Arjumand Banu Begam the favourite wife of Shah Jahan, is better known by her other name, Mumtaz Mahal (“the Crown of the Palace”). Her father was Asaf Khan, who was brother of the Empress Nur Mahal, Jahangir’s wife. She was thus the granddaughter of Itmâd-ud-daulah, Jahangir’s Prime Minister, whose tomb, on the opposite bank of the river, will be described hereafter.
In 1612, at the age of nineteen years she was married to Shah Jahan—then Prince Khurram—who, though hardly twenty-one, had already another wife. This second marriage, however, was a real love-match, and Mumtaz was her husband’s inseparable companion on all his journeys and military expeditions. Shah Jahan, like his father, allowed his wife a large share in the responsibilities of government. Like Nur Mahal, she was famed as much for her charity as for her beauty. Her influence was especially exercised in obtaining clemency for criminals condemned to death. She bore him fourteen children, and died in childbed in 1630, or the second year after Shah Jahan’s accession to the throne, at Burhanpur, whither she had accompanied her husband on a campaign against Khan Jahan Lodi. The Emperor was overpowered with grief. For a week he refused to see any of his ministers, or to transact any business of state. He even contemplated resigning the throne and dividing the empire among his sons. For two years the court observed strict mourning. No music or festivities were allowed; the wearing of jewels, the use of perfumes and luxuries of all kinds were forbidden. The month of Zikad, in which she died, was observed as a month of mourning for many years afterwards. The body of Mumtaz was removed to Agra, and remained temporarily in the garden of the Taj while the foundations of the building were being laid. It was then placed in the vault where it now lies. A temporary dome covered the tomb while the great monument grew up over it.
The building of the Taj.
It was one of those intervals in history when the whole genius of a people is concentrated on great architectural works, and art becomes an epitome of the age. For the Taj was not a creation of a single master-mind, but the consummation of a great art epoch. Since the time of Akbar the best architects, artists, and art workmen of India, Persia, Arabia, and Central Asia had been attracted to the Mogul court. All the resources of a great empire were at their disposal, for Shah Jahan desired that this monument of his grief should be one of the wonders of the world. The sad circumstances which attended the early death of the devoted wife who had endeared herself to the people might well inspire all his subjects to join in the Emperor’s pious intentions.
According to the old Tartar custom, a garden was chosen as a site for the tomb—a garden planted with flowers and flowering shrubs, the emblems of life, and solemn cypress, the emblem of death and eternity. Such a garden, in the Mogul days, was kept up as a pleasure-ground during the owner’s lifetime, and used as his last resting-place after his death. The old tradition laid down that it must be acquired by fair means, and not by force or fraud. So Rajah Jey Singh, to whom the garden belonged, was compensated by the gift of another property from the Emperor’s private estate. Shah Jahan next appointed a council of the best architects of his empire for preparing the design for the building. Drawings of many of the most celebrated buildings of the world were shown and discussed. It is even believed that one Geronimo Verroneo, an Italian who was then in the Mogul service, submitted designs for Shah Jahan’s inspection, a fact which has led many writers into the error of supposing that the Taj, as completed, was actually designed by him.1 The design eventually accepted was by Ustad Isa, who is stated in one account to have been a Byzantine Turk, and in another a native of Shiraz, in Persia.
The master-builders came from many different parts; the chief masons from Baghdad, Delhi, and Multan; the dome builders from Asiatic Turkey and from Samarkand; the mosaic workers from Kanauj and from Baghdad; the principal calligraphist for the inscriptions from Shiraz. Every part of India and Central Asia contributed the materials; Jaipur, the marble; Fatehpur Sikri, the red sandstone; the Panjab, jasper; China, the jade and crystal; Tibet, turquoises; Ceylon, lapis lazuli and sapphires; Arabia, coral and cornelian; Panna in Bundelkund, diamonds; Persia, onyx and amethyst. Twenty thousand men were employed in the construction, which took seventeen years to complete.2 The sarcophagus was originally enclosed by a fence or screen of gold studded with gems. This was removed in 1642, and replaced by the present exquisite screen of pierced marble (Plate VII.). The Taj also possessed formerly two wonderful silver doors. Austin de Bordeaux, a French goldsmith, who was employed by Shah Jahan in making the celebrated Peacock throne, may possibly have executed some of this metal-work in the Taj; but there is no evidence worthy of consideration to support the common Anglo-Indian belief that he designed or superintended the pietra dura, or inlaid marble decoration of the building, which is entirely of the Persian school. These silver doors were looted and melted down by the Jâts in 1764.
Besides the lavish expenditure on the building, lakhs of rupees were spent in providing the richest of Persian silk carpets, golden lamps, and magnificent candlesticks. A sheet of pearls, valued at several lakhs, was made to cover the sarcophagus. This was carried off by the Amir Husein Ali Khan, in 1720, as part of his share of the spoil of Agra. The total expenditure, according to native accounts, amounted to nearly 185 lakhs of rupees.
It is said that Shah Jahan had intended to construct a mausoleum for himself opposite to the Taj, on the other side of the Jumna and to connect the two by a great bridge. The project was interrupted and never completed, owing to the usurpation of Aurangzîb, shortly after the foundations were laid.
The Intention of the Taj.
The Taj has been the subject of numberless critical essays, but many of them have missed the mark entirely, because the writers have not been sufficiently conversant with the spirit of Eastern artistic thought. All comparisons with the Parthenon or other classic buildings are useless. One cannot compare Homer with the Mâhabhâratâ, or Kalîdâs with Euripides. The Parthenon was a temple for Pallas Athene, an exquisite casket to contain the jewel. The Taj is the jewel—the ideal itself. Indian architecture is in much closer affinity to the great conceptions of the Gothic builders than it is to anything of classic or Renaissance construction. The Gothic cathedral, with its sculptured arches and its spires pointing heavenwards, is a symbol, as most Eastern buildings are symbols. The Mogul artists, being prevented by the precepts of the Muhammadan religion from attempting sculpture, as understood in Europe, succeeded in investing their great architectural monuments with an extraordinary personal character. There is a wonderful personality in the dignity and greatness of Akbar’s tomb; we see the scholar and the polished courtier in Itmâd-ud-daulah’s. But the Taj carries this idea of personality further than had been attempted in any of the Mogul monuments; it represents in art the highest development towards individualism, the struggle against the restraints of ritualism and dogma, which Akbar initiated in religion.
Every one who has seen the Taj must have felt that there is something in it, difficult to define or analyze, which differentiates it from all other buildings in the world. Sir Edwin Arnold has struck the true note of criticism in the following lines:—
“Not Architecture! as all others are,
But the proud passion of an Emperor’s love
Wrought into living stone, which gleams and soars
With body of beauty shrining soul and thought;
… As when some face
Divinely fair unveils before our eyes—
Some woman beautiful unspeakably—
And the blood quickens, and the spirit leaps,
And will to worship bends the half-yielded knees,
While breath forgets to breathe. So is the Taj!”
This is not a mere flight of poetic fancy, but a deep and true interpretation of the meaning of the Taj. What were the thoughts of the designers, and of Shah Jahan himself, when they resolved to raise a monument of eternal love to the Crown of the Palace—Taj Mahal? Surely not only of a mausoleum—a sepulchre fashioned after ordinary architectural canons, but of an architectonic ideal, symbolical of her womanly grace and beauty. Those critics who have objected to the effeminacy of the architecture unconsciously pay the highest tribute to the genius of the builders. The Taj was meant to be feminine. The whole conception, and every line and detail of it, express the intention of the designers. It is Mumtaz Mahal herself, radiant in her youthful beauty, who still lingers on the banks of the shining Jumna, at early morn, in the glowing midday sun, or in the silver moonlight. Or rather, we should say, it conveys a more abstract thought; it is India’s noble tribute to the grace of Indian womanhood—the Venus de Milo of the East.
Bearing this in mind, we can understand how foolish it is to formulate criticisms of the Taj based on ordinary architectural principles as practised in Europe. Many of these criticisms, which might be appropriate enough if applied to a modern provincial town hall, are only silly and impertinent in reference to the Taj. Some are born tone-deaf, others colour-blind, and there are many who can find beauty in one particular form or expression of art and in no others. So the Taj will always find detractors. But whoever tries to understand the imaginative side of Eastern thought will leave the critics to themselves, and take unrestrained delight in the exquisitely subtle rhythm of this marvellous creation of Mogul art.
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The gateway of the Taj faces a spacious quadrangle surrounded by arcades. This is a caravan serai, or place where travellers halted. Here, also, the poor were provided with food and shelter, and on the anniversary day vast sums were distributed in charity from the funds with which the Taj was endowed. It is well to pause before entering, and admire the proportions and perfect taste of the decoration of this gateway; for afterwards one has no eyes for anything but the Taj itself. It is much finer in design than the similar gateway of Akbar’s tomb at Sikandra. An Arabic inscription in black marble, of passages taken from the Koran, frames the principal arch, and invites the pure of heart to enter the Gardens of Paradise.
The first view of the Taj is from within this noble portal, framed by the sombre shadow of the great arch which opens on to the garden. At the end of a long terrace, its gracious outline partly mirrored in the still water of a wide canal, a fairy vision of silver-white—like the spirit of purity—seems to rest so lightly, so tenderly, on the earth, as if in a moment it would soar into the sky. The beauty of the Taj, as in all great art, lies in its simplicity. One wonders that so much beauty can come from so little effort. Yet nothing is wanting, nothing in excess; one cannot alter this and that and say that it is better.
The garden, as originally planned, was an integral part of one great design. The solemn rows of cypresses were planted so as to help out the lines of the architecture; the flowering trees and flower-beds completed the harmony with a splendid glow of colour.3 Beautiful as the first view of the Taj is even now, one can hardly realize how glorious it must have been when the whole intention of the design was fulfilled. At present there is not a single spot in the garden itself which gives a view of the composition as a whole.
Advancing down the main terrace, paved with stone and laid out with geometric flower-beds, we reach a marble platform with its fountain (see frontispiece),4 where a nearer view of the Taj may be enjoyed. Such a platform was the central feature in all Mogul gardens. The terraces to the right and left of it end in two fine pavilions of red sandstone, intended for the accommodation of the custodians of the mausoleum and for storehouses.
From this point we can admire the effect of the exquisite inlaid decoration, fine and precious as the embroidery on the raiment of Mumtaz herself. At the end of the main terrace we reach the steps leading up to the great platform on which the Taj and its minarets, “four tall court ladies tending their Princess,” are raised.
Let us reverently enter the central chamber, where Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan, her lord and lover, lie. Fergusson has truly said, no words can express its chastened beauty seen in the soft gloom of the subdued light coming from the distant and half-closed openings. The screen of marble tracery which surrounds the tombs is in itself a masterpiece. Even with all the artistic resources which Shah Jahan had at his command, it was a work of ten years. Mumtaz Mahal lies in the centre. The white marble of her tomb blossoms with a never-fading garden of Persian flowers, which the magic of the Mogul artists has created.
The inscription on it is as follows: “The illustrious sepulchre of
Arjumand Banu Begam, called Mumtaz Mahal. Died in 1040 A.H.” (1630
At the head of the tomb is the line: “He is the everlasting: He is sufficient;” and the following passage from the Koran: “God is He, besides whom there is no God. He knoweth what is concealed and what is manifest. He is merciful and compassionate.”
On one side of it: “Nearer unto God are those who say ‘Our Lord is God.’”
The inscription in the tomb of Shah Jahan is as follows: “The illustrious sepulchre and sacred resting-place of His Most Exalted Majesty dignified as Razwan (the guardian of Paradise), having his abode in Paradise, and his dwelling in the starry heaven, inhabitant of the regions of bliss, the second lord of the Qirán,5 Shah Jahan, the king valiant. May his tomb ever flourish; and may his abode be in the heavens. He travelled from this transitory world to the world of eternity on the night of the 28th of the month of Rajab, 1076 A.H.” (1666 A.D.).
The real cenotaphs containing the remains of Shah Jahan and his wife are immediately under these tombs, in the vault below. Not the least of the wonders of this wonderful building is in its acoustic qualities. It does not respond to vulgar noises, but if a few notes be slowly and softly sung in this vault, and especially if the chord of the seventh be sounded; they are caught up by the echoes of the roof and repeated in endless harmonies, which seem to those listening above as if a celestial choir were chanting angelic hymns. “It haunts the air above and around; it distils in showers upon the polished marble; it rises, it falls…. It is the very element with which sweet dreams are builded. It is the spirit of the Taj, the voice of inspired love!”
Surrounding the central chamber are eight smaller ones for the mullahs who chanted the Koran and for musicians who played soft Indian and Persian melodies. The vault below was only opened once a year, on the anniversary day, when the Emperor and all his court attended a solemn festival. Even on ordinary occasions none but Muhammadans were admitted into the interior. Bernier tells us that he had not seen it, on that account, but he understood that nothing could be conceived more rich and magnificent.
The two mosques of red sandstone on either side of the Taj are in the same style as the entrance gateway, the interiors being decorated with fresco and fine cut plaster-work. The one towards the west was intended for prayers only; the floor is panelled into separate spaces for each worshipper. The opposite mosque was known, as the Jamaat Khana, or meeting-place for the congregation before prayers, and on the occasion of the great anniversary service. Standing on the platform in front of this mosque, one has a splendid view of the Taj, the river, and the distant Fort.
As the garden is now arranged; a full view of the magnificent platform, with its two mosques, and the Taj itself, can only be obtained from the opposite side of the river, which is not very accessible except by boat. When the traveller leaves Agra by rail, going east, the Taj in all its glory can be seen in the distance, floating like the mirage of some wondrous fairy palace over the waving tufts of the pampas grass, until at last it sinks into the pale horizon.
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NOTE.—A small museum has been established lately by the Archæological Department, in the western half of the Taj main gateway. It contains an interesting collection of photographs and drawings of the Taj at different periods, and specimens of the stones used in the pietra dura, or inlay work of the building. There are also samples illustrating the technique of pietra dura, and the tools used by native workmen.
- 1. This question is discussed at length in an article by the author, entitled “The Taj and its Designers,” published in the June number of the Nineteenth Century and After, 1903.
- 2. Tavernier says twenty-two years probably including all the accessory buildings.
- 3. The present garden is a jungle, planted by a European overseer without any understanding or feeling for the ideas of the Mogul artists. The overgrown trees entirely block out the view of the mosques on either side, which are an essential part of the whole composition, serving as supporters to the slender, detached minarets. I understand, however, that it is intended to remove some of the more obstructive of the larger trees; but the avenue of cypress trees, which perished from drought some years ago, has been replanted on lines which eventually will clash seriously with the architectural composition.
- 4. This represents the condition of the garden twenty or thirty years ago.
- 5. The conjunction of Jupiter and Venus; referring to the circumstance that Timur and himself were born at the conjunction of these planets. (KEENE.)