...romance of the Taj

Did you ever build a castle in the air? Here is one, brought down to earth, and fixed for the wonder of the ages... (Bayard Taylor, American novelist 1855)

romantic painting of Taj Mahal

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the romantic allure of the East made India the favored destination for European travelers – the monuments of Agra turned into pleasure resorts for picnics and midnight rendezvous. Eventually, the Taj grounds became overgrown and the tomb desecrated by vandals. For a time it seemed that even the Taj, like the Mughals, might vanish. A plan to sell the marble piece by piece was called off only for lack of prospective buyers.

After years of neglect, a restoration program was begun by the British Viceroy to India, Lord Curzon, at the end of the 19th century. The work continued under the Archaeological Survey, and the buildings of Agra, including the Taj, were restored to something of their former glory.

Much of what is known about the Taj Mahal among the general public is stuff of legends. Travelers told many stories in which there is no basis in historical fact, imaginative recollections that made their trips to India more interesting back home. Even the name "Taj Mahal" comes from an Englishman, probably a contraction of Mumtaz Mahal's name. (The tomb was originally known as the Rauza-I Munavvara, the "Illumined Tomb.")

romantic painting of Taj Mahal
According to one often repeated legend, Shah Jahan had planned to build his own tomb in black marble across the Jamuna River, joined by bridge with a silver railing to the Taj Mahal. But there has never been any historical evidence to substantiate this claim.

"There's also a lot of mythologizing about the deathless love between Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal," says art historian Milo Beach. "The best substantial evidence we have is, of course, the Taj itself, because he did build this extraordinary monument to his wife, and it's very unusual for the tomb of an emperor's wife to be so elaborate. That clearly is evidence of a quite extraordinary love or relationship between them. There would have been no reason to do this otherwise. But we know that Shah Jahan was an enormous womanizer. We know from the gossip in the bazaars and in the market places of the time that he was known to carry on affairs with many, many other women. That's not part of the romantic myth, but it's probably much closer to the reality. You know, people make these things up, and they make good stories."


young lovers | the Mughal dynasty | Shah Jahan | architectural antecedents
building the Taj | visiting the Taj | fall of an empire | timeline

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