Shah Jahan and his architectural triumphs: The Taj Mahal and the Red Fort

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Shah Jahan’s Taj Mahal in Agra. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

IO – If you were to go to India what is the site that you are most likely to visit? For most people the answer is the Taj Ma­hal. Everyone still remembers Lady Di­ana’s silent message about the state of her relationship with Prince Charles as she allowed herself to be photographed sitting alone in front of the monument which is the epitome of undying love. In his recent visit to India Prime Minis­ter Justin Trudeau also did not miss a tour of the Taj Mahal.

With a population of 1.324 billion India has the largest number of Hin­dus in the world. Nevertheless, when one mentions India, what comes to mind the world over is a Muslim mon­ument: the Taj Mahal. How do Hindus feel about their country being identified by a Muslim monument? Nina Taneja, a suburban housewife in Delhi says, “I feel fine. The Taj Mahal is romantic and lovely. I’ve never thought of it in a reli­gious context. It was just Shah Jahan’s gift to express his love for his Begum Mumtaz Mahal. No one in India really worries about it being built by a Mus­lim except perhaps a few fundamental­ist Hindus.”

Actually, a similar question could be posed to Indonesians. How do Indo­nesians in the largest Muslim majority country feel about the most renown heritage monument in Indonesia, the Borobodur being a Buddhist structure? Aryanti Damayanti, a Jakarta design­er expressed similar sentiments, “I see the Borobodur as a sacred space and a historical monument. I don’t really see it as Buddhist but I don’t think that In­donesians mind it being used at times for Buddhist ceremonies. We are proud that it is one of the seven wonders of the world.”

The Taj Mahal and the Borobodur have certain similarities in that the one is a Buddhist structure in a predomi­nantly Muslim country and the other is a Muslim structure in a predominantly Hindu country and each are symbols of their country. Both are religious heritage buildings that are still used at times for religious ceremonies. The Taj Mahal is closed on Fridays except to Muslims who may go there for Friday prayers. The main building which is the tomb of Shah Jahan and his wife, has two buildings on either side of it which are replicas of each other. The one is the mosque for Muslim Friday prayers. The Borobodur is a Buddhist temple and on special Buddhist celebrations such as Waisak, the Borobodur is used for Buddhist ceremonies by its worshippers. So, in both countries the main heritage monument is that of a minority religion. The main reason this does not pose a problem is because both countries are pluralist democra­cies. Their constitutions, both guaran­tee freedom of religion. Enny Widya, a lawyer who lives in Jakarta expressed it succinctly, “I am a nationalist. Indo­nesia consists of many religions. Its not only Islam that can be a symbol for In­donesia, the other religions can as well. The Borobodur was created long before the arrival of Islam in Indonesia and it was the world that designated it one of the seven wonders of the world, and I am fine with the Borobodur represent­ing Indonesia.”

The architectural historian, Phil­ip Davies describes the Taj Mahal as representing the architectural climax of Indo-Islamic architecture. “It is a monument of unique perfection.” And this is perhaps where part of the an­swer lies to why Indians of both Mus­lim and Hindu faith are proud of the Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal is the ulti­mate product of Mughul architecture and art and it was under the Mughal Emperor Akbar that a distinctive new style of architecture evolved which was a synthesis of Hindu-Muslim el­ements.

Who then were the Mughals who ruled India and crated such wonders of Indian architecture?

The Taj Mahal is located in Agra which is roughly 220 kilometers from Delhi. In the Mahabharata it is re­ferred to as “Agrabana” or “Paradise” although the earliest archaeological evidence dates it to about 500 years ago. It first came into prominence when Sikander Lodi of the Afghan dy­nasty moved his capital there in 1501. However, in 1526 his son Ibrahim Lodi lost Agra to Babur, who was a Turk. Babur was a descendant of the Tar­tars. On his father’s side he was de­scended from Timur (also known as Tamerlane who established an empire which included parts of Turkistan, Af­ghanistan, Persia, Syria, Qurdistan, Baghdad, Georgia and the major part of Asia Minor) and from his mother’s side from Genghis Khan, (who estab­lished the Mongol Empire, which be­came the largest contiguous empire in history). So, Babur, clearly had con­quest in his blood from among the most successful conquerors in the world. He became the first Mughal monarch.

The Mughals ruled India for roughly a hundred and eighty years from 1526 till 1707. Babur only ruled for four years but he created the first significant Persian architecture of the Mughals. That was Rambagh which was a Per­sian pleasure garden with fountains, symmetrical waterways and pathways. He longed for the green of Samarkhand and created a garden on the Persian Charbagh pattern filled with scented flowers and fruit trees. The Archaeo­logical Survey of India is recreating this garden and when visiting the Taj Mahal in Agra, it is a shame not to include it in the itinerary.

Babur’s son Humayun built a new capital in Delhi and invited Persian art­ists to his court who began a Mughal school of miniature paintings which be­came renown throughout India. After he died his wife built him a tomb which is now located in the Lodi Gardens in New Delhi and this tomb has come to be regarded as the precursor to the Taj Mahal. Humayun’s son Akbar came to the throne when he was barely 14 years old but eventually came to be regarded as the greatest of the Mughal emperors for he was able to greatly expand the Mughal empire and to unite the Muslim and Hindu peoples of India.

Both Humayun as well as Akbar had a policy of conciliation with defeat­ed enemies and were keen to obtain the support of Hindus in order to be able to build strong and stable governments. Akbar in fact married a Hindu princess called Jodha Bai and it was her son Prince Salim who later became the next Mughal emperor, Jahangir who was seen as a living synthesis of Muslim and Hindu society. It was also under Akbar – as said previously – that the synthesis between Hindu and Muslim architecture began.

Jahangir who loved literature and miniature paintings (which reached their zenith during his reign) spent most of his time in the beautiful Kash­mir valley. He left most of the affairs of state to his well-loved wife, Nur Jah­an (Light of the World). After his death he was buried in a grand mausoleum built by his wife 8 kilometers to the north of Agra at Sikander.

Like Jahangir Nur Jahan was high­ly educated and cultured and loved po­etry, music and painting. She herself was an artist who created new styles of ornamentation and decoration. But it was through architecture that her excellent taste can still be seen. Be­side the mausoleum for her husband she built a beautiful mausoleum for her parents, the Itmad-ud-Daulah, on the east bank of the Yamuna in Agra. It has been said to be aesthetically on a par with the Taj Mahal, although far smaller and less grand and it is well worth seeing when visiting Agra. Here, the white marble and delicate surface details show the transitional phase be­tween the architecture of Akbar and Shah Jahan which shows more Per­sian influence.

Jahangir’s son was the famous Shah Jahan who built the Taj Mahal. It is one of the mysteries of mankind that a man who could so ruthlessly slaughter his brothers and their chil­dren in order to gain the throne, could also love his wife so deeply that he cre­ated the Taj Mahal as a symbol of their eternal love.

Mumtaz Mahal means “the exalted one of the palace” and she and Shah Jahan loved each other so much that she even accompanied him when he went to war. In 1631 on a military campaign she died while giving birth to their 14th child. It is recorded that Shah Jahan’s hair turned white over­night and his one wish was to build a beautiful mausoleum for her that would symbolize their everlasting love. It took 22 years to build with nearly 20,000 Hindu and Muslim workers toiling away. White marble was brought from Rajasthan and sand stone from Fatehpuri Sikri and a variety of jewels and precious metals from Persia, Iraq, China, Burma and Europe.

The Taj Mahal is 74,21 meters in height and 17 meters in width. Its white marble is responsive to every change of light especially the moonlight (it is pos­sible to book visits to see it in the moon­light) and its gardens were designed to evoke the gardens of paradise. The walls of the Taj Mahal are decorated with exquisite inlay work with precious and semi-precious jewels in the form of lilies, irises, narcissi, carnations and tulips – reflecting the Mughals’ love of gardens. Under the dome of the mau­soleum is the cenotaph. The tomb of Mumtaz rests at the centre surround­ed by carved marble screens decorated with precious stones. Many years later the tomb of Shah Jahan was placed be­side hers. In fact the actual cenotaphs containing their bodies lies in a crypt below. The Taj Mahal has four long white marble minarets and at the back it looks out over the Yamuna River. On either side of the mausoleum stands a red sand stone building. One is a mosque and the other is a guest house.

Later Shah Jahan moved from Agra to Delhi where he built a wondrous walled city called Shajahanabad. It was completed in 1648 and became the capital of the Mughal Empire until 1857 when much of it was destroyed by the British. In the centre of it he built the Red Fort or Lal Qila which became the residence of the Mughal emperors and which remains standing today.

The Red Fort was built with red sand stone and marble and consists of many pavilions and buildings amidst beautiful gardens including the white marble Moti Mahal or Pearl Mosque. At its entrance stands the Naubat Khana (Drum House) where musicians would play to announce the arrival of the em­peror or august guests. Nearly all In­dian palaces have a naubat khana at their entrance. In another building the Diwan-i-Am (Hall of Public Audience) stands a marble canopy in which once stood the famous peacock throne. This was a sumptuous throne made of gold inlaid with some of the most valuable precious stones in the world including the Koh-i-Noor diamond. The throne which was stolen by the Persians during their attack on Delhi in 1739, now no longer exists. The pavilions are beautifully carved and some were inlaid with semi-precious stones sit­ting in gardens with scented flowers, fountains and water ways. A verse has been carved on the north and south walls of the Diwan-i-Am: “If there be a paradise on earth, it is here! It is here! It is here!”

To have a better understand of the architectural genius of Shah Jahan one should see both the the Taj Ma­hal as well as the Red Fort. Neverthe­less, it is the Taj Mahal that has been judged by many to be the most beau­tiful building on earth. It is regal and grand and yet at the same time also delicate, beautiful and moving. The Belgian writer Dirk Collier in his book, “The Great Mughals and their India”, writes, “The Taj Mahal is the zenith of Mughal building art. It is arguably the dynasty’s greatest achievement and its most permanent legacy to humankind. And this is why despite all his faults as a monarch and as a human being, Shah Jahan fully deserves his place in the pantheon of the most magnificent rulers this planet has ever witnessed.”

Rabindranath Tagore India’s poet laureate who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1913 expressed the won­der of the Taj Mahal in verse:

“Only let this one tear drop
This Taj Mahal glisten spotlessly bright
On the Cheek of Time for ever and ever…
….. Oh King you sought to harm time
With the magic of beauty, and weave a garland
That would blind formless death with deathless form….
This mausoleum stands still and unmoving in its place
Here on this dusty earth
It keeps death tenderly covered in the shroud of memory.

(Tamalia Alisjahbana)