The Taj Mahal: A Marble Tribute to a Persian Princess

Alice Roberts

5 mins

30 Oct 2019

The shimmering white dome of the Taj Mahal has earned it a place as one of the 7 modern wonders of the world. So who built it, and why was it built?

The grief of Shah Jahan

On 17 June 1631, Mumtaz Mahal, a Persian princess and the third and favourite wife of the Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan, died giving birth to their fourteenth child. Mumtaz, the ‘chosen one of the palace’, had been the emperor’s devoted companion since their marriage in 1612.

Consumed with grief, Shah Jahan refused to engage in court festivities and postponed two of his sons’ weddings to visit his wife’s temporary resting place in Burhanpur. To soothe his anguish, the emperor made plans to build a fitting tribute: a paradisaical mausoleum.

Mumtaz Mahal, the wife of Shah Jahan.

No expense was spared to create this earthly paradise in the northern city of Agra. Over 20,000 workers were employed from India, Persia, the Ottoman Empire, and Europe to complete the task. Materials were brought from all over Asia, delivered by over 1,000 elephants.

One of the many rumours which have abounded from these glistening walls is that the emperor ordered the deaths and mutilations of architects and craftsmen in order to ensure that no such beauty could be accomplished again.

The final monument was an architectural masterpiece of marble, earning the name Taj Mahal, meaning ‘crown of palaces’. Four almost identical facades were surmounted by an enormous onion dome soaring to a height of 59 metres.

The marble, which coats a brick structure, takes a pinkish hue in the morning, a milky white in the evening, and seems golden in the moonlight.

In most Mughal architecture, red stone was used to adorn exteriors and military buildings, and white marble was reserved for sacred spaces or tombs. Here, the whole building is of pure white marble, with auxiliary buildings of red sandstone, emphasising the purity and sanctity of the monument.

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An earthly paradise

For the decoration, Shah Jahan is said to have looked to Europe. According to a 17th century Spanish account, he employed a Venetian, Geronimo Veroneo, and a Frenchman, Austin de Bordeaux. They supervised the mosaic decoration and pietra dura, a type of inlay technique which used highly polished stones to create images.

Over 60 different types of stones were used, including lapis lazuli, jade, coral, onyx, carnelian, turquoise, crystal and amethyst, and they were pieced together to form opulent floral relief sculptures and Qur’anic verses. The main calligrapher, Amanat Khan, used the optical trick of trompe l’oeil to ensure it could be read at a distance.

The floral patterns emphasised the theme of paradise.

Inside, eight levels and eight halls, alluding to the eight levels of paradise, are connected to a main space in a cross-axial plan, a typical ground plan for Islamic architecture from this period. The inner chamber holds the monument of Mumtaz Mahal.

The intricately decorated marble sarcophagus is raised on a platform and encased by an octagon of marble screen. On his death, a sarcophagus to Shah Jahan was added beside his wife, disrupting the perfect symmetry.

The view from the opposite bank of the Yamuna river.

These sarcophagi are nothing more than aesthetic, as Muslim tradition forbids elaborately decorated graves. The bodies were buried in a humbler crypt beneath the inner chamber, with their faces turned towards Mecca.

The 42-acre gardens were bounded on three sides by a crenellated wall and on one side by the Yamuna river. Originally, it was overflowing with roses and daffodils. However, during British rule in India, it was landscaped to seem like manicured lawns of English houses.

The mausoleum is flanked on either side by identical red sandstone buildings.  One was a mosque, and the other seems to have acted as an architectural balance.

The cenotaph of Mumtaz Mahal. Image source: Royroydeb / CC BY-SA 3.0.

The Taj Mahal is an impressive feat of engineering. The colossal weight of the dome was distributed by a substructure of smaller domes. Another system to regulate the groundwater levels below the surface ensured the foundations remained firm and the building would not sink.

The four 40-metre-tall minarets were also ‘earthquake-proofed’. They were built at a slight angle, at a calculated distance from the main structure. If an earthquake did strike, the minarets would never fall inwards or crash into the marble walls of the monument.

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The ‘black Taj Mahal’?

Despite the unquestionable beauty of the Taj Mahal, it came at a cost for Shah Jahan, who appeared to have lost touch with reality. The project’s colossal expense was threatening state bankruptcy, and fuel was added to the fire when Shah Jahan announced the construction of another mausoleum of black marble.

This was a step too far for his son, Aurangzeb, who seized power and kept his father under house arrest for the rest of his life. Jahan spent the remaining eight years in the Red Fort, where he could admire the view of the Taj Mahal.

Image source: MADHURANTHAKAN JAGADEESAN / CC BY-SA 4.0.

The second ‘black Taj Mahal’ has been an issue of speculation. It stems from the writing of the French explorer, Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, who spent time with Shah Jahan in 1665, a year before his death. Tavernier’s account claimed another black monument had been planned to be erected on the other side of the Yamuna river, with a bridge to connect them.

The black stones found on the opposite bank seemed to support this theory, however this was quashed when it emerged that they were discoloured white stones that had turned black.

The British make their mark

As well as simplifying the gardens and attempting preservation, the British made their mark in other ways. When the pinnacle of pure gold which surmounted the central dome was removed for re-gilding, it was found to be copper, and ‘Joseph Taylor’ was engraved.

Taylor, a British official from the 1810s, seems to have removed the gold for himself.

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Another rumour has emerged regarded Lord William Bentinck, the governor-general of India in the 1830s. It was said he planned to disassemble the Taj Mahal and auction off the marble. There is no real evidence for this, and the rumour may have arisen from his fund-raising sale of discarded marble from Agra Fort.

However, it is certainly true that many of the precious stones were ripped off from the walls by the British army during the Sepoy Rebellion in 1857.

The Taj Mahal in 1890, before the British flattened the gardens.

During the Second World War and the clashes between India and Pakistan in the last century, the Indian government has gone to great lengths to protect their most famous landmark. Scaffolding was added to conceal the white marble from enemy pilots, who could only see a pile of bamboo.

Despite a history blurred and confused by rumour, Shah Jahan’s adoration for his wife still captures public imagination. Over six million people visit a year, enthralled by this shimmering symbol of love.

Featured Image: rchitguptaaviatorflight / CC BY-SA 4.0.