The tale of love and loss that supposedly sparked the existence of the Taj Mahal (literally, the "Crown Palace") sometimes seems as incredible as the monument's beauty. It is said that Shah Jahan fell in love with his favorite wife, Arjuman Banu, at first sight, and went on to revere her for her generosity, intelligence, and the 14 children she bore. She became his Mumtaz Mahal (the Exalted of the Palace), and her love for him was apparently just as great—on her deathbed, or so the legend goes, she begged the king to build a monument so beautiful that the world would never forget their love. Five months later, a huge procession brought Mumtaz Mahal's body to Agra, where Shah Jahan began the process of honoring her request.
Indeed, it's difficult to imagine a grander gesture throughout history, but the design, execution, and end result is what truly makes the Taj Mahal a must-see. It took 20,000 laborers 17 years (starting in 1632) to complete the vast tomb of white marble
on the banks of the Yamuna River, making it the most stunning example of the elaborate aesthetic world that the Mughals created in India.
The Taj Mahal stands at the end of a large, four-quartered garden, or charbagh, symbolizing paradise, extending about 1,000 feet in each direction from a small central pool. You enter the grounds through a huge sandstone gateway emblazoned with an inlaid Koranic inscription. Ahead, facing the long reflecting pool, the Taj Mahal stands on two bases, one of sandstone and, above it, a marble platform measuring 313 square feet and worked into a chessboard design. A slender marble minaret stands at each corner of the platform, blending so well into the general composition that it's hard to believe each one is 137 feet tall. The minarets were built at a slight tilt away from the tomb so that, in case of an earthquake, they'd fall away from the building. Facing the Taj Mahal from beneath its platform are two majestic sandstone buildings, a mosque on the left and its mirror image (built purely for symmetry) on the right. Behind the tomb, the Yamuna winds along its broad, sandy bed.
The tomb's central archway is deeply recessed, as are the smaller pairs of companion archways along the sides and the beveled corners of the 190-square-foot structure. The Taj Mahal's most extraordinary feature is its onion dome, crowned by a brass finial mounted in a scalloped ornament, which is an inverted Hindu motif of the lotus. The dome uses the Central Asian technique of placing a central inner dome, in this case 81 feet high, inside an outer shell to attain the extraordinary exterior height of 200 feet; between the two is an area nearly the size of the interior hall itself. Raising the dome above the minarets was the builders' great stroke of genius. Large chattras (umbrellas), another feature borrowed from Hindu design, balance the dome.
Inside the mausoleum, the changing light creeps softly in through marble screens that have been chiseled like silver filigree. Look closely at the tiny flowers drawn in inlaid semiprecious stones and the detailed stonework on each petal and leaf. The work is so fine that not even a magnifying glass reveals the tiny breaks between stones, yet a single one-inch flower on the queen's tomb has 60 pieces. Directly under the marble dome lie the tombs of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan, surrounded by a jali (latticed) screen carved from a single block of marble, with a design as intricate as lace. In the center of the enclosure, diminishing rectangles lead up to what looks like a coffin; in fact, both Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan are buried in a crypt below these tombs in deference to the Islamic tradition that no one should walk upon their graves. After his death, Shah Jahan was buried next to his wife by his son Aurangzeb, upsetting the perfect symmetry, most likely a cost-cutting measure that forms an ironic postscript to the munificence of Shah Jahan. But it's fitting that the emperor lies in perpetuity next to his favorite wife.
In early morning, the pale rays of the sun give the marble of the Taj Mahal a soft pink luster; at sunset the west side of the monument turns lemon yellow, then pumpkin orange. Once the sun goes down, the marble is pure white against a black sky.
The small Taj Mahal Museum stands near the mosque to the left of the Taj. It holds Mughal memorabilia and provides some historical background to the Taj, as well as paintings of the famous couple, manuscripts, letters, and a display of precious stones used in the construction of the Taj.