If there is a Paradise on Earth, it is Here, it is Here, it is Here!
The Mughals, who ruled India from 1526 to 1858, were among the most violent and richest dynasties in the history of the world, so it is no wonder their name has remained a metaphor for powerful rulers (only recently replaced by the term tycoon, a Japanese word for a great leader, the shogun). In 1608, on his 16th lunar birthday, Khurram, the son of the great Mughal ruler Jahangir, was seated on a pair of scales and measured in gold. Owing to his war victories he would soon be called Shah Jahan, which in Persian means Glory of the World. He was engaged to be married in 1607 to Arjumand Banu Begum, a noble princess of the Persian origin. She would soon be named Mumtaz Mahal (The Chosen One of the Palace). When he became the ruler of the largest part of the subcontinent at the foot of the Himalayas in 1628, they already had twelve children. But, Mumtaz Mahal died as early as 1631 of postpartum hemorrhage, after thirty hours of labor with her fourteenth child. Only six months later Shah Jahan began constructing the largest monument any man had ever erected to his wife. Troupes of specialized craftsmen from the entire Empire were working on the complex. All was done in record time and at excessive costs.
The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs;
And the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes.
In this world this edifice has been made;
To display thereby the creator’s glory.
These are the verses by Shah Jahan himself, which reveal that apart inconsolable sorrow, he was also motivated to build the Taj Mahal by the standards of ruling. Buildings of superhuman dimensions suggest the same significance of their builders. The greatness of the construction became a virtue in itself, and the anthill at the construction site was a spectacle, like festivals. This was just a different way of presenting the imperial magnificentia. All this as a topos applicable for all times is summed up by the Roman writer from the late Antiquity, Vegetius: Your piety and continual work completed numerous cities, so much so that they seem not to have been built by the hand of a man, but that they have sprung by the wink of God.
The greatest craft was already necessary to build the foundations on the platform above the Yamuna River. On a high plinth they built a mausoleum with four minarets on the corners, and on the left and right a mosque and a resting place. From a surprisingly small corpus of the theory of Islamic architecture, we understand that the architects paid special attention primarily to the foundations of buildings. The architect should avoid any rush in resolving requirements imposed by the building, especially those concerning static calculations – in accordance with the saying that patience brings victory, in search of the divine guidance towards the immortal work, with God willing, said Mimar Sinan in one of his autobiographical essays. The architect, regardless of who it was, came up with an extraordinary solution here. The entire surface (300 x 112 m) was turned into a system of wells deeper than the river bed. Stones and mortar were deposited in order to establish rows of pillars connected with arches, that is, vaults. It carries the marble floor structure. Today, Yamuna meanders lazily through the Agra plane, but the moonlight gardens on the other side of the river bear traces of previous flooding and show why such attention was given to the design of the platform on which the mausoleum was built. The construction of the platform and the tomb itself lasted about 12 years, and the entire complex was finished in the 1650s. The origin of the building material (white marble from Rajasthan, jasper from Punjab, jade and crystal from China, turquoise from Tibet, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, sapphire from Sri Lanka, carnelian from Arabia …), as well as the number of workers, is still the source of many legends.
A long-awaited meeting with the Taj Mahal will be overcome by optical tricks that will fascinate you: snowy white, framed with huge doors made of red sandstone, almost 30 m high, the mausoleum seems large. It seems to decrease in size as you approach it, and increase as you move away from it. They say, and I confirm, that we carry it in our hearts where it gets bigger and bigger. The most beloved building in the world attracts annually two to four million tourists, but the crowd will not diminish your experience.
The four corners of the plinth house the minarets, over 40 m tall. They were built with a slight outward inclination to create an effect of vertical towers visible from the garden, but also to fall away from the mausoleum in case of an earthquake. The bilateral and radial symmetry was achieved in the total composition as well as in the smallest detail, with a careful hierarchal gradation of shapes, colors and materials. This is immediately visible on the buildings of almost identical shape made of red sandstone located on the two opposite sides of the platform, with the mausoleum as a treasure chest in the middle. To the west there is a mosque, to the east a jawab (response), a resting place, lacking only a mihrab (an inner niche indicating the direction of Mecca) to be a mosque.
The color scheme of the complex is very transparent: the white marble (coating millions of large bricks) is reserved for the most precious shapes representing faith and spirituality, the ruling aura. It is the fabulous marble from quarries in Makrana in Rajasthan, situated 400 km from Agra, which became famous owing to the Taj and was later used on the buildings, such as the White House in Washington and the Empire State Building, the Buckingham Palace, the Westminster Abbey and the Marble Arch in London, the Sydney Opera House … The greatest threat to the Taj Mahal today is the pollution of the Yamuna River and the acid rain due to proximity of the oil refinery Mathura that was finally relocated by the decision of the Indian Government. The pollution was turning the white marble of the Taj Mahal yellow.
Naturally, the genealogy of the earlier Mughal mausoleum solutions has rightfully been analyzed and the potential prototype is often considered to be the elegant mausoleum of the Emperor Humayun (1565–70), the great-grandfather of Shah Jahan, today standing in the center of Delhi. It was the first tomb on the Indian subcontinent built in the middle of a wide garden space and composed like a typical Persian Charbagh garden, square or rectangular in layout, divided into four sections by paths or water canals. The mausoleum itself is made of red sandstone on a platform formed by a series of arcades. The central axis is strongly emphasized with a huge entrance chamber (Iwan) arched with a dome. The octagonal central space contains the cenotaphs of Humayun and his wife, while the actual tombs are in the crypt. Passageways connecting the central chamber with the surrounding halls, the ambulatory enabling circular motion (primarily typical of earlier Islamic respect of the saint’s graves), as well as the slanted corners of the mausoleum and the radially symmetric layout of the eight halls (implying the eight paradises) which communicate with the central chamber – all these are elements that would be perfectly developed in the Taj Mahal.
However, the Taj Mahal can be understood only in a wider framework of construction program undertaken by Shah Jahan before he took over the throne (beginning from the reconstruction of the fortress in Kabul, to those in Gwalior, Lahore and Agra), because there was no greater builder among many Mughal emperors. He is also said to have shaped 777 gardens in Kashmir (where he liked to spend his summers), but this is not the entire list and analysis of the typology of all palaces (at least 50), hunting temples and garden residences of various sizes that he erected throughout India. This is the largest group of such buildings in the Islamic world, and probably in general. Over the last thirty years, Austrian historian of architecture, Ebba Koch, has managed to form a preliminary corpus of only 24 palaces and garden residences from Shah Jahan’s period. Some of the projects, such as the Red Fort in his new capital Shahjahanabad, erected near six earlier Delhi cities, surpass all others in size and cost, but none of them surpasses the glamour of the Taj Mahal. The foundations of Shahjahanaban (today’s Old Delhi), a rationally designed temple city with three parallel avenues crisscrossed with water canals, were laid on April 29, 1639. It was a Mughal-like response to the recently built Chahar Bagh Boulevard, streets and gardens in the Safavid Isfahan. The competitiveness of the Islamic architecture was and has remained one of its permanent fixations. During one of his receptions, the Shah requested the Persian emissary to compare the two cities, and he replied: Isfahan is not worthy of the Delhi dust. It was no doubt an ambiguous response, considering that dust in Delhi is the same today as the air you breathe.
At a silken dawn on a spring day, looking from the gardens on the opposite side of the Yamuna River that stops meandering in the morning dew and sticks together like mercury, the Taj Mahal’s dome seems white as a goat’s milk. The entire image shall gradually shift in a series of unbelievable colorist transformations – until the next night when this same dome, especially under the full moon, becomes a living body, like a new planet. Still, in order to get to that belvedere, you will have to pass the mahala at dawn, where under the open sky the primordial physiological processes, human and animal alike, begin to stir together. It seems, however, that the same optics was shared by the first Mughal rulers, starting with genius Babur (1526–30), who stopped before the dry planes of the Northern India, between Indus and the Ganges, to choose the location for his capital, and concluded with indignation: Soon after I came to Agra, I crossed to the other side of the Yamuna River to view the landscape and to choose a place suitable for a garden. Everything was so despicably ugly that I crossed the river again, completely aghast. Due to the lack of beauty and an unpleasant appearance of the landscape, I gave up the intention to build a charbagh. In the end, however, since there were no more suitable sites near Agra, I had to do the best I could on this site.
The Mughal rulers – starting with Babur – built a series of gardens, first in front of the citadels and fortified palaces of the pre-Mughal rulers, as an expression of power over the parched Indian landscape. Those were truly the royal symbols of territorial control, but also a metaphor of a paradise on earth – in unpleasant and disharmonious India. The shores of the Yamuna River will soon be framed by tens of such garden complexes. The ground plan of Agra from the 1720s (the city which at its peak had 700,000 inhabitants) indicates that there will be forty four of them. The Taj Mahal should, therefore, be viewed in this larger urban context.
Furthermore, if we look at the ground plan, we will understand it originally spread on the area twice as large. Namely, not many visitors are aware that the integral part of the plan included also the now chaotic part of the city, the Taj Ganj, still containing all the elements of the garden composition in front of the mausoleum. Here, it is in the form of crisscrossed bazaar streets, with silk and spice markets… and parts reserved for caravanserais. It is, as Ebba Koch underlines, a uniquely and highly creative transfer of the charbagh scheme to the complex of extremely utilitarian civic architecture. Let us be clear: these two zones – the representative, holy, ceremonial, sepulchral, indoctrinating and symbolic, on the one side, and the worldly, commercial, pecuniary, on the other, refer to the Islamic concept of the balanced spiritual and material world. The lively profane half of the complex was meant to retain the representative half, with the mausoleum in the middle, which was originally open only to the privileged. The expensive mechanism of the Taj was maintained with bazaar and caravanserai income, including the income from thirty villages around Agra. (Maybe those who are launching the renovation of the synagogue in Zagreb should bear this in mind. And by the way: it seems that Diocletian’s Palace in Split was originally with a similar concept in mind – with the utilitarian northern and the representative central and southern part.)
Finally, who designed the Taj Mahal? A Westerner who, for the first time, sees its symmetry, regulated space in the middle of the urban and landscape chaos, incrustations of semi-precious stones, as well as individual motives which remind them of memorable paintings, for example, of the Venetian early Renaissance (Giovanni and Gentile Bellini, Carpaccio…), feels familiarized at least with the architecture of the mausoleum. Indeed, the Portuguese Jesuit Manrique, who was in Agra during the construction, suggested that a certain Venetian goldsmith, Geronimo Veroneo, might have something to do with the project, but this information was not confirmed by several other contemporaries who traveled for various reasons to India at that time. We may find amazing similarities between the Mughal mausoleums and the Taj Mahal itself, and several Filarete’s plans for imaginary Sforzinda, from his famous treatise (though proclaimed by Giorgio Vasari as the funniest and, possibly, the most ridiculous book ever written), with its images of octagonal temples framed by four bell towers as slender as minarets, erected on a high plinth. Still, there is no doubt that Filarete’s inspiration came from his contacts with many Persian ambassadors in Venice in the 1460s. After all, scholars have rightfully warned that the very name of the city Sforzinda, as the combination of the name of the Duke of Milan and mythical Indus, may originate also from Persian Shahzinda, meaning the living king, which is the royal graveyard in Samarkand. (Filarete’s utopian city was, in fact, the first Western city with a completely symmetric layout.) The most likely candidate for the architect of the Taj Mahal may be the enigmatic Ustad Ahmad Lahauri, from the family of respectable Mughal architects, the Afghan speaking the Persian language, who received many orders from Shah Jahan, but he was also a famous astronomer, surveyor and poet. None of the Westerners would at that time understand the Islamic ideals in such a way and shape them in architecture.
All the motifs of the mausoleum and gardens allude to Paradise, especially the calligraphic inscriptions from the Quran written with the most beautiful letters ever designed. The mausoleum and the garden are an inseparable unity in the architectural and symbolic sense. (Arabic jannat is a Muslim word for paradise, and in literal translation it denotes a garden or a yard). The Taj Mahal is turned away from the Yamuna River, elevated on a high plinth, at the edge of the garden (Char Bagh), divided into four parts by water canals representing the four rivers in Paradise. The pathways create additional 16 smaller gardens. The mausoleum is reflected in the elongated marble pool in the center of the garden: the tank of abundance (havd al-kavtar) shall drench Mohammed’s thirst when he arrives on the Judgment Day. The original documents mention lush vegetation (roses, daffodils, many fruit trees, cypresses), that were turned into green meadows in the period of British colonization.
Everything about the Taj is cloaked in legends. One of them says that Shah wanted to erect a similar mausoleum for himself, but made of black marble, on the other side of the Yamuna River, or to erect a black bridge over the river. Recent research discovered moonlight gardens with an octagonal pool on the other side of the river, designed to reflect the Taj in the moonlight.
The name Taj Mahal (short for Mumtaz Mahal) became widespread due to writings by foreigners, while the Mughal documents always mention it as the Enlightened Grave. The entire complex is much more than a tomb to a woman, no matter how adorned she was. Shah Jahan probably originally thought of it as his own mausoleum, but also as a gigantic allegory of the Judgment Day – the event followed by the judgment over people and jinn for what they have done during their lives.
It is worth noting that the unconditional love that Shah Jahan had for Mumtaz Mahal received quite a different meaning after her death. This unusual ruler (who never smiled and was always sober, unlike all Mughals before and after him who usually left this world in delirium tremens, who was miles away from religious tolerance of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather) turned to concubines and almost died in September 1657 due to an aphrodisiac overdose. It was the signal for the onset of the battle to death between his sons. The Mughal throne was in general not acquired by primogeniture. The end of his rule was not glorious. Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb in 1658, who was martial and puritan in character. The legend says that he could see the Taj Mahal from his luxurious cell in the Red Fort of Agra, but only in the reflections of the facets of the fabulous Kohinoor diamond that he used to keep over his famous Peacock Throne. When he finally went to jannat in 1666, he left the architecture to tell the story about him. And probably the best and shortest version of this story is told by a verse inscribed in the Persian language on the walls of the reception hall (Diwan-i-Khas) of the palace in Shahjahanabad: If there is a Paradise on Earth, it is Here, it is Here, it is Here!