Any list of the world’s greatest sights would certainly include the Taj Mahal. Perhaps the most famous building in the world and considered by many the most beautiful. The Taj has inspired visitors for three and a half centuries. Poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote, “Let the splendor of the diamond, pearl and ruby vanish like the magic shimmer of the rainbow. Only let this one teardrop, the Taj Mahal, glisten spotlessly bright on the cheek of time.” Rudyard Kipling referred to it as “the embodiment of all things pure.” Emperor Shah Jehan, the man who built the Taj, said, “The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs and makes the sun and moon shed tears from their eyes." The crowning jewel of Hindu-Islamic architecture, the Taj was built as a mausoleum for Jehan’s favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. In the centuries since its building, the Taj has become the world’s most revered monument to love. Mumtaz Mahal died giving birth to their 14th child in 1631. The emperor’s overwhelming grief is well documented in court records as well as in his personal writings. Jehan lost all enthusiasm for administration and instead immersed himself in the details of building the Taj. Construction took 12 years (10 more to complete the entire complex). The building required several engineering innovations such as a huge brick scaffold that mirrored the tomb, a 15-kilometer earthen ramp and special wagons to transport marble, and an elaborate post-and-beam pulley system for lifting the blocks into place. Building materials were brought from all over India and Asia: white marble from Rajasthan, jasper from Punjab, jade from China, turquoise from Tibet, Lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, sapphire from Sri Lanka, and carnelian from Arabia. Twenty-eight types of precious and semi-precious stones were used for inlaid decoration. The labor force consisted of 20,000 workers, countless specialists recruited from near and distant lands, and more than 1000 elephants.
The Taj Mahal’s symmetry, elegance, and perfect proportions are legendary. The visitor’s first view after entering the complex (a distance of about 400 yards) is truly breathtaking. The harmonious perfection seems to touch something of the eternal in the heart of the viewer. The basic design elements are Persian with a Mughal flair. The tomb sits on a square plinth and consists of a large, multi-chambered cube with chamfered corners (essentially an unequal octagon) topped by the famous onion dome, itself topped by a finial. Each of the long sides boasts a central, massive pishtaq (vaulted archway) framed by echoing, smaller, stacked pairs of pishtaqs. Stacked pishtaqs adorn the chamfered corners as well and four minarets anchor the plinth corners. The overall effect is beautiful serene, and majestic. But as is often the case with truly inspiring architecture, the Taj is equally impressive in its intricate details. The exterior is beautifully decorated by passages from the Quran in pietra dura inlaid calligraphy. The interior work is more delicate, with inlaid precious and semi-precious stones. Additionally, the cenotaphs of Jahan and Mahal are surrounded by intricately carved marble screens. The cenotaphs themselves are decorated with detailed inlays and calligraphic inscriptions.
The garden complex that surrounds the Taj is often overlooked but is beautiful in and of itself. A classic charbagh (Mughal garden), it contains lovely flower gardens and lawns, geometrically divided by reflecting pools and walkways. The impressive sandstone buildings that flank the Taj are a mosque and a Jawab. Jawab literally means “answer” and its primary purpose is architectural balance for the complex.
Myths about the Taj are many. The most common is that Shah Jahan planned a twin mausoleum across the river, a mirror of the Taj in black marble. It is a dramatic and fanciful concept, but unfortunately is not true. Nor is the oft repeated rumor that Jahan ordered the death or mutilation on the architects and craftsmen who built the Taj in order that its secrets remain a mystery. Other false legends include the Taj sinking, that it is a Hindu temple, and that the British ordered it to be demolished at one time.
India, a land of enchantment, boasts many impressive sights but the Taj Mahal stands apart. A British artist once observed, "It appears like a perfect pearl on an azure ground. The effect is such I have never experienced from any other work of art."