Taj Mahal: Labor of Love
The Taj Mahal, the magnificent tomb built by Shah Jahan in memory of his second wife, is indisputably one of the most magnificent architectural masterpieces of all time.
Queen Mumtaz Mahal, the second and favorite wife of the Shah and his constant companion for 17 years, died in childbirth in 1629. Overwhelmed with grief, it is said that the Shah contemplated abdication of his throne but instead decided to built a monument to Mumtaz that would equal no other. As the body of the dead queen was brought to Agra in India to rest in a garden on the banks of the river Jamuna, the shah assembled a group of the most brilliant architects and craftspeople in the land to design her tomb. The design and execution of the Taj Mahal is not the work of any one person but a collection of 37 men that included architects, sculptors, mosaicists, calligraphers and masons along with a workforce of 20,000 men. The tomb took 22 years to complete.
Built during the Mughal Period, The Taj Mahal is an excellent example of the golden age of Muslim architecture. The design of the complex incorporates Iranian features such as octagonal shape, Indian features such as the bulbous dome and Asian features such as cylindrical minarets. Muslim decorative arts include calligraphy, geometry and flower forms. Most important was the ideal of symmetry as a major element in the design of the Taj Mahal.
The Taj Mahal that we often see in photographs is actually a cluster of structures and gardens that center about the mausoleum itself and its name is thought to be a shortened version of name Mumtaz Mahal in whose memory the structure was built. The Water Gardens, the Mosque, the Rest House and the Gateway are symmetrically laid out around the Taj Mahal to form a harmonious whole.
The Taj Mahal itself is constructed entirely of white makrana marble upon a rectangular base that is flanked by four minarets, tall spires with onion-shaped crowns, that rise to a height of 138 feet. The central dome that reaches a height of nearly 200 feet, is surrounded by four other smaller domes and a series of double arches, one over the other. To each section is attached a pilaster which is crowned by beautiful pinnacles that are adorned with lotus buds. The caskets of the dead queen and later, the shah, reside in an octagonal chamber surrounded by two stories of eight rooms. The caskets themselves are surrounded by an octagonal screen of marble more than six feet in height. The bodies are oriented north to south with their faces toward Mecca, the holy city.
The Mosque is a red sandstone structure to the west of the tomb, facing Mecca, and is used for prayer. On the east side of the tomb is a duplicate structure called the Rest House or Jawab, meaning “answer.“ Because it faces away from Mecca, it has never been used for prayer but perhaps was created to complete the symmetrical arrangement of the complex. The Gateway consists of a lofty central arch with octagonal towers and a series of chattri, umbrella-like marble cupolas. A series of rooms with long, winding hallways are part of the gateway, their purpose unknown.
The Gardens, graced by two intersecting water canals and lined with cypress trees, are located between the Gateway and the Mausoleum. At the center of the gardens is a raised marble water pool that perfectly reflects the Taj Mahal. The arrangement of flowerbeds do not suggest a “natural” look but instead seek to embody calculated symmetry. A clever method of ensuring uniform water pressure in the fountains that grace the water canals makes use of copper pots under each fountain pipe that are fed by earthenware pipes from the river.
The buildings of the Taj Mahal are at once simple and ornate. The apparently flat marble surfaces of the Tomb take on the color of the sky from a distance yet when viewed at closer range reveal remarkably elaborate ornamentation. Three major forms of ornamentation are marble carving, calligraphy, incised paintings and pietra dura, thin sections of carved gems inlaid in marble. Incised paintings are created by placing a thin layer of colored pigment over white plaster and then scraping away the paint to create the desired design in white. Motifs used in embellishment include geometric and plant designs and arabesques as well as flowers, particularly the lotus blossom. Calligraphy is primarily composed of verses from the Koran, the Muslim holy book. Gemstones used in pietra dura of the Taj Mahal include jade, turquoise, lapis lazuli, sapphire and carnelian.
To view an excellent virtual tour of the Taj Mahal, click here, then click on the link entitled “Explore the Taj Mahal.”
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Diana Blake is a professional artist and art history enthusiast. Her fascination with art history began when she encountered European art firsthand during several trips abroad as a young adult. As she began to compose a portfolio for her own art career, she called upon what she had seen in Europe and extended her knowledge to other styles of art through profuse reading and exhaustive research. As a result, Diana has written more than one hundred articles in which she delves into a variety of art history topics and she has compiled a list of links that she believes to be invaluable for art history enthusiasts. In addition, she also reviews books and movies on the topic of art history and has assembled an extensive list of online stores that sell books, movies and gift items related to art history.
You can see Diana's own artwork by visiting her site at www.dianablake.net.