“The Taj Mahal”
Love at first sight. Such a sensation does exist as one approaches the purely, white, marble Taj Mahal and is overtaken by its immense size and beauty [Fig. 1]. The Taj Mahal can be referred to as a symbol of eternal love since Shah Jahan built it for his princess upon her death in 1631 A.D. Located in Agra, India, and considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World; the Taj Mahal was built by Prince Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his wife Empress Mumtaz Mahal. The funerary complex is located on a plot of land along the banks of the Yamuna River and it encompasses more than forty-two acres of land. Shah Jahan is said to have bought this piece of land either for its peacefulness or for its spectacular view. The source of the name “Taj Mahal” is unclear, however it is believed that the name translates into “Crown Palace,” and it is believed that is what given this name as an abbreviation of the empress’ name, Mumtaz Mahal. As all the small details come together, one is overtaken by the costliness and large quantities of materials used, from the marble to the gemstones.
The first image that might come to one’s mind at the mention of the Taj Mahal is the central domed building, however, true appreciation cannot be reached until one is introduced to the complimentary structures [Fig. 2]. Although this is where the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal is located, the funerary complex is composed of many more surrounding structures. In its entirety, the Taj Mahal consists of the entrance garden, the mosque with its mihman-khana (rest-house), six octagonal pavilions, as well as platforms, fountains, and greenery [Fig. 3]. As one enters through the main gate, the jilokhana, their eyes are directed towards the central dome, which is framed by a central arch [Fig. 4]. The central marble dome is planted on a huge white marble terrace that it itself is founded on a high red sandstone base, which is more than one hundred feet high [Fig. 2]. Framing the central dome are four tall minarets, which are situated on all four corners of the platform, ascending to the heavens like prayer [Fig. 5]. Additionally, on the white marble platform are two red sandstone buildings, which are identical to each other, plus four small kiosks cluster around the dome. The building on the west side of the Taj Mahal is a mosque, and the building on the east is a rest-house, thus, connecting them to the main building by way of the marble plinth. This idea of harmony and perfect balance are conveyed with symmetrical buildings on both sides of the marble mausoleum. However, there is one asymmetrical object in the Taj Mahal and it is the casket of Shah Jahan, which was built beside the queen’s as an afterthought. Also, the significance of the central tomb is further achieved due to its greater height, precious material, and simply the fact that it towers above all other elements on the funerary complex, this is due to the fact that this is where the actual burial is located. Moreover, the stone chosen by Shah Jahan for his wife’s mausoleum, white marble, is meant to represent unmatched purity and simplicity, fitting for an empress with a tomb the size of the Taj Mahal. The entrance to the Taj Mahal is located on the south side of the monument, and one would enter through a large portal. Once inside, one catches a glimpse of the two-story structure consisting of eight rooms, which encircle the central chamber one would be standing in. Furthermore, the garden of the Taj Mahal is segmented into four quadrants, which are further divided into four units [Fig. 3]. It is believed that the divided garden represents the grounds of paradise, as well as the water channels dividing the quadrants. Since all the rooms are adjoining on their respective floors, one can simply move from room to room admiring the different designs.
In addition, the intricate ornamentation is what bestows the Taj Mahal with its “inner beauty,” which once again, is constructed entirely of marble and gemstones, inside and outside [Fig. 6]. The sepulcher is richly decorated with calligraphy and gemstones inlaid into the white marble. And once again, the significance of the Taj Mahal is brought to light by the use of calligraphy, which is considered the highest level of artistic expression in the Muslim world. Also, of meaningful note is that no other Mogul monument has nearly as many inscriptions as the Taj Mahal, which coincidentally, are almost all taken from the Koran, the holy book of the Muslim world. This shows that the funerary complex is of great substance since the words of the Koran are deemed highly sacred. In addition, the spandrels of the arches are richly decorated with gemstones that are cut to shape and embedded into the white marble. These inlays of gemstones with the combination of calligraphy are indications that the monument is a unique creation of the highest quality and labor [Fig. 7]. Also impressive are the inlaid black marble inscriptions that frame the central vaulted portals iwan. The iwans mark the centers of the four sides, each facing the cardinal points of the earth; these in turn are framed by calligraphy bands. What is even more astonishing is that the floral designs are intricately fashioned from cut gemstones, and reliefs on the surface are composed of great detail [Fig. 7]. It is said that this type of architectural project is a characteristic of Shah Jahan’s reign. It was not until the reign of Shah Jahan that such depictions gained popularity with the Mogul decorative style. Since the mausoleum was built for the Empress Mumtaz Mahal, it is fitting that the main motif are floral designs [Fig. 7]. In Islamic cultures, flowers were seen as symbols of the divine realm. This floral motif is carried from the marble dome along to the mosque and the rest-house, which are located alongside the Taj Mahal. The origins of the method of inlaying gemstones is known as pietra dura, however, its origins are unknown [Fig. 8]. It is thought to have originated in Italy and later modified by Indian traditions of craftsmanship. What is even more astonishing is that the exquisite floral designs are just added touches of beauty to the Taj Mahal and do not draw one’s attention away from the white marble. On the first floor of the central chamber, one sees passages from the Koran written in calligraphy, as well as panels with sculpted flowers. The floral motifs in the interior of the mausoleum rise out of vases, while the flowers emerge from a small mound of the exterior of the tomb, mosque, and other places [Fig. 8]. The Islamic symbolic meaning of the flowers in the vases is the “bounty promised to the faithful in paradise.” Moreover, each room inside the Taj Mahal is decorated with floral reliefs, giving each room its own uniqueness, in that no two are alike. Lastly, the intricateness of the floral designs serves to represent the grandiosity of the Taj Mahal and its representation of a man’s love for a woman.
As a whole, the Taj Mahal is not only recognized for its large size and elaborate architecture, but also for its magnificent beauty in the light of the sun and moon. For example, throughout the day and night, the intensity of the light changes the appearance and glow of the inlaid gemstones. Because the backdrop for the Taj Mahal is the Yamuna River, the reflection of the water works different color shades out of the white marble [Fig. 5]
. Also, delicately carved screens on both floors of the central chamber are covered with panes of milky glass that give out light. This reflection of natural light changes the emphasis of light in the Taj Mahal throughout the different times of day and seasons of the year. This mysterious glow of the sun and moon is said to be ” a symbol of the divine presence which could never be figured out.” For example, in the morning the Taj Mahal is a light shade of pink, while in the evening it is a milky white, and finally at night it is golden under the moonlight. In short, it is clear to say that the changes in the hue of the Taj Mahal, brought about by the light intensity, represent the different mood changes that a woman undergoes.
Leoshko, Janice. “Mausoleum for an Empress.” Romance of the Taj Mahal (1989): 53-70