‘There’s a paradise of stone in Agra for all to witness.’
“Ye main nahi nigaah e tawaareekh keh rahi
Pathhar ka ik bahisht yaheen Aagra mein hai.
It’s not me but the gaze of history that says this
There’s a paradise of stone in Agra for all to witness.”
— Abhishek Shukla
On June 16, 1631, when Mumtaz Mahal left this world for the next, Sa’ida Khan, known as Bebadal Khan, composed the following chronogram which gave the Hijri year of her death- 1040:
“Jaaye-i-Mumtaz Mahal jannat bad (May the abode of Mumtaz Mahal be paradise).”
The abode that he was referring to was heaven, but a grieving husband decided to make her resting place a heaven too.
As Abu Talib Kalim Kashani, Shah Jahan’s poet laureate, wrote:
“Upon her grave – may it be illumined until the Day of Resurrection!
The King of Kings constructed such an edifice
That since Destiny drew the plan of creation
It has not seen such an exalted building.”
(Translation Ebba Koch)
Indeed it was a fit mausoleum for a beloved wife. The best of master architects, calligraphers, embossers, stone carvers, craftsman and masons from Hindustan as well as Iraq, Turkey and Iran were gathered to create one of the wonders of the world. The best of building material, precious and semi-precious stones was gathered.
The style to be used was the one used previously in Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi known as the “Hasht Bihist”.
The Taj Mahal, a painting by Edwin Lord Weeks (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Hasht Bihist [eight heavens] is a Persian architectural term which refers to a specific type of floor plan whereby the plan is divided into eight chambers surrounding a domed central room. The allusion is to the eight levels of heaven and this plan was usually used for funerary monuments. These tombs were square or rectangular planned buildings divided into nine sections such that a central domed chamber is surrounded by eight elements.
Since paradise has rivers and gardens, the Mughal tombs are modelled on them too with the “Chahar Bagh” plan. These rivers signify abundance, mercy and blessings of God. All this imagery is supposed to help the soul of the dead man gain forgiveness and entry into paradise.
According to Amal-e-Salih, written by Shah Jahan’s official biographer Muhammad Salih Kanbo, the construction of the tomb began in January 1632. As many as 20,000 workers laboured for 20 years to complete this marble wonder. While contemporary documents call it Rauza e Munawwara [the Iluminated Tomb] or Rauza e Mutahhara [The Pure Tomb] the locals called it Taj Bibi ka Rauza. However, it became famous as Taj Mahal, perhaps an acronym for Mumtaz Mahal.
“Like nightingales we should weep in this garden
For smiles fade too quickly from the face
— Kanbo, Amal-e-Salih (translation Begley and Desai)
What is it about this mausoleum that attracts lakhs of visitors every year and generates around Rs 20 crore-Rs 22 crore as revenue for the state?
I have been visiting the Taj Mahal since I was a child and have never been able to lose that sense of awe as one enters the enormous, monumental southern gateway to find it framed inside. The feminine charm and delicate decoration make the mausoleum look like a white rose in full bloom. Perhaps that was intentional? Very apt calligraphic words inscribed on this gateway invite the reader into paradise.
Indeed it marks the “perfect moment” in the evolution of architecture in the Mughal period, according to famous historian, Percy Brown.
The first thing that strikes the visitor is the lofty, bulbous dome. It is indeed a fit crown for the empress who sleeps within. It was built under the supervision of Ismail Khan Afendi, who specialised in building the double dome, and had been called from Turkey.
After the first rapturous moment one moves in and is drawn by the water courses all built as per the paradisical plan to enhance the beauty of the mausoleum. Today, the pools are just full of water, but earlier there were silver fountains from which the water gushed out singing eulogies and lotus flowers bloomed in the pools.
“Nautch Girls emerging from the Taj Mahal”, by Edwin Lord Weeks (Credit: artnet.com)
The chief architect was Ustad Ahmed Lahauri also given the title of Nadir-e-Asr [the wonder of the Age]. He was also the architect of the Red Fort and Jama Masjid in Delhi.
The breathtaking calligraphy was done by Abdul Haq who was given the title of Amanat Khan. Inlaid jasper on white marble panels, bear verses from the Quran chosen apparently by Amanat Khan himself.
“O Soul, thou art at rest. Return to the Lord at peace with Him, and He at peace with you,” is the verse on the gateway.
If at the gateway the calligraphic verses refer to themes of judgement and paradisical rewards, the ones near the tomb itself talk of impending doomsday.
The plan of the tomb is an irregular octagon known as “Tarah-i-musamman-i-Baghdadi” and supervised by a master mason from Baghdad.
An inlay specialists came from Delhi to work on the monument. He had a plentiful of riches to work his magic as agates were brought from Yemen, cornelians from Arabia, amethyst from Persia, malachite from Russia, the turquoises from upper Tibet, diamonds from Central India, the onyxes from Deccan and garnets from Bundel Khand.
“They have inlaid flowers of stone in the marble
What they lack in smell they make up with colour.”
— Abu Talib Kalim Kashani (translation Ebba Koch)
Marble was brought from Makrana and of such a quality that it could take on the tint and hues of the sky itself. It has a dreamlike quality in the night and looks ethereal in the morning. The evening saw it suffused with blue and pink.
The night of the kartik purnima is a highlight in the tourist calendar. I witnessed it once many years ago and have never forgotten the experience when it indeed looked like a “teardrop” that hung on the face of time.
The rectangular plan of the complex is marked by its symmetry. Four graceful minarets on four corners of the tomb frame the beautiful dome.
If there’s a mosque on the western side, its jawab or answer is on the east in the form of a “mehman khana”. The entire width of the tomb is equal to the height, and the height of the central façade is equal to the dome.
The mixture of marble for the tomb and sandstone for the other buildings add to its charm, as the whole seems like a bouquet where the white rose is framed by the red flowers.
The ornamental gardens enhanced the incandescent beauty of the grave, almost as once floral jewellery must have added to the late empress’ charms.
It’s no wonder that this symbol of love and beauty is the most visited monument in India and has been included in the Seven Wonders of the World.
It is a building that could only have been built in India as a culmination of Indo-Islamic architecture and will forever bear witness to it.
As Shah Jahan’s court chronicler, Abdul Hamid Lahauri, wrote, “Verily our monuments will tell of us – long speak with mute eloquence [ba-zabaan e bizabaani].”