Explore a Mystery: The Taj Mahal

Updated: Oct 14, 2021

“The Taj Mahal is pinkish in the morning, milky white in the evening and golden when the moon shines.” (Anonymous)

The Taj Mahal means the “Crown of Buildings” and is quite an iconic monument seen as a jewel representing Muslim Art in India. Its architecture, history, and uniqueness will always be a source of wonder for the curious mind. Some questions that come to mind could be: What does this magnificent building symbolize? Why is it seen as a real miracle of engineering of its time? Is the Taj Mahal’s symmetry that perfect? The Taj Mahal is a symbol of India, but can it be considered a full-fledged symbol of Indian architecture? I will attempt to address all these questions and more.

The Taj Mahal symbolizes true love all over the world. This love existed between the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan and his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Emperor Shah Jahan conferred the title of Mumtaz Mahal to his wife in 1628 when he came to the throne. Mumtaz Mahal means “Jewel of the Palace.” Mumtaz Mahal passed away giving birth to their fourteenth child. Shah Jahan wanted to honor her memory and decided to build a majestic building as a tribute to his beloved wife.

The inspiration for the building was to create a resting place for the Empress, kind of like earthly heaven surrounded by beauty and peace. However, let us not forget that Shah Jahan was, after all, a Muslim Emperor, and he used architecture to demonstrate his wealth, greatness, and the greatness of his faith - Islam. His tomb is also in the Mausoleum.

What does this magnificent building symbolize, which became a real miracle of engineering of its time?

The inspiration for the building was to create a resting place for the Empress, kind of like earthly heaven surrounded by beauty and peace.

Many people associate the name “Taj Mahal” only with an exquisite marble mausoleum that contains Mumtaz Mahal’s tomb. However, it’s not that simple. The Taj Mahal is a whole architectural complex stretching on both sides of the Yamuna River. Two red sandstone buildings encircle the main Mausoleum on either side. To the west, there is a mosque. The other is a guesthouse. These structures are set within lush gardens, complete with a massive reflecting pool that does what no human is capable of doing: it reflects the beauty of the Taj Mahal on the surface regularly.

The white grandeur marble monument with its majestic gardens took more than 20 years to build and is rightly coined as one of the world’s Seven Wonders. Shah Jahan poured his heart and soul into the construction of such an immense monument.

More than 20,000 stone carvers, masons, and artists from all across India, Turkey, and Iraq are known to have been employed by a team of architects to construct the spectacular Taj Mahal.

The choice of red and white sandstone was also a carefully thought-out endeavor. The Hindus use color-coding to represent the different castes that they classify people into. In Medieval India, the white sandstone was reserved for the Brahmins ( the priestly caste ), and the red sandstone was reserved for Kshatriyas ( the warrior caste ). Shah Jahan used both these stone colors to show that he is the ruler of these two highest castes.

So far, researchers have identified 46 species of plants that appear in the walls and the floors of the Mausoleum.

The Mausoleum was built on a 9000 square meter platform and had four 42-meter-high minarets at its four corners. They are positioned slightly to the side of the Mausoleum, presumably to protect the main Mausoleum if one of them should collapse. The minarets are similar to the minarets of Middle Eastern mosques, with pointed arches over windows. Shah Jahan was the first ruler to introduce minarets to Mughul architecture.

The minarets were placed the way they are to create an optical illusion. When you enter the main gate, the Mausoleum appears close and large, but it starts shrinking in size when you get closer. The minarets also appear to be upright, but they actually lean outward.

In addition, the gates resemble ancient Persian architecture, and the patterns on the walls are verses from the Holy Quran and are a typical characteristic of Islamic architecture. The walls were painted with a delicate pattern of different kinds of plants. So far, researchers have identified 46 species of plants that appear in the walls and the floors of the Mausoleum.

The walls are adorned with beautiful calligraphy. A system of building called the Pietra Dura was used to inlay the marble blocks with gems that sparkled in the light. Its decoration reinforces the building’s lightness from a distance. When looking closely, it appears to have been built relatively recently.

The epic visit by millions of tourists who visit the Taj Mahal every year begins with their journey from the Bazaar (Taj Ganji), passing through the courtyard and appearing in front of the Great Gate, built of red sandstone interspersed with white marble. The gate separates the inner courtyard from the gardens, similar to a symbolic passage between this earthly life and the spiritual life represented by the gardens and the Mausoleum. Entering them, you find yourself in the Garden (Charbagh), in the middle of a pool with a hundred fountains. This garden leads to the complex’s main attraction - the Mausoleum, wholly tiled with white marble. The garden is split into four parts by four intersecting canals representing the four rivers in Jannah (Paradise).

The Taj Mahal’s main architectural feature is the ensemble’s symmetry which emits a sense of peace and harmony. Simultaneously, doublesided symmetry with a dominant central accent was considered the prerogative of rulers and symbolized absolute power, providing balance and harmony.

Even so, the Taj Mahal is not perfectly symmetrical, though this is difficult to notice at first. However, a close look at the photographs reveals that the Mausoleum’s crown - a dome with an 18-meter diameter - is not ideal. Scientists estimate that the distance between its left and right sides is about a meter.

Three possible reasons were put forth to explain this asymmetry. First, in Islam, absolute perfection is attributed only to Allah swt. Therefore, it is usually the case that master artisans left some intentional imperfections that were noticeable only by a skilled observer or trained eye.

The second reason is this imperfection happened over time, and the third was they might have discovered the flaw, but it was too late to make any corrections. However, modern researchers have yet to reach an unambiguous conclusion about how it was possible to build this impeccable structure in the 17th century.

Various fascinating optical effects can be found throughout the building, making it quickly considered an actual work of art. The lettering of the Qur’anic verses, for example, appears to be uniform in height regardless of how far it is from the ground.

The Taj Mahal is a year-round attraction that is frequently crowded, though new ticketing systems have reduced crowds during peak times. Visitors looking for more solitude may want to come early or late in the day. The only time you should NOT go is on Friday when the Taj Mahal is closed.

The best time of the month to visit the Taj Mahal is on the five full moon nights during the month. When the moonlight reflects on the surface of the marble, it brightens the whole structure. As the moon passes over the horizon, the monument’s color changes its color with shades of blue and even to complete darkness. Legend and the writings of Jean-Baptiste Tavernier have it that Emperor Shah Jahan wanted to build a similar structure like the Taj Mahal but in black marble across the Yamuna river with the two Taj’s connected by a bridge, but he never got to do it because he was overthrown. It makes you wonder if this is Allah’s swt way of fulfilling his wish for people to see the darker version of the Taj Mahal on full moon nights.

Take your time when visiting Agra to ensure that you get the most out of your trip. Only then would you be able to understand what it meant to be in the “heart of the Mogul empire.” So many visitors come to see the Taj Mahal but overlook all of Agra’s other magnificent structures, which interestingly were also built by Emperor Shah Jahan.

The Taj Mahal was an undertaking that began in 1630 and ended in 1653. It involved talented architects, builders, artisans, and artists of that time. This may very well explain why the Taj Mahal bears little resemblance to traditional temple architecture in India. The end result of this diverse group of people coming together, though, is their ability to build a masterpiece that was recognized in 1983 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The complex’s architectural style is a synthesis of traditional Islamic architecture with its local counterparts.

The poet Rabindranath Tagore described the Taj Mahal as a “teardrop on the cheek of eternity.” Rudyard Kipling portrayed it as the “embodiment of all things pure,” but Emperor Shah Jahan said it best when he said, “it made the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes.”


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