Taj Mahal is as much a symbol of love as Mughal power

What remains a mystery, however, is what plans Shah Jahan had for his own burial.

 |  5-minute read |   11-02-2016
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No matter how often one visits the Taj Mahal, the spectacle of seeing the monument never really diminishes. It has an incredible impact on even the most jaded eye, its purity of purpose and intent, and the sheer scale of this symbol of love has far deeper and profound implications than first seen. It is also one of the most commercialised symbols of the world, from tea to hotels, the Taj exemplifies excellence.

Even though it was built for Shah Jahan's beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal; the monument is as much a symbol of the Mughal empire at its zenith, as it is a dedication to his wife. Equally, from the inscriptions on the mausoleum's entrance and from court chronicles, this was undoubtedly conceived as a sacred space merging the spiritual and temporal.

The Taj has so many narratives which make up the whole, and in a building of this ambition and scale, there is a constant quest to understand its perfections. For example, the sheer genius in building the minarets not as a part of the tomb but as sentinels at its side. The perfection and clarity of design is unique, as indeed is the detail in each element carved or inlaid on its immense facades. Perhaps the genius of the building lies in both the majestic scale of the structure and in its minutiae, which embellish every surface.

Following Mumtaz's death at Burhanpur in 1632, court records speak of doom and despair, including Shah Jahan's collapse, "shedding tears like rain water". They describe the emperor's grief as heartbreak which "crumbled his mountain-like endurance."

The court was placed in mourning and the emperor retreated from public. When he finally emerged, "the hair on his head had turned white". He would devote the next decade of his life to a frenzy of building, the most notable of which is the Taj Mahal. One of Mumtaz's dying wishes, perhaps apocryphal, is reputed to have been "that you should build over me such a mausoleum that the like of it may not be seen anywhere else in the world".

And so began, what was undoubtedly in the 17th century, an industrial undertaking. Land was bought just outside Agra from Raja Jai Singh, and within a year the main platform was built in perfect cardinal alignment at the edge of river Yamuna.

At Mumtaz's first urz, her body was interred, while a great feast was held on the occasion. It also marked the emperor's return to court victorious from the Deccan. Construction on the Taj was swift and the workforce commandeered; inlay workers from Kanauj, marble-carvers from Bukhara and material was brought from all over India and beyond.

Under imperial orders, the finest marble from Makrana was transported in great bullock cart trains across the burning plains of India while red sandstone was procured from neighbouring Fatehpur Sikri, Tantpur and Paharpur.

In 1632, much of Hindustan was in the grip of famine but the emperor diverted grains to Agra to feed this immense workforce, conservatively estimated to be around 20,000. As the building grew in scale, so did the embellishments.

Semi-precious and rare turquoise was sourced from distant Tibet and lapis lazuli from Afghanistan and these were finely inlaid into the milky-white marble façade. The best craftsmanship was reserved for the graves in the burial chamber as well as the cenotaphs above, with the finest semi-precious jewels and calligraphy.

It is hard to visualise today when the Taj Mahal swarms with visitors that in Shah Jahan's time only he and his family members could enter the mausoleum. Even the priests who recited prayers around the clock were restricted to the outer chambers and the cenotaphs were further screened by an elaborate marble jail.

The sanctum sanctorum was only for the royal family. The nobility could not even climb up to the main takht. They attended prayers at the mosque at the side or waited in the jamat khana. The white marble building was distinctly separate from the red sandstone both physically as well as perceptionally.

To the south of the gardens, beyond what we now call the main gate and outside the Jillau Khana lay the great bazaars and sarais of Mumtazabad, today prosaically known as Taj Ganj, which came up to serve the travellers who came to pay obeisance to the king but could not access the mausoleum itself. To the north lay Mehtab Bagh, the moonlight garden, a continuation of the grand plan but a pleasure garden with pavilions, water bodies and great walkways. The Taj Mahal was an exclusive and immense enterprise.

Consider when Agra was the bustling capital of the Mughal empire with grand mansions of the nobility jostling for space, when the sarais were the most happening places in town where international traders in silks, jewels and carpets came visiting; when arms and armoury established themselves in "the emporium of the traffic of the world".

Elephant camps, camel and horse stables competed for land with craftsmen, shoemakers and stone masons, and the rich and powerful lived at the edge of the snow-fed waters of the Yamuna while the city survived on the turbid waters of a few wells and tanks. In this cauldron of activity, 12 years after the construction of the Taj began, when the brick scaffolding was peeled away from the dome of the Taj Mahal to reveal a pure white dome flanked by its elegant minarets, for the residents of Agra, this was a vision to behold, dominating the skyline and was aspirational.

And yet the building of this incredible memorial, in a way, marked the decline of the Mughal empire. Shah Jahan shifted his energies to building Shahjahanabad and the Red Fort, establishing his capital in Delhi. Inevitably, the durbar shifted to Delhi and the economy of Agra was doomed.

Over the next 200 years, the Taj was victim to vandals and marauders until Lord Curzon declared it a protected monument and restored it, clearing its overgrown bagh and planting the picturesque lawns one is so familiar with today.

The Taj Mahal in its white marble glory stands apart, a symbol of love and of empire. That the emperor was completely devastated after his wife's death is unarguable; but romanticism apart, this most enduring legacy is the quintessential symbol of immense power and wealth; of Badshah, the king of the world.

What remains the mystery, however, is what plans Shah Jahan had for his own burial. Did he really believe Aurungzeb, his estranged son would build him a similar offering so that he too would be preserved for posterity?


Amita Baig Amita Baig

She is a writer and heritage conservationist.

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