An image of the sunrise around the Taj Mahal, showing the different hues the white marble takes on.

The Story Behind the Taj Mahal and Why It Is a Cultural Landmark

The Taj Mahal is a pinnacle of outstanding Mughal architecture, in design and structure. As well, it is a symbol of a great love story and bond. The story is so powerful that in December 2021, a man in India, replicated the Taj Mahal to a smaller scale home. Just as with the Taj Mahal, it was his way to show his love for his wife.

For hundreds of years, people from all over the world have travelled to India to visit the beautiful, white marble mausoleum.

Not only is it a cultural landmark of India, but it holds the story of a man and woman. Their love and bond is the reason behind the planning and construction of the Taj Mahal. As well, it is a testimony to the blood and sweat of the 20 000 laborers and over 1000 animals who built the monument.

Just like all landmarks, it has a fascinating history, a beautiful exterior and interior, and myths that question its history.

Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal

A depiction of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, showing their love and bond.
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Shah Jahan was a member of the Mughal Dynasty. They ruled most of northern India between the 16th and 18th centuries. His father, Emperor Jahangir, died in 1627. It resulted in a power struggle between Shah Jahan and his brothers. Shah Jahan became the victor. He crowned himself emperor in 1628.

However, the love story begins before his father’s death, when Shah Jahan was Prince Khurram.

In 1607, a sixteen-year-old Prince Khurram walked through the royal bazaar. He flirted with the daughters of high-ranked families that managed the booths. His flirtations ceased when he met Arjuman Banu Begum. She was a fifteen-year-old woman whose father would become prime minister, and whose aunt married Prince Khurram’s father.

It was love at first sight, but they could not marry right away. Prince Khurram was already arranged to be married to Kandari begum. After marrying Kandari, Arjumand became Prince Khurram’s second wife. He later took a third.

Out of all three wives, Prince Khurram only truly loved Arjumand. He gave her the name Mumtaz Mahal, meaning ‘chosen one of the palace’. They married on March 27th, 1612.

In 1628, Prince Khurram became Emperor Shah Jahan.

Mumtaz was smart and kind-hearted. The public adored her. Among all her notable qualities, she cared for the people of India. For example, she noted the widows and orphans in the region to ensure they received money and food.

The Death of Mumtaz

In 1631, a rebellion by Khan Jahan Zody was underway. Shah Jahan took his military from Agra to Deccan to silence the rebellion. Despite being heavily pregnant, Mumtaz accompanied her husband.

In the middle of the encampment, she gave birth to their daughter, their 14th child. Slowly after the birth, Mumtaz’s health began to worsen.

Shah Jahan received word of his wife’s condition and rushed to her side. Before her death, Mumtaz made her husband keep four promises, to: –

  1. Build the Taj in her memory.
  2. Marry again.
  3. Show kindness to his children.
  4. Visit her tomb on the anniversary of her death.

She died in her husband’s arms one day after her daughter’s birth.

Due to the feud, they buried her body according to Islamic traditions in Burbanpur.

After Shah Jahan’s victory over the rebellion, he asked for her body to be dug up and taken to Agra. He returned with a grand procession of thousands of soldiers accompanying Mumtaz’s body, with mourners lining the route.

Planning the Taj Mahal

A black and white image of an aerial view of the Taj Mahal plans.
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Filled with grief, Shah Jahan poured his emotion into designing the elaborate and expensive monument. Moreover, the design and structure were so unique that it was the first large mausoleum dedicated to a woman.

Passionate about architecture, Shah Jahan directly worked on the plans. As well, many of the best architects of the time gave their input and help.

In addition, he spared no expense. The Mughal Empire was one of the richest empires in the world during Shah Jahan’s reign. The resources that built the monument were just as grand as the design.

It was named ‘Taj Mahal’, meaning ‘crown of the region’, a representation of heaven on earth.

Construction began in 1632.

It involved 20 000 thousand workers from India, Persia, Europe and the Ottomon Empire. Shah Jahan wanted the mausoleum erected quickly. He contracted both skilled and unskilled workers. As well, he housed them in a nearby town, Mumtazbad, that was built especially for them. Moreover, the construction involved stonecutters, calligraphers, embroiders and painters. 1000 elephants and an unreported number of oxen were included.

The builders first worked on the foundations. Then, on the 624-foot-long plinth or base. Next, the base of the Taj Mahal and the matching red stone buildings that could flank it, the mosque, and the guest house.

Workers completed the mausoleum between 1638 and 1639. They finished the additional buildings in 1643. The decorations concluded by 1947.

All in all, the construction spanned 22 years.

Inside the Taj Mahal

An image of the interior of the Taj Mahal, showing the engravings, jewels, and calligraphy.

The Taj Mahal became a distinguished example of Mughal architecture and design. It was a blend of Indian, Persian and Islamic styles. The design planned for the two mosques to be symmetrically placed on either side of the mausoleum.

Its architectural elements on the inside highlight the Taj Mahal as a major architectural landmark.

Materials and Design

The white marble is one of the most prominent features. Brought in from Maharana, Rajasthan, it took the 1000 elephants and the oxen to drag the marble to the building site. The 240-foot double-shelled dome is covered in white marble, just as the tall, thin mosques.

The precious stones and semi-precious stones decorate the interior in Hindu and Persian decorations, such as floral designs and tessellated patterns. The stones came from all around the world, such as lapis lazuli from Sri Lanka, jade from China, malachite from Russia and turquoise from Tibet.

The inlaid flowers around the dome were from a process called parchin kari. Skilled stonecutters carved the intricate flower design into the marble. Then, they placed the semi-precious and precious stones to form the vines and flowers.

Calligraphic Inscriptions

At the time of the Taj Mahal’s construction, Islam prohibited detailed work that incorporated figures with human characteristics. Instead, Arabic inscriptions decorated the mausoleum.

Shah Jahan hired a master calligrapher, Amanat Khan. Amanat chose the 22 passages inscribed from the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam. He was the only person allowed by Shah Jahan to sign his name on his work.

The calligraphy is done in thuluth, a calligraphic design central to Islamic artistic tradition. The finished verses are inlaid with black marble, a soft feature of the Taj Mahal that mimics real handwriting. The letterring increases in size, according to the height and distance from the viewer. Pillars and walls of the monuments adorn the calligraphy as well.

An ascription on the sandstone gateway, known as Daybreak, invites the faithful to enter paradise.

Raised Tombs

The raised tombs are in an octagonal marble chamber that adorns carvings and semi-precious stones. The first tomb was for Mumtaz Mahal, centered in a marble chamber. The second tomb is for Shah Jahan, lying to the west of Mumtaz’s.

However, they are cenotaphs, false tombs. The real tombs of Mumtaz and Shah Jahan are beneath the false tombs at the garden level.

A delicately carved, lacy marble screen surrounds the tombs.

Originally, the screen was to be golden. A marble screen replaced the gold so thieves would not be tempted to steal it.

The Garden

According to Islam, the image of Paradise is a garden. There are four rivers flowering from a central point on the mountain.

The garden in the Taj Mahal is an important feature to depict ‘heaven on earth’. It is located to the south of the mausoleum and has four sections. Four ‘rivers’ of water divide the four sections, which gather at a central pool. The water comes from the Yamuna River through a complex underground water system. Moreover, the rivers in the Taj Mahal represent the promise of water, milk, wine and honey in Paradise.

There are no records to tell of the exact type of trees and flowers in the garden.

Myths Surrounding the Taj Mahal

A black and white drawing of the Taj Mahal in the 1600s.
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Many know the wonders of the world, their facts, their history, and can give detailed descriptions. However, many are not aware of the myths that surround such wonders. One of which is the Taj Mahal. Some proved easy to find the truth, while others remain a mystery.

The Amputation of Workers

Some report that Shah Jahan cut off the hands and gouged the eyes of the workers, architects and craftsmen after they completed the Taj Mahal. Shah Jahan wanted to make sure no one would replicate the beauty of the Taj Mahal in structure and design.

Other stories claimed that workers signed a contract to never work on a project of a similar design.

The Hole in the Ceiling

Above Mumtaz Mahal’s tomb, there is a small hole in the ceiling.

The rumor is that artisans purposely made the hole. The reason is they would leave the Taj Mahal with one flaw, an attempt to sabotage Shah Jahan’s flawless image of the mausoleum.

Moreover, the plan for the hole came after workers learnt of Shah Jahan’s plan to amputate them after the construction.

A Second Mausoleum

Among all the stories, one mentions that Shah Jahan planned for the construction of another mausoleum. The Black Taj Mahal. Ruins of black marble across one of the Taj Mahal’s gardens support the stories.

However, in the 1990’s, excavations found the black marble to be discolored white stones.

The Taj Mahal is a Hindu Temple

One of the controversies is that the Taj Majal is a Hindu Temple, a Shiva temple by the name of Tejo Mahalya. A man named P.N.Oak made the claim.  He showed the engravings on the Taj Majal he believed not to be Islamic in origin.

This placed the Indian government in a difficult situation as many want the Taj Mahal restored as a Hindu Temple. Many continue to believe it.

Destruction of the Taj Mahal

An opaque image of the Taj Mahal in the 1800s.
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Shah Jahan was wealthy enough to support the Taj Mahal and its maintenance costs. However, over the centuries, the Mughal Empire lost its riches. The Taj Mahal suffered neglect and disrepair for 200 years after Shah Jahan’s death. It fell into ruins.

In the 1800s, the British overthrew the Mughals and took over India. The British took apart the Taj Mahal for its beauty. They cut gemstones from the walls, stole silver candlesticks and doors, and tried to steal the marble overseas.

Lord Curzon, the British viceroy of India, put an end to the looting. He worked to restore the Taj Mahal. It was part of the colonial effort to preserve India’s artistic and cultural heritage.

Recent Issues

An image of the sunrise around the Taj Mahal, showing the different hues the white marble takes on.
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Between 1984 and 2004, the Indian government banned night viewing for fear of the monument being attacked by Sikh militants.

Some Hindu nationalists tried to diminish the importance of Muslim influence in the Taj Mahal. They considered the origins and design of the Taj Mahal.

Air pollution from nearby factories and automobile traffic threatened the white marble. In 1998, India’s Supreme Court set anti-pollution measures to prevent the deterioration of the marble. It forces some factories to close. As well, vehicular traffic was banned from surrounding areas of the Taj Mahal.

Conclusion on the Taj Mahal

A sunset image of the Taj Mahal, showing it glow in the evening, emphasizing its beauty.
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Till this day, the Taj Mahal continues to be a cultural symbol of India.

The 22-year construction led to a magnificent feat of architecture that is visited by more than three million people a year. People visit during the day to watch the white marble take on different hues throughout the day, as the sun hits it at different angles. Once a month, for a short time, visitors can see how the inside of the Taj Mahal glows in the moonlight.

It holds a four-hundred-year-old story of a bond so strong, it transcended beyond its creator. Not only does the story live on, but it embodies the hard work by 20 000 workers and over 1000 animals that built the complex.

Moreover, India made it its mission to preserve the Taj Mahal in its glory. It represents the architecture of their past, and as a result, it helps the environment. The initiatives taken cut down the carbon emissions and smog in the air.

All over the world, countries take pride in their monuments. They represent the country’s history, from the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, to the World’s Largest Chair in St. Florian, Austria. In protecting their country’s landmarks, they are protecting their country’s identity.

The great challenge of the twenty-first century is to raise people everywhere to a decent standard of living while preserving as much of the rest of life as possible.

-Edward O. Wilson

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