A History of the Taj Mahal

Posted on 9th February 2018

The Taj Mahal in Agra, India

The Taj Mahal is considered one of the most beautiful and romantic buildings in the world. The shimmering white marble monument is India’s most famous landmark and a testament to the love Emperor Shah Jahan had for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal. 

Who was Mumtaz Mahal? 

Like many emperors of the era, Shah Jahan married several wives throughout his life, although only one was his true love. Meeting when they were children and becoming engaged at 14, Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal had an unusually long engagement of five years. Marrying in 1612 on a date chosen by the court astrologers, the couple were devoted to each other and had a happy marriage. Mumtaz Mahal was a crucial advisor to her husband and had immense power for an empress, politically and officially. In 1631, Mahal died after giving birth to the couple’s fourteenth child, a labour lasting more than 30 hours caused considerable blood loss. 

Building the Taj Mahal

Sick with grief, Jahan wanted to memorialise his wife with a spectacular tomb that would honour her memory. The most skilled architects, stone masons, carvers and calligraphers were drafted in from far and wide to design and build the great tomb in the northern city of Agra. Building began in 1632, and would continue for two decades. More than 20,000 men and 1,000 elephants were involved in the construction, with builders coming from all over India and neighbouring countries, even from as far as Turkey and Persia.  The white marble was brought from Rajasthan and the 28 precious and semi-precious stones that make the building sparkle in the sunlight came from all over Asia. Jade and crystal came from China, turquoise from Tibet, sapphire from Sri Lanka and lapis lazuli from Afghanistan. Black onyx was used for the decorative inlays and 26 chapters of the Koran that are beautifully transcribed around the entrances to the tomb. 

The Death of Shah Jahan

Legend says that Shah Jahan had the architect’s hands cut off so that he could never build anything as good – or better – than the Taj Mahal. Another longstanding legend says that Shah Jahan had planned for a mirror image of the building to be built in black marble across the Yamuna river, where he would be laid to rest. However shortly after the construction of the Taj Mahal was completed, Shah Jahan was deposed by one of his sons and put under house arrest. Upon his death, Shah Jahan was buried in the mausoleum next to his wife. His tomb is the only item in the Taj Mahal that isn’t perfectly symmetrical – Mumtaz Mahal’s tomb is located at the exact centre of the crypt, but Shah Jahan’s grave is next to it, west of centre. 

Recent Times

During the Indian rebellion of 1857, the building was defaced and looted by British soldiers who chiselled out precious stones and stole from the building. At the end of the 19th century, the Taj Mahal had fallen into a state of disrepair and British viceroy Lord Curzon ordered a wide-ranging restoration project, which was completed in 1908. The restoration included the changes to the gardens, which until then had been influenced by contemporary Muslim culture with more than 60 elaborate and ornate flower beds. Curzon’s project transformed the gardens to a style more common in England, imparting colonial ideologies even onto the lawns of the palace. 

During the 20th century the Taj Mahal became known as one of the ‘new’ seven wonders of the world and one of the most popular tourist destinations in India. It was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 and in recent years the surrounding area has become further developed to accommodate tourists. 

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