It’s like a teardrop that glistens spotlessly bright on the cheek of time.
– Rabindranath Tagore, Nobel laureate, on India’s Taj Mahal
An Emperor’s Rise to Power
The story of India’s epic Taj Mahal – a symbol of eternal love and one of the most magnificent buildings in the world – is one of singular vision, design prowess, and the incredible abilities of an ancient culture’s advanced civilization. However, there is another fascinating component to the almost unbelievable story of this architectural gem: the epic demands of a heartbroken emperor hell bent on honoring his dead wife.
Historically, there is a long tradition of power-seeking men who have claimed to be a descendent of ancient Mongolian ruler and warlord, Genghis Khan. Shah Jahan – his name translates to “King of the Word” – is no exception. And if his meteoric rise to power, along the lines of Khan, is any indication, maybe Shah Jahan was in fact a long lost relative. Shah Jahan, at the tender age of 25, assumed control over the Mongol empire after his father’s death in 1627; this was a vast empire that included what are modern day Russia, China, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. This was a radical change for the new ruler, but he nonetheless embraced the challenge in the spirit of his predecessors by invading villages, ransacking homes and leaving behind an epic trail of carnage and death. A deeply religious man who was a devout follower of the mystical Sufi sect of Islam, Shah Jahan was among the few Mongolian leaders of the era who abstained from using alcohol.
Furthermore, he paid close attention to special meanings associated with his birthday and the Islamic Millennium; according to his interpretation, they indicated his supreme position in the world and prompted him to bestow grand titles upon himself, such as “Shadow of God” and “Lord of the Age”. Shah Jahan was obsessed with erecting monuments to his greatness and upon his coronation, he commissioned the construction of a “Peacock” throne that would take seven years to build and feature the Koi Nur diamond as its centerpiece (today the diamond is a standout feature of a collection belonging to England’s Queen Elizabeth). It is from this throne in the Red Fort Palace in Delhi that Shah Jahan ruled his empire, exacted his ruthless and lawless brand of justice and revenge on anyone who got in his way, and celebrated himself with an endless array of monumental new constructions.
However, his greatest monument, and possibly the greatest man-made structure in the history of the world, would come to be inspired by something other than his delusions of grandeur; it would be inspired by love.
An Emperor’s Love Affair
As legend has it, Shah Jahan’s eyes first met with those of the ravishing Mumtaz Mahal when she was a mere teenager strolling through a local market; he fell madly in love with her upon first sight.
Born to a family of Perisan nobility, Mumtaz was a natural choice for Shah Jahan as she extolled the beauty and grace required of the role of queen. By the time she turned 20, the palace had approved her marriage to him and they were joined together in a lavish ceremony. It has been said that the two were inseparable and his trust in her was so deep and profound that he bestowed upon her his imperial seal – the Muhr Uzah – which gave her a level of power unheard of at the time.
Mumtaz had a great level of influence on Shah Jahan and at times was able to soften his razor’s edge, especially in regards to matters that involved the poor and destitute. She had a degree of compassion that he lacked, and this did not go unnoticed by his constituency. She was also his travel companion and a powerful presence within his entourage during military campaigns and rebellions. Most notably, she was his devoted lover; historians have gone to great lengths to document their intense and erotic relationship. Over the course of their 19-year marriage Mumtaz bore Shah Jahan’s 14 children, however during the birth of their 14th child, tragedy struck and Mumtaz died.
Shah Jahan was devastated, falling into a deep depression that had many of his loyal followers concerned that he might end his own life. But from his darkness, he eventually emerged with a plan: to immortalize the love of his life and the most beautiful woman he had ever known. What gesture could possibly be grand enough to accomplish this? He would build a monument that would equal Mumtaz’s beauty, known as the Taj Mahal.
An Ultimate Emblem of Eternal Love
The Taj Mahal is perhaps the most recognized work of architecture in the world and for one good reason: it is a feast for the eyes. There is possibly one other building that epitomizes Islamic architecture in its purest form – the Alhambra in Spain. But none has a more epic story.
Work on Shah Jahan’s Taj Mahal began in 1634 after architects Ahmed Lahwari, and a man who simply went by the name Hamid, drafted their plans with extensive input from the emperor – naturally. Shah Jahan employed the finest builders and craftsmen from the region: Ismail Khan, a builder of great Ottoman style domes in Turkey, was in charge of Taj Mahal’s signature dome. Qazim Khan, a goldsmith from Lahore, was tasked with applying the fine gold finials to the dome. Charanji Lal, a lapidary from Delhi, was chosen for his exceptional mosaic skills. There were master masons, expert calligraphers and ultimately, a collection of artisans so talented that a once-in-a-millennium structure was on the verge of being created.
Situated in the city of Agra and on the banks of the lovely Yamuna River, the Taj Mahal was designed to be enclosed in a garden amongst a fountain and picturesque trees. There has been much speculation by scholars as to why the exact landscape was chosen; some have said it was designed to mimic what Shah Jahan envisioned as paradise or heaven, as described in the Koran.
There are several facts about the Taj Mahal that make it all the more unique, interesting, and truly mind-boggling as a work of art: the construction of the building took 20 years to complete, required more than 22,000 workers and more than 1,000 elephants to haul materials. Taj Mahal exhibits perfect symmetry in its design – a feat that for the times seems almost unbelievable. Upon completion, the building was decorated with a plethora of precious jewels including amethyst, lapis lazuli and sapphire, but over time they were looted. The geographic orientation of the building, combined with the varying presence of the sun and moon, makes it appear as if it is a different color. Upon completion of the Taj Mahal, in true Shah Jahan style, he summoned all of the architects to the monument in order to reward them for a job well done. Then his men proceeded to amputate their hands so that they could never create something more beautiful than what they had created for him.
Shah Jahan’s wife Mumtaz is buried in a tomb below the dimly lit chamber; it’s encased in white marble with an inlaid design of flowers and calligraphy cut from precious gems. Shah Jahan failed to the see the onsite black marble mausoleum he planned for himself through to completion. His youngest son perceived the building of the Taj Mahal as a waste of money, and imprisoned his father across the river. With a view of the Taj Mahal from his cell, Shah Jahan would spend long hours staring out at his wondrous creation, contemplating his fate. Ultimately when he died, he was buried alongside Mumtaz.
An Everlasting Symbol of India
In the words of Rabindranath Tagor, “Everything comes to us that belongs to us if we create the capacity to receive it.” And many years from now, long after the building is gone, the story of love that the Taj Mahal embodies – a story that belongs only to India – will live on and be retold.