For many, the Taj Mahal is the most impressive monument built for love, an eternal testament to a husband’s devotion to his wife. For others, it represents the perfection of architectural planning and excellent craftsmanship. Regardless, the marble mausoleum is considered to be the icon of India and the greatest architectural achievement of the Mughal dynasty.
No matter how often I had seen the Taj Mahal in photos and films, the real thing was more awe-inspiring than I could imagine. From the gleaming marble dome and the ivory-white façade to the exquisite decoration, the Taj displays an ethereal beauty, unmatched by any architecture that I had seen before. Its sheer beauty is enhanced by nearby red sandstone structures which offer a dramatic contrast to the translucent white monument. All are set in a lush geometric Mughal garden that takes inspiration from the descriptions of paradise in the Holy Quran.
Taj Mahal is Shah Jahan’s lavish expression of sorrow at his wife’s death. Millions of dollars in today’s terms were spent on constructing a gigantic tomb topped with a dome before millions more were expended on adding filigree marble screens and inlaid works of the finest quality. The entire project took approximately 22 years and the effort of some 22,000 masons, stone-cutters, inlayers, painters, and other artisans from across the Mughal empire. Since 1983, the Taj Mahal has been designated a UNESCO site for being “the jewel of Muslim art in India and one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world’s heritage”.
Perhaps, the grandeur of the Taj Mahal is equaled only by the tragedy of its backstory. The mausoleum was built by the fifth Mughal emperor Shah Jahan for his chief consort, Empress Mumtaz Mahal, who died as a result of childbirth in 1631. Her demise impacted the emperor’s personality, inspiring him to construct a tomb to commemorate her. After a suitable funeral, the grieving emperor devoted two decades and an immense amount of wealth to building the Taj Mahal – a symbol of his eternal love. A foundation was also established with income from nearby bazaars to ensure that the magnificent monument would be properly maintained in the future.
At the time, Shah Jahan didn’t know that he would soon be deposed and imprisoned by his own son, Aurangzeb. This rebellious prince claimed the throne after executing his brothers in a war of succession in 1658. He then put Shah Jahan under house arrest in the Agra Fort for eight years, until his father’s death in 1666. Ironically, the fifth emperor also rose to power by the same tragic method, including the killing of his brothers. During his confinement, Shah Jahan could only see the beloved Taj Mahal through his chamber’s windows – a torment for the ailing emperor.
It is no surprise that the Taj Mahal is widely regarded as the zenith of Mughal architecture. The entire complex is laid out in perfectly symmetric order, with all main features being built in pairs and arranged along a central path. This path runs through the central gate, the geometric garden, and lastly the empress’s tomb. The symmetric design symbolizes not only balance and harmony but also the authority of the ruling class. The Taj Mahal is also known for its excellence in composition, featuring a floor plan with multiple interconnected octagonal chambers. Yet the most prominent feature must be the massive onion dome atop the central chamber. It has a lotus design and is crowned with a gilded finial bearing the marks of both Persian and Hindustani culture.
Voids and solids are cleverly combined in the Taj Mahal. So do concaves and convexes, as seen in many domes and arches. Four lofty minarets further add dimension and spatial reference to the mausoleum, making the Taj Mahal look even more impressive. Additionally, the towers are angled outward, allowing them to collapse away from the mausoleum in the event of a natural disaster. The only break in this flawless masterpiece is the cenotaph of Shah Jahan. It sits just to one side of Mumtaz Mahal’s in the central domed chamber. Despite their splendid appearance, they are illusory tombs. The actual graves of the royal couple reportedly lay in an underground vault that has been sealed off to the public since the time of construction.
The Taj Mahal’s architecture is fascinating, yet what made this monument stand apart is the decoration. While it shines brilliant white from a distance, up close the Taj is richly adorned with elaborate inlay works, made from 28 types of precious and semi-precious stones. Motifs include geometric patterns, leaves, and flowers whose hues and shades are so refined that they appear almost real. On the other hand, the pishtaqs (arched recesses) are framed with inlaid Islamic calligraphy that is made from stripes of black jasper. The scripts appear to be a uniform size when viewed from the ground, though they increase in size as they climb the walls of the monument.
The decoration is at its finest in the central chamber where an opulent marble lattice screen encircles both cenotaphs. Other elements in this room are also masterpieces in jewelry making. Even the foot of the wall, which otherwise stays plain, is beautified with bands of intricate carvings. Certainly, no expense was spared in this architectural wonder, with materials and artisans gathered from all over the world. For example, the ivory-white marble was brought from Rajasthan, the jasper from Punjab, the turquoise from Tibet, and the desired lapis lazuli from Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the sapphire originated from Sri Lanka, and the carnelian came from Arabia.
Another uniqueness of the Taj Mahal lies in the gorgeous Mughal garden that encompasses nearly 17 hectares. Unlike previous imperial garden tombs, Shah Jahan’s horticulture planners and architects were creative in placing the tomb at one end of the quadripartite garden rather than in the exact center. This placement brings more depth and perspective to the distant view of the monument. Additionally, the Yamuna River – a tributary of the holy Ganges River – is skillfully integrated into the garden scenery.
Besides two main water canals, the garden is further divided into sixteen parterres by raised pathways. These flowerbeds resemble rub el hizb or the Islamic star. The color combination of reddish pathways, lush green garden, white marble tomb, and the blue sky above, showcases the artistic sense of the landscape designer. There is an elevated marble tank halfway between the Taj and the main entrance. It serves as a mirror, images of the marvelous monument.
Flanking on either side of the Taj Mahal are the mosque and the guest house. They look perfectly the same from the outside and are built primarily of red sandstone. Both have oblong massive prayer halls surmounted by three polished marble domes. The decoration is expectedly modest, with floral carvings combined with geometric inlay work of white marble. While the mosque to the west is still in use today, the guest house to the east is largely abandoned and filled with bats.
Directly in front of the mausoleum is Darwaza-e-rauza – the Great Gate. This red sandstone structure is a preview of the splendor of the entire complex. Its arched entrance which is veneered in white marble mirrors the shape of the Taj’s portal arches. And its pishtaqs replicate the calligraphy that decorates the tomb. The decoration is similar to the mosque and the guest house, featuring flowery arabesques, geometric patterns, and arches bordered with rope molding.
Tips for visiting the Taj Mahal
- As one of the Seven Wonder of the World, the Taj Mahal is always crowded. So the earlier you get there, the smaller the crowd. The monument is open for visitors 30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset on normal operating days. On Friday, the monument is closed for maintenance.
- The Taj Mahal is an active worship place, so appropriate attire is necessary. Clothes should cover the upper arms and legs. And if you intend to go inside the mosque, women are required to cover their heads. Thus, carrying a scarf or a head covering is wise.
- Security is tight as the Taj Mahal. I found it’s even stricter than at the airport. Therefore, travel light is the key here. Bring as little as possible. Otherwise, you would need a lot of time to get through security. Soldiers will check through every single item in your bag. So don’t try to smuggle any illegal thing, including edibles, into the complex.
- There are separate queues for male and female tourists to enter and signs will direct you accordingly. A small tip for our ladies: if you need to bring a bag, leave it to your male partner or friend. I noticed that the queue for ladies was relatively longer because there are more items to check.
- You have to remove your footwear when entering the mausoleum. Hence, it is advisable to prepare a shoe cover or a bag to store your footwear. You can also buy the shoe cover at the ticket-checking point. But the price will be higher than outside.
- Photos are prohibited inside the mausoleum, and tripods are summarily banned.
E-ticket for the Taj
- It’s highly recommended to buy the ticket online at the Archeological Survey of India’s website, to avoid long queues at the ticket booth. You also get a discount of Rs. 50 per foreigner ticket. Please note that the ticket is valid only for 3 hours from the time of entry.
- Another advantage of the E-ticket is that you won’t accidentally drop it. This is important at the exit because you will be subjected to a fine if you cannot show your ticket.
- The E-ticket is valid only when shown together with the passport. However, a photo of your passport on a smartphone works well.