The Taj Mahal: Amazing Origins


Virtually everyone is familiar with the massive, glimmering majesty of the Taj Mahal, a mausoleum in India situated along the Yamuna river in the city of Agra. With its huge dome, many minarets, shimmering pools, and perfectly manicured grass and hedges, it is arguably one of India’s most-recognizable buildings. It is even the inspiration for one of the most famous perfumes in the world, Guerlain Shalimar. However, while the sight of the Taj Majal is immediately easy to recognize, many people are sure to be unaware of the building’s interesting origins.

In 1607 A.D., there was a betrothal between the Mughal Prince Khurrum who would later be known as Shah Jahan, and Arjumand Banu Begam, the daughter of a Persian noble. They were only married several years later in 1612. The Prince was so enchanted with her personality and appearance, more so than with any other woman of the time, that he gave his new wife the title of Mumtaz Mahal, meaning “Jewel of the Palace.” Much of their relationship was documented in unusual detail by Qazwini, the official court chronicler. For example, while the Prince would eventually take two other wives, he would apparently have little interest in them beyond the duties of marriage. All his affection and attention was instead directed towards his first wife, Mumtaz Mahal.

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Mumtaz Mahal.

Tragically, Mumtaz Mahal would die after the complicated birth of her 14th child in June of 1631. The court chroniclers paid special detail to this event. Apparently, after the Prince was told of the news of his wife’s demise, he was inconsolable and was not seen for a week afterwards. He even considered abandoning his title and turning to religion where he could seclude himself away from everyone. The news of his wife’s death aged him considerably. His previously salt and pepper beard turned completely white and the quality of his eyes degraded from constant crying. He declared that no celebrations were to be held on Wednesdays since Mumtaz Mahal had died on a Wednesday.

Taj Mahal History

The Prince’s family became more and more worried about him after he stopped listening to music, wearing perfumes, and wearing jewelry for about two years. It was, at last, his eldest daughter, Jahanara Begum Sahib, who was able to bring her father out of his terrible state of mourning. As the Prince slowly regained himself, he worked with the imperial court to begin planning the designs for a massive mausoleum and garden which would eventually become the Taj Mahal.

The complex of the Taj Mahal is divided into five areas: the moonlight gardens, the Taj Ganji which used to function as a market place and of which only traces survive today, the Charbagh garden (which is a Person garden sectioned into four areas), the jilaukhana which included housing for the tomb attendants, and the riverfront terrace which included the mausoleum itself along with a mosque. This entire complex was constructed in a manner to reflect what the house of the departed in paradise must have looked like, according to the Muslims of the time who constructed it.

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An example of the mausoleum’s many pishtaqs (arched recesses).

There are many interesting and impressive architectural features of the Taj Mahal. From the front, it boasts perfect bilateral symmetry along with its massive marble onion dome and many arched recesses throughout the walls known as pishtaqs. These designs are identical on every side of the building. Also, at the very top of the dome there is a finial, a type of decorative marking, which mixes Islam and Hindu elements. The mausoleum has four floors, the bottom-most of which contains the tombs of the Prince Jahan and his wife Mumtaz. Their tombs are in a marble chamber and are inlayed with a variety of precious gems. There are also various verses from the Koran carved in calligraphy on top of the tombs.

On the floor directly above the lowest floor in the main chamber of the building, there are elaborate cenotaphs (empty grave monuments dedicated to those buried elsewhere) for the Prince and his wife. Mumtaz’s cenotaph lies at the very center of the Taj Mahal while her husband’s cenotaph, since he was buried at a later time, was placed just to the west of her. Interestingly, the placement of the Prince’s cenotaph is the only part of the entire Taj Mahal complex that is asymmetrical. The main chamber is decorated extensively with marble and depictions of paradise including flowers, fruits, plants, and calligraphic inscriptions.

The Details

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Outside the mausoleum, the vast charbagh garden seems to have changed considerably from its early days to how it appears today. While we do not know exactly the original planting plan of the garden, we know that it used to have an abundance of scented herbs, fruit trees, and flowers, such as roses, orange trees, daffodils, lime, apple, and banana trees, among many other types of flora. However, the luxury of the garden dwindled, being tended to less as the Mughal Empire declined. Furthermore, when the British took control of the Taj Mahal, they removed many of the fruit trees and instead put in many cypress and landscaped the garden in an English garden style.

Excluding the gardens, not much of the Taj Mahal has changed since its construction many centuries ago. This shouldn’t come as too surprising since, with its near perfect symmetry and impeccable, elaborate design, the Taj Mahal is likely to remain in all its monumental, architectural glory for many more centuries to come.

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