I've posted about the Taj Mahal before, a long time ago, five years. I posted about it as a kind of Advent meditation, and I'd like to do the same, only a little more expanded now.
I should point out from the beginning that I've never visited the Taj.
This is one of those buildings that I've always loved from afar. I've never traveled to India, and who knows if I will ever lay eyes on this magnificent building. It is one of those buildings like the Parthenon that is our unconscious measure for everything "perfect" in architecture. It is one of those rare buildings where everything works together to create an exhilarating and lasting effect upon our imaginations.
The Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore called the Taj Mahal "a teardrop on the cheek of time." It is indeed a memorial to a lost love, but it is also a religious monument. When we read the inscriptions on the building, they are not lines from love poetry, but suras or chapters from the Quran; suras mostly about the end of the world and the Day of Reckoning.
The Taj Mahal was the most famous work of the fifth Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan. He built it as a tomb for his favorite wife (among many), Arjumand Banu Begum, better known to us by the title Shah Jahan gave her, Mumtaz Mahal or The Chosen One of the Palace. They were married 19 years and she bore him 14 children, 7 of whom survived. She died giving birth to a daughter who survived. The Emperor was grief-stricken over her death, and spent 22 years building the tomb that we see today and its surrounding gardens.
Mumtaz Mahal in a portrait that is probably posthumous
Mumtaz Mahal was an indispensable partner in Shah Jahan's reign. The Emperor was indeed deeply in love with her with an erotic obsession noted in all the contemporary accounts. She was from a family of Persian nobility and the daughter of the governor of Lahore, Abdul Hasan Asif Khan. Her grandfather was the powerful treasurer Mirza Ghiyas Beg, given the title of Itimad ad Daulah or "Pillar of the State" by the Fourth Mughal Emperor, Jahangir. Mumtaz Mahal accompanied her husband on his travels throughout the realm, including on his military campaigns (she died during one such campaign in the Deccan). She was an accomplished architect designing numerous pleasure gardens around the city of Agra.
Mumtaz Mahal was responsible for the shift in Mughal religious policy away from the tolerant cosmopolitanism of the Third Mughal Emperor Akbar, and toward a purer and more rigid religious orthodoxy. She was herself devoutly religious with much more orthodox views than those that had previously dominated the imperial court. She used her influence to expel Christian missionaries and to restore some legal disabilities and special taxes on the Hindu population of India that the Emperor Akbar had removed. Her sixth child with Shah Jahan would overthrow his bereaved elderly father and reign as the Emperor Aurangzeb; a religious zealot who removed the last vestiges of Akbar's liberalism and actively suppressed Hindu religious practice and Christian expansionism.
According to Muslim tradition on the Indian subcontinent, women who died in childbirth are regarded as saints. Shah Jahan had all the more reason to revere his beloved wife as a saint when she died giving birth to their fourteenth child.
The design of the Taj Mahal reflects the legacy Shah Jahan wished to create for his deceased wife, not only as deceased royalty, but as a saint. Our experience of the Taj and its gardens is not only about grief for a beloved wife, but a foretaste of the paradise that awaits the righteous and a premonition of the final Day of Reckoning as it is described in the Quran. Shah Jahan involved himself personally in the planning and construction of the Taj. We should probably credit the Emperor at least partially with its design, created by his chief architect, an Afghan by the name of Ustad Ahmed Lahouri ('Ustad' is a title similar to 'Maestro').
But O thou soul at peace,
Return thou unto thy Lord, well pleased, and well pleasing unto Him,
Enter thou among my servants,
And enter My paradise.
Thus reads the inscription around the main gate of the Taj Mahal, the concluding passage from sura 89 of the Quran. The magnificent South Gate of red sandstone and marble prepares us for the splendor within, and reminds us of its religious significance. What we are about to enter is not a dream of love, but a glimpse of the paradise of the blessed as understood in Islam.
When we enter the gate, we get our first glimpse of the Taj looming in the distance. This is one of the world's most spectacular architectural effects, especially in the morning hours when the mists from the Yamuna river still linger. The great ivory bulk of the mausoleum rises both grand and otherworldly in the changing light of the day. Some scholars, Wayne Begley (PDF download) in particular, suggest that its unusually large size and dazzling whiteness was meant to suggest the Throne of Allah at the end of time, presiding over the gardens of paradise.
There are numerous passages in the Quran describing Paradise as a garden, as a kind of eternal Garden of Eden watered by four celestial rivers and filled with flowers, fruiting trees, and fragrance that never perishes. The architects of the Taj Mahal laid out its garden to be an image of Paradise as described in the Quran.
This is a reminder: The righteous have deserved a wonderful destiny. The gardens of Eden will open up their gates for them. Relaxing therein, they will be given many kinds of fruits and drinks. They will have wonderful spouses. This is what you have deserved on the Day of Reckoning. Our provisions are inexhaustible. [from the Quran, sura 38]
The main garden of the Taj Mahal as we have it today is a creation of British restorers in the late 19th century who laid it out in the manner of a European formal garden with an emphasis on vistas, lawns, and trees.
Originally, the gardens were not lawns, but filled with flowering bulbs, bushes, and trees planted in such a way as to bloom in rotation as the seasons changed.
The architects of the Taj Mahal laid out the gardens according to a pattern created in Persia, the four part garden grid known as a char-bagh. This is a quadrilateral enclosed garden divided into quarters by four water channels to suggest the Rivers of Paradise described in the Quran and in the traditional commentary contained in the Hadith.
Imperial tomb monuments in Mughal India traditionally sat in the center of such gardens. The tomb monument of the Taj Mahal unusually sits on the north side of its garden on the banks of the Yamuna River.
Some scholars see religious significance in this design decision. They see it as a deliberate departure from the tradition of locating the deceased in the center of Paradise, and turning the tomb into a metaphor for the throne of God at the Day of Reckoning.
Others take issue with this interpretation, and point out that the tomb monument of the Taj does indeed sit in the center of a vast garden complex divided by the river.
On the river's north shore are the ruins of a garden equal in size to the formal garden on the south side of the Taj, the Mehtab Bagh or Moonlight Garden that appears to be part of the original design. The Archaeological Survey of India together with the Smithsonian Institution are excavating and restoring this garden, trying to bring back something of the original floral arrangements of the traditional char-bagh gardens.
The Garden of Paradise on the outside finds its way into the tomb itself. The perishable flowers of the surrounding gardens become the durable stone flowers that cover the surfaces of the Taj itself. The Taj Mahal is filled with flowers.
Compared to earlier Mughal buildings, there is far less ornament in the buildings built under Shah Jahan including the Taj. There is both less of it and less variety. Ornamental decoration on the Taj Mahal is confined to calligraphic inscriptions and flowers, perhaps reflecting the shift away from the syncretism of earlier Mughal rulers toward a stricter religious orthodoxy.
Pietra dura is a technique of stone inlay created in Florence and imported into India sometime in the 16th century, probably during the reign of the Emperor Akbar. Indian artisans quickly mastered this technique and made it their own. They covered the surfaces of the central chamber of the mausoleum with flowers made from varying shades of carnelian, jasper, agate, jade, topaz, etc. Ebba Koch in her book on Mughal architecture believes that these designs are based on imported European botanical prints. We also see similar floral ornaments in the margins of Mughal book illuminations.
On the four entrances to the mausoleum are immense calligraphic inscriptions from the Quran. They are large and meant to be read by literate Muslim believers. The south entrance facing the garden is the entire 36th sura of the Quran which describes the resurrection of the dead on the Day of Reckoning.
He raises a question to us—while forgetting his initial creation—"Who can resurrect the bones after they had rotted?"
Say, "The One who initiated them in the first place will resurrect them. He is fully aware of every creation." He is the One who creates for you, from the green trees, fuel which you burn for light.
Is not the One who created the heavens and the earth able to recreate the same?
Yes indeed; He is the Creator, the Omniscient. All He needs to do to carry out any command is say to it, "Be," and it is.
Therefore, glory be to the One in whose hand is the sovereignty over all things, and to Him you will be returned.
The inscription on the west side facing the mosque is an extensive passage from the 82nd sura, the "Cleaving Asunder." This chapter describes the sudden and catastrophic appearance of the Day of Reckoning.
When the sky breaks apart
And when the stars fall, scattering,
And when the seas are erupted
And when the graves are scattered
A soul will know what it has put forth and kept back
All of the great inscriptions around the four entrances are Quranic chapters about the final Day of Reckoning. To a certain extent, this is to be expected on a funerary monument, but the prominence of these inscriptions and the very large size of the mausoleum are perhaps intended to cause the faithful to reflect upon their own salvation.
These inscriptions are the most important and prominent ornamentation on the Taj Mahal. Inscriptions play the role on Islamic religious buildings that imagery plays on churches. They instruct the faithful and put them in the right frame of mind before entering. Calligraphers in the Muslim world enjoy a status similar to artists in the Christian West. These inscriptions are the work of the master calligrapher Amanat Khan.
The Taj Mahal is an unusually large tomb monument by Indian standards. The dome rises 240 feet (73m). Most remarkable, it is such a perfectly harmonious design. The dome is half the height of the whole building. The building proper is about twice the width of the dome. There is a clear and gratifying progression of form from the octagonal building to the high slightly bulbous dome with the four large chakris creating a splendid transition. Compared to the complexity of earlier Indian buildings, the Taj Mahal is remarkably clear and simple. Like all Mughal buildings, it is a synthesis of Islamic architecture imported from outside India with native Indian -- and even Hindu -- elements such as the small domed pavilions or chakris, and the use of lotus motifs on the tops of the domes. And yet, the Taj Mahal is a lot less Indian than most earlier Mughal buildings. It is much more Persian.
The Taj Mahal is the culmination of a long history of Persian and Central Asian architecture. Islam brought to India those very Roman building forms of the arch and the dome by way of Sassanian Persia. The Taj sits at the end of a long history of tomb architecture that stretches from the 10th century tomb of Ismail the Samanid in Bukhara to the 14th century Tomb of the Mongol ruler of Persia Oljeitu to the 15th century Tomb of Tamarlane in Samarkand to the 16th century tomb of Shah Jahan's great grandfather Emperor Humayun in Delhi.
That most Roman of building parts, the dome and the arch, dominate the Taj Mahal by way of their Persian interpretations, the dome and iwan, or great arched entrance whose ultimate ancestor is the Roman triumphal arch. These dominate the Taj Mahal and reduce the Indian elements to ornamentation. This was certainly a deliberate decision on the part of Shah Jahan and his architects. The design calls to mind the Persian ancestry of Mumtaz Mahal as do the very prominent tall tapering round minarets; Persian in inspiration and topped by Indian chakris. The minarets and the the simplified design announces a return to the religious orthodoxy Mumtaz Mahal and her husband championed.
When we approach the Taj Mahal from the South Gate, we must cross the entire length of the garden. When we arrive at the mausoleum, we must ascend a series of steps and staircases to arrive at the entrance. This is similar to certain Hindu and Buddhist religious structures where the approach to the sanctuary becomes a kind of guided meditation. Here with no imagery and very restrained ornamentation, we seem to be making something like Muhammad's journey heavenward into the presence of God.
The domed central chamber of the Taj Mahal was designed for the ritual of circumambulation, walking around a holy site always keeping it to one's right. So far as I know, this ritual is an import that began in the Mediterranean world and came into India with the Muslim conquest.
There is very fine pietra dura work on Shah Jahan's cenotaph.
Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan are buried in the crypt underneath the cenotaphs according to Muslim tradition; on their right sides facing Mecca.
The Jawab is a building whose only purpose is to be a symmetrical balance to the mosque on the other side.
On the west side of the Taj Mahal is a mosque that still functions. It is a splendid building of red sandstone inlaid with white marble inside and out.
Indian Muslims still revere the Taj Mahal as a holy site, and they revere Mumtaz Mahal as a saint. The Taj Mahal was ultimately built for them, to make them mindful of the end that awaits them according to their faith. They pass through gardens that are intimations of the paradise that awaits the faithful, to a huge otherworldly white monument that reminds them of the terrible Reckoning to come at the end of life and the end of time. For Shah Jahan, this was indeed a labor of great love, but his legacy was to the devout who came after him to revere the memory of his beloved wife as a champion of their faith.