The idea of the Taj

The Taj Mahal, considered the greatest achievement in the world of Indo-Islamic architecture, was originally conceived as “a masterpiece for ages to come”.

Published : Jan 06, 2016 12:30 IST

The Taj Mahal.

The Taj Mahal.

THE Taj Mahal not only forms one of the most iconic representations of India but is also considered the greatest architectural achievement in the world of Indo-Islamic architecture. The monument, which was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation in 1983, was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in the memory of his favourite wife, Arjumand Banu Begum, better known as Mumtaz Mahal. On her death, she was buried in the garden of Zainabad at Burhanpur and then shifted, in December 1631, to Akbarabad (now Agra). She was finally enshrined in a crypt in the mausoleum that Shah Jahan built in her honour: the Taj Mahal. The tomb ( rauza ) was built on the right bank of the Yamuna at a point where the river takes a sharp turn and flows eastwards. The land for the mausoleum was acquired from Raja Jai Singh (grandson of Raja Man Singh), who donated his grandfather’s haveli for the purpose. He was given four havelis in Akbarabad in exchange. The foundation of the Taj Mahal was laid in January 1632. While the tomb complex and its garden were completed around 1647-48, the Darwaza-i-Rauza (the great gate) was completed around 1653-54.

The monument is, among other things, known for its beauty and grace; symmetry and uniformity of shapes; surface brilliance; selective use of naturalism; hierarchical grading of materials, forms and colours; symbolism; and attention to detail. Most accounts of the Taj emphasise its symmetry. It is true that the monument was built on the principle of strict bilateral symmetry with emphasis on the features of the central axis—the tomb and its four minarets flanked by a mosque to the west and an assembly hall (Mihman Khana) to the east. Radial symmetry is also observed in the ninefold plan of the tomb and the gate.

There are also several non-common frames for looking at the Taj Mahal, all of which enhance our understanding of this unique architectural marvel. For instance, few know that the monument was originally conceived as, in the words of Shah Jahan’s historian Qazwini, “a masterpiece for ages to come”. As the scholar Ebba Koch says, it was built with posterity in mind and viewers were a part of its concept. Such was the consciousness, such was the confidence. What also remains unnoticed is that the monument not only formed a heavenly tribute to Mumtaz Mahal, it reflected the power and glory of the Mughals, in particular Shah Jahan.

Tomb architecture The Taj marked the evolution of tomb architecture in India from the simple square plan with a domed roof (seen in the tomb of Iltutmish in the Qutb complex in Delhi) to a very complex one. It marked an improvisation over several features of tomb architecture developed over a period of time, including the octagonal structure (seen in the tomb of Khan-i-Jahan Tilangani and later in the imperial tombs of the Sayyids and the Lodis); the double dome (seen in Sikandar Lodi’s tomb in New Delhi, though the true double dome appears first in Humayun’s tomb); drum to raise tomb elevation (Adham Khan’s octagonal tomb in the Qutb complex); positioning of the tomb at the centre of a char bagh , or fourfold garden (introduced by Babur and seen in imperial Mughal tombs); use of minarets (Akbar’s tomb at Sikandra, Jahangir’s tomb in Lahore and Itmad-ud-Daulah’s tomb in Agra); hasht bihisht symbolising the eight doors of Paradise (Humayun’s tomb); construction of a complete marble tomb and parchinkari , loosely pietra dura (first seen in Itmad-ud-Daulah’s tomb); and the idea of a forecourt, Jilau Khana square with streets, bazaars and residential buildings (first seen in Jahangir’s tomb in Lahore). These architectural components are seen in their most classical and developed form at the Taj.

The buildings at the Taj are made of burnt bricks ( lakhuri ) covered with red sandstone ( sang-i-surkh ) and marble ( sang-i-marmar ) slabs held together with iron clamps and dowels. The red sandstone and marble combination started much earlier in Indo-Islamic architecture with the tomb of Iltutmish in the Qutb complex in Delhi. Its interior has Quranic verses carved in red sandstone as also inscriptional mural decorations. This combination runs through numerous other Mughal buildings, with Humayun’s tomb and the Jama Masjid at Fatehpur Sikri being excellent examples of this.

Red sandstone had significance in the Persian origins of the Mughal empire, where red was the exclusive colour of imperial tents. Koch points out that the hierarchical use of red sandstone and white marble can be traced to an eighth century Hindu religious text, Vishnudharmottara Purana , which recommended white stone buildings for Brahmins and red stone buildings for Kshatriyas. By using this colour combination, the Mughals were trying to identify themselves with the leading classes of Indian society and also articulate their imperial status.

Shah Jahan’s reign saw a further shift in this trend —privileging of marble over red sandstone structures so characteristic of Akbar’s period. Several red sandstone buildings at the Agra and Lahore forts were dismantled and replaced with marble structures. The marble buildings erected inside the Agra fort included the Diwan-i-Am (1627), Diwan-i-Khas (1637), and the Moti Masjid (1654). Likewise, at the Lahore fort, the Diwan-i-Am, the Khwab Garh, the Sheesh Mahal and the Musamman Burj.

The Taj is thought to represent one of the houses in the gardens of paradise. In Quranic descriptions, the eternal garden is imagined as a place with flowing waters, shade trees, exquisite fruits and beautiful maidens. Koch says the flower and plant motifs used to decorate the Taj Mahal invested the monument with a paradisiacal quality. In the earlier Islamic monuments, typical geometric patterns dominated, whereas in the case of the Taj, such motifs were relegated to floors and jalis (screens). The metaphor of gardens and plants also had an imperial symbolism—it represented not only Shah Jahan and his good governance but also his court and his family. Besides, it served as an instrument of propaganda for his chroniclers, who portrayed him as an “erect cypress of the garden of the caliphate”. Vases filled with plants (or overflowing plants) were not only important in Muslim cultures but also pointed to the ancient Indian symbol of prosperity and well-being—the purna ghata (vase of plenty). This idea of paradise also got reflected in the layout of the char bagh (fourfold garden) with running water as well as in the Quranic verses (calligraphed in black marble and inlaid in white marble) inscribed on three of the four major buildings—the mausoleum, the great gate and the mosque. The Taj displays the largest inscriptional programme in the Islamic world. It has 25 Quranic inscriptions, of which 14 are complete suras (chapters). In one way or another, all inscriptions deal with the day of judgment, divine mercy and paradise for the faithful. The verses on the Darwaza-i-Rauza directly identify the Taj with paradise.

Optical Illusion Optical control forms an important element in the viewing of the Taj. If one looks at the mausoleum from the Darwaza-i-Rauza, it looks small and distant. As one gradually approaches the monument, it begins to expand and look bigger. Also, many architectural features start becoming noticeable. The spatial arrangement of the formal garden also creates an optical illusion. The tombs of Humayun, Akbar, Itmad-ud-Daulah and Jahangir subscribed to the classic pattern of the tomb being placed at the centre of the char bagh . The Taj made an important improvisation to this scheme—the mausoleum, located on the riverfront, was placed at the end of the fourfold garden. This gave a sense of depth to the first view of the mausoleum from the gateway. Some scholars think this had an underlying political symbolism. The scholar Brandenburg argues that the placement of the char bagh at the head of the mausoleum was done to fit in a particular cosmological diagram where the Taj represented the “Throne of God”. The scholar Wayne Begley thinks that the mausoleum also reflected the perfection and authority of the Mughal leadership. To him the “Garden of Paradise” also formed the location of the “Throne of God” on the day of judgment.

The fourfold garden is further divided into four with a system of paved waterways, water channels and parterres and stone-bordered star-shaped buds. In the centre of the garden is a raised marble water tank called hawd al-kawthar (symbolising the tank of abundance promised to Muhammad) with a reflecting pool to reflect the image of the mausoleum.

One of the most unusual features of the Taj garden is the even distribution of water with equal pressure from the lotus-bud-shaped foundation. The scholar S.P. Verma points out that this was done by inserting copper pots in the water course between the underground water pipes and the fountains.

Pietra dura The technique of inlaying marble with precious and semi-precious stones is called pietra dura. It was first developed in Florence (Italy) during the 16th century. An example of such an inlay, though with typically Islamic motifs, of flowers, cypresses, floral arabesques, vases and wine pots was first seen in the tomb of Itmad-ud-Daulah. Inlaying white marble with precious and semi-precious stones such as lapis, onyx, jasper, topaz, cornelian, and so on, is taken to its classic form in the surface decoration at the Taj Mahal. Koch and scholars such as Henry Hosten have suggested that the technique was introduced in the Mughal court by European lapidaries, primarily Austin or Augustin de Bordeaux, a French lapidary known during Jahangir’s time. This has been opposed by several scholars who say that the Florentine pietra dura is principally figurative and its only instance in Mughal architecture can be seen in the alcove behind the emperor’s throne in the Diwan-i-Am at the Red Fort at New Delhi (constructed between 1643 and 1648). Some locate it within the larger indigenous tradition of parchinkari, in which inlay was done on metal (for example, artefacts from Bidri and Muradabad) and wood. In the case of the Mughals, the idea of the form and design is principally Islamic and the motifs were borrowed from Persian example.

S.P. Verma says that the depiction of naturalistic flowery plants can be seen in Jahangiri miniatures. Marble inlay with images of plants with blossoms—effected by the choice of stones corresponding to the natural hues—validated the unrivalled standing of the Mughals in parchinkari . Even Koch admits that in its complexity, subtlety and elegance Mughal pietra dura work surpasses that of any Italian artist.


Some myths and legends, mostly floated by guides, have become ingrained in popular history and folklore. The idea of a second, rivalling Taj, the Black Taj, was floated by Jean Baptiste Tavernier, who, during his visit to Agra in 1665, wrote that Shah Jahan wanted to build his own tomb in black marble on the other side of the Yamuna in Mahtab Bagh but his sons opposed the plan and Aurangzeb finally abandoned it. There is no historical evidence to support this claim and even archaeological excavations carried out in the 1990s did not reveal any evidence of a tomb. Another very popular tale is that Shah Jahan killed the architects and workers who built the Taj (other versions say he chopped off their hands or had their eyes gouged out or had them thrown into the dungeons of Agra fort) so that they could not build a second monument like that. This again has no historical basis and, as Koch points out, such tales are a part of folklore surrounding monuments in many cultures, including England, Ireland, Russia and parts of Asia. Finally, the tale of the British administration’s plans to demolish the Taj. It is said that Lord William Bentinck, Governor General of India in the 1830s, planned to demolish the Taj Mahal and auction the marble. His biographer, John Rosselli, clarified that the basis of this rumour was Bentinck’s fundraising sale of discarded marble from Agra fort.

Politics of appropriation The politics of appropriation started with the construction of the monument itself. The first to do so was the Western world, primarily travellers and scholars. They floated the historically untenable tale of the role of foreign architects in the construction of the Taj. Sebastian Manrique, who visited Agra during 1640-41, attributed it to the Italian goldsmith Geronimo Veroneo, while Brtish administrator William Sleeman gave credit to the Frenchman Austin de Bordeaux. Chroniclers of the Mughals credit Shah Jahan with the design of the complex. What seems most possible is that Shah Jahan designed the concept plan himself, while the details were supervised and executed by a collective of architects, including Ahmad Lahori, Mir Abdul Karim, Maulana Murshid of Shiraz and Ustad Hamid. The monument and its legacy also led to political contestations and scams.

Within the subcontinent, the politics of appropriation has led to polarisation. P.N. Oak’s writings have floated the theory that the Taj Mahal is not Mumtaz’s tomb but an ancient Hindu temple palace of Lord Siva then known as Tejo Mahalaya. The idea caught on with some Hindu politicians, who reiterated the Hindu character of the monument and said that Shah Jahan usurped a part of temple land from the Hindu king Jai Singh. More recently, a Muslim politician demanded that the monument be handed over to the Sunni Waqf Board since it was a mausoleum of two Muslims. While such ideas continue to be debated and contested, the mausoleum is fast being appropriated by the global community. The Taj made its way into the official list of the “New Seven Wonders of the World” elected by more than 100 million votes to represent global heritage throughout history. The media has also reported construction of its replicas in many countries and regions, including China, Bangladesh, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates, and in New Jersey in the United States.

Shashank Shekhar Sinha has taught history in undergraduate colleges in the University of Delhi. He now does independent research on issues relating to culture and heritage.

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