Even when viewing the Taj from afar, apart from the white marble beauty, there are two features that are distinct. One is the calligraphy band on the face of the doorway.
The other are the colourful patterns of inlaid stone (known as Pietra Dura) on the spandrels of the arch.
The pietra dura creates beautiful flowing patterns on the spandrels. These patterns are known as arabesques and usually consist of rhythmic formations of flowers, leaves, creepers and foliage.
It is used commonly in Islamic architecture as a decorative technique. In fact it’s the high-point of symbolism that is permissible in Islamic architecture. Why is it the high point? And why is it used so frequently? Because they can go no further…
For us to appreciate Mughal art, we have to understand their constraints first.
They could not visually depict any animal or human forms in public art or architecture, since these are regarded as God’s creation in Islam.
Imagine – no paintings like that on the Sistine Chapel, no intricate sculptures like those in Hindu temples.
In an imaginary competition between the three, it would be almost as if the Mughals were competing with Hindu and Christian art with one hand tied behind their back!
And so, they decided to make the remaining hand count. A lot. Their redeeming subject: botany.
In the 2015 Hollywood movie, ‘The Martian’, Matt Damon plays a botanist (coincidence!) who gets accidentally left behind on Mars, and vows to make the most of his meagre resources, saying ‘I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this’.
With their restrictions on display of human or animal forms, it’s almost as if the Mughals decided to (excuse our language) ‘art the s#!t out of botany and geometry!’
And so, you will find an absolute profusion of flower, leaf and plant forms all over the monument, including those stunning arabesques on the spandrels.
You gotta hand it to the Mughals, for making the best of their constrained situation!
Tombs were status symbols in medieval India. Houses could be demolished, but a tomb, given its sacred nature, was a permanent structure. So rulers and noblemen strove to leave a lasting legacy by building grand tombs for themselves and their dear ones.
But how did they differentiate? How did they showcase their tomb as cooler than the others? Let’s find out!
The era of tomb building in India began with the arrival of the Muslim rulers in the late twelfth/early-thirteenth century. The first tomb was built in Delhi in 1231.
The initial tombs – think of them as Version 1 – had a typical design: a semi-circular dome mounted on a square base. There were some variations, but it was broadly similar.
In this design, the square base represented earth and the circular dome represented heaven – symbolising the soul’s ascent from earth to paradise.
By the late fourteenth century, this standard ‘dome-on-cube’ structure – our version 1 – had become really common and ubiquitous! The ‘status-symbol’ was losing its value.
Along came a set of rulers who decided to shake things up a bit. And sometime in the late 1300s, India’s first octagonal tomb was built – in the Nizamuddin locality. Some believe that the inspiration for this was from the octagonal Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
These eight-sided tombs were preferred by the Sayyids and Lodis (both pre-Mughal dynasties) and you can see some great examples in Lodi Garden in Delhi.
Another stunning example is the tomb of Sher Shah Suri in Sasaram (Bihar).
During this period, the octagonal tomb design (our Version 2), was reserved only for kings. Other noblemen could only use the Version 1 dome-on-cube design.
One such nobleman from Sher Shah Suri’s court was Isa Khan Niyazi. Despite not being a king, he must have felt entitled to build a Version 2 for himself (perhaps because, by that time, there was no strong ruler to stop him!). And so he built this striking octagonal tomb in 1547 (which lies within the Humayun’s Tomb complex).
And then came the Mughals. Their reaction must’ve been like “Alright boys and girls, you’ve had your fun. Now we’ll show you how it’s really done”!
(Quick history recap: Babur was the first Mughal who captured territory in India in 1526. His son Humayun was driven out by Sher Shah Suri in 1540. Later, the Mughals regained their empire and Akbar became the emperor in 1556. Famous buildings of Mughal architecture as we know them, essentially began under Akbar.)
The first major opportunity to showcase the Mughal style was Humayun’s Tomb (which commenced in 1565). Desiring to build a grand, never-seen-before monument, Akbar got in expat talent – a Persian architect called Mir Mirak Ghiyas.
Ghiyas ditched the octagonal tomb design, in favour of a radical new design – hasht-behisht (or eight paradises) – our Version 3 tomb.
In previous tombs, there would be only a single chamber inside. In Humayun’s Tomb, however, the central chamber, (itself shaped like an irregular octagon) has eight ancillary structures surrounding it. There are four octagonal rooms at the corners and four arched niches in the cardinal directions. These eight rooms are supposed to evoke the eight gates or levels of paradise in Islamic belief.
It is an incredibly sophisticated design that achieves the objectives of having eight rooms surrounding the central octagonal chamber; with passageways connecting to the central chamber and to other rooms too. Just imagine – this achievement of sheer architectural genius was executed without any CAD or 3D imaging software, in the 16th century!
And guess what, when Emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal seventy years later, he took the same hasht-behisht concept and modified it for his masterpiece.
And from then on, no one could say, ‘My tomb is cooler than yours’ – the Taj had settled that question once and for all.
*Dadi-poti ka Gumbad by By http://www.flickr.com/photos/varunshiv/ (http://www.flickr.com/photos/varunshiv/3547827938/) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons ; Bada Gumbad By Anupamg (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons ** Mohd Shah Tomb By Lucido22 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons ; Sikander Lodi’s By Tanmay Kumar Photography (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons *** Sher Shah Suri’s Tomb at Sasaram, By Nandanupadhyay (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons # Isa Khan Niyazi’s Tomb in Delhi; By CaptivaTour
The Love Story
Prince Khurram (aka Shah Jahan), Mughal crown price, was our Hero,
The heroine was Arjumand, grand-daughter of the Empire’s CFO
You may imagine, between them, a cute, love-at-first-sight story
But this is India, ladies and g’men, we do arranged marriages only!
Married in 1612, Arjumand and Khurram’s love knew bounds none
As his favourite wife, she was titled Mumtaz Mahal (the Palace’s chosen one)!
Since he loved no one as much, he had many, many children by her
One child every 16 months? Mumtaz was one heck of a mother!
In her 14th pregnancy though, tragedy struck the couple loving
Mumtaz passed away; leaving a distraught, heart-broken king
For two years he mourned, his hair turned grey, dress a white gown
An uncle admonished him ‘Mumtaz is in paradise, time to move on’
But deep in his mourful heart, a monumental idea took birth
For his beloved Mumtaz, he would bring Paradise down here on earth.
A marble dream takes shape
One of the richest rulers was building a memorial for his dearest spouse,
He could’ve gotten the world’s best architect; but there was one inhouse
A gifted architect, Shah Jahan supervised and changed designs on his own
The world’s greatest monument took shape, brick by brick, stone by stone
For his beloved it would be only the best: marble – pristine, pure, white
Enhanced by a striking technique – pietra dura – it makes for a stunning sight!
One overarching design theme across the monument is made to stick
It was: ‘Ensuring Paradise Is Certain’ (for Mumtaz); in short, EPIC!
What happened Next
‘Move on’ an uncle had said and Shah Jahan later did so (literally)
Five years after the Taj was built, he moved his capital from Agra to Delhi
A majestic Fort Palace was built – The Red Fort (as it is now known)
Luxury, riches, entertainment – it was a good lifestyle to own
Until a tragic (and yes, embarrassing) incident occurred in 1657, September
And then Shah Jahan was overthrown and imprisoned in an Agra Fort chamber
What was that incident? Had Shah Jahan ‘moved on’ too far?
Would Mumtaz be waiting in heaven with flowers (or with a crowbar)?
In short, was that immortal love story all that it was cracked up to be?
For answers to all these questions, take the Taj Mahal CaptivaTour: its free!
Shah Jahan and Mumtaz: Sourced from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Shah_Jahan_and_Mumtaz_Mahal.jpg; See page for author [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Rest own pic
If you cringe at statements describing the Taj Mahal as “the ultimate expression of love” or “man’s greatest ode to a woman”, here’s some solid logic to back that up!
For those who believe in parallel universes, how about a thought experiment.
Imagine multiple universes –each with a different kind of Taj Mahal:
- A universe with a Shah Jahan who wasn’t rich and powerful, but who was a good architect and loved his wife: In such a universe, while he would have the passion and talent to build the tomb, he couldn’t have afforded the materials and the skilled men. A Taj in this universe, if at all, would’ve been a beautiful but small memorial.
- A universe with a rich, wife-loving Shah Jahan, but without the architectural talent: Here we would’ve surely had a Taj Mahal – but most likely it’d been a pompous and garish creation. You know, the money-can’t-buy-class-type? (we’re looking at you, Donald Trump!)
- A universe with a rich, talented Shah Jahan, but without that love for Mumtaz: In such a universe, the Taj simply would not have existed. Monuments were rarely made for wives by husbands, even if they had the means and talent to do it.
What we’ve used here is a modified form of the ‘hedgehog framework’ from Jim Collins’ famous management book ‘Good to Great’. This framework states: To achieve greatness, focus on that specific activity for which you have three strengths – insane ability, unending passion, and a strong economic driver.
Let’s look at each of the three, vis-a-vis Shah Jahan.
1. Architectural ability: For the design of the Taj, you may imagine that Shah Jahan would’ve undertaken a country-wide, nay global search for the best architect. Here’s a fun imaginary recreation of that brief conversation:
Emperor Shah Jahan: Spare no expense. Search high and low, across all the oceans… but get me the best architect on earth..
Minister: Uh, Sir…
Emperor Shah Jahan:… oh wait, that’s me!
Yes, Shah Jahan was an accomplished architect himself. In fact this passage from Shah Jahan’s biography lays out clearly the completely hands on role of the Emperor in the design: “The building superintendents along with the architects bring the architectural designs before the exalted sight of the Emperor. And … he attends to it fully by creating most of the designs himself and also by making appropriate changes to whatever the architects have thought out”
2. Unending passion: Shah Jahan’s love for Mumtaz is the stuff of legend. But he was no one-woman-man, especially after her death. He had a vigorous sexual appetite, and stories about the same abound in some of the gossipy European chronicles of that time.
However, we have to keep the context in mind here. In medieval times it was very common for rulers to have a significant harem of wives and concubines. Even Shah Jahan’s illustrious grandfather Akbar had a large harem, like most other kings.
But, what was not common was for such rulers to develop an overwhelming affinity for any one woman. And that was truly the case when Mumtaz was alive.
Peter Mundy, an Englishman visiting Agra in the 1630s, writes this about their love: “This Kinge is now buildinge a Sepulchre for his late deceased Queene …. whome hee dearely loved, haveing had by her 9 or 10 children, and thought, in her life tyme to use noe other woman (which is strange if true consideringe their libertie in that kinde).”
There you have it – their love made even a classic understated Brit raise his eyebrows in mild surprise!
Apart from the love, what was also very uncommon was grand tombs built for women.
Mughal emperors would usually build grand tombs for their fathers (think Humayun’s Tomb, Akbar’s Tomb, Jahangir’s Tomb), palaces for themselves (think Red Fort, Agra Fort) and mosques for the general public (Jama Masjid). But nothing really for their wives or mothers.
A few exceptions like the tomb of Shah Begum in Allahabad, or Bu Halima’s spartan tomb in Delhi exist. But till the 1630s, the equation of Mughal tombs was overwhelmingly in favour of the males
Enter, the Taj.
Shah Jahan had his flaws. But for a guy who spent more than 12 years, and a significant amount of his empire’s resources on creating an achingly beautiful piece of marble heaven-on-earth for his departed wife, one thing was for certain – that love was genuine.
Economic Driver: Ideally ‘economic driver’ in the hedgehog framework refers to the value that the activity generates. In that sense, the activity of architecture wasn’t an economic driver; but we have interpreted the framework here in the sense that Shah Jahan had ample resources to undertake that activity.
Those resources came from Mughal India being the world’s second largest economy then. The Mughal Emperor was probably the richest guy on earth at that time. The money spent on the Taj (Rs. 5 Mn then; around $250 Mn in today’s money) was financed from this rich empire.
And so, ladies and gentlemen, we are fortunate to be living in that parallel universe, where we got the whole package!
A Shah Jahan who was rich and powerful, an incredibly talented architect, and madly in love with his wife.
And you know what was the most vital ingredient? That clichéd, worn-out, word: Love! 🙂
And for more such stories and insights, on India’s most famous monument, experience our Taj Mahal CaptivaTour! Available in Android and coming soon on iOS.
Trump Taj Mahal: By Jrballe (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Ataga Khan tomb By Gaur.rameshwar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons ;
Akbar’s tomb By *_* (originally posted to Flickr as Akbar’s Tomb) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons ;
Jahangir’s tomb by By Jugni (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons ;
Rest Own pics