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The history and the legend of the Taj Mahal

While India banned it from guide books for religious reasons, we treasure and celebrate it by recalling its history

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“A tear of marble still on the cheek of time”, this is how poet Rabindranath Tagore described the Taj Mahal, a timeless Persian masterpiece symbol of India. Thousands of visitors are left speechless by the beauty of this mausoleum every day. Part of the UNESCO heritage since 1983, the Taj Mahal was also included in the seven wonders of the world ten years ago. Yet, it has been banned from guide books in India. A misprint? Not really. Uttar Pradesh new Hindu government believed that an Islamic monument could not represent the country’s culture and tradition. It’s not the first time that art is dangerously caught up in political and religious matters but this time, the news was particularly shocking as it came from a laic and multi-cultural country like India. While the whole world debates about this ban, we thought telling the story of the Taj Mahal to celebrate it one again was the best thing to do. 

Incurable romantics will surely remember the reason why it was built: love. Emperor Shah Jahan had many wives but in particular he loved one more than the others: Mumtaz Mahal. The sovereign decided to build the most majestic temple in history in her loving memory after she died in 1631 while giving birth to her fourteenth son. The works started one year later in Agra, the empire ancient capital, and lasted for 22 years.  

Photo Getty Images

Twenty thousand people (including Italian architect Geronimo Veroneo) were employed in Ustad Ahmad Lahauri’s project. Materials and precious gemstones were perfectly assembled with the help of one thousand elephants and buffalos. The only local material used was red sandstone in different parts of the complex. Everything else came from far away: white marble from Makrana, jasper from Punjab, jade and crystal from China. The marble was also embellished with turquoises, lapis lazuli and 28 other typologies of gemstones, for a total cost of 32 million rupee. The scaffolding was ‘precious’ too as it was not made of bamboo (as they used to) but of bricks. When the palace was finished, the enormous scaffolding structure needed to be dismantled and it was probably going to take years. However, the emperor had the smart idea of leaving the bricks to anybody who helped in the construction. The framework disappeared in one night, revealing the temple in all its splendour. A wonder that could not be equalled: hence why the legend says that Shah Jahan ordered to have all the architects beheaded and sculptors with their thumbs mutilated. 

After all, the emperor himself did not have a better destiny. He died shortly after the end of the construction in a jail, where one of his sons locked him in order to take his place. He was still allowed to be buried in the Taj Mahal next to his beloved wife. Although who knows, maybe he would have given that up if he knew that this was going to jeopardise the symmetry he much aspired for. For this reason, his grave was placed on the side, leaving Mahal’s at the centre. 

The mausoleum is one of the five parts of the structure. The others are the darwaza (main door), the bageecha (garden), the masjid (mosque) and the mihman khana ("guests’ room", also known as jawab). The eternal rest of the two lovers deserved a special treatment, which is why the mausoleum is the only part covered in white marble (besides the surrounding minarets). The other structures are made of red sandstone and only certain details have been embellished with marble finishing. The entire complex is a spectacular example of self-replicating geometry: it’s easy to identify certain basic elements replicated in the other structures creating a rigorous symmetric harmony. 

Here, shapes are not casual but they embody a precise symbolic vision. The main structure lays on a square that represents the Heart, the domes represent the Sky and the octagon (a fusion of the two previous shapes) symbolises Men, where matter and spirit cohabit in the same being. Hence, the choice of having an octagonal room at the centre of the mausoleum, hosting Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal’s cenotaphs oriented towards Mecca, is not casual either. Around the couple, there are four smaller octagonal rooms on the four corners of the mausoleum and four rectangular ones, each with an arch facing the outside. The number four is sacred in Islam and, therefore, it is recurrent in the entire Taj Mahal. The main room has a fake dome with a sun, symbolising the presence of Allah. Four other domes stand above the lateral rooms. The entire space is on two levels, as suggested by the two rows of identical ogive arches decorating the structure.

Four minarets define the perimeter of the gardens, which is just as stunning as the interiors. Divided into four parts by two crossing canals, they recall the Muslim idea of Eden. Each part is then further divided into four smaller sections, circumscribed by paved paths framing plants and flowers (400 for each section of the garden). 

From the benches in this green oasis, you can admire the most breath-taking feature of the entire construction: its changing colour depending on the time of the day, which can vary from pink to white to golden. The emperor did not want Mahal’s tomb to remind people about death, on the contrary, it wanted it to be a testimony of his endless and tangible love. Therefore, this ‘castle’ needed to express a quivering beauty, a never-ending promise. Precious gemstones served this purpose: they covered all surfaces and were the most important part of any decoration (floral, geometric or calligraphic), giving life to marvellous mosaics. Just think that more than fifty pieces were needed for a 3-cm-long flower.

It is no surprise that such dazzling treasure attracted the attention of thieves. Besides robberies, the monument suffered negligence as the capital was moved to New Delhi. The site was almost forgotten and destined to demolition until Lord George Nathaniel Curzon came to power in 1899. India’s new vice-king ended two centuries of negligence and decline, investing in a thorough restoration that ended in 1908. Since then, the Taj Mahal was properly taken care of: during WWII and the conflict with Pakistan, it was even protected by a scaffolding to minimise damage in case of air raids. 

Today, it has two main enemies: blind and extremist politics stepping on art in the name of religion, and pollution, which is turning the precious marble yellow. At least a remedy has recently been found for the latter: a law forbidding the construction of polluting factories in the area surrounding the Taj Mahal. On the other hand, how can we fight the slowness of the government? Various debates and campaigns are rising all over the world but the most effective response could be to continue visiting this magical place, filling in the inacceptable void created by guide books. If you are not planning on travelling to India any time soon, there’s an easier option at hand. LEGO just launched its own version of the Taj Mahal, a kit with almost 6,000 pieces to build a copy of one of the biggest constructions of all times. Does it sound like a colossal challenge? Take it as an act of love. 

by Elisa Zagaria / 13 November 2017


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