In 1612, Shah Jahan, ruler of the Mughal Empire, married 15-year-old Arjumand Banu. Renamed Mumtaz Mahal ("Chosen One of the Palace"), she bore Shah Jahan 14 children and became his favorite of his three wives.
Shah Jahan seized power from his father in 1622 and murdered his brothers to secure his claim to the throne. Although known as an extravagant and cruel leader, Jahan's image was tempered by his passion for architecture and his love for Mumtaz. When she died in childbirth in 1631, the Shah was inconsolable. His hair and beard reportedly turned snow white within months. The court went into mourning for more than two years, at the end of which the grieving emperor decided to create a fitting monument to his departed companion. Twenty thousand workers and 1,000 elephants took nearly 20 years to complete this monument -- the Taj Mahal. (Its name is a corruption of the queen's title.)
Designed by the local Muslim architect Ustad Ahmad Lahori, the gateway, garden, mosque, jawab (literally "answer," a building mirroring the mosque), and mausoleum were conceived and designed as a unified entity according to the tenets of Mughal building practice, which allowed no subsequent addition or alteration. Located on the banks of the Yamuna River in Agra, India, the building is considered the finest example of Mughal architecture in existence. Upon its completion, Shah Jahan allegedly ordered the chief mason's right hand cut off so that the masterpiece could not be recreated.
The white marble mausoleum stands at one end of a garden adorned with reflecting pools, sparkling marble pavements, and four channels to echo the four rivers of the Islamic Paradise. Its 137-foot-high dome tapers to a spire topped by a crescent. The rest of the white marble exterior as well as the inside walls incorporate pietra dura, the inlay of semiprecious stones, including lapis lazuli, jade, turquoise, and amethyst, in highly formalized geometric and floral designs. The colors moderate the dazzling expanse of white marble, which changes color as the day goes by, turning from pink in the morning to dazzling white at noon to iridescent in the moonlight. Verses from the Koran inscribed in calligraphy encircle the arched entrances while the tomb chamber is softly illuminated by the light passing through screens of intricately carved marble. The royal couple, however, is buried in an underground vault.
When Mumtaz Mahal was still alive, she extracted four promises from the emperor: He should build the Taj, marry again, be kind to their children, and visit her tomb on the anniversary of her death. Unfortunately, he kept only the first and second promises. Deposed in 1657 by his son Aurangzeb, Jahan was imprisoned and spent his last lonely hours staring across the Yamuna River at the Taj Mahal, where he was eventually buried beside his beloved queen. Over the centuries, his tribute to her has become the ultimate monument of a man's love for a woman.
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