Zoya Ansari describes a wonder of the world
The iconic Taj Mahal – It is interesting that Taj Mahal somehow remains in news and this cannot be said about any other edifice of its stature. Recently, Taj Mahal was reported to be in danger when the banks of River Yamuna got swollen after unprecedented torrential rains and the water brushed its raised boundary wall. It faced this situation after about four decades ago and aroused international concern. The rising water made the authorities to rush to the site and decide for diverting the onrush of water flow. Taj Mahal is certainly not a stranger to controversies as extremist Hindu mindset keeps on churning out material aimed at disputing the origin and ownership of Taj Mahal and in the past it reached ridiculous proportions when the contention that Taj Mahal was built by a Hindu Raja became a hot news that was ultimately laughed down upon in Indian Parliament.
It is well known that Indians have exhibited a nauseating fetish for distorting history particularly its Muslim and British parts. In their quest to malign these two aspects of historical reality they come down heavy on Muslim rule and try to downplay or impugn virtually all its aspects. They specially frown upon any merit in historical achievements of past rulers and by implication try to justify their subjugation by minorities as a natural consequence of their love for peace and amity although their posture since becoming independent is full of bloody adventures as is borne out by the bloodletting in Kashmir. Despite their machinations the shining architectural legacy of the Muslim rule particularly the Mughal rule holds its value not only locally but also internationally.
Taj Mahal is the outcome of the architectural genius of Mughal Emperor Abul Muzaffar Shahabuddin Muhammad Shahjahan, Sahib Qiran- al-Thani Padshah Ghazi who was the fifth in line of the great Mughals who ruled the subcontinent from 1526 to 1707 with an interregnum of 15 years caused by their defeat and temporary ejection from Hindustan by resurgent Afghan power ably handled by Sher Shah Suri. On their return however they established the Mughal Empire on such strong footing that, though losing effective power after 1707, their sovereign legitimacy for an extraordinary length of 150 years. As a pampered prince Shahjahan turned out to be formidable, extremely formal and haughty monarch who loved ostentation and display of wealth. He was a connoisseur of gems and jewels and it was reported that it will take 14 years to go through and evaluate all the emperor’s personal jewels.
Shahjahan inherited a full treasury painstakingly collected by his ancestors particularly his illustrious grandfather Akbar who loved him dearly, and whose half a century parsimonious rule added immense wealth to imperial coffers. Immediately after ascending the throne, Shahjahan commissioned the famous Peacock Throne known as Takht-e-Taous that was rated as the most extravagant throne ever made. It was made of pure gold and precious stones and was surmounted by a jewel studded enamel canopy supported by twelve emerald pillars. Perched on top of each pillar were two peacocks on either side of the tree, set with diamonds, emeralds, rubies and pearls. Estimates of the value of this extraordinary piece of furniture vary from 30 to 100 million rupees, a whopping amount to be spent on a luxury when common people had to eke a living for a dozen rupees a year.
The cold, humourless and egocentric Shahjahan had an extreme soft spot for Arjumand Bano Begum daughter of Asaf Khan whose father Itmad-ud-Daula hailing from minor nobility, had emigrated from Persia and the family had risen during Jahangir’s reign when he wed Itmad-ud-Daula’s daughter Mehrunissa later known as Noorjahan who was also Asaf Khan’s sister and Arjumand Bano’s aunt. Since their betrothal in 1607 when Shahjahan was just 15 and she 14 and subsequent marriage five years later, they were inseparable.
Shahjahan did marry other women both before and after his marriage to Arjumand Bano such as Qandhari Begum, a Persian princess and Izz-un-Nissa, grand-daughter of venerable Amir Abdurrahim Khan-e-Khanan but his whole delight was centered on Arjumand Bano whom he titled Mumtaz Mahal (Pride of the palace) after becoming emperor. He was quite an unusual Mughal prince to stay close to his wife, a trait inherited by his son Dara Shikoh whose loyalty to his wife Nadira Begum remained unquestioned till she died while he was fleeing from Aurangzeb’s fatal pursuit. Mumtaz Mahal was very fecund and gave birth to fourteen children during their 19 years’ companionship: a child every 16 months was the average. Seven of their children survived which was rated quite a good average in medieval age.
Shahjahan’s personal world came to grief when Mumtaz Mahal unexpectedly died at Burhanpur reportedly after 30 hours of labour while giving birth to her fourteenth child Gauhar Ara Begum who survived. Shahjahan’s grief knew no bounds; his hair grew white and for two years he forswore any kind of pleasure. Something snapped inside him and from then on he would be hardly interested in the affairs of the empire. Instead he dedicated himself to erecting a befitting mausoleum for the love of his life.
The site for the mausoleum was carefully selected on the west bank of river Yamuna where the river flowed eastward. The view from his dwellings in Agra was unrestricted as it would be located in perfect north-south orientation. The building was so designed as it would never have to be approached against the sun and would get optimal light in all seasons. Shahjahan compensated Raja Jai Singh, ruler of Amber whose land was acquired as he was given four villa properties and the official transaction took place in December 1633.
The building that was finished in 1553 is a uniquely masterful piece of architecture revealing Central Asian, Persian, Ottoman and Indian architectural motifs. It is a lovely combination of all building techniques in vogue as is shown by its orientation, landscaping, proportions, volumes, building materials, calligraphy and ornamentation. Every detail is crafted with meticulous care and precision. The mausoleum was initially known as Ruaza-e-Munawwra but later on was dubbed as Taj Mahal mostly by European travellers visiting the subcontinent. The administrative coordinator and overseer of the building was known as Sarkar and was a Persian from Shiraz known as Mullah Murshid Makramat Khan. His chief assistant and construction supervisor were Mir Abdul Karim Mamur Khan who came to prominence during Jahangir’s reign.
The Quranic calligraphy was written by Abdul Khaliq Shirazi who was titled Amanat Khan. The building bears his signature at the base of the interior dome that reads ’written by insignificant being, Amanat Khan Shirazi’. Though it has been claimed by the son of Ustad Ahmad Lahori that Taj Mahal was conceived and designed by his father but he was the mimar or builder of the project having worked on important projects such as Red Fort in Delhi. In fact, Shahjahan was himself the conceiver, designer and builder of this edifice as he was indeed the master builder of his age as Taj Mahal has not lost its lustre even after centuries and is rightfully considered as a wonder of its kind. The Weekender