Monday, August 29, 2011

Chasing the Taj Mahal Dream 3 - Up Close With a World Wonder

Reflecting pool

In this post, we try to graze the surface in re-examining the Taj Mahal the way we saw it. Though didactic details are a bit tedious, this post will focus more on a layman’s perspective in as much as pictographic display doesn’t really give justice to the precise architectural form of the Taj. What was it really like? In bits and pieces, we delve into the amazing artistry of the mausoleum. “Maganda ba talaga?” (Was it really beautiful?) was how a friend would egg us on its real merits. If there were 50 things in life that should not be missed, in my book, this would be among my top 5.

At several times of the day, the white Makrana marbles take a yellowish hue as the bright Indian sun gleams its light over the structure, thus many of the photos has the Taj Mahal in several shades of light yellow. Others have attributed this to environmental pollution, i.e. acid rain. In the past, they’ve singled out the Mathura Oil Refinery. As a result of this, the government has set up an anti-pollution zone (called Taj Trapezium Zone) covering a 10,400 kilometer radius surrounding the monument where strict emissions standards are in place. This is why autorickshaws are kept at bay and have to keep their distance from the Taj Mahal. These CNG’s can only drive from a certain distance.

Most mughal architecture employs the use of red sandstones, thus its probably one of the most common feature when one mentions “Mughal architecture”. Emperor Shah Jahan wanted something unique, something that to him denoted “purity” and what could better represent this than white marbles? These marbles, octagonal in form, stand on a square base (plinth). An “iwan” – the arched doorway – welcomes visitors. Just at the top of this is the onion-shaped dome with a lotus design. At each side of this main doorway, we find two smaller arches that function as balconies stacked under and above each other.

In this photo (above) we see the base of the Taj Mahal in its octagonal form. This particular corner slab has balconies, one on each floor. These corner slabs are found at each side of the architectural form, giving the structure its octagonal, i.e. "8-sided", form.

Spandrel detail.

The calligraphy found at the great gate, adorning the archway (see previous post for photo) has been inlaid with black marbles or jaspers (crypto-crystalline quarts usually colored red). Throughout the complex, passages from the Koran are used as decorative elements since anthropometric figures are frowned upon in mosques and Muslim mausoleums. These tasteful calligraphies were created by Abdul Haq in 1609. Shah Jahan was so impressed with Haq's work that he eventually conferred him the title of "Amanat Khan" as a reward for his "dazzling virtuosity".


Great men from this time and place used to rename subordinates as they see fit when they perform laudable feats. In fact, Shah Jahan himself was renamed as such by his father Jahangir. His name rightfully meant "King of the World". Move over, Leonardo di Caprio. For the most part, he deserved every accolade as he ruled the Mughal empire at its peak. And really now, check out Shah Jahan's historical ancestry: he is a descendant of Genghis Khan, emperor of the Mongol Empire; and of Tamerlane; of Emperor Charlemagne, et. al. Even Shah Jahan himself was prone to re-christenings.

Though earlier married, Shah Jahan took his 3rd wedding vow at age 15 to a 14 year old beauty who so dazzled him. She was the grand daughter of a Persian noble. Her name was Arjumand Banu Begum. He found her "appearance and character elect among all women of that time" and gave her the title "Mumtaz Mahal" which meant "Jewel of the Palace". All through Shah Jahan's reign, Mumtaz was so devoted to her husband, she never had political ambitions. She traveled with him whenever he was to lead some conquests and political campaigns. In fact, it was in one of such campaigns that, despite heavy with a child, she joined her husband and eventually died of child birth. The emperor was gutted.

A Jali screen (above) surrounds the cenotaphs - 2 of them stand beside each other, representing the tombs of Mumtaz and her beloved emperor Shah Jahan.

The marble dome that surmounts the tomb rises to a height of 115 ft (35 meters). It sits on a cylindrical drum that accentuates this bullous structure. The top has a lotus design, while 4 smaller domed chattris (kiosks) are found framing this onion-shaped center piece. These kiosks open through the roof of the tomb illuminating the interiors of the mausoleum.

There are thinner spires called guldastas shown above. At the top of each dome are gilded finials, i.e. small, ornamental, terminal features at the top of the domes. They were originally made of gold, but has since been replaced with gilded bronze in the early 19th century.

The photo above shows one of the 4 minarets that adorn each corner of the base plinth of the Taj Mahal. This minaret is found at the back of the mausoleum, facing the Yamuna River. Four minarets are found at each corner of the plinth (base). They rise 130 feet tall (40 meters). They were designed as working towers where muezzins used to call the faithful for prayers. Each minaret has 3 balconies encircling the towers, the topmost seems like a lookout post, topped by a chattri.

Idyllic scenery at the back of the Taj Mahal across the holy river. Its foggy appearance remains most of the day which underlines the lingering pollution that besets Agra. However, this also provides a dreamy backdrop to its scenery like this photo below which looks like a water color dream.

The Taj Mahal is cloistered by red sandstone gates with princely guard houses (see above) typical of Mughal structures and their indo-saracenic form.

Floral designs adorn the arches of the gates.

Ustad Ahmad Lahouri was appointed the chief architect in the construction of the Taj Mahal, although he had a couple more associates. Typically Persian, he constantly consulted the emperor in every structural detail. Jahan even held daily meetings to see through the construction. For 21 long years, they persevered. Court chronicles point to Jahan's "appropriate alterations to whatever the skillful architects designed after many thoughts, and asked competent questions." He knew exactly what he wanted and how he wanted it done.

Love indeed inspires masterpieces.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Balconies found at the red sandstone gates.

These hallways, mostly empty, connect to the gates from each side.

A cycle rickshaw driver waits outside the gates of the Taj Mahal.