Who can convey one’s feeling when writing about the Taj Mahal? It is one of the classic Seven Wonders of the World! I certainly can’t write in poetic ways that express either its beauty or its effect upon an observer. Instead, I’ll simply describe some features of its history and structure.
The Taj Mahal’s history begins with Shah Jahan. Born in 1593, Shah Jahan was a grandson of the great Mughal Emperor Akbar. Shah Jahan became the Mughal Emperor in 1628. This Mughal ruler of northern India continued the advance of the Mughals In India. Earlier in 1612 when he was 19, he married a childhood love, Muntaz Mahal. They had 14 children, only seven of which survived childbirth, three daughters and four sons. Tragically, as she was giving birth to their 14th child, she died.
Soon after she died, Shah Jahan began building a mausoleum for her in 1631. Tradition has it that 20,000 workers, the white marble, and the semi-precious stones inlaid in the marble came from all over India and Central Asia. Of course, the tradition also claims that 1000 elephants were used! During the next 22 years, architects, craftsmen, and laborers built not only the Taj Mahal, but also the mosque, the guesthouse, the gardens, and the entry gates. The tour guides have another twist on the story. They say that it was originally planned and started not as a mausoleum but as a palace that Shah Jahan promised to his queen while she was still alive. They say that only after her death did its purpose change to mausoleum. You can pick whether you believe the historians or the tour guides!
Shah Jahan and Muntaz Mahal had a son that they probably regretted having. This son, Aurangzeb , murdered his other brothers and took the throne from Shah Jahan. His actions won him the nickname of “Aurangzeb The Cruel.”
Aurangzeb placed his father under “house arrest” in Agra Fort. This fort is about a mile along the Yamuna River from the Taj. Maybe with a twinge of guilt, Aurangzeb imprisoned Shah Jahan in a section of Agra Fort which allowed the father to look out upon the Taj. Legends also describe that as his father’s eyesight failed, Aurangzeb had special reflective and magnifying glass made which enabled his father to see the Taj even with his failing eyesight. Maybe a second twinge of guilt? The tour guide tells a final story that Shah Jahan died after viewing the Taj one last time! Maybe we should pick the tour guides’ story this time!
The Taj is fascinating as a structure. Except for the tombs of Muntaz Mahal and later Shah Jahan placed next to her, the building is perfectly symmetrical and proportional. Each side of the raised platform is 180 feet long; the four minarets are 130 feet tall. The large central dome is approximately 115 feet tall. There is no exact forerunner of this building although the Humayan mausoleum in Delhi certainly influenced the architects. Still, the Taj is the first Mughal building combining Islamic, Persian, and Indian features to use white marble with inlaid stones.
Two features of its construction are interesting. Similar to buildings in San Francisco since its earthquake and fire in 1906, this 1600’s building had several features to protect it from earthquakes, which occur about once every 55 years. Some say that underneath the main building is not only rubble supporting the main platform but also water tanks which absorb any intense shaking of the ground. In addition, the four minarets are slightly angled away from the main building. If there is an earthquake which topples the towers, they will fall away from the Taj and not into the main building.
Unlike China’s Great Wall or the Egypt’s Pyramids, the Taj Mahal is much smaller. Part of its beauty is in the proportionality of its elements. It doesn’t overwhelm by size but stands out for its scale.
The Taj Mahal is a building constructed because of love between Shah Jahan and Muntaz Mahal. Shah Jahan placed this love within the framework of Muslim faith. Above the main gateway is the Islamic calligraphy which states: “O Soul, thou art at rest. Return to the Lord at peace with Him; and He at peace with you.”