An enormous, ornate, ivory-white palace is what it looks like, a palace fit for the most illustrious of maharajahs. But the Taj Mahal isn’t a palace at all; it’s a mausoleum, built by Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan, for his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal.
Shah Jahan, born in 1592 CE as Shah ab-ud-din Muhammad Khurram, went on to become the 5th Mughal Emperor following the death of his father, Emperor Jahangir. in 1628 CE (the Mughals were descendants of Timur, founder of the mighty Timurid Empire that stretched across Persia and Central Asia. Timur himself was of notable lineage, being a descendant of perhaps the greatest empire builder of all, the Mongol leader, Genghis Khan – the word Mughal is actually a derivation of Mongol).
Shah Jahan’s reign (1628 – 1658) was regarded as the golden age of the Mughal Empire, and the Taj Mahal, the most renowned of the many buildings he commissioned, is considered the pinnacle of Mughal architecture.
His beloved, Mumtaz Mahal (born Arjumand Banu Begum) was the daughter of a distinguished Persian dynasty. She was betrothed to Shah Jahan in the year 1607, they were aged fourteen and fifteen at the time. The two waited five years before marrying, by which stage Shah Jahan had already wed three women. Mumtaz became wife number four.
Mumtaz Mahal died during childbirth in 1631, while giving birth to Shah Jahan’s fourteenth child. Shah Jahan was grief-struck during the following months, and often succumbed to fits of uncontrollable sobbing. Construction of the Taj Mahal commenced the following year.
The Taj Mahal
The main tomb of the Taj Mahal took eleven years to build (the complex as a whole wouldn’t be finished for another ten years).
When Shah Jahan died in 1658 CE his body was also brought to Agra. A tomb was made for him alongside his beloved Mumtaz. The two lie side by side to this day, as they will do for the rest of eternity.
The Taj Mahal (one of the seven wonders of the modern world) is a magnificent memorial for a lost loved-one, and a grand display, and testimony, of Shah Jahan’s grief – the Bard of Bengal, Rabindranath Tagore, captures the essence of the structure best, when he describes it as a tear-drop on the cheek of time.
But is the Taj Mahal really the pinnacle of Mughal architecture? Can it really be so, considering most people mistakingly identify this tomb for a palace?
Perhaps the confusion the Taj Mahal invokes explains its wide appeal. For Shah Jahan created something beyond our reckoning with the Taj Mahal. He made something so monumental, so beautiful, that no human can imagine it to have a purpose as commonplace as that of a tomb.
Practical information and how to reach the Taj Mahal:
The Taj Mahal is located in the city of Agra, approximately 200 km southeast of the capital Delhi. Agra is accessible by bus and train. More transport info here.
Read more on the Taj Mahal in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.