At least over here, February is the month of love. It’s just inevitable when you combine Valentine’s day, a birthday and an anniversary into a week long period. And so, I give you the Taj Mahal, love architecturalized.
The Taj Mahal is a tomb. It is a glorious, extravagantly decorated piece of architecture that is pretty much all about one woman, Mumtaz Mahal, and the love she shared with the Mogul Emperor, Shah Jahan. Women are not often the motivation behind great architecture. But in the 1600s, where king’s had multiple wives and could do whatever they pleased with whoever they pleased, the love between Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan was something else.
At 19, she married the emperor and became his third wife. He christened her Mumtaz Mahal (or the Jewel of the Palace). And with a name like that, she got all the privileges you would expect. Quickly, everything but duty for his other wives was abandoned. All intimacy, affection, attention and favor fell on Mumtaz. Known for her beauty, grace and compassion, she was beloved. For nineteen blissful years until her death in childbirth, she flourished. She traveled with the king across the Mughal empire and delivered child after child (she gave birth to fourteen!). In life, he gave her a residence decorated in pure gold and precious stones with rose water fountains. In death, he gave her the Taj Mahal.
After living in a state of deep grieving (and giving up all entertainment) for two years, the Shah decided it was time to fulfill her (rumored) final request for a dreamy, magnificent mausoleum. After two years of utter despair, he poured his heart and soul into it.
Combining the best of the architectural designs from several architects across the country, construction began in 1632. Jahan demanded excellence and used only the best architects, inlay craftsmen, stone-carvers, calligraphers, and masons. Twenty two years later, with the work of 22,000 people and a 1000 elephants, the structure was complete. It would have no equal, he was sure of it. It’s rumored he even went as far as to amputate a man’s hand, so he would be unable to repeat the same exquisite detail. So 22,000 people later, and maybe a few less than 44,000 hands, we have the Taj Mahal.
There are five parts to the complex: the main gateway, gardens, mosque, rest house, and mausoleum. On your arrival to the site, you pass under the most recent addition. Constructed in 1932-1938, the original door was made of solid silver. The idea was to not allow a single glimpse of the Taj’s beauty until you were precisely in the right spot. Due to the perspective and symmetry of the site, the right vantage point is a necessity. This gate makes sure you get the full view.
As you appear at the door, the whole world feels ordered. Right. Set into place. It’s idyllic. Well, and then you see dozens of tourists trying to take pictures with the water. But still.
The journey through the Taj Mahal complex encompasses more than just the structure itself. It starts in the gardens. Seventeen acres recall the gardens of Paradise (they are called the Charbagh gardens after all). Filled with trees, flowers, plants and water, four rivers divert from a central basin. The garden forms a square divided into four equal parts. Since this tradition believed symmetry creates harmony, it is employed in spades.
Typically, this type of garden places the most important structure in the middle, with canals symbolizing water, milk, wine and honey flowing outwards. But here, the Taj sits beyond. The location was based on future planning for some ultimate symmetry. There was supposed to be a black Taj Mahal on the other side of the river for Shah Jahan. But when he died, it was decided he would be buried in the Taj Mahal instead (mostly because his deposing son was having none of that).
Although, I truly believe Shah Jahan wanted to honor his late wife, I would be remiss to not state that the Mughal garden is also a symbol of power. It is ordered and controlled. Its aesthetic is precise. At the Taj Mahal all five sections, the moonlight garden, the riverfront terrace, the Charbagh garden and pavilions, reflect that order. That symmetry. That forced perspective. You got to believe it also inspires a little bit of awe. Subtly, but perceptibly, you are imbued with the power of the one that created the complex.
Walking along the water paths, you start to recall all the many purposes for the water at your feet. In hot India, it’s most useful purpose was probably humidification. The mist would fight the often present heat by evaporating and cooling the air. Most people would also recognize water’s presence in the ritual abulations. But rather ingeniously, the flow of the water also directs your movement. It propels you forward with its own rhythm. The cypress trees further force the lines of perspective. And in the distance, the Taj Mahal stands on top a marble altar.
And because February also seems to be the month of inadvertent foundation stories, I can’t help but point out that a huge building of stone on the side of a riverbank is normally a bad idea. The soil is rarely strong enough to support it. Here, they chose to make wells, case them in timber and fill them with rubble, iron and mortar. So essentially in the 1600s they devised a system similar to our augured piles. Bravo!
The Taj itself sits as the replica of the house of the departed in paradise. The building’s elements, surface decoration, materials, geometry and acoustics challenge the senses. The large double dome stretches 200 feet tall, 120 feet higher than the one on the interior. Light seems channeled and funneled throughout the space. Screens block it, marble transmits it. God’s light seems ever present.
The pristine white marble swathing the building recalls the priestly caste, and the red on the side structures (the rest house and mosque) nod towards the warrior caste. The Mughals, in this building, claim to be leaders of both. But it’s the decoration that really catches your eye. Rooms are covered in precious stones and gems imported from across the globe. And in the end, the building seems more like a piece of jewelry than a structure. Tibetian turoquoise, Chinese crystal and jade, Egyptian chrysolite, Afghani lapis, Sri Lankan sapphires, Arabian coral, Persian amethyst, Himalayan quartz, Russian malachite and Indian diamonds all grace the walls. You would figure that the ‘Jewel of the Palace’ deserved all the jewels he could find, but still the effect is mesmerizing.
The inner octagonal chamber is 25 meters (or 75 feet) high. Check out some photos here. There, you stand in a room with near perfect symmetry. Carvings with the 99 names of God scroll around your head. Gems sparkle and shine. Cubic chamfered corners and arched recesses surround you. The room for the false tomb is typical of Mughal mausoleums. And right there, it’s easy to believe this is one of the new seven wonders of the world.
Both Mumtaz and Shah Jahan’s display cenotaphs face Mecca. In perfect geometric center stands Mumtaz’s tomb. Shah Jahan’s, which was never planned, throws off the otherwise perfect symmetry of everything. And after all the respectful nods to symmetry, it’s hard not to feel a little visually affronted by this. I have a hunch his son had a role to play in slightly messing up his father’s hard work, but maybe I’m reading a little bit into their troubled relationship. Read this and leave a comment letting me know what you surmise.
In the depths of the building below, the true crypts are void of decoration. As you look up and all around you, it is hard not to notice the noise. And even that is strategic. The inner mausoleum was carefully designed for a reverb time of 28 seconds. This is one of the longest echoes of any place in the world. This means that people and their presence, lingers. Which, at least, in a mausoleum, is kind of a beautiful thing.
What you see today differs slightly from the original. In the 19th century, the British began changing the Taj Mahal for their purposes in acts of ‘restoration’. They would chisel out precious stones and add their own British styled lawns (which is what you see today). And although they would alter what you see before, they are in part responsible for preserving the structure too.
Shah Jahan believed that visitation of the resting place would cause greater personal sanctity for the person interred. This belief probably drove the construction of the 32 million rupee (827 million dollars today) complex that surrounds you. If he built it, people would come, and that meant that somehow and in some afterlife, his wife would be better for it.
But even if you don’t believe in what is after, as you stand in that mausoleum, you truly feel the weight of the now. You hear the echo, you sense the people, you notice the passage of the light on the stone and screens. You have glimpsed a version of heaven in the gardens and now are very cognizant of your own mortality.
Today, gravesites have become much less elaborate, but the rationale behind them has not changed much. The living always want to pay homage to the dead. I hope we all leave behind a love that is so great it would inspire a masterpiece like this (if only our lovers had 827 million dollars at their disposal).
The English poet, Sir Edwin Arnold, declared it “not a piece of architecture, as other buildings are, but the proud passion of an emperor’s love wrought in living stones.” Which, I think is saying something, but especially in the 1600s.
I may not be a very romantic person, but it’s hard not to respect the wishes of a husband that did all he could to honor his wife. One, who even in death, was watching out for her soul. And who would gather all the jewels in his kingdoms and beyond, for the jewel of his heart.
We might not all have the kind of funds to build architectural monuments to those we love, but we always have the ability to express our love and love as hard and fiercely as Jahan did. I hope you do.