In thinking about Valentine's Day I asked myself last week "Are there any buildings that have been built for love alone?" My mind quickly recalled that I had done a thesis paper on such a marvel for a historical architecture class.
Interestingly enough, I posed my original question to a few people and they all responded with this same answer/ guess.
Alas, no. Even though the Eiffel Tower is a monument (versus a building) located in the City of Love, and has its own wonderful history, it was not built for love. Perhaps I will write about my personal Eiffel Tower story on another post if you are interested. For now, let me tell you about a love story and the magnificent structure built to glorify this love.
In the 1600's there was a Shah named Shahabuddin Mohammed Shah Jahan. Under him, the Mughal Empire attained its greatest prosperity. Mughal art and architecture also reached its zenith during his rule. As was custom at the time, the Shah had 10 wives. But it was his third wife that captured his heart. He favored her so much that his other 9 wives were virtually ignored. She was the Shah’s closest confidant and traveled with his entourage throughout his many military campaigns. She was a highly religious Muslim and also had a love of gardening which was evident in the creation of the riverside garden in Agra. During the birth of their 14th child, (yes, they loved each other VERY much) complications arose and his wife on her deathbed made one request: that the emperor create a symbol or monument of their love.
Oh I forgot to tell you her nickname. It was Mumtāz Mahal. Meaning “beloved ornament of the palace". The grief stricken Shah began immediately planning a mausoleum and garden in Agra. It was of course the Taj Mahal.
Two things were considered during the planning and drafting phase of the Taj Mahal: the Islamic religion, specifically its teachings and principles, and Mumtaz’s love of gardening. It is only upon closer inspection that you find such details. Muslims believe that a synthesis of line, shape, color and numbers provides the awakened soul with a means of expression. Placement was orientated towards Mecca, the holiest city of Islam. The Taj Mahal is located along a riverbank in Agra, India. Over three acres had to be filled in with dirt and a series of wells created to prevent seepage and bring it 50 feet above the water level. A marble platform was then created to raise the structure even further off of the river’s floodplain.
It is possible that the white marble veneer was chosen because of the influence of the ancient Indian caste system in which the Brahmin caste, the systems highest caste, had been assigned white stones. Another possibility is that in the Islamic faith, white is considered “beingness” as opposed to the “nothingness” of black. The Taj Mahal’s most distinguishing feature is its tall double dome (also known as an onion dome). It rests on a central drum that is surrounded by four octagonal towers that each supports a smaller domed pavilion. Four minaret prayer towers are placed along the edge of the podium and were created strictly for compositional effect.
Above the pointed arches is a calligraphic inlay made of black jaspar as well as several panels that feature various verses of the Qur’an (Koran).
The vaulted recesses themselves are framed with floral patterns using an inlay of precious and semi precious stones such as jade, sapphire and lapis lazuli.
The calligraphy is in thuluth script, very floral in manner. It was created by Persian calligrapher Amanat Khan, who signed several of the panels. The texts refer to themes of judgment.
As you enter through the Taj Mahal Gate, the calligraphy reads "O Soul, thou art at rest. Return to the Lord at peace with Him, and He at peace with you."
Inside the central space of the Taj Mahal is a screen that surrounds the centographs. The screen was originally made of an enameled gold which was considered too precious. The screen today is made of white marble that has an arabesque design of flowers and plants in keeping with the Muslim faith.
The original design consisting of an inlay of gold and semi precious stones still appears on the tombs themselves.
The mausoleum was completed in 1648. Construction on the other areas of the complex continued on for several years until 1653. It is rumoured that Shah Jahan ordered the amputation of the chief mason’s hand at the completion of the Taj Mahal so that a replication for another building with such exquisite detail could never exist.
The entire complex contains four intersecting canals that represent the Four Rivers of Paradise and feature fountains that have water drawn from the river into subterranean chambers used to feed the canals and water the gardens. Here is an aerial layout of the complex.
At the end of his life, Shah Jahan was overthrown by his son, Aurangzeb. It is said that he spent his remaining days looking at the magnificent structure he had created until he was buried next to his beloved Mumtaz in 1666. The Shah envisioned that the Taj Mahal would become a universally admired piece of architecture. He considered it to be a Masterpiece of Days to Come. The Taj Mahal has indeed withstood the test of time for over three and a half centuries. It has overcome the Indian rebellion of 1857, two world wars and the India-Pakistan wars. The current threat is environmental pollution, acid rain, and visitors who want to carve their own name into the inlaid and carved marble and sandstone facing. (That makes me really cranky.) The Taj Mahal is the best known monument in India with thousands of visitors flocking to the site daily. It is truly a masterpiece of Mughal and Islamic architecture. But one must also consider that its success may also be in part to its romantic appeal, a true testament to enduring love.
Images courtesy of Great Buildings Online and Wikipedia.