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:
Taj in Parallel Universes
- 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
Mughal Tombs for Men and Women
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