The Taj Mahal was a labor of love that has inspired affection in its own right.
Constructed nearly 400 years ago in Agra, India, the mausoleum annually attracts an estimated 8 million visitors and is widely considered to be the jewel of Indo-Islamic architecture. From its breathtaking symmetry to the unadorned grave at the spiritual center of the building, the Taj Mahal demands attention from almost every angle.
That’s just what its creator wanted: eternal appreciation of the woman it honors. Mumtaz Mahal died while giving birth to her 14th child. Her husband, Shah Jahan, emperor of the Muslim Mughal empire, spared no ambition or cost in memorializing his third and favorite wife. His tribute stands, all these years later, as one of the world’s most impressive architectural feats.
The Work of Craftsmen, Laborers and Elephants
A legend that historians disprove but nonetheless circulate, perhaps because its extreme nature mirrors the aesthetic intensity of the site, claims that Shah Jahan severed the hands and gouged the eyes of the artisans and craftsmen who built the mausoleum so that they couldn’t repeat their success. If anything, the emperor probably appreciated the efforts of the many architects who designed the diffuse structures that seamlessly mesh to form a sweeping monument. The lingering question throughout the centuries is who actually designed it. As the official website of the Taj Mahal offers, credit for design in those days usually went to the building’s patron, rather than the architects. But it is believed the job required a team of architects.
Hopefully, Shah Jahan also appreciated the backbreaking work of the 22,000 laborers who, in a time long before electricity and mechanized construction tools, took 17 years to complete the project, finishing the central mausoleum in 1648. The workers benefited from the help of more than 1,000 elephants.
They came from all over Asia: stone cutters from Baluchistan, Pakistan; sculptors from Bukhara, India; inlayers from southern India; calligraphers from Syria and Persia; a specialist in turrets; and another who carved only marble flowers. Thirty-seven such craftsmen formed a “creative unit.”
A city, Mumtazabad, was actually created to accommodate all the workers. In Agra, they found a way to carry the heavy materials to the top of the 145-foot-high mausoleum dome; they built a 10-mile ramp that ran through the city. Materials —including ivory white marble and 40 types of gems — also came from all over: Iraq, Tibet, Turkestan and from within the Muslim Mughal empire.
Another legend has it that Shah Jahan, impatient after hearing it would take five years to remove the enormous brick scaffolding that supported the construction of the dome, declared that anyone who helped disassemble the bricks could keep them. It all came down overnight.
A Testament to Architectural Design
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated the Taj Mahal as a World Heritage site in 1983, meaning it has significant cultural and historical significance. That kind of significance almost goes without saying, but a UNESCO designation legally protects the site from harm or destruction in international treaties.
As UNESCO aptly describes in an overview of the structure and grounds, this wonder of the world is almost a sensory overload. It is a “rhythmic combination of solids and voids, concave and convex, and light shadow.” Arches and domes “increase the aesthetic aspect,” and “the relief work in marble and inlay with precious and semiprecious stones make it a monument apart.”
UNESCO points to three architectural design innovations that accentuate the beauty and majesty of the structure and grounds. First, placing Mumtaz Mahal’s tomb at one end of the site’s four section garden, instead of in the exact center, adds depth and perspective to the distant view of the monument. Also, the four free-standing minarets that stand on the corners of the mausoleum offer “not only a kind of spatial reference to the monument but also give a three-dimensional effect to the edifice.”
Lastly, UNESCO believes the Taj Mahal offers a perfect construct of symmetrical shapes, textures and colors that blend with dissimilar shapes, textures and colors in other spots. For instance, the mosque and the guest house in the proper complex are built of red sandstone, in contrast to the marble tomb in the center. Also, two main walkways and narrower cross-axial walkways precisely divide the walled garden into four sections.
Purposely Tricking Millions of Eyes
It’s no wonder why the majority of visitors don’t rush when on the grounds. Staring at it all is expected.
As Smithsonian observes, “the architects and craftsmen of the Taj Mahal were masters of proportions and tricks of the eye. When you first approach the main gate that frames the Taj, for example, the monument appears incredibly close and large. But as you get closer, it shrinks in size, exactly the opposite of what you’d expect.”