Taj Mahal : The Architecture of Love

by FSTC Published on: 4th November 2004

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"The whole together appears like a most perfect pearl on an azure ground. The effect is such as, I confess, I never experienced from any work of art. The fine materials, the beautiful forms, and the symmetry of the whole, with the judicious choice of situation, far surpass anything I ever beheld" Danby Miles


Muslims introduced to India many building types amongst which was the mausoleum. This is a structure generally of octagonal form built to accommodate the tomb of an important man or woman. The practice of building mausoleums was spread by the Seljuks during the 11th and 12th centuries. During the 16th century the design of these buildings saw a considerable elaboration, especially in Safavid Iran and Mughal India, reaching majestic proportions set within garden courtyards, amid groves of trees, flower-beds, fountains and water-channels [1]. Such developments raised concern and sometimes the opposition of Islamic orthodoxy, which considers these memorials as dangerously excessive reverence of dead people. The issue takes on a serious dimension with the spread of a number of traditions involving giving offerings and gifts, including elaborately patterned and inscribed garments in cotton, linen or even silk; all of which express an over exaltation and devotion of the dead person buried in the mausoleum which Islam clearly rejects. An authentic hadith that the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) said:

Beware of those who preceded you and used to take the graves of their prophets and righteous men as places of worship, but you must not take graves as mosques; I forbid you to do that [2].

We state this here just to clarify the legal positions held by some in Islam which oppose mausoleums. Islam condemns any kind of worship and servitude of people rather than of God Almighty, as well as anything that leads to it.

The Taj Mahal

The consensus of academics and historians established that the Mughal rule was the golden age of Muslim architecture in India, especially under the reign of Akbar (1542-1605) Jahangir (1605-1627) and Shah Jahan (1628-1658). Known for their cultural attainment, these rulers; father, son and grandson, fostered large building projects displaying both the riches of the empire and the relative peace and stability which were regained under their reign. King Akbar, for example, is renowned for setting up a school of painting, the first of its kind in the Islamic world, producing much of the best Muslim paintings. Akbar, and his sons, drew their styles and designs from their ancestors [3]; the Timurids and the Persians. They inherited these models and recruited architects and artists from those regions to carry out the work. Akbar’s major endeavour was the foundation of a whole new city of Fatehpur Sikri, some 25 miles west of Agra, in 1571. Following similar design principals to those found in Isfahan, the buildings of the city consisted of homogenous red buildings made of the famous Indian red sandstone [4] and contained within strong ramparts. The most renowned buildings of Akbar were the so called Buland Darwaza, a monumental portal of Fatehpur Sikri mosque, and Humayun mausoleum, which he built for his deceased father.

Jahangir was renowned for his love of landscape design and gardening. Under his rule landscape painting flourished and numerous large gardens, parks and water features were designed including the famous garden of Shalimar-Bagh in Kashmir. The influence of Persian gardens and miniatures on these works is well documented. In architecture, Jahangir’s work is displayed in the mausoleum of I’timad ad-Dawlah (Pillar of the State), built at Agra for his father-in-law who died in 1622. In addition to its location in a large quadripartite garden, it was the first structure in India in which white marble replaces red sandstone as the ground for the polychrome pietra dura inlay [5].

Source: www.icomos.org/.../ind_agra_taj_mahal_plan.htm
General plan of the Mausoleum complex.

His son Shah Jahan followed in his father’s footsteps embarking on large construction programmes [6]. His reign is also notable for its creative activity, especially in the domains of the arts of calligraphy and painting. His court was renowned for its luxury and magnificence which was displayed in the fine collections of jewels which Shah Jahan had. The climax of such activity, however, was in the masterpiece of the Taj Mahal, the ultimate expression of Mughal architecture.

This world landmark was built in memory of the favourite wife of Shah Jahan, Mumtaz Mahal [7], who died prematurely in 1631. Stories of the grief of the emperor say that he wept so much that his eyes were swollen and he had to wear spectacles to hide them [8], and his grief was so great that his hair is said to have turned white in just few days after her death [9]. To bring some peace to his mind, advisors recommended that he should build for her a great mausoleum [10]. The bereaved emperor gathered architects and craftsmen from all over the Islamic world to construct a tomb deserving of holding such a memory. After sixteen years of laborious work involving over twenty thousand workmen and master craftsmen [11], the complex was finally completed in 1648. The choice of the name was no less impressive; the “Taj Mahal”, meaning the “Crown Palace” which expresses both its architectural splendour as one of the finest buildings and its memorial significance as the crown of Mumtaz, the Empress.

Plan and Character

Academics relate that the plan of the Taj Mahal represents an elaboration of Humayun mausoleum built by Akbar for his father Sayid Muhammed (1562-71) which introduced, for the first time in India, many of the features found in Taj Mahal. The first of these is the setting of the mausoleum on a high platform, an analogue to the throne (takht). The complex is preceded by a large garden divided into four symmetrical square sections by two marble water canals fitted with fountains and lined with cypress trees,[12]. The canals meet at the centre of the garden forming a square pool. Each of the four squares was subdivided into four subsections which in their turn were subdivided into four square flower beds. This geometrical layout is undoubtedly based on the Persian quadrate plan seen in a number of Safavid gardens. The mausoleum, instead of occupying the central point (as seen in previous Mughal mausoleums including Humayun), stands majestically at the north end overlooking the Jumna River creating a unique visual impact greatly emphasised by the white marble covering the entire construction in contrast with the red sandstone of the adjoining structures; the two royal pavilions, the mosque and the visitors’ lodging. To further emphasise this point, designers of the Taj ensured that the view of the mausoleum is kept clear and unobstructed from any spot in the garden.

The overall character of the Taj displays a great integration of architectural elements of Islamic Asia, incorporating Iranian features such as the octagonal shape, the iwan and pishtaq, Indian features such as the bulbous dome, the chattri and Central Asian features such as the four robust cylindrical minarets. All blended in wonderful geometrical relationships hardly contained within the building. Defined by its four corner minarets, the structure consisted of four corner chambers and axial corridors leading to a central focal point; the chamber accommodating the cenotaph. Further accentuation of this room is expressed by the height and size of its magnificent bulbous dome set on a high drum behind the raised central iwan. In the middle of the domed chamber is a screen of perforated marble through which the white cenotaph of Mumtaz lying beside that of her husband can be seen. The sarcophagus itself is immured in typically Timurid fashion directly below in a crypt.

Source: https://arch.utexas.edu/AV/ARC318L/classwrk/Lect16/TMaxon.html
Detailed plan and a section of the burial Chamber.

In decorative terms, the building was adorned with the three major elements of Muslim decorative arts involving calligraphy, geometry and floral forms presented in the form of frames and borders covering most of the surfaces. Such decor complements the symbolic picture of peacefulness, love and paradise, which were achieved by the rich choice of texture, size and colour.

To further elaborate the Taj Mahal landscape, Shah Jahan raised, on either side of the mausoleum, buildings of red sandstone; a Mosque to the west and a guest hall (mihman khana) to the east; both placed on mirror image to both sides of the mausoleum. The mosque, a rectangular structure supporting three elegant bulbous domes and four minarets, provided the right space for the visiting emperor, and visitors, to pray in. The guest hall is identical to the mosque located on the opposite side of the mausoleum, but having a somewhat  ambiguous function. Many writers questioned its use suggesting that the real factor behind its presence was purely architectural to counterbalance the mosque and preserve the symmetry of the entire design on the platform;

The mosques, built only to balance the composition are set sufficiently far away to do no more than frame the mausoleum. In essence, the whole riverside platform is a mosque courtyard with a tomb at its centre [13]

The last element of the Taj Mahal complex is the entrance gate, a monumental portal (darwaza) made of red stones located south of the complex leading to the gardens. It is a lofty structure in the form of an iwan with a massive central ogee arch and a flat roof equipped with eleven small turrets, famously known as chhattri, raised on columns and topped with small domes. According to some writers:

the great entrance gate with its domed central chamber, set at the end of the long watercourse, would in any other setting be monumental in its own right. [14]

In addition to its function as an entrance gate, the portal stands as a boundary obstacle marking the transition between the real world of hardship and spiritual tests located outside and the peaceful inner world of good spirits rewarded with such elegant gardens, beautiful colours, and luxurious resting space; in other words paradise in a terrestrial form.

Architectural and Design Merit

Source: See Vaugham Philippa (2000), Architecture of the Great Mughals, in Markus Hattstein and peter Delius eds., Islam, Art and Architecture, Konemann, pp.464-493, at p.480.
A sample of plant decor in the Taj Mahal

The general setting of the mausoleum within the huge garden in front of the river Jumna, the balanced proportions conveying a sense of peacefulness, and the majestic decoration carefully executed on the highly polished marble walls, are all elements of the many paradise palaces, described in the Qur’an and the authentic hadeeth. In wanting to reward the soul of his beloved with such a palace on earth, Shah Jahan created such an architectural masterpiece that it stole the hearts of those who visited it and left its imprints on many high-profile buildings in major European countries including, for example, in the Royal Pavilion at Brighton in England.

The greatness of the Taj, however, does not lie in its rich materials alone, nor in its scenic setting, but in another symbolic significance termed by scholars as the architecture of a love story. Such architecture successfully expressed a beautifully caring relationship that existed between Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, a relationship that exceeded the fairy tales of Majnun and Leila and Romeo and Juliet. Yet the mausoleum is only a reflection of a cherished thought that can by no means tell us of the true love the king had for his queen. It is a pity that such a key observation is often neglected by those in the West who accuse Islam and Muslims of bad treatment of women. Shah Jahan’s expression of love for his wife is not in any way contrary to Islamic norms. Whereas other religions have idealised celibacy and monasticism, Islam affirms the relationship of love between man and wife. This love is a quality nurtured by the Qur’an which clearly expressed the nature of relationship between a man and his wife as:

They (women) are your garments and ye are their garments (2:187).

Another verse states that:

And among His Signs is this, that He created for you wives from among yourselves, that you may find repose in them, and He has put between you affection and mercy. Verily, in that are indeed Signs for people who reflect (30:21).

This was further emphasised by Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) who judged the quality of man by his good treatment of his wife declaring:

The best among you is the one who is best to his family (wife), and I am the best among you to my family.

The Taj and Europe

The great merits of the Taj with its sedate calm amplitude, hypnotising proportions and sweet smelling landscape have endeared it to the most exacting critics as well as to the casual loving visitor. Such an appeal was expressed by William Hodges (1744-1797), a famous traveller who wrote:

The whole together appears like a most perfect pearl on an azure ground. The effect is such as, I confess, I never experienced from any work of art. The fine materials, the beautiful forms, and the symmetry of the whole, with the judicious choice of situation, far surpass anything I ever beheld [15]

Similar impressions were recorded by travellers such as Jean Baptiste Tavernier (1605-1686) who was among the first Europeans to see the Taj – in 1641, just eleven years after Shah Jahan started its construction. Tavernier published his work Six Voyages in Paris in 1676, and a year later it was translated into English, with sketches and paintings of the Taj. In his footsteps, we find other influential French travellers including François Bernier (1620-1688) and Jean de Thevenot (1633-1667), both of whom visited the Taj Mahal. Thevenot published his impressions of the Taj in Voyages in Paris in 1684 and in London in 1687, while Bernier published them in Travels in the Mogul Empire. More recently, the late Princess Diana spoke of her delight with the monument and posed in front of it for souvenir pictures that were distributed world wide.

Source: news.bbc.co.uk/.../ newsid_2489000/2489669.stm
Late Princess Diana posing at the Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal also drew critics from a minority of anti-Muslim opinions which questioned its origin, claiming that

..its refined elegance is a conspicuous contrast both to the Hindu architecture of pre-Islamic India, with its thick walls, corbelled arches, and heavy lintels, and to the Indo-Islamic styles, in which Hindu elements are combined with an eclectic assortment of motifs from Persian and Turkish sources[16]

Others went a step further reiterating a strange unproven theory, suggesting that the Taj Mahal was not a result of Muslim genius but rather an Indian or a European one. The chief protagonist of this false claim was Havell who dedicated a voluminous book to discrediting Muslims of their architectural achievements in India. His thesis alleges that much of the so-called Islamic architecture in India was derived essentially from Indian Buddhist origins: The Taj Mahal, in particular is Indian; the raised platform was an Indian practice, the plan was a derivation from the Buddhist temple, the bulbous dome came from a Buddhist decorative theme, the chattri were Indian turrets, and the pointed and ogee arches were developed from Buddhist niches [17] . Such distortions were taken up by some Hindu fanatics who developed this theory further such that some of them claim that Taj Mahal is an Indian temple named Tejomahalay [18], a reminder of their claim of the Ayodhya mosque which was destroyed in 1992 by Hindu mobs.

Despite his exaggerated sympathy for Indian Buddhist architecture, Havell seemed to change his mind about the origin of architects behind the design of the Taj. He nominated an Italian named Geronimo Veroneo as architect. Havell found in the story of Father Sebastian Manrique an opportunity to switch the origin of the Taj greatness to European masters. Manrique, a Spanish Augustinian Friar who visited Agra in 1640 C.E., was the source of the claim that a Venetian Jeweller by the name Geronimo Veroneo who died in Lahore in that year was the chief architect of the Taj. This is not the first time that attempts have been made to attribute a great Muslim achievement to another civilisation. The attempt made by Bargebuhr in his book on Al-Hambra to credit this wonderful monument to the Granadan Jews is another example [19] .

Jairazbhoy, an authority on Indo-Islamic architecture, questioned this claim arguing that

If he (Veroneo) was its architect he must have understood the aloof and lofty idealism of Islam better than any man before or since, and further he must have been a diligent student of Humayun’s Tomb, and the Tomb of Khan Khanan (1626), both at Delhi [20].

It has been confirmed that the architects of Humayun mausoleum were the architects (Muhandis) Mirak Sayid Ghiyath and his son Sayid Muhammad who had their training in Timurid Herat where they built many monuments [21]. Such facts establish the Timurid origin of much of the plan and design of Humayun and consequently the Taj Mahal. Jiarazbhoy was adamant that Ustadh Ahmad, a native of Lahore, who was the chief architect of Shah Jahan, was entrusted with the design as stated by his sons [22]. This explains the origin of the shape of the dome which was prefigured in the Mausoleum of the Prime Minister, Asaf Khan, at Shabdara (1627). A third source adds Turkish input to the design of the monument, indicating that the chief architect of Sultan Akbar was a certain Yusuf, a favourite pupil of the famous Ottoman architect Khoja Mi’mar Sinan (1489-1588). Sinan was the chief designer of much of the Ottoman architecture splendour of the 16th century, including the Suleymaniye and Selimiye mosques, who gained a world-wide reputation reaching Venice itself. Yusuf was behind the building of most of the splendour of Lahore, Delhi and Agra [23].

[1] Hillenbrand, Robert (1994), Islamic architecture: form, function and meaning, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, p.293.

[2] The full hadeeth: Jundub reported: I heard from the Apostle of Allah (may peace be upon him) five days before his death and he said: I stand acquitted before Allah that I took any one of you as friend, for Allah has taken me as His friend, as he took Ibrahim as His friend. Had I taken any one of my Ummah as a friend, I would have taken Abu Bakr as a friend. Beware of those who preceded you and used to take the graves of their prophets and righteous men as places of worship, but you must not take graves as mosques; I forbid you to do that. (Sahih Muslim, Book 004, Hadeeth Number 1083)

[3] The Mughal Caliphate, in India, began with a certain prince named Babur, a descendant of both Chingiz Khan and Timur, who defeated the last Lodi emperor in 1526, establishing the Mughal (Persian for Mongol) domination of northern India for the next 250 years. Babur was one the grandfathers of King Akbar.

[4] Bloom, J. & Blair, S. (1998), Islamic Arts, Phaidon Press, London, p.322.

[5] Bloom, J. and Blair, S. (1994). The Art and Architecture of Islam: 1250-1800 New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

[6] One of his magnificent constructions is the Pearl Mosque (1646-53) largely covered by white marble giving it a rather cold and impersonal look.

[7] She was very close to him and bore him fourteen children.

[8] A poet named Abu Hamdani (d. 1652), also known as Kalim, wrote a poem describing the grief of the emperor in his Padshahnameh:
The King of kings cried out with grief
Like an ocean raging with storm,
The aggrieved heart lost its control
How can wine remain when the goblet is broken
His two eyes competed with each other
Each claiming to shed a larger share of the heart’s blood.

See Vaugham Philippa (2000), Architecture of the Great Mughals, in Markus Hattstein and Peter Delius eds., Islam, Art and Architecture, Konemann, pp.464-493, at p.479.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Some stories claim that Mumtaz Mahal herself begged him to build the Taj for her memory.

[11] For full list of stones, names and wages of workmen, expenditure on various items, and some measurements see H. M. Azeez Hassan (1903), A brief History of the Taj, Agra, pp. 11-15, translated from “an old Persian MS.’According to Qasim Aii Khan Afridi (l77l-1827) a wooden model was first made before the Taj was begun. (Diwan-i-Afridi, 23a; J. Sarkar (1912), Anecdotes of Aurangzeb and Historical Essays, pp. 148-9. all cited in Jairazbhoy , R.A. (1972), An Outline of Islamic Architecture, Asia Publishing House, Bombay, London and New York, p.330.

[12] A symbol of death.

[13] Banister Fletcher (1987), A History of Architecture, Butterworths, Boston, p.624.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Quoted by Danby Miles, (1995), Moorish style, Phaidon, London, p.154.

[16] Marvin Trachtenberg and Isabelle Hyman (1986), Architecture: from Prehistory to Post-Modernism, Harry N. Abrams, New York, p223.

[17] For details consult Havell, E. B. (Ernest Binfield) (1913), Indian architecture, J. Murray, London.

[18] The chief advocator of this claim is P.N.Oak (1989), Taj Mahal: the true story, A. Gosh publishers, first published 1968.

[19] Bargebuhr, F.P.(1968), The Alhambra, a cycle of studies on the eleventh century in Moorish Spain, Walter de Gruyter & Co., Berlin.

[20] Jairazbhoy, R.A. (1972), An Outline of Islamic Architecture, Asia Publishing House, Bombay, London and New York.p.329.

[21] Vaughan, Philippa (2000), Architecture of the Great Mughals, op. cit., p.475.

[22] Jairazbhoy, R.A. (1972), An Outline of Islamic Architecture, op. cit. p.329.

[23] See Goodwin Godfrey (1987), A History of Ottoman Architecture“, Thames and Hudson, London.

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