Monument of Love I: Emperor, Soldier, Master builder

My recent sojourn in Agra is the reason behind this series – Monument of Love. Let’s see if I am able to capture the iconic building beyond the usual trivia and photography angles.

“The Taj Mahal rises above the banks of the river like a solitary tear suspended on the cheek of time.”

Rabindranath Tagore

In one word, Taj Mahal is the queen of architecture. There are many famous buildings, both globally and in India. But none are as iconic as Taj, none that has been consistently admired for it’s beauty – a marble enigma, feminine and yet powerful. To many people in India, the name ‘Taj Mahal’ often suggests five things: yamuna river designated as the most polluted river, Zakhir Hussain exclaiming ‘Wah Taj!’ over a blend of tea, visits of British royalty and Trump, the Taj hotel in Mumbai (another architectural piece of magnificence), and the monument itself with its shroud of controversies – the latest one of trying to make it a Hindu monument, most likely stemming from the fact that a Islamic monument is considered as the pride of Indian heritage and a national symbol. For most tourists, the first encounter is often through the Google images or through the lens of numerous “influencers” and reels.

There is a strong preconception that comes with Taj – I’ll be honest! I suffered the same since this was not my first visit to Taj technically. Either you will be irrevocably impressed or just get on with it as a checklist item. My impression of Taj changed because I decided to take a longer route of appreciating what Taj is for the people in Agra. Walking through bitter gourd fields early morning along the dusty roads, you get to appreciate how normal Taj is for people in reality while tourists throng to capture one moment. The tourism circuit of Taj plays a major role in the lifestyle led by the people in the village settlements around Taj. For instance, the electric auto that accompanied me throughout this rambling walk, is not allowed to return back home before Taj shuts down for the visitors, once he crosses the barricades that surround Taj. While houses are being rebuilt as part of sustainable tourism initiative to include rooftop views of Taj, the lady who cooked my humble village breakfast was more interested in the fact that a single Indian girl from Mumbai is roaming on the streets of Agra, in the peak of summer, and doesn’t know hot to make round chappatis.

Every tourist seeks for the advantage of “Taj views” in Agra – the unsolicited ones that you can showcase in your instagram page in an attempt to stand out from the crowd. But its the life that has been built around the iconic monument that should be equally romanticised. It is the simple of tip of a housewife preparing meal for her family on making a Bitter gourd curry that I will carry in my memory of Taj, rather than how splendind the white marble building looked against a clear sky. Why? Because…. Taj was built on one man’s dream, took 22 years, and roughly 20,000 craftsmen and artisans to make it a reality. But it is the descendants of the same artisans living in the narrow alleys of Taj Ganj, who are still trying to make a living under the shadows of white mausoleum.

It is said that Abdul Hamid Lahauri documented the building’s existence in the name of ‘rauza-i munawwara‘ (~the illustrious tomb) in his book Padshahnama which is considered as the official history of Shah Jahan’s reign. Taj Mahal is known as the prime example of Mughal regime in India and its architectural showmanship – one that has catapulted the iconic building to the famous listing of “7 Wonders of the Middle ages“; a list that is completely based on statistical, historical, or cultural significance. Enshrining the remains of the 5th emperor of the Mughal Dynasty, Shah Jahan and his third wife Arjumand Banu Begum, known as Mumtaz Mahal, the ivory-white, 8-sided, multi-chambered mausoleum is an ingenious piece of architecture.

Miniature painting of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal

Romanticism colours the building as ‘Monument of love’ simply based on the premise that the two graves of husband and wife lies deep within the monument, together in eternity. In the words of Inayat Khan, Shah Jahan’s historian “his whole delight was centered on this illustrious lady [Mumtaz], to such an extent that he did not feel towards the others [his other wives] one-thousandth part of the affectiion that he did for her.” But many have come to the conclusion that “it was grief that built the Taj Mahal and it was sorrow that saw it through sixteen years till completion.” Personally for me, its a sign of loneliness. Afterall, the man who dreamt of it, was only able to see the building in its completion during his lifetime from the walls of his prison at Agra Fort. In his own words:

“The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs and makes sun and moon shed tears from their eyes. In this world this edifice has been made to display, thereby, the Creator’s glory.”

Shah Jahan

More than the love story of its patron, Taj Mahal is more popularly known for the game of optical illusion it provides for all its visitors, and has rightfully captured its spot as one of the instagrammable spots of India. When you first approach the main gate that frames the Taj, for example, the monument appears incredibly close and large. But as you get closer, it shrinks in size—exactly the opposite of what you’d expect.

“And a dome of high foundation and a building of great magnificence was founded — a similar and equal to it the eye of the age has not seen under these nine vaults of the enamel-blue sky, and of anything resembling it the ear of time has not heard in any of the past ages … it will be the masterpiece of the days to come, and that which adds to the astonishment of humanity at large.”

Muhammad Amin Qazwini, Shah Jahan’s Mughal court historian. On the Taj Mahal during its construction. Translation by Ebba Koch.

Although the minarets surrounding the tomb look perfectly upright, the towers actually lean outward, which serves both form and function: in addition to providing aesthetic balance, the pillars would crumble away from the main crypt in a disaster like an earthquake. The only exception to the rule of symmetry displayed by the building is the plascement of Shah Jahan’s cenotaph, which is peculiarly positioned west of the central axis. The odd placement has led many to believe he never meant to be buried there at all. The main burial chamber is topped by a secondary semi-dome, which is located right below the large onion dome. A large unused blind space lies between the two domes. The double dome feature puts the acoustics inside the main dome to a task of eterning – apparently a single note of a flute can echo five times, documented as one of the longest echoes of any building in the world.

Being a fan of all things historical, architectural and heritage-oriented, it has always been a pain point for me to see beautiful buildings in India desecrated with ridiculous messages and “love notes”. So it was an interesting tidbit to learn that our colonial rulers equally contributed to this nasty habit. The 240 ft high marble onion dome is the crown of the monument, topped with a 56-foot high brass finial in a mixture of Persian and Hindustani style. The first image shown below, is another popular google find, which shows British soldiers attempting to climb the very top of the finial. Since they were only able to reach the first level, they decided to inscribe their names over it.

The much talked symmetry and illusions is not limited just to the main monument, as seen in the landscaping of the gardens. Typically, most Mughal charbagh gardens are rectangular with a tomb or pavilion in the center. The main concept behind such a layout was to depict ‘Heaven’ or Eden with four rivers and quadrants that are the four corners of the world. As a representation of Mumtaz’s residence in paradise, the placement of Taj Mahal was surprisingly not kept as the central focus in the garden but more towards the end. The reason can be as technical as the alignment with the solistices, or as simple as the logistics of ensuring that the natural foliage doesn’t overshadow the crowning glory that is Taj. Or, it can just be the fact that the architects wanted to play on the concept of symmetry and optical illusions. After all one should able to exclaim “Wow” just by crossing into the immense complex.

In a period of 22 years, roughly 20,000 craftsmen and artisans worked on creating Taj Mahal, including calligraphers from Syria and Persia, stone carvers from Bukhara, stone cutters from Baluchistan, mosaicists from southern India, to name but a few of the specialist craftsman employed. Shah Jahan’s artisans perfected the art of pietra dura or pictorial mosaic work using semi-precious stones. As you move closer, the delicacy and finesse of the carving starts unraveling. More than 1,000 elephants which were used to transport materials from across the Mughal realm and beyond its borders: jasper was brought from the Punjab; white marble from Makrana, Rajasthan; turquoise came from Tibet; Lapis lazuli from Afghanistan; jade and crystal from China; while sapphire was shipped from Sri Lanka and carnelian from Arabia.

The architect of the Taj Mahal is not known by name, a notoriety which has given rise to many speculations, including the myth of Shah Jahan putting the artisans on permanent disability to ensure no other Taj is ever built. In reality, Shah Jahan imposed a moral boundation on the workers, a form of contract, that ensured that they cannot work for any other emperor while the building is being constructed. The myth most likely stems from the misinterpretation of a Persian idiom ‘Dast-Daadan‘ ~ Give Hands, which has been taken far too literally. Not to mention, this kind of brutality would have seamlessly fit the image of barbaric Mughals. However, Amanat Khan, brother of Afzal Khan who was the wazir or Chief Minister during Shah Jahan’s regime, has been identified as the designer for the calligraphic inscriptions on Taj Mahal.

Despite the islamic architecture, the monument defies the logic of a mosque and has been described by many hadiths as unorthodox since Islamic law prohibits grand gestures in tombs; apparently Prophet disapproves of ostentatious buildings since it consumes too much of a man’s wealth. Simple burials ideally with nothing other than earth and bricks are preferred, in order to facilitate the raising of the dead on the Day of Judgement. Of the 6 mughal emperors (traditionally referred to as the Great Mughals), the first and the last i.e. Babur and Aurangzeb, strictly adhered to this practice with simple, open-air graves.

Maybe that’s why Shah Jahan faced various challenges in getting Taj Mahal constructed – the topmost being the interference of the jinns. The folk lores states that while the foundations of the Taj were being laid, the jinns in the surrounding area were constantly destroying the foundations and the artisans working over there were in the dread of these evil forces. Hazrat Ahmed Bhukhari and the three Pir brothers were called upon the request of Shah Jahaan. They anointed the place with the holy verses of the Quran and started the foundation work by the hands of the emperor himself. They all made their dwelling places on the four corners of the Taj Mahal. On their deaths, four dargah or mazars were erected on these very four corners. People consider that as long as these dargahs are intact, Taj Mahal will continue to be a quiet safe.

Tomb of Hazrat Ahmed Bukhari, located on a hilltop behind Taj Mahal.

The luminosity of the white marble was such great that once upon a time, it could accurately reflect the changing colours of sky throughout the day. Apparently, capturing Taj is a mood of its own. However, sadly, age and pollution has taken a toll on the Taj Mahal’s gleaming white marble façade. Occaionally, the monument is given a spa day with a mudpack facial called multiani mitti. This traditional recipe used by Indian women to restore radiance is applied on to the marble facade, and then washed off with brushes, after which the Taj’s blemishes vanish, and its glow returns.

Age and pollution has taken a toll on the Taj Mahal’s gleaming white marble façade. Occaionally, the monument is given a spa day with a mudpack facial called multiani mitti. This traditional recipe used by Indian women to restore radiance is applied, and then washed off with brushes, after which the Taj’s blemishes vanish, and its glow returns.

Did I change my preconceived notions? Definitely yes! Can I be fanatic about how perfect it was? Definitely No! What did I like? Well having a beauty all to myself at 5.30 in the morning was definitely an experience, but amidst the hustle that gets attracted to Taj Mahal, it is the daily routine of life that described Taj more poetically. I think this summed up my feeling:

“I found the Taj Mahal as the most appropriate example of artistically expressed love.”

Suman Pokhrel

Pro Tip: To explore my “version of Agra”, I will recommend booking for the Secret Taj Tour with Agra beat. They are incredible proactive within the community and are trying to make Agra, a city beyond Taj. You can connect with Amit Sisodia at +91 9897055383. Ask for Aakash Jain as your guide for Taj Mahal. I stayed at Ekaa Villa and Kitchen agra, a one of a kind boutique hotel in Agra.

For a smooth experience of exploring the monuments of Agra (and Delhi), I would recommend purchasing the tickets in advance (I have linked the payment portal for ease of reference!). How advance? Well, for the smaller buildings, you can just purchase the ticket while walking towards the entrance gate or even at the ticket counter. But, for Taj Mahal, I would recommend one day prior booking. They have a time slot system of ticket booking – go as early as possible to experience Taj Mahal at its finest.

I left my hotel at 4.45 AM and I was inside the premises within 5.15 AM. As you can see, the most minimal number of crowd interefered my experience. It is not necessary to have a guide, but it does help if you are traveling solo, and want good pictures. Most tourists, usually prefer buying the ticket only for the exterior. There’s an additional cost for the mausoleum part of the building. I would definitely recommend it, since it helps completing your experience. While there are no photography allowed inside the mausoleum, there are some “tiny tricks” that you get to experience with a good guide. Post my time at Taj Mahal, I went for the secret Taj tour with the same group.


Monument of Love series:


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Uttar Pradesh

5 comments

  1. […] The red sandstone-white marble combination was a favoured architectural scheme following its first appearance in the Alai Darwaza built by the Alauddin Khalji in the Qutb Minar complex around 1311. From the point of view of the history of architecture, this building plays a unique role in connecting between the Gur Emir, where Humayun’s ancestor Tamerlane is buried, and 85 years later, inspiring the construction of the mausoleum of his grandson Shah Jahan, i.e. Taj Mahal. […]

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