Today's post is an Archive Dive into my February visit to the Taj Mahal. As usual, I’ve gone to the National Library and poured through many books on the Taj Mahal, Mughal Architecture, and Indian Architecture in general. From these books, I will share a selection of informative quotes. From this, I hope to explain why the Taj Mahal sticks out among all the contenders as being the most beautiful building in the world.
When I started my research today, I found this quote and it has stuck with me. Indian Historian and expert on Mughal Architecture Ram Nath started a section about the Taj Mahal with this, “[the] three necessary pre-conditions of an architecture are its utility, stability, and beauty,” (pg. 150). These three pre-conditions must be demonstrated for a building to succeed as an experience. He goes on to describe the grandeur and majesty of the Taj with great turn of phrase, but for him, it still comes back to those three elements. And of course, the Taj Mahal is a compelling demonstration of the best of Mughal Architecture, so it excels with these three pre-conditions. It’s more than just beauty. The whole of the experience is considered, from the place you enter the first time you see the building. Its utility is uncompromised and engineered to sustain the enormous weight of the dome with grace. Visiting the mausoleum, one gets the feeling of being in performance with you, the visitor, as a supporting actor to the great tomb of Mumtaz Mahal.
The grand mausoleum was built between 1631 and 1653 as an expression of deep love from emperor Shah Jahn for his late and favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Part of what makes the building so unique is its unrelenting focus on beauty and symmetry. As Nath frames it, “...the Taj Mahal bears a character which is so wholly absent in any other Islamic monument outside India, and this character is feminine. It appears to embody the personality of Mumtaz Mahal, and it is this superb individualism which distinguishes it from any other classic monument of the world,” (pg. 154). The main architect is believed to be Ustad Ahmad Lahauri, though it's believed that the emperor was closely engaged with the design process. The project is estimated to have cost the equivalent of over USD$800 million, employing roughly twenty thousand artisans working on all aspects of the complex (wiki). Since its completion, the Taj Mahal has undisputedly taken its place in history as the pinnacle of Mughal architecture and among the greatest buildings in the world.
My Experience, A Broken Symmetry
I was so moved by the experience of the Taj Mahal that I’d like to share a small passage about my own experience visiting. I hope by the end of this post you might feel as though you have a new personal understanding of the significance of the building without even having visited in real life.
The aesthetic beauty of the Taj Mahal is derived from the evident thought and care taken into account for every perspective. A grand symmetry reinforces this belief in symmetry. Visiting it feels like poetry in motion. As a visitor, you take part in the grand theatrical performance, a geometric production where beauty can be derived from every location. Entering from the east portal, I marched with the crowd of visitors toward the South Gate, through which I could see the identically shaped southern portal of the mausoleum.
The procession continues effortlessly from there, with all attention directed towards the great dome. From the South Gate’s podium, the building’s symmetry is perfect. The dome lines up perfectly at the center of the reflection pool. The minarets are perfectly equidistant. The chhatris on either side of the central dome exaggerate its voluptuousness. Even the stairs on the central podium in the char-bagh perfectly reflect the stacked triangular beauty of the view.
Continuing forward to the central pool of the char-bagh, where Princess Diana famously sat, you’re lower to the ground and the minarets are pushed apart. The perfect symmetry is shattered, an effect that humanizes the tomb. The dome is no longer as curvacious, and the building resembles something slightly different. The breakdown of the perfect illusion invites intrigue, and only works to draw me in closer.
I start documenting the building from different angles to reflect this closeness. From a patch of trees and shrubbery, an unusual perspective presents itself. It’s the first time I get to see the Taj Mahal from a new perspective and without its lotus-capped dome. From this view, the central portal is still an imposing feature, and the beauty of the inlay is pronounced. This proves to be a demonstration that every individual piece of the building is grand, not just its size and scale.
Once I got closer, I could notice the two red buildings on both sides of the building. “The Taj Mahal stands in a landscaped Mughal Garden, flanked by two identical buildings in sandstone that effectively enhance its pristine marble,” (pg. 90). Though they look identical, one is a mosque, and the other a Mehman Khana, i.e. a drawing-room for entertaining guests. There was no purpose having two mosques, but their doppelganger nature reinforces the lengths to which the emperor went to create the ultimate expression of beauty for his wife.
It’s incredible, even once on the highest podium, the central tomb is incredibly imposing. It’s not like the modern skyscrapers which seem to diminish in scale once you get close. The main portal has the most gorgeous inlay raising from the ground up to its top. The building expresses beauty and geometric care on every inch. It rewards thoughtfulness and attention like no other.
Taj Mahal is an expression of love. The emperor Shah Jahan designed it as an expression of love for his wife and her beauty through its symmetry and scale. But once you get into the center of the tomb at its most intimate stage, there is a central contradiction to this symmetry. He was so dedicated to her that he did not think to include himself in the center. The symmetry of the whole of the Taj is centered around the single cenotaph, but Shah Jahan’s love for his Queen was so great that he defied the symmetry of the Taj Mahal so that he could lie next to her for eternity. Two cenotaphs lie at the core of the tomb, and the thesis of symmetry as an expression of love is defied. After all, what is the point of love if not to be together?
Well, if not about love, the building may also be interpreted as an expression of power. There exists a long tradition of symmetry in architecture and landscaping to demonstrate authoritarian control over the world. The other most famous example would be the French palace of Versailles. The building was and continues to be a useful emotionally powerful design for India, making it useful for projecting National identity.
All matters of proportion are considered. For starters, “the building is exactly as wide as it is high, and the height of its dome is the same as the height of its arched facade,” (pg 90). Along with this, the height of trees, depth of the reflection pools, the width of the minarets and their distance from the central dome. The smaller domes to each side of the central dome, i.e. the chhatris’, are there to compliment it so that it can appear to be more voluptuous. “Aesthetics of the Taj Mahal can be best understood in terms of its illusionary effect… [the architect] creates an illusion and his art lies in the presentation of an ideal figure and imparting an impression of beauty which may be purely imaginative,” (pg. 160).
“The dome weighs 12190 tonnes. The walls of the centograph hall carry an extraordinarily heavy load of 8.02 tonnes per square foot, which is twice the safe limit of four tonnes of the strongest modern building,” (pg 180).
Architecture is the Grossest Fine Arts in Indian Tradition
In Indian culture, the practice of architecture, i.e. Vāstu, was considered fine art along with the traditions of poetry and music, (pg. 150). Architecture is seen as a way of organizing material in such a way as to embody a spirituality. “Thus architecture has been classified as the grossest and the lowest type of art according to the grades of objectification or concretisation, or in other words, according to the medium of its expression,” (pg. 150). In this hierarchy of the arts, music ranks above architecture, and poetry at the top because its ‘spiritual idea’ is both its form and its content (pg. 150). To summarize, Vāstu’s as a medium for expression being constrained by the physical form has debilitated its strength as an art form.
Four Taj Mahal Conspiracies
I think this section may be the most interesting for you to share with other people! I’m sure there are more conspiracies, but I found the following four both entertaining and disturbing.
One myth is that the Shah Jahan was so protective of the final masterpiece that he severed the hands and de-eyed the artisans and craftsmen who helped the Taj Mahal. It’s dramatic and speaks to both his devotion and his supposed ruthlessness. There is no evidence of this.
There is another unreliable conspiracy that the building was nearly to be torn down in the 19th Century to be sold at auction by Lord William Bentinck, a British colonizer, (source). This myth seems to have started when Bentinck sold off marble from the nearby Agra fort, from which people feared he might try and go for the biggest prize, (pg. 283). Those who believe this say the lack of profits dissuaded him from following through.
The next conspiracy is that the Taj Mahal is not Indian. Many Westerners found themselves shocked that the Indian culture could produce such good architecture. For some, people just left accepting this new world view, like when French traveler François Bernier found himself admiring the Taj Mahal, his reaction was a disquieting thought that he had, “imbibed an Indian taste,” (pg. 308). Others decided to go another route. “...To those who remained adamant that Western values alone hold the touchstone of artistic excellence---buildings such as the Taj Mahal presented a problem…,” (pg. 39). Instead of admitting that another culture might be capable, the conspiracy goes that, “...the Taj Mahal and any other indisputably fine Indian buildings were, in reality, Western buildings in disguise…there is a long tradition of attributing the design of the Taj Mahal to Italian Jewellers,” (pg 39). People liked this idea because it allowed those who still enjoy the Taj Mahal while also insulting the capabilities of Indian architects.
The final conspiracy is that there was to be an identically designed black Taj Mahal across the Yamuna river for the emperor to be buried. This myth was started by Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, a visitor to Agra in 1665, but its flatly unproven.
During World War Two and the India-Pakistan wars of 1965 and 1971, scaffolding was built around the Taj Mahal to avoid its destruction, (wiki).
Leaving the Taj Mahal is hard. It is one of the most miraculous architectural gems we have on this earth, and thankfully there remains a dedicated investment in maintaining despite being in one of the most heavily polluted cities in the world. But I’m thankful both for the images I’ve taken from the Taj, and the vast quantity of literature relating to the Taj Mahal that I can share with you!