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The Taj Mahal

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The Taj Mahal.

The Taj Mahal is the famous domed mausoleum of Mumtaz Mahal in Agra, India. It was recently voted one of the New Wonders of the World, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is often described as the most beautiful building in the world for its symmetry, its delicate appearance and the way it catches the light, especially at dawn or during a full moon.

Although to most non-Indians the Taj is emblematic of the nation of India, for many Indians the Red Fort nearby has a closer connection to their national heritage.

History and Mythology

The fame and beauty of the Taj have led to many myths and legends springing up around it, and it can sometimes be difficult to discern fact from fiction. The Taj was constructed between 1631 and 1654 to house the remains of Mumtaz Mahal1, the Emperor's favourite wife, who died in 1631 during the birth of their fourteenth child, Gauhara Begum. It is said to have required the skills of 20,000 workers.

Several nearby buildings seem to have influenced the style of the Taj, notably the 'Baby Taj', Itmad-ud-Daulah. In these can be seen most of the architectural features of the Taj, such as the Charbagh with its domed central tomb and the outlying mosques. However, they are poorly preserved, far smaller and widely considered to be of less artistic merit.

There is no clear record of who was the chief architect. In fact, it seems likely that a team of designers was involved, with Shah Jahan having a large personal input. Some names put forward include Istad Usa, Mir Abd-ul Karim, Ustad Ahmad Lahori, Mohammad Arif, Isa Muhammad Effendi (or Isa Muhammad Khan) and Geronimo Veroneo. The latter, an Italian, is an unlikely candidate, though firmly entrenched in popular folklore; it is possible that the name 'Isa' was translated as 'Jesus' or 'Christ', erroneously leading Europeans to think that a Christian was involved. Amanat Ali Khan of Iran did the calligraphy.

The Taj is thus often described as a monument to love and - perhaps surprisingly, given the number of other legends that have grown around it - there does seem to be something to this romantic interpretation. Some have hypothesised that it may also have served to underline Jahan's prestige and power, but its name and main purpose were reflections of the beauty of an individual woman in the eyes of her husband.

Ten years after the Taj was completed, Shah Jahan was deposed by his son Aurangzeb and imprisoned in the Red Fort. It is said that he had a view from his tower along the Yamuna River to where the Taj stood.

In later years, a fanciful notion arose that Shah Jahan had intended to build a symmetric second Taj of black marble on the opposite bank of the Yamuna as his own tomb. In some versions of the tale, a silver bridge was to connect the two. Aside from the discovery of some black blocks at the supposed site of the 'second Taj' - which later turned out to be weathered white stone - there is no evidence to support this story.

The Taj originally had silver doors and gold plating in the vault. However, these were pillaged in 1764 along with other sumptuous furnishings.

More recently, Professor Oak, a Hindu extremist, has controversially claimed that the Taj is a Hindu temple and that a centuries-old conspiracy has kept this quiet, though again there is little to support this.

As if these physical and intellectual desecrations were not enough, the Taj has in recent years been suffering further degradation from chemical fumes, which are steadily turning its white marble yellow. The state government has responded with several measures, including banning nearby traffic and frequent cleanings of the monument; however, the problem will not be fully solved unless nearby factories are closed.

Main Structure

The famous main mausoleum of the Taj is probably familiar to most readers. Its onion-dome sits atop a double layer of arches among smaller domes, and at the centre of four slender false minarets2, each 50 metres tall. The whole structure is supported on a 100-metre-square marble base, which can be climbed by steps. Although in photos taken from a distance this is hardly noticeable, it is seven metres tall and dwarves approaching visitors. Within, the walls are inlaid with semi-precious stones in the form of flowers or calligraphic Koranic inscriptions3.

The dome is actually double-skinned; the interior dome visible from inside the main chamber is separate from the dome visible from outside. In fact, the interior dome is barely a third the height of the outer skin, yet has acoustics so perfect that it is said that if your name is shouted within the chamber, the echoes will reverberate forever4. A chandelier - supplied by Lord Curzon, a former British Viceroy - now hangs from the inner dome. The octagonal mausoleum chamber is surrounded by square antechambers on all sides. The false tombs of Mumtaz and Shah Jahan are here; their actual bodies are several floors lower, in a basement area not usually open to visitors.

Shah Jahan's tomb spoils the otherwise near-perfect symmetry of the structure. He is laid off-centre; like Mumtaz and the Taj itself, he is angled so as to be aligned with Mecca.

Gardens and Outbuildings

The gardens are an integral part of the Taj. The mausoleum itself is north of centre in the grounds, which are divided into four parts. In a standard Mughal tomb, the mausoleum would be central and the grounds would be quartered by lakes, producing a Charbagh, or symbolic representation of the Muslim view of the world. At the Taj, this design has been varied slightly; the main tomb backs directly onto the Yamuna River, with a separate Moonlight Garden on the far side.

The original gardens were replaced by the British with lawns and some avenues of rather mismatched trees. The four lakes were preserved, and provide spectacular reflections of the main tomb.

To the east, west and south of the grounds are red-brick buildings. These are often overlooked, but are each treasures of Islamic architecture. The one to the west (facing Mecca) is a mosque. The building to the east, although a perfect mirror-image, cannot be used as a mosque as it is incorrectly aligned; it was constructed solely to maintain the perfect symmetry of the site and is therefore known as the Jawab, or 'answer'.

Finally, to the south is an elaborate gate complex called the Jilaukhana. Several structures combine to form this elaborate complex, replete with defensive towers and Koranic inscriptions5. Nowadays, it is the site of extensive queues and elaborate security checks on visitors. There is a small residential area beyond called the Taj Ganj.

Islamic Decoration

In accordance with Islamic tradition, no images of animals or humans are used in the decoration of the Taj (this would be considered idolatry under the orthodox interpretation of the Koran). Instead, a mixture of plant images and calligraphy are used. One of the most striking features of the Taj when seen close up is that there is no exact repetition. Each flower is slightly different from all the others. In addition, the carved trelliswork screens that surround the tombs each have a unique pattern.

Calligraphy runs around the facade, giving a series of Koranic quotations6.

Taken as a whole, the Taj Mahal is truly one of the artistic wonders of humanity, giving a unique combination of incredible detail set in an audacious whole.

1Her real name was Arjumand Bano Begum.2Since the Taj is not a mosque, they can never be used to call the faithful to prayer.3This technique is called pietra dura.4Although admittedly this is mostly said by tour guides who expect some baksheesh for this favour.5But no external domes - they were reserved for tombs and mosques.6Suras 36, 39, 48, 67, 77, 81, 82, 84, 89, 91, 93, 94, 95, 98 and 112.

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