Founded by Babur in 1526, the Mughal empire was one of the largest centralized states known in pre-modern world history. The Mughal empire is remembered for its “distinctive aristocratic high culture.” This impressive sophistication was portrayed in their ceremonies, music, poetry, exquisite paintings, and overall etiquette. The success of the empire can be attributed to “hard-driving, active rulership exercised by extremely capable rulers.” Most famously, Akbar, the third Mughal emperor, is credited with shaping the empire with his military successes, which greatly expanded the territorial reign of the empire, as well as the adoption of bureaucratic practices. Akbar is also revered for his “cosmopolitan outlook.”
Unlike many, Akbar appreciated the diversity of South Asia and beyond. He was known to engage in the study and exploration of various cultural beliefs and practices. In order to maintain a diverse outlook, Akbar established a ruling class full of men from a variety of communities. He created a policy in which he ensured the induction of “men of Indian origin, both Muslim and Hindu, into the imperial service.” This progressive cosmopolitan outlook instigated the highly sophisticated culture that the Mughals are known for. Akbar “gathered the finest singers, the boldest statesman, the wisest philosophers, artists of such skill that they were considered holy.” Long after the Mughal empire declined its style has remained greatly admired.
In 1628, when Shah Jahan, the grandson of the great Akbar, came into power, the empire was a dominant power house that controlled a vast territory, had unrivaled military power, and tremendous wealth. Unlike his father and grandfather, Jahan did not posses the same devotion to inclusive political reign. “Shah Jahan’s attachment to orthodox Islam mirrored a hardening more formal delineation of Islamic community in the subcontinent.” This shift in beliefs had a significant effect on Mughal political culture. He adopted new policies that reversed Akbar’s fairly liberal treatment of non-Muslims.
Jahan’s pride and power verged on the side of arrogance. Although his altered outlook caused a significant shift in the Mughal Empire, “Shah Jahan’s confident sense of Mughal grandeur found creative expression in monumental buildings at various scales.” Recognized as the most famous product of the Mughal Empire, the Taj Mahal in Agra, India, was Shah Jahan’s second commissioned project. The Taj Mahal is a tomb that enshrines the remains of the emperor Jahan, and those of his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal.
This building of great power and majesty is an object of wonder, constructed not only as a monument dedicated to the love between Emperor Jahan and his wife, but also to symbolize stability, divine power, and the confidence of Shah Jahan and the Mughal Empire. Mostly due to limited academic literature on the Taj Mahal and the Mughal Empire as a whole, there is a skewed understanding of the history. When Mumtaz Mahal, wife of Shah Jahan, died during the birth of her fourteenth child, the emperor was completely devastated and went into a period of “prolonged morning”. Half a year after Mumtaz’s death, she was buried along the bank of the Yamuna river and the construction of the great Taj Mahal began. This magnificent structure is an eternal symbol to the artistic and scientific accomplishments of the Mughal Empire. Today, the name Taj Mahal stakes a claim to excellence.
Despite the brilliant labor force that had been previously established in Agra by rulers like Akbar, this ambitious project required further talent. In 1632, construction of the magnificent mausoleum began and artists from across Asia united in Agra. During the following 20 years of construction, Agra became one of the most “vital creative centers on earth”. The various styles and culture brought to the construction of the Taj Mahal made it a impressive eclectic creation. During the reign of Shah Jahan, the Mogul empire was at the height of it’s magnificence. This grandeur produced a longing need for excessive extravagance by Shah Jahan. The architecture of the building, drawing from so many various styles including Turkish, Buddhist, Tatar, and even a hint of Chinese, synthesized an end product so unique that people saw it as “a completely new work of art.” This complexity has resulted in competing accounts and definitions of its style. “The oblong site of the Taj Mahal is divided into two main zones, the funeral and the ‘worldly’.” This set-up reflects the discussion of the Islamic idea of the domain of the spiritual and the domain of material life.
Upon approaching the main three-storied gateway, you are welcomed by a colossal archway that beckons visitors invitingly into the ‘funerary’ section. Symbolically this entranceway was “the gate to paradise or the door to the womb of spiritual rebirth”, physically it is the point of transition between the outside world and the inner world of the spirit. From the entrance you catch the first glimpse of the Taj and the gardens enclosed by a large wall. The gardens, sectioned into four quadrants, the holiest number in Islam, seem to act as a “green carpet running from the gateway to the foot of the Taj.” Contrary to the blustery desert outside the walls, the vibrant green of the grass creates a sense of paradise that brings a mystical ambiance to the site.
There was no sense of ‘natural’ with these gardens, but instead, this Persian style garden was artificially contrived, “based on geometrical arrangements of nature…lines of trees and fountains, neatly manicured flower beds in every quadrant, marble canals crossing in mathematical regularity.” These gardens were not designed as an earthly pleasure but rather to signify sacred ground. These constructs are direct evidence of how the Mughal city created a paradisiacal garden on earth for the deceased. “Paradise in the Muslim tradition is the reward for all true believers on the Day of Judgment.” In essence, the tomb was built as a shrine in which the deceased royals are given a semi-divine status. At the northern end of the garden on top of an enormous rectangular platform sits the Taj Mahal.
The main tomb of the Taj is surrounded by four minarets, from which Muslims are called to prayer, on the corners of the podium on which the tomb and minarets lay. By the time of the Taj’s construction white marble was used exclusively for the tombs of saints. “The extensive use of white marble must have been intended to evoke a sense of divine presence.” The use of white marble on the Taj and the four surrounding minarets, insinuates that Shah Jahan was viewed, or viewed himself, as having semi-divine status. Two red sandstone buildings frame the mausoleum on either side. The building on the west side of the podium is dedicated as a mosque. The purpose of this mosque was to provide a prayer hall for those who visit the tomb for religious purposes and to bring a sense of divinity to the tomb.
Today the Mosque is “still used for the Friday prayer, the only time when the complex is freely and exclusively accessible to Muslims and its religious identity is asserted.” On the opposite side, their is a matching structure, however due to its orientation to the east, this building was never used for prayer. While the true purpose of this building was to ensure bilateral symmetry and beauty to the overall structure, its construction was rationalized by purposing it as a ‘guest house’ of sorts. The building would accommodate visitors who attended the “annual commemoration of Mumtaz on the anniversary of her death” as well as serve as an assembly hall for gatherings. Throughout the construction of the Taj Mahal an obvious sense of bilateral symmetry can be seen. Bilateral symmetry has been recognized “as an ordering principle of the architecture rulers aiming at absolute power— a symbol of the ruling force that brings about balance and harmony.”
The Taj Mahal was bigger than just a mausoleum for his beloved wife, it was also an affirmation Jahan’s religious belief in Islam. This was his attempt to create an profoundly islamic vision of god’s paradise, majesty and power. The establishment of this large islamic structure is a testament to the religious shift and the overall power in the empire. In reality, during Mughal rule, the public rarely, if ever, had access into the gates of the Taj Mahal. Most only saw the enormous and glorious structure from river. While some say this exclusivity hindered its popularity and favor during Mughal times, it was a way for Jahan to insinuate his divine status and power. Much of the Taj Mahal’s reverence comes from accounts from European travelers in Mughal India. However, in a sense, this was exactly what Shah Jahan was attempting to do. He wanted people to come see this building and leave in awe. Not only in awe of the architecture and sheer beauty but in awe of him, that he was able to create something of this magnificence. It reflected the power and wealth of the empire. “In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Taj Mahal was immortalized by a number of European artists.”
In 1803 the city of Agra came into British control. Copious amounts of records were produced by increasing amounts of British officials, private visitors, and artists, all expressing their admiration of the Taj Mahal. During this time, the Taj became a meeting ground for the British and Indians to coexist with each other in close quarters. Visitors would “pitch their tents in the garden or stay in the buildings, and put up their servants in the Jilaukhana.” Overtime the Taj Mahal became, and still is, a place for the public. Amongst scholars it was recognized as a “unifying power, a utopian space.” A European documented this experience saying, “as much admired by the natives as by Europeans, the Taj and its garden furnish proof that, like a touch of nature, an appeal of true art also can make the whole world kin.”
The great garden specifically became a place for gathering and commerce. “The garden was full of fruit trees, which, continuing and earlier tradition, were let out by the British Government to local gardeners who derives a thriving trade during the season from harvesting and selling the fruit.” The gardens no longer were a place for just the elite but a place for the Europeans and the natives of all religions and sects. The space, previously exclusive to the elite to maintain its divine and paradisal status, transcended into a stage for human events. Great markets were held where locals would sell their goods to awestruck European travelers, enamored with the beauty, color, and uniqueness of their art.
While the Taj Mahal had become a place for people of all backgrounds to be together there were a few instances of friction between the locals and the British visitors. The locals felt that the British were disrespecting this sacred space, play on the tomb, marking the walls, and even removing pieces of it to sell. The British argued that the locals were also disrespecting the space by holding markets and leaving their trash scattered around the gardens. In 1857-58, India staged a great uprising against British rule, now called the “First War of Independence”. This uprising caused a dampening on the “idyllic intercultural gatherings” held at the Taj Mahal. As the British rulers in India moved their government headquarters out of Agra, The Taj Mahal and surrounding city slowly became a provincial town.
Today, despite its Islamic past and its use as a tomb, which is not practiced in Hindu tradition, the Taj Mahal is a symbol of India.
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