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Monday, December 26, 2011

The Ultimate Monument to Love

Mumtaz Mahal, the face that launched a thousand
artisans.  Painting circa 17th-18th century.

Prince Khurram, the fifth and favorite son of the Mughal emperor Jahangir, was smitten when he first saw her in a bazaar.  He was fourteen years old.  He went home and told his father that he wanted to marry her.  Fortunately she was a Persian princess, Arjuman Banu Begum.  A marriage was arranged, but they had to wait five years for the auspicious date the court astrologers had chosen.  By all accounts they had a very close and loving relationship.   She went everywhere with him, even to battles.  He called her "Mumtaz Mahal" - "the jewel of the palace".  He had been named "Shah Jahan" ("King of the World") by his father for his victorious military campaigns.

Shah Jahan, "King of the World", standing on a globe.
Mid-17th century, Mughal dynasty.

Mumtaz Mahal, the third, and evidently most dearest, wife of Shah Jahan, died in 1631 giving birth to their 14th child while accompanying him on a military campaign.  In his grief he began construction on a mausoleum that would take 22 years to complete.  This monument - the Taj Mahal - is an internationally recognized architectural masterpiece.

The Taj Mahal.  Image courtesy of pbs.org.  When the complex is open to
the public, the walks and grass areas are filled with people.

It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.  It is the gold standard for Mughal architecture, a blend of Persian, Indian, and Turkish styles.  While the mausoleum is the most famous structure, it is actually part of a complex.  The 42-acre site borders on the Yamuna River in Agra, India, and is surrounded on the other three sides by crenellated red sandstone walls.  Red sandstone was the primary material that had been used in Mughal architecture, but Shah Jahan built the mausoleum of marbles from all over that part of the world and inlaid precious and semi-precious stones throughout.  His reign was quite peaceful and prosperous, and during a time when gems were being mined in great quantities.

An example of some of the art work made of inlaid stones.  When the
British were in India, parts were vandalized and the stones, especially
lapis lazuli, were taken.  The British government had repairs made.

The mausoleum is the central focus and is a symmetrical structure on a square plinth topped by a dome.  It has arch-shaped doorways and the corners are chamfered, creating an unequal octagon.  Each 180-foot  side has a vaulted archway, with two balconies on either side.  Each corner of the plinth has a minaret opposite the chamfered corners.  Inside the main chamber are the sarcophagi of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan, although they are buried at a lower level.  Since Shah Jahan's entombment was never planned, his cenotaph and casket in the mausoleum disrupts the symmetry found throughout.

These are the cenotaphs of Shah Jahan (left) and Mumtaz Mahal (right).

Part of the screen, or jali, which borders the cenotaphs, made of eight
marble panels with carved piecework.  Detail of the inlay shown below.

The real tombs are in a lower chamber with plain walls, in keeping with the
Islamic tradition prohibiting the elaborate decoration of graves.  Both bases
and caskets are inlaid with gems and have calligraphic inscriptions with verses
from the Qu'ran.  Mumtaz Mahal's casket is on the right, and the sides have the
ninety-nine beautiful names of Allah.  Shah Jahan's casket is larger and the lid of
his casket has a writing tablet and pen box,which are traditional funerary icons.

The marble dome is its most fabulous feature.  It is 115 feet high atop a 23-foot round pedestal.  The dome is called an onion dome, and typically their diameters are wider than the drum, or pedestal, that they stand on.  There are four smaller domes over the chamfered corners.  The finial on top was originally made of gold, but was replaced with one of gilded bronze in the early 1800s.  The finial is topped by a crescent moon with the horns pointed up.  This is a standard Islamic motif. The minarets are "working" minarets, used by the muezzin to call Muslims to prayer.  They are 130 feet tall, and each have two balconies dividing the minarets into equal parts.

The base, dome, and one of the four minarets.
The gilded brass finial.
One of the minarets.

Both interior and exterior decorations keep with the Islamic view that anthropomorphic forms are forbidden.  Instead floral or abstract forms are used and calligraphy is an important decorative element, especially passages from the Qur'an.  Much of the calligraphy is made of black marble or jasper, set into the white marble.  Geographic forms, such as herringbone and tesselations, are used throughout.

A column with herringbone.
Carved floral motif.

The inner decorations feature the precious and semi-precious gems.  Much of the art work within is in a smaller scale than the exterior.  The building is octagonal and planned to allow entry from all four sides, although the door leading to the garden is the only one used.

Inside the mosque's interior hall.

Outside of the tomb are two structures on the eastern and western walls that mirror each other.  On the western side is a mosque, featuring a long hall.  The opposite structure may have been a meeting room or guesthouse.  On the outside the two buildings are identical and balance each other symmetrically, but they are different inside.

The Complex:
1.  The Moonlight Garden (north of the Yamuna River).
2.  The Terrace area with mausoleum, mosque and guesthouse.
3.  The gardens with pavilions.
4.  The gateway, other tombs, and attendant accomodations.
5.  The bazaar area.

The gardens of the complex are meant to represent the Islamic idea of Paradise - a garden of abundance with four rivers flowing from the center (usually a spring or a mountain) separating the garden into quarter sections.  The garden south of the tomb (No. 3 in the above diagram) is 980 feet square.  Raised pathways divide each of the four quarters into 16 sunken beds.  A normal Muslim garden is rectangular with a tomb or pavilion in the center, but this garden has a raised marble water tank central instead, and a pool on the north-south axis which reflects the mausoleum beautifully.  Early accounts of the garden describe an abundance of flowers and fruit trees, but as the Mughal Empire declined so did the garden. When the British took over the management of the site during their occupation of India, they redid the garden in a British style with lawns instead.

An artist's rendering of the complex, circa 1790-1810.

On the other side of the Yamuna River is the "Moonlight Garden".  It is thought that the river was intended to be part of the design as one of the rivers of Paradise. It, too, was replanted with lawns.  There is a myth that Shah Jahan planned a black marble mausoleum for himself across the Yamuna River from the Taj Mahal, but that has never been proven.

A view of the Taj Mahal from across the Yamuna River.

Calligraphy is an important element in Islamic art, and throughout the complex passages of the Qu'ran are incorporated into the decorations.  The calligraphy was designed by Abd ul-Haq in 1609, and Shah Jahan gave him the title of "Amanat Khan" to show his esteem.  The calligrapher's modesty is revealed in an inscription inside at the base of the dome, "Written by the insignificant being, Amanat Khan Shirazi."

The Great Gate, the entrance to the complex.  It has calligraphy that says, "O Soul
thou art at rest.  Return to the Lord at peace with Him, and He at peace with you."

Outside the walls of the complex are more mausoleums, include those of Shah Jahan's other wives.  These are typical Muslim tombs, and are made of red sandstone.  There is a bazaar that used to sell trinkets and other small artifacts to support the upkeep of the complex until 1996.

A view from the Red Fort.

The construction of the complex was very involved and built in stages.  First was the mausoleum which took 12 years to complete.  Then the minarets, mosque, guesthouse, and gateway was built.  The ground was carefully prepared and fortified.  Instead of a bamboo scaffold, a brick one was built.  When the time came to dismantle it - a daunting project - Shah Jahan decided that anyone could keep the bricks of the scaffold, and the local population dismantled it overnight. Twenty thousand workers were employed - from sculptors and calligraphers, to stonecutters and specialists in all kinds of construction.  The total cost has been estimated to be 32 million rupees at that time.  This project supported many workers, artisans, and craftsmen.

Over a thousand elephants were used to haul the materials, which were from all over India and as far as Arabia and China.  Twenty-eight different types of precious and semi-precious stones were used for inlay.  After the complex was completed, Shah Jahan was deposed by his son, Aurangzeb, and put under house arrest at the Red Fort until his death.

The Taj Mahal as seen from the Red Fort.  Shah Jahan may have gazed
at it from this place when he was under house arrest.

Today the Taj Mahal is visited by between 2 and 4 million people yearly. Depending on the time of day, the Taj appears to be a different color every time you look at it. This is said to reflect the different moods of Woman.  The style of the architecture, the grounds, and the decorations feature many departures from traditional Mughal ones, and is still a topic of interest among art historians and scholars.  Almost four centuries later, it is an international symbol of undying love and devotion, and a simply beautiful reflection of one man's ideas, aesthetics, and emotions.

Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of Wikipedia.

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