Taj Mahal, India

16 Mar, 2009

Taj Mahal is the Pinnacle of Indian Muslim Art

Taj Mahal, India

No one can deny that India is a country of character and color. While the country may not be as advanced as Thailand or Japan, and although India wears its heritage with proud (prompting those from the West to call the country “exotic,” a problematic term in itself), it certainly is more exciting and more picturesque than other more notable countries. America is bland and Britain is antiseptic in comparison to India. The country isn’t notable for its tourism; with five million tourists yearly, it is the 42nd most visited country in the world, a far cry from Thailand and other more popular Asian countries. However, this doesn’t mean India is without notable sites and attractions. Besides their colorful festivals, India boasts of exquisite attractions such as the India Gate, Humayun’s Tomb, Shalimar Gardens, Gol Gumbaz, and other sites that demonstrate the various religious and cultural heritage of the country.

However, perhaps the most popular attraction or site in the country is no other than the Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal is considered described as a testament to one’s love for a beloved. Built for Mumtaz Mahal by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, the Taj Mahal is among the greatest examples of Mughal architecture in the world. Not only that, it also considered as a jewel in Muslim art, an admired masterpiece the world over. Today, it is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site list, as well as one of the new seven wonders of the world, which includes the Colosseum in Rom,e, the Great Wall of China, and the Petra in Jordan, among others. All of these are simply testaments to how influential and important the Taj Mahal was then, and how it remains to be such now.

A love for the arts

The Taj Mahal is often used as a metaphor or a symbol for one’s ultimate sign of love. After all, this colossal was made by Shah Jahan in the remembrance of Mumtaz Mahal. Mumtaz Mahal was only one of Jahan’s wives, as it was customary for Muslims to have more than one wife. Mumtaz was actually his first wife—two others, namely Akbarabadi Mahal and Kandahari Mahal—followed Mumtaz. However, without a doubt, it was Mumtaz who was Shah Jahan’s unquestioned love. Mumtaz Mahal means “jewel of the palace,” a name that fits her perfectly as it was acknowledged how her beauty was above those during their time. In fact, Shah Jahan’s other wives were wives only in name, but never in practice.

Therefore, it was really no surprise that he built the Taj Mahal for Mumtaz. But perhaps another reason for the creation of the Taj Mahal was Shah Jahan’s interest for the arts. He was particularly interested in architecture, although visual arts flourished during his time. It was his love for Mumtaz and for architecture that obviously fueled his desire to build the Taj Mahal. As proof as his interest for creation, Shah Jahan did not only create the Taj Mahal. During the golden age of his reign, he completed other notable constructions, such as the Pearl Mosque (Moti Masjid), the Shalimar Gardens, and the Grand Mosque (Jama Masjid), among others.

A monument of love

In any case, Shah Jahan was aggrieved when Mumtaz Mahal died after giving birth to Gauhara Begum, their 14th child. This was in 1631, when his rule was experiencing prosperity and success. The main mausoleum of the Taj Mahal was completed in 1648, and the buildings and garden surrounding it were finished in 1653. As an acknowledged jewel of Muslim art in the country, it is only expected to see a number of notable Mughal influences in the Taj Mahal, although it also has certain touches of Persian traditions. Basing on the exteriors, the Taj Mahal is very similar to the Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi, although the mausoleum has other influences, including the Gur-e Amir in Samarkand and even Shah Jahan’s Jama Masjid. The similarities with the Humayun’s Tomb, however, is expected: it was, after all, among the first examples of Mughal architecture ever built. Still, the Taj Mahal changed a number of principles and designs, such as the use of white marble instead of red sandstone.

The exterior of the Taj Mahal was refined and exquisite, with quality never seen during its time—and, perhaps, even now. The attention to detail was also uncanny, which demonstrate the painstaking attention given to it during the construction. For instance, the large pishtaq had stone carvings, none of which used anthropomorphic forms. Instead, the decorative elements here are in the forms of vegetative motifs, calligraphy, and abstract forms. Water is also a main feature in most Mughal architecture, and this is evident in the Taj Mahal (and even in the Humayun’s Tomb). However, unlike most Mughal creations, the Taj Mahal did not merge Muslim designs and beliefs with non-Muslim ones, which was the case with the Alhambra Palace in Spain.

The Taj Mahal can be divided into four divisions, according to its location from the outside going in: the gateway, the garden, the mausoleum, and the tomb.

The gateway of the Taj Mahal stands 30 meters high, topped by chhatris, or small cupolas. The stone gateway actually blocks one’s view of the Taj Mahal, although the complex itself is visible from afar. According to a number of researches and Muslim texts, this fact is symbolic: the gateway serves as the divide between the material and physical world to the spiritual world. The gateway’s pishtaq is decorated with various calligraphies—verses from the Muslim holy book Koran—which actually establishes this fact. Of course, its actual purpose is not so far from its symbolic purpose. The gateway was intended to block the people’s view of the Taj Mahal, and one can only see the complex if he or she enters the gateway.

Upon entering the gateway, one would immediately see the garden, a sprawling complex that covers 300 meters by 300 meters of area. The whole garden is symmetrical, another common trait among Mughal architecture and design. For instance, a panoramic view of the Taj Mahal gardens would give anyone a picture of the garden with the two sides similar to each other. The garden, too, is a Mughal trademark—according to Muslim beliefs, this is supposed to recreate or imitate paradise. Again, a number of Mughal architecture features elaborate garden designs. The reflecting pool is meant to reflect the Taj Mahal’s image. The vegetation in the original Taj Mahal gardens was rich, with various plants and flowers existing, creating colorful and lush greenery. However, with the decline of the Mughal statute and with the rule of the British in India, the gardens now resemble English lawns instead of a lush garden that imitates paradise.

The garden itself is actually based in the designs of Persian gardens, a design that was meant to reflect paradise. However, while following other Mughal traditions, the Taj Mahal gardens is actually unusual due to the fact that the tomb was located not at the center but at the end of the garden. Remember that most Mughal structures are symmetrical—and the tomb has to be in the center in order for the whole complex to be symmetrical.

From the outside, the main tomb is square-shaped, although it is beveled at its corners. The tomb in the Taj Mahal is actually a double dome, and it marks the influence of the Humayun’s Tomb. With the double dome structure, it appears twice as big, although the main dome looks like a huge pearl—another take on a belief from the Koran, saying that God’s kingdom is a dome of pearl with four pillars. Again, calligraphy was used to decorate the pillars.

In the end, the Taj Mahal also served as the resting place of Shah Jahan. This was after his son, Aurangzeb, declared himself emperor. Shah Jahan was then placed by his own son under house arrest. After his death, he placed next to his beloved wife; a fitting end to the emperor who has demonstrated to the world how much he loved his first wife. Because of this, the Taj Mahal is and forever will be known as the ultimate testament of love.

Like other older historic structures, Taj Mahal also became a victim to war and revolt. In this case, it was under the hands of the British soldiers who took stones from the complex during the Indian rebellion in 1857. Nonetheless, during the end of the 19th century, the British, under the leadership of viceroy Lord Curzon, restored the Taj Mahal. This was when the garden of the Taj Mahal was modeled after the common British gardens. Obviously, the iconic structure survived other wars—such as the first and second world war—although hr natives had to devise a number of protective measures to prevent further damage. During the 1980s, the UNESCO included the Taj Mahal in their World Heritage list, a testament that this mausoleum is indeed worth protecting and preserving.

The Taj Mahal today

Of course, the Taj Mahal remains timeless. Because of the history of this structure, the Taj Mahal is one of the more familiar structures in the world. The romantic back story coupled with India’s rich Muslim heritage makes the Taj Mahal a very important piece of history. Although the actual Taj Mahal has been altered during the British rule in India, the overall structure of the Taj Mahal remains the same.

Understandably, the Taj Mahal is one of India’s more popular tourist attractions. It attracts more than two millions tourists—both locals and foreigners—a year. The attraction has also gained more visitors in recent years, perhaps thanks to its appointment as one of the new seven man-made wonders of the world. This new campaign was criticized by a number of purists who said the voting process for the new wonders of the world was not valid, since it was only done through a worldwide online poll. Therefore, the winners have won through a popularity contest, they say, and not through actual assessment of their cultural importance in the country of their origin and, consequently, in the world. However, no one can contest the inclusion of the Taj Mahal.

Another reason for the popularity of the Taj Mahal —as if its natural beauty wasn’t enough—is its presence in popular culture. For instance, the Taj Mahal figured prominently in the recent film Slumdog Millionaire. The two main characters of the film became unofficial (illegal) tours in Taj Mahal for tourists, with one of the main characters spewing random fabricated information about the iconic structure.

Other incidents and controversies have also brought the Taj Mahal into the spotlight. One incident involves the claim of a certain P.N. Oak that the Taj Mahal was not built by Shah Jahan but by a Hindu king. According to Oak, the Taj Mahal and other historic India structures actually pre-date the occupation of the Muslims in India, which means they are actually of Hindu origins. In the year 2000, however, the Supreme Court of India dismissed the claim, saying his evidence isn’t sufficient. Another myth surrounding the Taj Mahal concerns the supposed construction of a mausoleum made out of black marble. This was also disclaimed in the 1990s, when the black marbles found in the Mahtab Bagh were merely just discolored stones. Because of its beauty, emotions and personal beliefs dominate the people’s view of the Taj Mahal.
Without a doubt, the Taj Mahal is the apt representation of India to the world. What the Colosseum is for London or the Great Wall is for China may be what the Taj Mahal is for India. To be fair, the country does have other notable historic sites, such as the Harmandir Sahib (or the Golden Temple) and the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. However, it is Taj Mahal that encapsulates everything about India—from the romantic and colorful back story of love and aesthetic beauty, to the West’s manipulation of that beauty into something more manageable and familiar. The Taj Mahal is unmistakably India, a gem of a heritage that shows beauty can stem from anywhere and everywhere.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
  • Google
  • Furl
  • MySpace
  • StumbleUpon
  • Technorati
  • TwitThis
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • YahooMyWeb
  • E-mail this story to a friend!
  • Fark
  • Reddit

Leave a Reply

Subscribe to RSS