“There are two kinds of people in the world,” said ex U.S President Bill Clinton, “those who have seen the Taj Mahal and love it, and those who have not seen the Taj Mahal and love it.” Widely regarded as one of the most beautiful buildings ever constructed, the Taj Mahal is difficult not to fall deeply and madly in love with.
Construction of this sumptuous ivory-white mausoleum began just under 400 years ago, and it is a testament to the Taj Mahal that it has retained such iconic beauty. To make it all the more sentimental, it was built for love – or rather, for love and loss.
It was commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, who reigned from 1628 to 1658, as a tomb for his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal who had died giving birth to their 14th child. It was the Emperor’s drive for beauty and perfection that led to this dazzling icon, but it was the ache of grief which inspired it all. And I don’t know about you, but there’s something wonderfully poetic about that.
A piece of land outside of the city of Agra, 206 kilometres (128 mi) south of Delhi, was chosen for the Taj Mahal. The site measured roughly 3 acres – around the same as one city block in Manhattan – and was first excavated then filled with dirt to reduce the chance of seepage. The whole area was then levelled out around 50 metres (160ft) above the nearby Yamuna River.
The foundations, or footings as we would probably say for the tomb area of Taj Mahal, were created by digging several wells then filling them with stone and rubble. A typical large construction at the time would have used scaffolding made out of lashed bamboo, but the Taj used an enormous brick structure instead. Essentially they built another building so they could build the Taj Mahal and it was said to mirror its shape. According to a local legend, the Emperor decreed that anybody could keep the bricks once the Taj was completed, and so the entire scaffolding structure disappeared overnight. I suppose that certainly saves on taking it all down and transporting it away.
The Taj Mahal contains 28 different types of precious and semi-precious stones and materials were brought from far and wide for this hugely ambitious project. The iconic marble came from Makrana in the western state of Rajasthan. Punjab provided the jasper, while jade and crystal were brought from China. The turquoise was from Tibet, the lapis lazuli (a semi-precious deep-blue metamorphic rock) from Afghanistan, the sapphire from Sri Lanka and the carnelian from Arabia.
An estimated 1,000 elephants and countless oxen were used to transport the vast amount of materials, while 22,000 workers toiled on the project, including labourers, artists, stonecutters, painters and embroidery artists.
Even getting the materials to the area was an enormous challenge. A 15 kilometre (9.3 mi) tamped-earth ramp was constructed that led into the building site. Then there was the complication of how to get these mighty blocks of marble into the air. For this, a post and beam pulley system, which became popular years later to build traditional houses in Europe with their heavy beams, was implemented.
Water was another tricky aspect and a building site like this needs plenty of it. Water was drawn from the nearby river by an animal-powered rope and bucket mechanism and deposited into a large tank. It was then funnelled through three more subsidiary tanks before arriving at the construction area.
The tomb itself took 12 years to complete and was finished in 1643. This was then followed in order by the minarets, the mosque and finally the jawab (a building built opposite the mosque in exactly the same style to add balance and has sometimes been used as a guesthouse). In total, the rest of building work took an additional 10 years to finish and was concluded in 1653.
The cost of the Taj Mahal is a difficult calculation to make, but it’s believed the original cost was around 32 million rupees, which works out to nearly 55 billion rupees today, and close to $1 billion. An extraordinary amount of money almost 400 years ago.
The design of the Taj Mahal is based on traditional Persian and Mughal architecture. The Gur-e Amir in Samarkand, which lies in present-day Uzbekistan and was built over 200 years before the Taj, bears a loose resemblance, albeit much less striking.
The Tomb of the Mughal Emperor Humayun in nearby Delhi also shares many similarities to the Taj, including its gardens, general layout, tomb, and was built almost 100 years before the gleaming mausoleum in Agra. It was the colour of the Taj Mahal that really differentiates it from other Mughal architecture that predates it. Most structures before it were built with red sandstone, but Emperor Shah Jahan believed that ivory-white and studded with precious stones added a touch of refinement, and it’s difficult to argue with him on that.
The tomb is without question the most iconic aspect of the Taj Mahal. The enormous structure stands on a square plinth, which is the base area and is similar to what you have at the foot of statues. The building is perfectly symmetrical and comes with a large arch-shaped doorway known as an iwan. The cubed space inside measures 55 metres (180 ft) along each of the four sides, but because of the chamfered corners (transitional edges), the structure appears more of an unequal octagon shape inside. The walls of the inner chamber rise 25 metres (82 ft) high and are topped with a spectacular dome 35 metres (115 ft) in height, which because of its slightly irregular shape has been called an onion dome. Four smaller domes known as chattris are located at each corner of the building.
Four minarets, each measuring 40 metres (130 ft) in height stand at the four corners of the plinth. The traditional role of a Mosque’s minaret is to broadcast the call to prayer and the minarets at the Taj Mahal were no different. They are broken into three by two separate balconies that ring the minaret. At the top of each minaret is another balcony and a chattris in the same style as those on the tomb.
If you think the Taj Mahal is beautiful from the outside, just wait until you step inside. The interior is decorated with a dazzling array of gemstones, a technique known as a lapidary.
In the centre of the tomb lies two sarcophagi, one for Mumtaz Mahal and one for Emperor Shah Jahan. But these are empty, with the actual graves at a lower level inaccessible to the general public because Islam forbids the elaborate decoration of graves. The Emperor’s sarcophagus has an inscription that reads,
“He travelled from this world to the banquet-hall of Eternity on the night of the twenty-sixth of the month of Rajab, in the year 1076 Hijri.”
It’s not until you get up close and personal with the Taj Mahal do you realise just how extraordinary the exterior design is. Across almost the entire structure you can find calligraphy or images of plants or vegetation. If you know your Islam you will know that anthropomorphic images (those of humans or animals) are prohibited which is why you will only find words or vegetative motif. This was done to dazzling effect by a combination of paint, stucco (a decorative coating), stone inlays and carvings.
Passages of the Quran can be found across the structure with much of the calligraphy done with jasper or black marble. As you make your way through the Great Gate, the sentences above you reads,
“O Soul, thou art at rest. Return to the Lord at peace with Him, and He at peace with you.”
The typical iconic image of the Taj Mahal is usually taken quite far back, taking in much of the garden that surrounds it and in particular the long water feature that leads to the tomb. This is no coincidence because the reflection of the Taj in the water makes a quite exquisite photograph. This is known as al Hawd al-Kawthar after the ‘Tank of Abundance’ which are ponds or rivers in paradise which were promised to the prophet Muhammad.
The garden itself is a 300-metre (980 ft) square, officially of Mughal design, but heavily influenced by Persian gardens. The area is divided into quarters which symbolises the four flowing rivers of Jannah (Paradise). These are then subdivided again into four distinct parterres (flowerbeds) and reflect a style of garden known as the Paradise Garden from Old Iranian tradition.
According to early accounts of the garden, it was rich in vegetation, with roses, daffodils and fruit trees throughout the area. However, with the decline of the Mughal empire which culminated with the disposal of the last emperor in 1858, the luscious gardens of the Taj Mahal fell into disrepair.
The British had been expanding their control in India and eventually assumed control of the Taj Mahal and did everything they could to preserve the original aspect of the garden. Only joking, they dug it all up and tried to emulate the grand lawns that were common in Britain at the time.
I know what you’re thinking, bloody Britain and their horrible colonial ways. Yes, you are very right, however, it was the British viceroy who ordered an enormous restoration process on the Taj Mahal that was completed in 1908.
During World War II, giant scaffolding was erected around the Taj Mahal to effectively disguise it against any would-be Japanese bombers. As it turned out they never did attack Agra, but Calcutta was attacked in 1942.
The great scaffolding went up twice more throughout the years in 1965 and 1971, with the Indian government this time worried about Pakistan, but again it was never attacked.
Perhaps the biggest threat to the Taj Mahal comes not from foreign nations, but the surrounding environment. The groundwater level of the nearby Yamuna River is falling by around 1.5 metres (5 ft) each year and there are growing fears that it could destabilise the entire structure.
In 2010 small cracks began to appear on the tomb, while the four minarets showed signs of titling, possibly because of rotting foundations below. In 2019 it was announced that the stones around the tomb would be replaced, but this appears to be primarily aimed at the stones worn down by millions of feet, rather than the foundations themselves.
Other serious problems come from air pollution and occasionally acid rain. When we think about the Taj Mahal we think about beautiful ivory-white colour, but that might not be forever. Evidence shows that the Taj Mahal is slowly yellowing as a result of the pollution around it. In response, the Indian government has set up the Taj Trapezium Zone, a 10,400-square-kilometre (4,000 sq mi) area around the monument where emissions and pollution are tightly controlled.
What possible controversy could exist over such a cherished building? Well, you’d be surprised. But you probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear that it comes down to religion. The problem is that India is predominantly Hindi these days and – whisper it – the Taj Mahal is very much Islamic.
We could probably do several videos worth of material on the disagreement and often horrific aggression that exists between Hindus and Muslims in India, it is a hugely complex issue that dates back to the partition of India and even before. The ruling party in India, the BJP, are not exactly sympathetic to India’s Muslim minority and several of its MPs have jumped on a controversy that began in in the late 1990s.
Purushottam Nagesh Oak, a Hindu historical revisionist with some shall we say “alternative views” lodged a petition with the Indian Supreme Court claiming that the Taj Mahal had in fact been built by a Hindu king. Oh and by the way, he also claimed that the Vatican and Westminster Abbey were also both once Hindu Temples. As I said “alternative views”. Anyway, the supreme court ruled against his wild theory in 2000 but that hasn’t stopped several court cases proceeding along similar lines. Numerous BJP MPs have thrown their own ideas into the public sphere. Was the Taj actually built on the site of Hindu Temple? Should we destroy the Taj Mahal and build a temple in its place? I’m really not joking.
Luckily it seems there are just enough reasonable people in the Indian Parliament that none of these ideas are taken too seriously, but things heated up again in 2017 when the Taj Mahal was left off an official tourism brochure for Uttar Pradesh, the state it is in because it was said to not reflect true Indian culture, with one politician going as far as calling it a “blot” on the country’s culture.
There’s not really anything I can say to that, except that if it really is a blot, I can imagine that almost any country on Earth would be more than willing to take such a horrid structure off India’s hands. These arguments are of course slightly ridiculous and point more to the state of affairs between India’s religious communities than the Taj Mahal.
A Wonder of the World
In 2007, the Taj Mahal was inducted into the New 7 Wonders of the World – and I don’t think anybody would disagree with it. Roughly 8 million people visit the site each year, and personally, I don’t think I’ve ever met somebody who wasn’t deeply moved by being in the presence of this extraordinary structure.
I think I can safely say that there is simply nothing on Earth quite like the ivory-white mausoleum on the banks of the Yamuna River. Radiating in the hot Indian sun, a pearl to the achievements of the past. The Taj Mahal continues to take the breath away nearly 400 years after construction began. Today, with our modern technology we strive for beauty and perfection and yet we still remain in the shadow of a tomb built centuries ago with the help of elephants and oxen. True perfection surely doesn’t exist, but the closest we have ever come, just might be the Taj Mahal.