Taj Mahal, Agra
Commissioned by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his wife Arjumand Banu Begum, popularly known as Mumtaz Mahal, the Taj Mahal, located in Agra in India, is one of South Asia’s, and the world’s most recognisable monuments. It is best known for its white marble exterior, pietra dura inlay and the charbagh garden that surrounds it.
Mumtaz Mahal died in Burhanpur in 1631 while delivering her fourteenth child. Subsequently, land was purchased in Agra from the Mughal feudatory Jai Singh Kachwaha for her burial and construction of a mausoleum. Work on the structure, positioned at the southern bank of the Yamuna river, began in 1632 and was completed by 1636. Red sandstone and white marble were the primary building materials. Sandstone was sourced from quarries at Fatehpur Sikri, near Agra, and Rupbas in present-day Rajasthan, and marble from Makrana, also in Rajasthan.
The entire rectangular complex, laid out on geometrically aligned grids containing a number of buildings, is aligned on the north-south axis, with the Taj Mahal itself occupying a very small portion of it. Within the larger complex are two rectangular complexes, with a majority of the area taken up by the charbagh garden that lies between them. The complex in the southern end, which is adjacent to the road, is made up of a forecourt, a gateway, and residential quarters. The complex in the northern end, which is adjacent to the Yamuna, has the main Taj Mahal mausoleum in the centre. To its west, the mausoleum is flanked by a mosque of red sandstone capped with a white marble dome. Towards its east is a structure called the mehman khana, meaning guest house, which was made to mirror the mosque and reinforce the symmetry of the complex.
The complex’s monumental gateway and jilaukhana, or forecourt, is made of red sandstone, and is 30 metres high. The structure consists of a pishtaq surmounted by small chhatris, framed by a rectangular panel bearing inlaid Thuluth calligraphy. The text is excerpted from four chapters of the Quran, concluding with verses that invite the faithful into paradise. One either side of the forecourt are the residential quarters for the khadims — who looked after the tomb and performed funerary services — and smaller tombs, that house the remains of Shah Jahan’s other wives.
The jilaukhana leads to the charbagh garden. Its four quadrants are separated by a channel of water that radiates from an ornamental pool in each cardinal direction. At the end of the charbagh is the Taj Mahal, the mosque and the guest house.
The mausoleum itself is placed on an elevated 22-feet-high square plinth located at the northern end of the garden. Due to its proximity to the Yamuna, 180 wells were positioned at the base of the plinth to offset the risk of flooding. Four-storeyed, 42-metre-tall minarets are placed on the four corners of the plinth. The base of the tomb consists of a two-storeyed cube with chamfered edges that create an octagonal shape, with the sides corresponding to the cardinal directions being the most prominent. Each of these sides has a recessed pishtaq and arched balconies. The entire structure rises to a height of 73 metres. False sarcophagi of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan are placed in the interior of the mausoleum, while the actual graves, following convention, are placed in the basement. The mausoleum is topped with a marble onion dome which rests on a cylindrical drum. The dome is 35 metres tall and has a lotus-shaped finial at the top. It is flanked on all four sides by smaller chattris.
The decorative motifs on the exterior of the Taj Mahal are rigorously symmetrical, with the same patterns repeating on every side. The mausoleum’s primarily white marble exterior is accented by elaborate multi-coloured geometric, floral and foliate designs in pietra dura, inlaid with precious and semi-precious stones, as well as panels of Quranic verses in black stone. The interior of the tomb also bears bands of Quranic verses. In keeping with the funerary context of the Taj Mahal, these verses are on themes of death, the Day of Judgment and paradise. In the early nineteenth century, a number of artists worked on copying the pietra dura patterns and calligraphy, creating true to colour watercolour paintings.
Scholars have argued that the visual and built elements of the Taj Mahal evoke elements from Islamic cosmology as well as Timurid cultural conventions. Its garden and waterways are meant to evoke the Quranic Garden of Paradise, while the main tomb structure at the northern end is derived from the Sufi interpretation of the Throne of God, or arsh placed at the head of the garden. The placement of minarets on the corners is in keeping with Timurid funerary architecture, as exemplified in the Gur-e-Amir, the mausoleum of Timur in Samarkand. The tomb’s overall design also draws from that of the Humayun’s Tomb, which was similarly designed keeping Islamic cosmology and paradisiacal symbolism in mind.
Unlike most monuments in the subcontinent, the identity of a few artisans involved in the construction of the Taj Mahal is known. Apart from Shah Jahan himself, scholars have identified two other potential architects — Ustad Ahmad Lahori, who later designed the Red Fort and other structures in Shahjahanabad, and Mir Abd-ul Karim, who was particularly favoured by Jahangir, Shah Jahan’s father. The Shahjahannama claims that Karim, alongside another administrator, Makramat Khan, supervised the construction of the Taj Mahal. Some stone-cutters etched marks, motifs and names into stone slabs on the garden path and walls in the form of fish, flowers, numerals and stars. Names were inscribed in Devanagari and Persian scripts, most of them now indistinguishable from graffiti made by later visitors. The total number of people employed in the construction is unclear, with estimates based on European travellers’ accounts. Jean Baptiste Tavernier, the French gem merchant and traveller, who visited Agra in the early 1640s, claimed that around twenty thousand men were involved, while Sebastian Manrique, a Portuguese missionary who visited Agra in the mid-seventeenth century, claimed that a thousand men were employed every day. A widely believed story around the Taj Mahal is that Shah Jahan ordered the hands of workers involved in building the structure be cut off once construction was finished, so that they could not repeat the feat, but this finds no mention in any historical source and has been dismissed as apocryphal.
The details of funding for the conservation of the Taj Mahal are better documented than for most other South Asian monuments. While charitable endowments, in the form of a tax-free awqaf, were historically made by Mughal emperors, expanding British rule in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century altered the local tax systems, drying up traditional sources of funding. In 1816, the pension allocated to the keepers of the Taj Mahal was suspended by the British government in the region and the mausoleum complex entered a period of neglect.
The conservation of the monument was revived in the nineteenth century with the arrival of Henry Hardy Cole, an archaeological surveyor. Cole was able to secure funds for the repair and maintenance of the monument by composing a photographic album of several monuments in the region, which was a format favoured for historical commentary among British and Indian elites at the time. Lord Curzon, during his tenure as the Viceroy of India between 1899 and 1905, took interest in the conservation of the Taj Mahal and initiated repair work at the structure under supervision of the government and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). In addition to overseeing repairs and installation of an illuminating lamp at the tomb, he is credited with ensuring that the area outside the tomb was cleared to create a buffer zone between the mausoleum grounds and the busy street of the adjacent Taj Ganj area.
The Taj Mahal came to occupy a place of pride in the anti-colonial movement, illustrating the architectural grandeur of pre-British South Asia. Consequently, it became the subject of art and writing associated with the movement, such as Abanindranath Tagore’s painting The Passing of Shah Jahan (1902). In post-independence India, the Taj Mahal has been a flashpoint for cultural and political debates. In 2005, it was the subject of a polarised debate following its registration as a Waqf property. There is a widely held belief among those who identify with Hindu nationalism that the Taj Mahal was built after the destruction of a pre-Mughal Shiva temple, the Tejo Mahalaya. These claims were advanced by PN Oak in his book Taj Mahal: The True Story (1989). The author and his supporters have moved court over the years to establish this claim, but so far, it has been dismissed by the Supreme Court of India. The theory has also been rejected by historians and archeologists in the absence of verifiable proof to support the claim. In May 2022, a petition was filed in the Allahabad High Court to get ASI to open twenty locked rooms in the Taj Mahal, with the claimants arguing that the locked rooms contain Hindu idols and scriptures.
The monument has also been the subject of environmental concerns. By the 1970s, following the construction of an oil refinery in nearby Mathura by the Indian Oil Corporation, the white marble of the structure became noticeably discoloured due to deteriorating air quality, in particular, the presence of corrosive sulphur dioxide in the atmosphere. In 1982, the Government of India declared an area of 10,400 square kilometres around the Taj Mahal as the Taj Trapezium Zone, within which a ban on air-polluting industrial activity has been instituted.
The depleting water levels of the Yamuna have also been a source of concern. Since the Taj Mahal was constructed, Yamuna’s course has shifted slightly, and the river itself has shrunk due to damming activities. This has exposed more land between the mausoleum and the river, raising concerns that the dwindling groundwater might cause the wells and wooden components of the mausoleum’s foundation to crack if they remain dry for too long. In 2002, the Uttar Pradesh State Government inaugurated the Taj Corridor Project, which disregarded existing local and traditional uses of the Yamuna and sought to bring the riverfront areas and their residents into the tourism industry by constructing a promenade along the river, among other residential and commercial structures. Public opinion was against the possible negative effects of this plan, which would also have broken laws against construction too close to the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort. The project was eventually scrapped.
The monument continues to have deep symbolic and cultural associations. It was given the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. As of writing, the structure is under the maintenance and supervision of ASI.
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