The Taj Mahal is considered to be amongst the most beautiful and impressive works of architecture in history. This Wonder of the World attracts almost 8 million visitors annually; part of its allure comes from the story that a heartbroken Emperor built the Taj Mahal for his dead wife as a token of his grief. Yet it is important to remember that its construction served to highlight the triumph of its patrons, the Mughals – a tremendously wealthy Persian-ised Turkic Dynasty that ruled over much of the Indian Subcontinent and Afghanistan from the 16th to the 18th century.
At the peak of its imperial glory, the Mughals were ruled by Shah Jahan (1628-1658) who had a wife, Mumtaz Mahal, he was devoted to – so much so that he decided to build this incredible edifice in her memory when she died giving birth. Under the instruction of Ustad Ahmad Lahori more than 20,000 workers from across India, Persia, the Ottoman Empire and even Europe were employed to construct the Taj Mahal between 1632 and 1654. This included masons, stonecutters, inlayers, carvers, painters, calligraphers, dome-builders and other artisans. Don’t forget about the 1,000 elephants used to carry materials!
The mausoleum itself, dedicated to the deceased Mumtaz Mahal, was completed by 1639 but it would require more than an extra decade to finish the buildings next to it and the decoration work. The complex sits on a 315 ft square marble platform and has four minarets which are around 140 ft tall. The mastery of the architects and craftsmen is demonstrated by the usage of proportions. For instance, the four surrounding minarets appear upright from afar but actually lean outward: as well as being a cool trick of the eye, this ensures that the minarets would crumble away from the main tomb in case of an earthquake (a real architectural concern in this period). Also, from the main gate of the Taj Mahal the monument appears close and large but the closer you get, the smaller it becomes! The Taj Mahal’s bag of tricks doesn’t end there – like a chameleon, it can change its colours. Well, the hue of the colour at least. Thanks largely to the sun, the Taj Mahal can appear gray and pink during sunrise, white at noon, orange-bronze when the sun sets and at night it seem blue.
The gardens – which are often intended to be an earthly representation of paradise in Islamic architecture – are actually rooted in the British style due to the intervention of the British Indian Government under Lord Curzon (1899-1905), who is also largely responsible for renovating and maintaining the Taj Mahal after decades of neglect. This neglect included the looting of its semi-precious stones by British soldiers in the aftermath of 1857 Indian Mutiny.
There are a lot of popular myths associated with the construction of the Taj Mahal. One of which relates that Shah Jahan wanted the mausoleum to be a unique masterpiece. In order to guarantee this, he supposedly cut off the hands and gouged the eyes of the artisans and craftsmen involved in its construction so that another like it would not be built. Even though it makes for a cool story, there is no evidence to suggest this happened. On the contrary, historians have found that Shah Jahan was more ruthless than romantic. Although the Taj Mahal has been considered a symbol of love and devotion, it is undoubtedly also a symbol of absolute power. The extravagant attempt to build something perfect – architecturally speaking in its symmetry – can be regarded a source of propaganda, fit for a man who named himself Shah Jahan, “King of the World”.
The famous poet Rabindranath Tagore called the Taj Mahal “a tear suspended on the cheek of time”. But was this tear worth the staggering $800 million in today’s valuation that it cost to build it? As a fan of architecture I can’t help but appreciate the symmetrical beauty of this timeless monument. But if I put myself in the shoes of a Mughal subject in the 17th century, I can’t help but feel anger at a leader who would dedicate so much of the nations resources for his own grief (or vanity). Too often this has become a model of behavior for leaders in the Islamic world, we only tend to notice it in times of want and need.
All these great photos have been contributed by Omar Rais – check him out on: