Agra, Uttar Pradesh
Shah Jahan was one of the greatest builders in history, and his mind-boggling mosques grace many cities throughout India and Pakistan. However, it is not for his mosques for which he is best known, but rather for a mausoleum, the Taj Mahal. Built in memory of his beloved wife, the Taj Mahal is many things; an Islamic shrine, a monument to love, and the tomb of one of the greatest Muslim emperors in history. It is not only Shah Jahan’s greatest masterpiece, it is considered to be the greatest triumph of Muslim architecture anywhere in the world. Some go further, asserting that the Taj Mahal is the most beautiful building on Earth, a claim that is not without merit. The Taj Mahal was recently voted among the New Seven Wonders, the only Muslim site to be so honored. The Taj Mahal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Of all of the masterful architectural works of Shah Jahan, the Taj Mahal is the one most intimately caught up in his personal life. It was built as a monument to love, but also became the site of his own final resting place. In 1631, only three years after coming to the throne, Shah Jahan’s beloved second wife Mumtaz Mahal died while giving birth to her fourteenth child. The loss crushed the emperor, who was nearly destroyed from grief. To assuage his sorrow, he decided to build for her the most magnificent mausoleum in the history of the world, a vow which he fulfilled in a most adequate fashion.
Twenty thousand laborers were conscripted; the finest marble and other valuable materials were acquired in unprecedented quantity. The cost was absolutely staggering. Twenty-three years later, the Taj Mahal, one of the most beautiful buildings ever constructed, was complete. In a solemn ceremony Shah Jahan laid his wife Mumtaz Mahal to rest inside. The construction of the tomb seemed to have been therapeutic for Shah Jahan, as he lived long enough not only to see the Taj Mahal completed but twelve years beyond as well.
Unfortunately, his reign was effectively over in 1657. In that year, he took ill, and his throne was usurped by his sons. Shah Jahan was imprisoned within Agra’s Red Fort. Despite the large number of women of the court that joined him during his incarceration, tradition holds that he spent his remaining decade pining for his lost wife. A series of mirrors were erected around the Red Fort so that he could see the Taj Mahal from many places. It is said that as his last breath left him, he gazed one more time at the tomb of his wife. After his death, it was decided entomb the emperor within the Taj Mahal as well.
The mausoleum, which had become famous throughout Asia, was already packing in visitors from all over the subcontinent. But with the internment of one of the greatest monarchs in the eastern Islamic world, the Taj Mahal was transformed into a place of sacred pilgrimage. In addition to the hordes of Muslims that venerate the shrine annually, countless Hindus, Christians and others also travel to Agra from around the world in order to come to gaze on the sheer beauty of the place. Today it is the most visited site in India and one of the most beloved buildings in the world.
To say that the Taj Mahal is beautiful is an understatement. Built using a mélange of Middle Eastern, Persian, Indian and Turkish architecture, virtually every square inch of the place is visually extravagant. The entire complex is enclosed in a great red sandstone wall. The main entranceway, the darwaza, is an impressive building in and of itself. Built like a small fortress in matching red sandstone, it was designed to resemble the main building. The grounds are expansive, with gardens covering twenty four acres, and incorporating a wide variety of neatly arranged trees, flowers, paths, fountains and the like, as well as the famous reflecting pool. Two additional identical red sandstone buildings flank the shrine. The one to the west is the Taj Mahal Mosque, while the one to the east was likely meant to be used as a guesthouse.
The centerpiece of the complex, of course, is the towering white marble tomb of Shah Jahan and his wife. It utterly dominates the complex and the skyline of the City of Agra. Constructed almost entirely out of white marble, the main building is a masterpiece of symmetry. The exterior walls are graced with two levels of recessed balconies flanking massive Persian-arched entranceways. Intricate designs are painted or engraved on almost every square inch. The four small domes at the corners are dwarfed by the immense central onion dome, one of the finest in the world. The dome is topped with a gilded spire. Four towering white minarets complete the exterior. The interior is similarly breathtaking, inlaid with a wealth of gemstones and precious metals. The tomb, located in the center of the complex, is also constructed with a jaw-dropping amount of precious items, as is the eight-paneled screen that guards it.
The Taj Mahal occupies an immense complex on the banks of the Yamuna River on the eastern outskirts of Agra, approximately 115 miles south of Delhi. It is open to visitors of all faiths, and they do come in great throngs, so expect crowds whenever you visit. The Taj Mahal is open Tuesdays through Sundays from dawn until dusk. The cost of admission is Rs105.00. Web: www.uptourism.gov.in/Agra (official tourism website of Agra)
Agra the surrounding area has numerous other spectacular monuments constructed by Shah Jahan. The most important and best known is the Agra Fort, where he was imprisoned during the later years of his life, as well as the Jama Masjid of Agra. Nearby in Delhi is the Delhi Fort and the Jama Masjid of Delhi.