Friday, June 11, 2010

The Monument of Everlasting Love - Taj Mahal

There is no greater and more inspirational love story thanthe one that lies at the foundation of perhaps the most lavish mausoleum ever build in history. The Taj Mahal Standing at 180 feet tall, the Taj Mahal is located on the bank of River Yamuna, in the heart of the small town of Agra in India. This town was once the capital of the Mughal Empire between the 16th and the 18th centuries and the Taj Mahal, argubaly the finest example of Mughal architecture, is on of the main reason why people flock to this sleepy town each year.

The story behind Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal was once described by Sir Edwin Arnold, an English poet, as `not a piece of architecture, as other buildings are, but the proud passion of an emperor's love wrought in living stones.` No description could been more apt. The name `Taj Mahal` means `Crown Palace` in the Persian language, but it is also said to be abbreviated form of the name of the woman who had inspired it. Shah Jahan, the Mughal Emperor at that time, erected the Taj Mahal in the memory of his beloved wife, Arjumand Bano Begum, who was better known as Mumtaz Mahal, or `Distinguished of the Palace’. 

Mumtaz Mahal died while giving birth to their fourteenth child. The story has it that before her death, she extracted four promises from the emperor– first, he should build a monument in her memory; second, he would marry again after her death; third, he would always be kind to their children; and fourth, he would visit her tomb on the anniversary of her death each year. After her death, Shah Jahan was reportedly inconsolable and dedicated the rest of his life to building the most magnificent monument possible for his late wife – and what monument it was. 

Construction began in 1631 and took 22 years to complete, with a workforce of more than twenty thousand men and one thousand elephants. The building materials were transported from all over India and central Asia. It was primarily built of white marble, in some parts inlaid with precious and semi-precious stones such as jasper, lapis lazuli and sapphire. The whole building consists of a complex of inter-connected parts, with the white-domed mausoleum containing the tombs forming the centerpiece. 

The work of art called the Taj Mahal

Surrounding the complex is a formal Mughal garden divided into four parts called the `charbagh’ - measuring 300m x 300m with sunken landscapes, flowerbeds, raised pathways, avenues of trees, fountains, water courses and pools. A long marble water tank in the centre before the main building reflects it perfectly in the water. Walls made of crenellated red sandstone surrounds the complex and its garden, except on the side that faces the river. The main gateway, called the `darwaza’, forms the entrance into the garden, its archways mirroring the mausoleum’s and sporting similar design elements and calligraphic adornment. Further towards the end, two grand red sandstone buildings stand on the sides of the mausoleum, mirroring each other: one is the mosque and the other one is the `answer’ or `jawab’. The main differences between these two buildings is that unlike the mosque, the jawab contains no `mihrab’ – a niche in the wall facing the Mecca, and where the mosque’s black marble floor is decorated with the outlines of 569 prayer rugs, the jawab has intricate geometric patterns.

The main structure of the Taj Mahal – the mausoleum itself - stands on a square plinth. One of its most magical attractions is that it seems to continually change colour: in the moonlight, it glows silvery white, while during sunset, the stones are suffused with a warm pink glow and during sunrise, a golden tinge. Standing two stories tall, it is topped with a marble dome about 35 metres in height, which is capped with a gilded finial. Flanking the mausoleum are four marble pillars or minarets, each more than 40 metres in height and incorporating the same design elements as the main building. The minarets were constructed slightly out of plumb, so that in the event of an earthquake which may bring about the collapse of the building, the minarets would fall away from the tomb.

The Taj Mahal is a combination of Indian and Persian elements, with strong Islamic influences as well as early Mughal architecture. As you wander through the complex, you can see the uniformity in the design and decorative elements used throughout the complex. Some of the most detailed and intricate work can be found within the building itself. Geometric designs decorate the insides of the domes, and intricate carvings can be seen on the pillars. The entrance archways are decorated with calligraphies depicting selected verses from the Qur’an. The builders’ attention to detail was exacting to an extraordinary degree: for instance, when the calligraphies were etched, the optical perspective of the viewer was taken into account, and the calligraphers made sure to increase the size and spacing of the letters as they reached higher, so that to the viewer down below, everything looked even and uniform.

The focal point of the entire mausoleum is the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal, which sits in the exact centre of the structure, deep within the mausoleum. Beside the ornate central tomb is a second tomb, the single object that disturbs the symmetry of the entire complex. This second tomb is for the Emperor, Shah Jahan himself. An octagonal marble screen featuring intricate designs pierced onto its surface surrounds the tombs within. These ornate tombs are only replicas of the real ones, which are situated deep within the underground chamber, exactly beneath their replicas. Calligraphic inscriptions on the marble caskets (which are inlaid with precious and semi-precious stones) identify the bodies that lay beneath. 

The legends surrounding Taj Mahal

According to popular Indian legend, Shah Jahan ordered everyone who was involved in the building of Taj Mahal to be blinded and their arms amputated, so that nothing as magnificent would ever be built again. Soon after the completion of the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan was overthrown by his own son Aurangzeb, and locked up in the nearby Agra Fort. It was here that he spent the rest of his days forlornly gazing out the window at the monument he had lovingly built for his wife.

When he died, his son had him buried next to his wife in the Taj Mahal, an act seen not as an honour to his father’s love for his wife, but to spite his magnificent creation, as this move had indirectly caused a blemish to the otherwise perfectly symmetrical building.

It was also believed that an identical building was supposed to be built on the other side of the river, across the Taj Mahal. This building was to be built out of black marble, and was supposed to be the final resting place of Shah Jahan himself, but his son took over the throne before the `Black Taj’ could be built. The ruins of dark-coloured marble that can be found across the river were believed to be the unfinished base for the `Black Taj’.

The town of Agra can be reached via express train from India’s capital, New Delhi, which takes about one and a half hour. Immerse yourself in the magic of the Taj Mahal, preferably in the company of a loved one. 

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