Thursday, October 2, 2008
Taj Mahal , India
The Taj Mahal, India’s most recognizable icon, was built on the banks of the River Jamuna at Agra by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (reigned a.d.1628–1666), in memory of his beloved wife Arjumand Banu Begam, known as Mumtaz Mahal ("Elect of the Palace"), who died in childbirth in 1631. There is a tradition that, on her deathbed, she entreated her husband to build a tomb that would preserve her name forever. The funerary mosque, faced with white marble, was completed in 1653 after twenty-two years in the building. When it was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1983, the Taj Mahal was acclaimed as “the most perfect jewel of Moslem art in India and … one of the universally admired masterpieces” in the world.
The symmetrical square mausoleum stands on a marble plinth above a 186-foot-square (59-meter) red sandstone platform. A 58-foot-diameter (18-meter) pear-shaped dome soars 213 feet (65 meters) above the octagonal central space—a two-story memorial chamber housing the bejeweled cenotaphs of Mumtaz Mahal and her husband. In fact, the real coffins lie in an unpretentious crypt below. Originally, the interior was opulently furnished with Persian carpets and articles of gold, all dimly lit by dappled sunlight that shone through intricately carved marble lattices in the drum of the dome. Two massive silver doors closed the entrance on the south side. At both levels there are eight interconnected anterooms: the four on the sides are rectangular, and the four corner spaces, also crowned with domes, are octagonal. A 163-foot (50-meter) tapering marble-faced minaret stands at each corner of the plinth. The building is praiseworthy for its composition, balance, and massing.
Closer scrutiny reveals that its surfaces, inside and out, are enriched with flower patterns of inlaid semiprecious stones using a technique known as pietradura, as well as panels and bands of calligraphic inscriptions from the Koran. Each piece of decorative work is in itself a jewel, but all are ingeniously integrated in a complex but harmonious whole. Throughout, the builders made exacting adjustments of line and surface to ensure that the Taj Mahal looked right. For example, the plinth is slightly convex, so that it appears to be horizontal. The walls are slightly inclined for the same reason. Such refinement extended to the detail of the decoration: the calligraphic inscriptions are more widely spaced as they rise, to appear uniform when viewed from below. It has been said that the tomb was “built by giants and finished by jewelers.”
The Taj Mahal was not the creation of an individual. Its overseeing architect was probably the Persian engineer-astrologer Ustad Ahmad, but there were about forty other specialists whose skills combined to fully realize his designs. So, while Ismail Khan from Turkey built the dome, Qazim Khan of Lahore cast its 30-foot (8.2-meter) gold finial. The master sculptor and mosaicist was a Delhi lapidary named Chiranji Lal, and the master calligrapher was Amanat Khan from Shiraz. Muhammad Hanif directed the masons, and Mir Abdul Karim and Mukkarimat Khan of Shiraz were what today would be called project managers. The construction employed 20,000 North Indian forced workers, as well as craftsmen from South India, Baghdad, Baluchistan, Bukhara, Shiraz, Syria, and Persia. There is a tentative view—most likely a myth—held by some Italian scholars that the Taj Mahal was designed by the Venetian Geronimo Veroneo. But Veroneo, a goldsmith, did not arrive in Agra, until 1640, when the work was already half finished. It is far more probable that he was employed on part of the decoration, among the international band.
Many of the materials were as exotic as the men who worked them. Although the red sandstone was quarried locally, marble was imported from distant Makrana in Rajasthan. A 10-mile-long (16-kilometer) earthen ramp was constructed through Agra, and it is said that the marble blocks were hauled along it to the building site by a team of 1,000 elephants. Bullock carts were also used. More than forty varieties of gemstones, corals, and rare seashells were gathered from all over the region—Afghanistan, Badakhshan, Burma (now Myanmar), Egypt, Tibet, Turkestan, and even the depths of the Indian Ocean.
The great mausoleum stands at the north end of a walled enclosure measuring 1,902 by 1,002 feet (580 by 305 meters), designed in the Charbagh style by Ali Mardan Khan, one of Shah Jahan’s courtiers. It faces the domed three-story main gateway of red sandstone at the south end of the long axis, the vista emphasized by a reflecting channel flanked by two avenues of cypresses. The entrance symbolizes the gate to Paradise, and indeed the square garden, divided into four quarters by the waterways, conjures the Garden of Paradise with its rivers of water, honey, milk, and wine. At the central meeting place of the channels is a marble tank representing the celestial Pool of Abundance, exactly placed to reflect the Taj Mahal in its still waters. Each of the four sections created by the waterways is subdivided into four smaller squares and then into four again—sixteen flower beds defined by raised stone paths. An ingenious system of reservoirs and underground earthenware and copper pipes carries water from the river to be fed to the pools and fountains and to irrigate the garden.
Two other buildings at the ends of the garden’s transverse axis complete the Taj Mahal ensemble: a red sandstone mosque to the west is reflected by an identical “rest house” to the east. The latter is known as the jawab (answer), indicating that it probably was included simply to provide symmetry in the architectural composition, rather than for any practical function. There is no place within the walls from which the serene mausoleum cannot be seen.
The white marble of the Taj Mahal has been yellowed by automobile emissions, acid rain, and industrial pollution. In April 1997 India’s Supreme Court enforced earlier orders for almost 300 nearby metal foundries to stop using coal for fuel or risk being closed down. There is now a 62-mile (100-kilometer) “safety zone” around the monument. The other threat to the fabric is the breath of up to 3 million visitors each year, which raises humidity and causes rusting of the iron cramps that hold the marble facing in place. In 1998 the French Rhône-Poulenc Foundation, UNESCO, and the Archaeological Survey of India began a three-year joint program to improve the water tightness of the Taj Mahal, undertake antifungal treatment, and extend research into stone-preservation technology.
The Taj Mahal and its romantic and poignant story have inspired poets everywhere. The Indian Rabindranath Tagore called it “a teardrop on the cheek of time,” and the Englishman Edwin Arnold saw it as “not a piece of architecture, as other buildings are, but the proud passions of an emperor’s love wrought in living stones.”