gateway invite the visitor to enter paradise but as one enters the mausoleum, the inscriptions change to impending doom that that awaits the non-believers on the day of judgement. However, once inside the mausoleum, the tone of the inscriptions changes again to paradisiacal.
The extraordinary delicate floral motifs on all the complex’s buildings were created using pietra dura which literally means ‘driven-in’ work. In order to achieve the objective of colour variations, forty different kinds of precious and semi-precious stones were used. The highly qualified artists responsible for these decorations were trained by Italian craftsmen. One can also see the Italian influence in the use of floral designs that represent European medical plants. These were considered paradisiac vegetation hence their inclusion on the décor. Furthermore, in Islamic culture, flowers are often seen as symbols of the Kingdom of Allah. Therefore, the Taj Mahal’s allusion of Paradise can be seen in the repetition of the flowers created in heraldic precision on the various buildings.
The tomb is constructed using red brick that was made on site, and covered in white marble that hails from Makrana, southwest of Jaipur. It is placed elevated in the center of the square, white marble plinth with its angles chamfered. The angles are counterbalanced by four minarets at the corners of the plinth. Each of the building’s façades are composed of a grand recessed arch set within a rectangular frame and flanked by alcoves in two stories. The structure is dominated by a grand, bulbous dome situated on a high cylinder and ends in an upside down lotus motif and metal finial. The domes of four open pavilions chatr?s are of a traditional hemispherical form.
The four free-standing minarets rise higher than the domed pavilions but not the full height of the dome. The minarets are round and tapering. They are built in three storeys, separated by supported balconies, and crowned by domed pavilions chatr?s. They add a previously unknown dimension to the Mughal architecture. The four minarets which lead the eye upward, provide both a spatial reference to the monument as well as a three-dimensional effect to the edifice.
The interior floor plan of the mausoleum exhibits the hasht bishisht also known as the ‘eight levels’ principle, alluding to the eight levels of paradise. The main chamber is decorated with the finest pietra dura, used on the borders of a delicately carved marble screen that surrounds the cenotaphs as well as on the cenotaphs themselves. In the center is the cerograph of Mumtaz Mahal with that of Shah Jahan to the western side. (The actual sarcophagi are in a chamber directly below). This placement has been cause for much speculation as it is the only non-symmetrical feature of the entire complex causing some to argue that it was not Shah Jahan’s intended resting place.
Many also still speculate about what exactly drove Shah Jahan to build such an extravagant building. All aspects of the complex express the concept that it is an earthly realization of Mumtaz’ garden and mansion in paradise but was that truly the only motivation? Some argue that the Taj Mahal is a symbolic representation of a Divine Throne, the seat of God on the Day of Judgment. Another theory suggest that the Taj was something of a vanity project, built to glorify Mughal rule and as a lasting memorial to the emperor’s fame.
Regardless of what the motivation was, scholars agree about its excellent handling of material, attention to detail and sheer brilliance. The Taj Mahal is a great example of rhythmic combinations of solid form and voids as well as curves and shadows which further increases the visual appeal. It represents the finest architectural balance, symmetry and harmonious blending of elements.
Shah Jahan’s earliest historian, Muhammad Amin Qazwini wrote…”it will be the masterpiece of the days to come, and that which adds to the astonishment of humanity at large“ and with that I think we all can agree.
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