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Volume 19, Number 4July/August 1968

In This Issue

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Gem of Gems

Written and photographed by Burnett H. Moody

Arjumand Banu Begum was, according to her contemporaries, "the gem of India's gems." Her husband, Shah Jehan, who happened also to be the Mogul emperor of India, agreed, calling her Mumtaz Mahal, "the chosen of the palace", and the splendid mausoleum he erected in her memory—some say almost in her image—still stands as a monument to their love. It is the incomparable Taj Mahal.

Shah Jehan, born Khurram Shihab-ud-din Muhammad in 1592, was a descendant of the Mogul emperors (not the Mongols of further east) who swept down out of Afghanistan in 1526 to establish an Islamic dynasty which would rule much of India right up until 1857, As a ruler Shah Jehan was often ruthless. To gain the throne in 1627, he arranged for the elimination of most of his close male relatives and his reign was marked by oppression and cruelty. But as in many men of history there was another, sharply contrasting side to the man which grew stronger as he grew older. And it was developed largely through the influence of his adored wife. In 1612, as a 21-year-old prince, Shah Jehan married a beautiful and compassionate girl of 19. His inseparable companion, she continuously urged her devoted husband toward legal reforms and more peaceful ways. Because of her influence, when Shah Jehan became emperor, scholars and poets came to be more welcome at his court than soldiers. Today his brilliant 30-year reign is remembered as the golden age of Mogul literature, art and especially architecture.

Mogul architecture, an Indo-Islamic style with strong Persian influence—seen in its bulbous domes, round minarets and pointed arches—attained its highest development during Jehan's reign, in buildings like the Pearl Mosque at Agra and India's largest mosque, the Great Mosque in Delhi, where he later moved his court.

There is a note of sadness, however, in the fact that the most beautiful example of all Mogul architecture—some argue even the most beautiful building in the world—was also due to the influence of the graceful lady on her loving husband. For the Taj Mahal, the mausoleum which bears her name, was inspired by his grief at her death at the age of 37. After 18 years of marriage and a few brief years of Jehan's reign as emperor, Mumtaz Mahal died in 1631, bearing her 14th child.

The stricken emperor and the entire Mogul empire fell into two years of mourning during which all music and festivities were banned. But Shah Jehan himself soon recovered enough to begin planning the project which would occupy his thoughts—and eventually over 20,000 artisans—for more than 20 years: the great Taj. From all over his empire in India, from the Middle East, all Asia and beyond, Jehan summoned artists and architects: an expert in dome construction from Istanbul, a stone cutter from Bokhara, a calligrapher from Baghdad, a master metal worker from far off Bordeaux. For materials he scoured the far corners of Asia. He wanted only the most translucent marbles, the finest inlays and rarest stones; jasper from Punjab, jade and crystal from China, turquoise from Tibet, lapis lazuli from Ceylon, coral from Arabia, onyx and amethyst from Persia. Cost was not a factor, obviously; the total would be about $10 million.

Planning—by architect Ustad Isa—was particularly important since Mogul custom permitted no alterations later. Thus the enormous complex of mausoleum, minarets, mosque, reception hall, service buildings, gardens, pools, walls and gates had to be planned and built as an entity—no mean feat since it took 22 years to complete.

Even when the mausoleum was completed it continued to occupy Shah Jehan's time and thoughts. He spent many hours beside his beloved wife's tomb on which he had caused to be engraved 99 names of love, and dreamed of building a second tomb for himself on the opposite bank of the river—of black marble and linked to the Taj Mahal with a silver bridge. But before he could, he fell ill—in 1656—and two years later was deposed by his youngest son. He died in 1666 and was buried by his wife's side. The masterpiece which he had built for her last resting place became his too.

Today, three centuries later, the Taj Mahal is still, as one British writer has said, "within more measurable distance of perfection than any other work of man." And the invitation on the monumental gateway bidding the pure in heart to enter the "gardens of paradise" is not entirely an exaggeration. For it is indeed a place, as one poet said, where "breath forgets to breathe."

The setting for the Taj Mahal in Agra, not far from Delhi in north central India, is a magnificent blend of soft red sandstone and cool water in a compound measuring 634 by 334 yards, oriented north and south towards the southern bank of the Jumna River. A garden 334 yards square occupies the center of this long rectangle, leaving two smaller rectangles at the south and north ends. The southern area holds the service buildings, stables, guard houses and the gateway. The central garden is bisected by a clear pool in which the reflection of the mausoleum can be seen. The mausoleum is in the northern rectangle next to the river, flanked by a symmetrically identical mosque and reception hall. Both are built of red sandstone as if to set off the glow of the white mausoleum which sits between them on a marble platform 18 feet high and 313 feet square. At each corner is a slender minaret 133 feet high standing "like tall court ladies tending their princess." The building is 186 feet square (although the corners are truncated) and each face is dominated by a soaring arched portal 108 feet high. The bulbous dome tapers to a point surmounted by the crescent of Islam more than 240 feet above the garden.

But it is not the size alone which is impressive. The proportions, within and without, are superb, and the details—arabesques and floral patterns inlaid in semiprecious stones in the marble—indescribable.

Inside, the octagonal tomb chamber is dimly lit by sunlight filtering through a double screen of pierced marble lattices high in the walls. And an interior dome 50 feet across forms a false ceiling 80 feet overhead. As one historian has written, the Moguls "built like Titans and finished like goldsmiths."

Although Shah Jehan and Mumtaz Mahal are actually buried in a crypt below the floor, this room contains two sarcophagi. They are surrounded by a perforated marble screen, itself a master piece of "incredible elaboration and delicacy." It is like the glow within a jewel, the final touch of near perfection which makes the Taj Mahal, like the queen for whom it is named, "the gem of India's gems."

This article appeared on pages 28-32 of the July/August 1968 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1968 images.