The Taj Mahal: it’s one of the most gorgeous buildings in the world, the icon of India, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the Seven Man-Made Wonders of the World. But do you know what this architectural marvel was built for, and the love story behind it?
Romeo & Juliet, Cleopatra & Mark Antony, Tristan & Isolde—to these famous tales of love, we must add the no less legendary (and tragic) story of Shah Jahan and his queen Mumtaz Mahal.
In the early 17th Century, Shah Jahan ruled over a vast Mughal empire stretching across what is now northern India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. His great great grandfather, Babur, had first carved out this realm a century earlier, and through four generations of Mughal rulers, the empire expanded, stabilized and flourished. Shah Jahan’s forebears constructed extraordinary palaces, tombs, and forts, oversaw an artistic golden age, and built a strong and stable economy. But it was under Shah Jahan’s rule that the empire’s art and architecture, and the culture and splendor of the luxurious Mughal court, all reached their zenith.
Though he took three wives in total, the crown jewel and his unquestioned favorite was Arjumand Banu Begum, who was engaged to the young prince when she was only 14. Shah Jahan was so taken with her that after their wedding, he gave her the title Mumtaz Mahal (“Chosen One of the Palace”). He showed little interest in his other wives; according to the official court chronicler, “the intimacy, deep affection, attention and favor which His Majesty had for the Cradle of Excellence (Mumtaz) exceeded by a thousand times what he felt for any other.” He bestowed upon her luxuries that none other was given, lavishly decorating her residence within the palace with gold and precious stones and rose water fountains. Drawing upon a seemingly limitless treasury and enjoying a relatively peaceful and secure political climate, the emperor and his favored queen must have enjoyed an idyllic reign after he ascended the throne in 1627.
But it was cut tragically short. Just four years later, Mumtaz Mahal died while birthing their 14th child. Shah Jahan was inconsolable. Legend has it that the grieving emperor went into mourning for a year, and when he appeared again, his hair had turned white, his back was bent, and his face worn. It was then, inspired by grief and love, that he began work on his most spectacular and enduring masterpiece: a massive marble mausoleum to serve as his beloved’s final resting place.
Construction of the Taj Mahal began in 1632 across the Yamuna River from his royal palace in Agra. The project was like nothing the empire had ever seen before: more than 20,000 workers and 1,000 elephants labored to construct this breathtaking structure, including masons, stonecutters, inlayers, carvers, painters, calligraphers, dome-builders and other artisans. It was constructed entirely of white marble, sourced from all over India and Central Asia. The marble was then inlaid with 28 types of precious and semi-precious stones by Mughal lapidarists who learned their technique from Italian craftsmen. What appears to be a delicate abstract scrollwork on the walls is actually massive, finely-inscribed calligraphy in jasper or black marble of verses of the Quran. Shah Jahan spared no expense on his monument to love: when it was finally complete, over 20 years later, his mausoleum had cost over 32 million rupees—one billion dollars in today’s currency—no doubt significantly depleting his vast treasury.
According to traditional Mughal building practices, once completed, no future alterations could be made. Some believe this led to the likely sensationalized story that Jahan ordered that every worker’s hand be chopped off upon completion, so that they could never alter the monument and never create another architectural masterpiece to rival it.
A longstanding myth holds that Shah Jahan planned to build a second identical mausoleum of black marble across the Yamuna River, connected to the Taj Mahal by a bridge, where he would be interred. But he never realized these plans. In 1658, he fell ill, and his son Aurangzeb took the opportunity to depose him and sentence him to house arrest in a tower in Agra’s Red Fort. There, from a high stone balcony, he had a perfect, bittersweet view of his masterpiece scarcely a mile away—an ever-present reminder of his passionate love ended too soon—until his death in 1666.
The mythical Black Taj Mahal was never constructed, though some believe its foundation still lies partially buried across the river. Without a resting place of his own, Shah Jahan was buried next to his wife in the lower chambers of the Taj Mahal—a most fitting resting place for the end of this monumental love story.
As his ambitious son Aurangzeb sought to increase his territory, he instead overextended the empire, and so began a long decline. As Mughal power slowly disintegrated, so did the Taj Mahal, which suffered from neglect and disrepair. However, in the late 1800s, Lord Curzon, the British Viceroy of India, started a restoration of the entire complex, including the sweeping British style lawns.
Today, as you approach through a huge gateway of red sandstone, you’ll see the Taj framed by vast, meticulously manicured gardens and long reflecting pools, a scene of tranquil beauty. The Taj Mahal itself is a study in perfection and symmetry. Its central dome soars 240 feet in the air, flanked by four smaller domes, and then four minarets, angled slightly outward so that they would not fall on the central structure in the event of an earthquake. Inside, an octagonal chamber houses the cenotaph, or tomb of Mumtaz Mahal—flanked by Shah Jahan’s. This area is accessible to tourists. However, these are ‘false tombs,’ and the bodies actually rest in another set of sarcophagi in a lower tomb chamber, not accessible to visitors. It’s an interesting fact that the entire complex is symmetrical in every way, except for one important feature: the stone tombs of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal are offset and different sizes.
Outside, it is said that the white marble domes and turrets change colors as the day ages—appearing pink in the morning, white during the day, and golden under the moonlight. But no matter what time of day you visit, this incredible landmark—one of the greatest testaments to love history has ever witnessed—will take your breath away.
Now that you have the backstory, perhaps it’s time to make the Taj Mahal part of your travel story. You’ll visit this magnificent monument on all of our small group and luxury tours to India. Find your next Taj Mahal adventure now.