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The Taj Mahal



Some of the greatest monuments of Mughal architecture date to the reign of Shah Jahan (1628-1657). Among them are the Shalimar Garden in Srinagar (Kashmir) and many of the buildings in what today is known as the Red Fort in Delhi. Above all though, we associate Shah Jahan with the architecture of Agra, which for most of his reign served as his capital. There he resided in elegant pavilions built to his order in the Agra Red Fort, where he would spend his last years as a prisoner after his son Aurangzeb seized the throne. From his balcony he could look east down the Yamuna River to what is now one of the most famous and beautiful buildings in the world, the Taj Mahal. François Bernier, who arived in India just after Auangzeb's coup, was so impressed by this "astonishing" building that he asserted "this monument deserves much more to be numbered among the wonders of the world than the pyramids of Egypt."


Mughal architects excelled in the building of tombs, whose architectural models can be traced to the traditions of Persia and Central Asia. Among the buildings which inspired the Mughal court was Tamerlane's tomb in Samarkand, the Gur-i Mir. The first of the great Mughal royal mausolea was that built in Delhi in the sixteenth century to honor Emperor Humayun. It certainly was among the models which inspired the architects of the Taj Mahal. Another of the noteworthy Mughal tombs, built for her parents by Shah Jahan's stepmother, Nur Jahan, was in Agra. This tomb of Itimad al-Dawla, is a white marble jewel box noteworthy for its inlays of semi-precious stones (a technique known as pietra dura) depicting motifs found in the art of Safavid Persia. Many of Shah Jahan's projects would be constructed of white marble and similarly decorated with inlay and carved screens, although often in more restrained fashion.

Shah Jahan's favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, the niece of Nur Jahan, died suddenly in 1631, after giving birth to the couple's fourteenth child. She is buried today directly under the center of the great dome of the Taj Mahal, erected in 1632-1643 in her memory by her deeply grieving husband. Shah Jahan rests next to her.

The tomb complex is, in the words of Catherine Asher, "the ultimate vision of paradise on earth." Over the arch of the entrance gateway, the elegant calligraphy spells out an invitation to belivers, quoting Chapter 89 in the Quran (Shakir tr.):

Return to your Lord, well pleased (with him), well-pleasing (Him),
So enter among My servants,
And enter into My garden.

The architecture of this entrance pavilion mirrors that of other Mughal gates--a prominent example being that of the Friday mosque at Fatehpur Sikri built by Emperor Akbar. On entering the gateway, the visitor catches a first glimpse of the gleaming white marble of the Taj Mahal frames in its arch and then enters a large formal garden. As Bernier noted, once in the garden "it is worthwhile to turn round and view the back elevation of the pavilion, splendid. On both sides of the pavilion, along the garden wall, is a long and wide gallery, raised like a terrace, and supported by a number of low columns." The garden is Paradise, whose four rivers are the waterways meeting directly at the pool in its center. The tomb itself, raised on its platform above the garden at the opposite (north) side from the entrance, symbolize's the throne of God, which Muslims believe is located above Paradise.


In its particularly graceful proportions, the Taj Mahal exceeds any of the other Mughal tombs. Where the tomb of Humayun consists of a single architectural block with prominent iwans or arches flanking the large central one, the Taj Mahal has more of a central focus, with the single large iwan on each façade. The grace of the Taj Mahal in part has been achieved by raising the bulbulous dome on a higher drum than that on Humayun's tomb. In part too, the gracefulness of the composition has been achieved by framing the building with minarets set apart from it. This again is in contrast to the tomb of Humayun, which has no minarets, and in contrast to the tombs of Itimad al-Dawla and that of Jahangir, where the minarets are an integral part of their main structure.

Another contrast with the tomb of Itimad al-Dawla, which is carpeted almost to excess by inlaid decoration, is the restrained elegance of the decoration of the Taj. Bernier noted how "the centre of every arch is adorned with white marble slabs whereon are inscribed large Arabian characters in black marble." These Quranic verses deal with the theme of the Day of Judgment and thus reinforce the whole concept of the ensemble. Bernier also was impressed by the pietra dura inlays. "Everywhere are seen... jasper...jade...and several more [stones] of great value and rarity, set in an endless variety of modes, mixed and enchased in the slabs of marble which face the body of the wall. Even the squares of white and black marble which compose the pavement are inlaid with these precious stones in the most beautiful and delicate manner imaginable." Unfortunately, some of the inlaid stones are now missing (presumably stolen), and there is some evidence of other damage. The dado panels along the bottoms of the arches feature exquisitely carved plants and flowers, which illustrate ideas about the flowers of Paradise widespread in Persian literature, but whose artistic models seem to have been drawn from the illustrations in Western herbals brought as gifts to the Mughal emperors. Shah Jahan's original intention was that the cenotaphs marking the graves in the inner chamber were to be surrounded by a screen made of gold, but to reduce the temptation to tomb robbers, an elaborately carved one of marble was erected instead.


The Taj Mahal is flanked on the east and west by two nearly identical buildings, built of the red sandstone which was used as well for the entrance gate and for many other Mughal buildings. The building to the east is a guest house, and that on the west (shown here) is the mosque.

-- Daniel C. Waugh


1) Catherine B. Asher, Architecture of Mughal India (The New Cambridge History of India, I/4) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), esp. pp. 209-215.

2) Sheila S. Blair and Jonathan M. Bloom, The Art and Architecture of Islam 1250-1800 (Pelican History of Art) (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994), pp. 279-281.

3) François Bernier, Travels in the Mogul Empire 1656-1668 (London, 1891; reprint ed., Delhi, 1996).

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