Taj Mahal: ‘Paradise’ Beyond Borders

“The movement of ideas, people and wealth has bound us to each other since the beginning of history.”1                       

         – Ching, Prakash and Jarzombek

Architectural mobility is the result of the influx of architectural styles, symbolism, materials and crafting techniques from other parts of the world, brought in by the processes of migration, colonization for reasons of spreading empires, expanding trade routes and spreading religion.

This essay attempts to show that the Mughals who built the Taj Mahal were agents of architectural mobility; that the Taj Mahal acclaimed as the best example of “Indian” architecture is in fact a hybrid, incorporating in it a wide range of technologies and materials from other parts of the world; and that this same hybridity contributes to its excellence and uniqueness.

The Mughals were empire builders and thus open to influences from both the East and West. They were descended from the Mongol Emperor Genghis Khan. The founder of the Mughal Empire was Babur. By the fifteenth century, their capital city Samarkand in Turkestan (on the Silk Route, the ancient trade route which linked the Eastern and Western civilisations), was a centre of Islamic architecture and Persian culture.

Mughal rule was established in India in 1526, with Agra as the first capital of the Empire in India. The Taj Mahal complex in Agra, was commissioned by emperor Shah Jahan in 1632, as a mausoleum for his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, and was built over a period of twenty one years, ending in 1653.2

 

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2. Map of Mughal Empire expansion to Agra.

 

By this time, the Mughals had spread Islam and Persian traditions over much of peninsula. They brought their architectural traditions from Turkestan to India, along with various skills such as carving and pieta dura acquired from the West. A progression of their architectural style can be seen from early works such as the Tomb of Timur, Humayan’s tomb, to the later work of the Taj Mahal.

 

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1. Humayan’s tomb compared to Taj Mahal complex

 

The Tomb of Timur in Samarkand is an example of architectural traditions of the Mughals, such as red sandstone, carved bricks and mosaics.3 This tomb was the precursor to Humayan’s tomb, which in turn was the prototype on which the Taj Mahal complex was based.4

Humayan’s tomb was made of red sandstone, had square gardens divided into quadrants by causeways and water channels set into the axis of each causeway. A similar design is seen in Taj Mahal, but the use of red sandstone is replaced with white sandstone and marble, and the gardens are more elaborately designed with more quadrants, causeways and fountains.5 Thus, the progression of the Mughal architectural style can be seen – from the red sandstone to white marble, and exacting and detailed layouts of gardens and waterways.

In addition, Shah Jahan employed skilled workmen and artisans from other parts of Asia to work on the Taj Mahal. Ching, Jarzombek and Prakash state, “Historical records list several people responsible for the tomb, or parts of it. Ismail Khan from Turkey has done the dome. Qazim Khan from Lahore cast its gold finial. Thirty-seven men can be counted in its creative nucleus – these include sculptors from Delhi and Bukara, calligraphers from Syria and Persia and inlayers and masons from South India.”6 Thus, the Mughals can be considered agents of architectural mobility.

 

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Tomb of Timur

 

As the Mughals were Muslims, Islamic features, influences and symbolism are embodied in the Taj Mahal complex. Mosaics, inscriptions and engravings around the walls of the chambers in the mausoleum and mathematical patterns in the division of quadrants in the garden are some examples.

Engravings and mosaics of flowers done on the walls of the inner chambers are an example of both Islamic features and influences; the former as Islamic tradition dictates that crafting of animals or human figures is forbidden, the latter as an example of botanical species and flowering plants blended together, to create hybrids which represented otherworldly species outside the laws of nature.7

The lower tomb chamber has mosaics and inlaid Quran inscriptions promising God’s mercy and forgiveness on the walls and roof. Tiny cartouches containing the Ninety-Nine Beautiful Names of Allah are placed on the cenotaphs and tombstones – a Mughal peculiarity not found on other tombstones.8

The Taj Mahal is also rich in symbolism, both peculiar to Islamic cornerstones such as the Quran, and also concepts such as birth, life, death and divinity. For instance, the four minarets of the Taj Mahal symbolize the four pillars of the divine throne guarded by angels in the Garden of Eden, while the Taj Mahal building itself is symbol of the divine throne.9 The night-gardens on the side of the complex are symbolic of death, and the day-gardens are symbolic of life.

 

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4. Mosaics of flowers and botany influenced by Islamic culture

 

On the other hand, local Indian influences can also be found in the Taj Mahal, and indeed, one may wonder whether it is more Mughal or more Indian. Stephen Knapp, a known Hindu activist, and author of “Taj Mahal: Was it a Vedic Temple?” is of the opinion that the Taj Mahal was built using Vedic traditions, on the foundations of a Vedic temple that was desecrated by the invading Mughals. His argument is that its Hindu origins were suppressed by Muslims and passed off as their own.10

Knapp’s theories that Mughals did not build the Taj Mahal from scratch are contradicted by Diana and Michael Preston in their book Taj Mahal: Passion and Genius at the Heart of the Mughal Empire, where they say that Mumtaz Mahal begged Shah Jahan to build a mausoleum for her; he chose a plot of land that was downstream from the Jumna river. It was owned by the Raja of Jaipur, a vassal of the emperor, to whom the Raja gave it up willingly. He was compensated in return with four lands, and no record of any desecration of Vedic buildings was found, and tradition also required that no perceived element of coercion was used in the acquiring of land for such holy sites.11

Among the local Indian influences found in the Taj Mahal, is the Mughal’s interest in funerary architecture. This was the continuation of a tradition by earlier Indian Sultans. Only in tastes of building matter and materials did it differ; Akbar preferring robust materials like the traditional red sandstone, and his descendant Shah Jahan opting for more translucent and delicate-looking white marble and white sandstone.12

These influences extended from the adoption of various architectural and construction features found in local buildings, to materials and craftsmen sourced from various parts of North and South India, who brought their own unique styles of artistry to work.

As an example for the adoption of Indian architectural features, the Baoli, a type of local Indian step-well made of red sandstone, was adopted by Muslim builders from existing Indian buildings. The Taj Mahal Baoli was used to provide water to the Complex, independent of waterways outside the compound.13 Another example of construction was the pattern of linking inner chambers in the lesser buildings in an octagonal base with corridors, like the five-point on a dice, which was Indian in conception.14

 

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5.. Example of an Indian Baoli, a style adopted by the Mughals

 

Shah Jahan sourced building materials and employed workmen from all parts of India. Ching, Jarzombek and Prakash state, “…the bulk of the building materials from South Asia, coral and mother-of-pearl from the Indian Ocean…and inlayers from South India.” Forty three types of precious and semi-precious stones were brought in from all around India.15

John Lall confirms that the Taj Mahal has Indian execution in his book, Taj Mahal and the Glory of Mughal Agra, that “In execution, the architecture inspired by the Mughal dynasty is as Indian as the paintings of their ateliers.”16 Thus, the Taj Mahal is a true hybrid, both Islamic and Indian.

It also has several influences from the West and parts of the East and even Africa. For instance, Shah Jahan set his artists to study flower and plant illustrations found in Western medical and herbal publications. His craftsmen then translated these drawings into inscriptions in the pietra dura fashion, found in Italy.17 Flower arrangements and designs of vases also carved in pietra dura fashion closely resembled the arrangements found in Italy, mainly in Venice. Shah Jahan was not worried by borrowing the artistic traditions of another culture – he saw this as deigning to use an offering from a foreign cultural region for their own artistic purposes.18

Materials were sourced from all parts of the world – white marble from South-Western Hindukush, nephrite, jade and crystal from Central Asia, turquoise from Tibet, amber from Burma, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan and chrysolite from Egypt.19

The superb execution and the fusion of all these elements and influences are what give the Taj Mahal its unique vigour and excellence. If the Mughals had scorned the traditions and techniques borrowed from the West, and restricted themselves to Islamic and Indian vernacular styles only, its global appeal would have been remarkably less. By adding in the Western influences, it ensures its position as an object of long-term interest and magnificence.

 

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6. Pietra dura methods of flower arrangements learned from the West

 

The excellence of the Taj Mahal can be seen in its mathematical perfection. An example is the use of sound as a symbol of eternity. Ebba Koch says that Paul Horn, the flautist, was inspired by the acoustics in the tomb chamber. He said,

“I never heard anything so beautiful. Each note hung suspended in space for 28 seconds and the acoustics are so perfect that you couldn’t tell when his voice stopped and the echo took over.”20

 

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7. The tomb-chamber where a note hangs suspended for 28 seconds

 

Another example is the Mutabh Bargh, the night-gardens of Taj Mahal. Each garden is aligned in such a way that a unique view of the main building can be seen from each. The night-garden has a variety of night-blooming plants and flowers that are hydrated from waterworks in the causeways of the garden quadrants.21

Ebba Koch, alongside Richard Barraud, conducted major surveys of the Taj Mahal complex. They concluded that the buildings and gardens were designed on complex, interconnecting grids on both the horizontal and vertical axes. The cross-axial garden served as the focus of the detailed planning, as it was a perfect square.

 

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8. A schematic reconstruction and section of the Taj Mahal complex, Ebba Koch and Ricahard Berraud, The Complete Taj Mahal.

 

“ The entire complex was conceived on modular grids, not only in plan, but also in elevation. Individual elements and features, in the outer buildings as well, are skillfully integrated into the overall scheme, combining various grids with remarkable dexterity.

The results of our investigations show that the planning of the Taj Mahal cannot be reconstructed by putting a decimal grid over the whole complex, and explaining away the features that do not fit into it, but that it was a much more complex procedure deeply rooted in indigenous building traditions.”

          -Richard Berraud

Shah Jahan’s vision of paradise goes beyond fulfilling the requirements for normal tomb. He wished to come as close to “perfection” as possible. In this endeavour, he has used elements of Mughal traditions, Islamic influences and symbolism, elements of Indian indigenous construction, and particulars of Western design, alongside his own design aesthetic. As a result, the Taj Mahal is a many layered, highly detailed and complex architectural site.

In consideration of the above, it is evident that the concept of architectural mobility; for which in this instance the Mughals are agents, does not compromise the originality or the uniqueness of the Taj Mahal complex. Instead, it makes it a hybrid of outstanding excellence and splendour.

 

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Endnotes:

1.Francis D.K. Ching, Mark Jarzombek, and Vikramaditya Prakash, A Global History of Architecture, (Hoboken, N.J.: J. Wiley & Sons, 2007), xi.

2.Diana Preston and Michael Preston, Taj Mahal: Passion and Genius at the Heart of the Mughal Empire, Taj Mahal, (New York: Walker & Co, 2007),

3. 3.John Lall, Taj Mahal & The Glory Of Mughal Agra., (Varanasi: Lustre Press, 1982), 68.

4.Ching, Jarzombek, and Prakash, Global History, 503.

5.Ching, Jarzombek, and Prakash, Global History, 506.

6.Ching, Jarzombek, and Prakash, Global History, 507.

7.Ebba Koch, Mughal Architecture, (Federal Republic of Germany: Prestel, 1991), 218.

8.Ebba Koch, The Complete Taj Mahal, (London: Thames & Hudson, 2006), 225.

9.Bianca Maria Alfieri, Islamic architecture of the Indian Subcontinent, (London, WC: Laurence King Pub., 2000), 152.

10.Stephen-knapp.com. ‘Taj Mahal: Was It A Vedic Temple?’ Accessed September 6th 2014 http://www.stephenknapp.com/was_the_taj_mahal_a_vedic_temple.htm. 06/11/2014

  1. Preston and Preston, Taj Mahal, 164.

12.Koch, The Complete Taj Mahal, 238.

13.Ching, Jarzombek, Prakash, Global History , 507.

14.Alfieri, Islamic Architecture , 254.

15.Lall, Taj Mahal, 34.

16.Ching, Jarzombek, and Prakash, Global History , 507.

17.Catherine B. Asher, Architecture Of Mughal India, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 219

18.Alfieri, Islamic Architecture, 256.

19.Ching, Jarzombek, and Prakash, Global History, 507.

20.Koch, The Complete Taj Mahal, 228.

21.Alfieri, Islamic Architecture, 250.

Bibliography:

Alfieri, Bianca Maria, and F. Borromeo. Islamic Architecture Of The Indian Subcontinent. London, WC: Laurence King Pub., 2000.

Asher, Catherine B. Architecture Of Mughal India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Ching, Frank, Mark Jarzombek, and Vikramaditya Prakash. A Global History Of Architecture. Hoboken, N.J.: J. Wiley & Sons, 2007.

Koch, Ebba. Mughal Architecture. Federal Republic of Germany: Prestel, 1991.

Koch, Ebba, and Richard Andre´ Barraud. The Complete Taj Mahal. London: Thames & Hudson, 2006.

Lall, J. S, and D. N Dube. Taj Mahal & The Glory Of Mughal Agra. Varanasi: Lustre Press, 1982.

Preston, Diana, and Michael Preston. Taj Mahal. New York: Walker & Co, 2007.

Stephen-knapp.com. ‘Taj Mahal: Was It A Vedic Temple?’. http://www.stephen-knapp.com/was_the_taj_mahal_a_vedic_temple.htm. 06/11/2014.

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