6 interesting things you should know about the Taj Mahal

taj mahal

Superlatives, hyperboles, and romanticism – these three literary vehicles are pretty common when describing the one-and-only Taj Mahal. And, after personally witnessing the monument at hand, we for one would vouch for many of the effusive utterings that come along with the grand architectural specimen. However, this article is not about the peerless and poetic qualities of the magnificent structure; rather it is about some of the unique aspects that have seemingly eluded many of the potential admirers of the landmark. So, without further ado, let us check out six interesting things you may not have known about the inimitable Taj Mahal – the crowning glory of Indian Mughal Architecture and one of the ‘new’ seven wonders of the world.

Vital Statistics –

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Oddly enough, no one has still been able to measure the accurate dimensions of the Taj Mahal complex without discrepancies. Anyhow, a research led by Ebba Koch and Richard André Barraud in 2006, came out with the figures that we will use here. To that end, the overall compound measures an astounding 896 m (2,948 ft) by 301 m (990 ft) or 269,696 sq m (2,919,217 sq ft) – the equivalent of over 50 American football fields. As for the impressive mausoleum itself, the structure accounts for a square plan that measures around 57 m x 57 m (3,249 sq m or 35,167 sq ft), while it rises to a height of 68 m (224 ft), and is built upon a platform of around 6 m (20 ft) – which brings the total height to about 74 m (or 244 ft).

A monument not only inspired by ‘love’ but also Paradise –

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In popular media, Taj Mahal has long been associated with the ‘power of love’, and perhaps rightly so. But the monument was NOT ONLY a labor of love, as is evident from the complex’s layout and the adjacent structures. To that end, the most obvious extant components pertain to the stately landscaped grounds, comprising of the Charbagh (or paradise garden) – a quadrilateral garden design interspersed by walkways and waterworks (a concept originally brought from Persia). Consequently, the majestic gateway to this incredibly expansive compound, known as the Darwaza-i Rauza, alludes to the splendid entrance of the Islamic Paradise.

Scholars like Wayne E. Begley had even put forth the hypothesis* that Taj Mahal epitomized the ‘Throne of God’ – which in Islamic theology pertains to the high seat in the Garden of Paradise from which God would preside on the ‘Day of Judgement’. In other words, Shah Jahan (the builder of Taj Mahal) might not have only been inspired by love for his beloved wife; he perhaps also wanted to make a ‘godly’ statement to his subjects, in a bid to glorify his own reign!

*Ebba Koch’s theory deviates from this hypothesis, as no credible evidence of it is found in the ensuing calligraphy works dotting the mausoleum.

22 years of hard labor, and yet no architect –

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Taj Mahal has a unique connection with the number 22. To that end, the building actually took 22 years to finish, while some figures pertaining to how 22,000 workers labored in tandem to finish the mausoleum complex in 1654 AD. Among the ‘exotic’ construction crew, there is said to be a Frenchman and a Venetian – but there is no single architect’s name that was associated with the entire project. This was probably a premeditated move, as the grand structure was intended to be associated only with its deceased occupant, Mumtaz Mahal (Arjumand Banu Begum) – the third and most beloved wife of Shah Jahan.

However, this doesn’t mean there are no builder names that have cropped up along with the project. For example, pieces of evidence point at – Ismail Afandi (from Ottoman Empire) to be the main designer of the Dome, Qazim Khan (from Lahore) to be the main caster, Chiranjilal (from Delhi) to be the main sculptor and Amanat Khan (from Shiraz, Iran) to be the main calligrapher.

A truly ‘multinational’ project, in terms of materials –

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Marble is surely the definitive material used for the structure, and the translucent bulk was sourced from the famous quarries of Raja Jai Singh. These quarries were situated almost 400 km (250 miles) from Agra (Taj Mahal’s location), in the region of Makrana, Rajasthan. Befitting a ‘majestic’ solution, these marble blocks were transported all the way with the help of over 1,000 elephants. But that doesn’t mean Taj Mahal is an impeccably gleaming white specimen as visually suggested by a bevy of postcard images.

Why so? Because the white ‘canvas’ was inlaid with a myriad of precious and semi-precious stones, while they are interspersed by intricately refined calligraphy etched in black marble. Once again, according to then-contemporary accounts and documentation, the jades and the crystals were sourced from China, the turquoise was hauled from Tibet, the Lapis Lazuli was brought from Afghanistan, the sapphire was derived from Sri Lanka and finally, the carnelian was obtained from Arabia!

A grand Islamic mausoleum influenced by core Hindu ‘architectural’ beliefs –

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It is no secret that the inner-side of the Taj Mahal complex wall (facing the garden) are fronted by columned arcades that were directly inspired by the imposing Hindu temples before the era of Delhi Sultanate. However, quite interestingly, the influence goes much deeper than the frontage of the compound walls. In that regard, Hindu building practices specifically mentioned in the Vishnudharmottara Purana pertain to use of white stones for the Brahmins (the class of priests) and the use of red stones for the Kshatriyas (the class of rulers and warriors). The Mughals emulated both of these practices, to justify their rule and adoption of their new homeland – India.

According to a 2009 paper submitted by IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) Prof R. Balasubramaniam, even the basic unit of construction used for Taj Mahal was ‘Aṅgula’, as opposed to the traditional Mughal ‘gaz’. Incredibly enough, the ‘Aṅgula’ was first mentioned in the famous Arthasastra, an ancient Indian treatise on statecraft and military strategy, penned way back during 4th century BC. Some historians also believe that this constructional unit, in turn, came to the Indo-Aryans from the earlier yet advanced Indus Valley Civilization, circa 2600–1900 BC.

Plant metaphors and acoustic engineering –

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As we mentioned before, the profound effect of the tiered Charbagh (gardens) replicated the orderliness of the permanent yet stylized landscaping of Paradise. However, Mughal propaganda also reached the heights of metaphors in an ‘earthly’ fashion. To that end, Shah Jahan was depicted as an “erect cypress of the garden of the caliphate” by many of his praising chroniclers, in allusion to his impressive governance. The plant metaphors also extended to his family members and the court, with their representations manifested by the garden specimens of Taj Mahal – which perhaps once again harks back to the Hindu traditions of purna ghat.

And beyond intangible metaphors, the Taj Mahal still manages to baffle contemporary architects and builders by virtue of its evolved engineering credentials. One exemplary component of this refined construction is the acoustic system inside the mausoleum that expresses the notion of paradise. Accordingly, the building was designed in a such a way so that the interior reverberation time is exactly 28 seconds – which aided in an enchanting ambiance of echoing words when prayers were offered to Mumtaz Mahal.

There is also a ‘Black Taj Mahal’, but it is not what you think!

taj mahal

Image courtesy of Jonathan Irish.

The legend of the Black Taj Mahal was first concocted by European traveler Jean-Baptiste Tavernier when he visited the famed Agra site in 1665. Even archaeological surveys done in the 1990’s yielded blackened marble stones that were found in the garden of Mehtab Bagh (Moonlight Garden), which is situated on the northern side of the Taj Mahal complex, across the river of Yamuna. But later examinations proved beyond doubt that these were indeed discolored white marble specimens affected by both time and pollution.

So, this brings us to the million dollar question – was there a Black Taj Mahal? Well, the answer is – sort of. In 2006, historians finally stumbled across the ‘black version’, which is, in fact, the dark reflection of the original Taj Mahal, as seen in the pool of the oppositely located Mehtab Bagh. This fascinating discovery further demonstrates the immaculate symmetry of the Taj, along with the deft positioning of the reflecting pool across the river.

Honorable Mention – Gardens oriented to the Solstice Sun?

taj mahal

Credit: Image copyright Digital Globe, courtesy Amelia Carolina Sparavigna.

We already talked about the symbolic elements of the Charbagh (or paradise garden) – a quadrilateral garden design interspersed by walkways and waterworks. And adding to the sense of wonderment is the possible application of astronomy – as hypothesized by Amelia Carolina Sparavigna’s (a physics professor at the Politecnico di Torino) analysis of the actual site by using a Google Earth’s satellite imagery dependent app known as Sun Calc. She had published her findings of Taj Mahal and other Mughal architectural works in the online journal Philica, back in 2015. To that end, as Sparavigna has found out, the scope of Charbagh goes beyond just symbolism, to account for probable alignment with the sun path on the solstice days.

In that regard, if one positions himself in the north-central position of the Charbagh within the water-body intersected by the paths and then look towards the north-east side pavilion on June 21st (summer solstice – when the sun is at its highest point), he could see the sun rise directly over that particular section. And now, if the viewer remains in his position, the sun will move from behind him, and ultimately set behind the section of the north-west pavilion. In essence, the sun’s path will define the entire purview of the Taj Mahal starting from one of the pavilions, then the minarets, the mausoleum and finally the other pavilion.

There are also additional alignments that match up with the sun’s path and the monument’s gardens. And quite interestingly, Sparavigna has also found similar alignment aspects in a range of other Mughal architectural specimens, including the Dilkusha Charbagh, Charbagh of Akbar and Humayun’s Tomb. The physics professor made it clear –

However, in their planning, architects could also use some elements aligned in the directions of sunrise or sunset. In fact, architects have six main directions: two are joining cardinal points (north-south, east-west) and four are those given by sunrise and sunset on summer and winter solstices.

Source: TajMahal.gov.in

Book Reference: Wonders of the World (Edited by Rosemary Burton and Richard Cavendish)

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