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The magnificent white marble tomb of Mughal empress Mumtaz Mahal in Agra
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The Taj Mahal is the magnificent white marble tomb of Mughal empress Mumtaz Mahal. One of the most famous buildings in the world, the Taj Mahal is the mausoleum of Mumtaz Mahal, the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan's favorite wife who died unexpectedly during childbirth in 1631. Begun soon after her death, the tomb complex took more than 15 years to complete and is believed to have employed 20,000 laborers. The tomb, located in a walled garden with a central reflecting pool, is found on the north side of the huge complex, overlooking the Yamuna River. With the open sky as its backdrop, it rises up on a marble platform that is placed within a red sandstone terrace, which contains two additional structures—a mosque to the tomb's west and an assembly hall to its east. The giant dome rises on top of the tomb, which is surrounded by four minarets, and on each facade is a grand arch, known as a pishtaq.
Although the Taj Mahal appears completely white from a distance, it is profusely decorated with colorful floral motifs and black marble calligraphy of inscriptions from the Koran. The monument was designed as an earthly representation of the Islamic garden of paradise and its symmetry and precise proportions mark the highpoint of Mughal architecture.
Emperor Shah Jahan (1627-58), fifth ruler of the Mughal Empire, became the greatest patron of Indian architecture under the empire, funding magnificent building projects that expressed and celebrated the grandeur of his rule. The Taj Mahal is the most famous of Shah Jahan's projects and was commissioned as a monument and tomb for his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died in 1631 while giving birth to their 14th child. Completed in 1648 and modeled after a paradise garden, the Taj Mahal also includes the largest inscription project of its time, with 25 quotations from the Koran about the Day of Judgment, divine mercy, and paradise depicted on its gate, mausoleum, and mosque. In 1983, the monument was named a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Since 1996, excavations by the Archaeological Survey of India have revealed the existence of a lost "Moonlight Garden" mirroring the rectangular enclosure of the Taj on the other side of the river Yamuna: a project aided by the Sackler Gallery in Washington and paleo-botanists from the New York Botanical Garden.
Among the magnificent works for which Shah Jahan is known, is the Peacock Throne constructed of gold and hundreds of rubies, emeralds, diamonds (including the famous Koh-i-Noor), and other precious stones. An extensive new capital city, constructed between 1639 and 1648, at Shajahanabad (present-day Old Delhi), included waterways, spacious squares, and bazaars. It was the site of a royal fortress, the Red Fort, and the largest mosque for its time, the Jama Masjid.
Shah Jahan's reign ended in a two-year fight for succession between his sons Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb that resulted in Shah Jahan's imprisonment, Dara's death by the orders of Aurangzeb, and Aurangzeb’s assumption of the Mughal throne.
The Mughal Empire was founded in 1526 CE, peaked around 1700 and steadily declined into the 19th century, severely weakened by conflicts over succession. Mughal rule began with Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur, who invaded northern India from his post in Kabul, and overthrew Ibrahim Lodi, the last of the Delhi sultans. At its height, the Mughal Empire included most of the Indian subcontinent and an estimated population of 100 million people.
The empire's primary activities of war and expansion were supported by a strong central administrative and political system fully developed under Akbar, the third Mughal emperor. Under Akbar's rule (1556-1605), the empire expanded north to Kabul and Kashmir, east to Bengal and Orissa, south to Gujarat and southwest to Rajasthan. Establishing himself as a spiritual as well as military and strategic leader, Akbar promoted a policy of tolerance for all religions. His son, Jahangir (1605-27), and Jahangir's wife, Nur Jahan, who was highly influential in court politics, carried on Akbar's policies of centralized government and religious tolerance.
India's economy grew under the Mughals as a result of the empire's strong infrastructure, expansion and trade with Europeans, who established bases in various Indian ports. Shah Jahan (1627–58), Jahangir's son, diverted wealth away from the military toward magnificent building projects including the Taj Mahal and a new capital city, Shajahanabad, site of a royal fortress and the largest mosque in India, the Jama Masjid. Shah Jahan's reign marked a turn toward a more Muslim-centered government, which his son Aurangzeb favored in contrast with his other son Dara Shikoh, who favored a more diverse court.
After a two-year fight for succession that resulted in Shah Jahan's imprisonment and Dara's death, Aurangzeb (1658–1707) assumed the throne. He reversed many of Akbar's policies supporting religious tolerance, and Islamic religious law (sharia) became the foundation of Mughal government. By the late 17th century, the empire was in decline, weakened by succession conflicts, an entrenched war waged by Aurangzeb in the south, growing inequality between rich and poor and loss of support from nobles and gentry. By the mid-18th century, the once great Mughal Empire was confined to a small area around Delhi.
Tomb of Mumtaz Mahal
The tomb of Mumtaz Mahal is situated on the north end of the funerary complex on a square marble plinth, which is 328 feet on each side and 19 feet high, centered on a sandstone terrace. Set in an enclosed garden that is divided into four quadrants (char-bagh), the tomb is approached from a monumental gateway on the south and overlooks the Yamuna River on the north. It is made of fine white marble quarried at Makrana in Rajasthan and embellished with carved floral reliefs and intricate inlay work using gemstones, such as lapis lazuli, jasper, turquoise, carnelian, jade, and amethyst.
Although square in plan, 187 feet on each side, the tomb's corners are cut away or chamfered, so it appears slightly octagonal. A tall, recessed portal (pishtaq) is found at the center of each of the tomb's four identical sides and is flanked by a two-story alcove, which is also repeated at its corners. Slender pilasters inlaid with a chevron pattern of black and white marble, topped by lotus bud pinnacles, border each section of the facade.
The tomb is crowned by a giant onion-shaped double dome, decorated with inverted lotus petals, and culminating in a 30 foot metal finial. The dome sits on a high drum and its total height, from the drum’s base to the top of the finial, measures nearly 146 feet. Four octagonal chattris (domed kiosk) frame the central dome on all four angles.
A minaret is found at each corner of the square, raised marble platform on which the main tomb sits. Each of the slender towers is round, with a base circumference of 64 feet, and tapers as it rises to a height of 131 feet. Made of white marble, outlined in inlaid black stone, the minaret has three stories each of with a projecting balcony and topped by an octagonal chattri (domed kiosk) with multi-cusped arches. Although no longer used to call the faithful to prayer, each minaret does include a winding, internal staircase that leads up to its gallery.
On each of the four identical facades of the tomb is a grand central portal, known as a pishtaq or iwan. Its recessed arch, which provides a sense of depth, is bordered by a rectangular frame that is inlaid in black marble with inscriptions of Koranic verse. The spandrels of the pishtaq (the triangular spaces on either side of the point of the arch) are decorated with carved arabesque and floral motifs inlaid with precious stones.
On each side of the pishtaq is a two-story alcove, which is replicated at the tomb's corners, and the spandrels of its arches feature delicately inlaid flowers. These decorative patterns, found throughout the tomb, were created by adapting the western pietra dura technique, believed to have been imported to the court during the reign of the emperor Jahangir. Small shards of precious and semi-precious stones are arranged to make a complex floral pattern and inlaid into a marble base.
- What was the Taj Mahal built to represent?
- Which architectural aspect do you find most impressive?