the River Yamuna, and visible from the fort in the west, the Taj Mahal
stands at the northern end of vast gardens enclosed by walls. Though its
layout follows a distinctly Islamic theme, representing Paradise, it is
above all a monument to romantic love. Shah Jahan built the Taj to
enshrine the body of his favourite wife, Arjumand Banu Begum, better known
as Mumtaz Mahal ("Elect of the Palace"), who died shortly after
giving birth to her fourteenth child, in 1631.
Architects at Work
The names of the chief architects who worked on the Taj have been noted. Ismail Afandi, who designed the hemispheres and built the domes was from Turkey. Qazim Khan came from Lahore to cast the gold finial that would top the dome. Chiranji Lal was called from Delhi to pattern the mosaic. From Shiraz in Persia came master calligrapher, Amanat Khan. Stone cutter Amir Ali was from Baluchistan. Ustad Isa of Tukey is however credited to have been the main architect. It is believed that his design embodied much of what the Emperor wanted to express.
Approach to the Taj Mahal
The walled complex is approached from the south through a red sandstone forecourt, Chowk-i Jilo Khana, whose wide paths, flanked by arched kiosks, run to high gates in the east and west. The original entrance, a massive arched gateway topped with delicate domes and adorned with Koranic verses, stands at the northern edge of Chowk-i Jilo Khana, directly aligned with the Taj, but shielding it from the view of those who wait outside. Today's entrance, complete with security checks, is through a narrow archway in the southern wall to the right of the gate.
The mighty marble tomb stands at the end of superb gardens designed in the charbagh style so fashionable among Moghul, Arabic and Persian architects. Dissected into four quadrants by waterways, they evoke the Islamic image of the Gardens of Paradise, where rivers flow with water, milk, wine and honey. The "rivers" converge at a marble tank in the centre that corresponds to al-Kawthar, the celestial pool of abundance mentioned in the Koran. Today only the watercourse running from north to south is full, and its precise, glassy reflection of the Taj is a favourite photographic image.
Structure of The Taj Mahal
Essentially square in shape, with peaked arches cut into its sides, the Taj Mahal surmounts a square marble platform marked at each corner by a high minaret. Topped with a huge central dome, it rises for over 55m, its height accentuated by a crowning brass spire, itself almost 17m high. On approach, the tomb looms ever larger and grander, but not until you are close do you appreciate both its awesome magnitude and the extraordinarily fine detail of relief carving, highlighted by floral patterns of precious stones. Carved vases of flowers including roses, tulips and narcissi, rise subtly out of the marble base, a pa ttern repeated more colourfully and inlaid with precious stones around the four great arched recesses (pishtaqs) on each side.
The Taj Mahal Tomb
The south face of the tomb is the main entrance to the interior: a high, echoing octagonal chamber flushed with pallid light reflected by yellowing marble surfaces. A marble screen, cut so finely that it seems almost translucent, and decorated with precious stones, scatters dappled light over the cenotaph of Mumtaz Mahal in the centre of the tomb, and that of Shah Jahan next to it. Inlaid stones on the marble tombs are the finest in Agra; attendants gladly illuminate the decorations with torches. The 99 names of Allah adorn the top of Mumtaz's tomb, and set into Shah Jahan's is a pen box, the hallmark of a male ruler. These cenotaphs, in accordance with Moghul tradition, are only representations of the real coffins, which lie in the same positions in an unadorned and humid crypt below that's heavy with the scent of heady incense and rose petals.