The History of the Taj Mahal

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Podcast Transcript

Located in the city of Agra in the state of Uttar Pradesh sits the most iconic building in India, the Taj Mahal.

In many ways, the Taj Mahal has become a symbol of India. You will find its image and name on Indian-owned restaurants and businesses around the world. 

But how did this building become so iconic, why was it built in the first place, and what was the purpose that it was supposed to serve?

Learn more about the Taj Mahal and its history on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The Taj Mahal has been called the most beautiful building on Earth, and it is considered one of the New Seven Wonders. 

Those might be subjective evaluations, but I don’t think that anyone can deny that the Taj Mahal is one of the most famous buildings in the world. 

The building has become so famous that it has come to represent India itself. It is one of a small number of structures that have achieved global icon status, including the Eiffel Tower, the Sydney Opera House, Big Ben, the Great Pyramid, the Great Wall, and the Colosseum.

The story of the Taj Mahal and why it was built is totally different than any of the other globally iconic buildings. 

It has to do with a love affair.

In the 17th century, India was ruled by the Mughal Empire. The Mughal Empire was an Islamic Empire which was ruled India for about 200 years. It began in 1526 when a warlord from what is today Uzbekistan came down from the Eurasian steppes and conquered an enormous swath of land extending from Afghanistan to Bangladesh, including almost all of the Indian subcontinent. 

By the 17th century, the Mughal Empire had become quite wealthy as trade with Europe and Arabia increased. This wealth was reflected in many large-scale building projects, many of which still stand today. 

The Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri in Uttar Pradesh, as well as the Red Fort and Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi, are all examples of Mughal architecture. 

The story of the Taj Mahal begins with the fifth ruler of the Mughal Empire, the Shah Jahan.  

Jahan was a pretty brutal ruler who came to power by killing his brother and most other possible claimants to the throne. However, despite his violent rise to power, he is probably best known for being the ruler who oversaw the apex of Mughal culture. 

In 1607, at the age of fifteen, Jahan was betrothed to a girl his same age from a Persian noble family by the name of Arjumand Banu Begum but was better known to history as Mumtaz Mahal.

The pair were not married until the age of 20 because they had to wait for a date that was favorable to the court astrologers. By that time, Jahan had already gotten married to his first wife and had a child. 

Despite having several wives, as the Emperor was required to do, Mumtaz Mahal was by far his favorite and the woman he was in love with. She was intelligent and served as his chief advisor. She was formally named Empress and was given the title of Mumtaz Mahal, which means “the exalted one of the palace” in Persian. 

She was given other titles by Jahan as well, including “queen of the world,” “queen of the age,” and “queen of Hindustan.”

She sat next to the emperor in both private and public audiences, and she developed a secret way of conveying to the emperor if she disapproved of something by discreetly placing her hand on his back. 

At her request, death sentences were commuted, and prisoners were pardoned.

She was given income-producing lands which she owned and controlled in her own right. 

She was eventually given the highest honor of being given the imperial seal, which allowed her to make imperial proclamations. 

Despite all the power and influence she wielded, she never was known as a woman who was scheming for power, which is a reputation that often was attached to women in similar circumstances, such as Wu Zetian in China, and Livia in ancient Rome. 

By all accounts, Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal were in love which is reflected in the fact that they had fourteen children together, seven of which survived infancy.

On June 17, 1631, after giving birth to her fourteenth child, she suffered a postpartum hemorrhage. The labor had lasted 30 hours, and afterward, she simply bled to death. 

She died at the age of 37.

Shah Jahan was inconsolable at the loss of his wife. Court scribes reported the level of despair that Jahan sunk. 

Some said he went into seclusion and cried for eight days straight.  

He only came out of seclusion at the behest of his and Mumtaz Mahal’s eldest daughter, Jahanara.  

When he did finally make a public appearance, his hair had turned white, he was hunched over, and he looked years older.

He refused to listen to music or wear fine clothing for two years.

Mumtaz Mahal was originally laid to rest in the imperial pleasure gardens at Burhanpur in the state of Madhya Pradesh, but this was never intended to be her final resting place. 

In December 1631, her body was disinterred and taken 435 miles to the City of Agra, where she was reburied. However, this, too, was not intended to be her final resting place. 

Almost immediately after her death, Shah Jahan began developing a plan to create the greatest possible monument to his wife, which would also serve as her mausoleum. 

Given the wealth of the empire at the time, no expense was to be spared. 

A location was chosen on the south bank of the Yamuna River in Agra. The land was purchased from the local Raja Jai Singh I, one of Jahan’s senior generals, in exchange for a palace inside the city of Agra.

The person put in charge of the project was the court architect Ustad Ahmad Lahori. The project that Lahori was undertaking was massive. 

The design of the mausoleum was based on other works of Indo-Islamic architecture, including other tombs and mosques which had been built in India.  However, this was to be very different from other Mughal buildings, if only for one particular reason. Most of the Mughal structures are built out of a red sandstone, which gives them a very particular look.

The mausoleum of Mumtaz Mahal, however, was to be clad in white marble.

Construction on the tomb began in 1632, and it was a massive project. Over 22,000 workers were estimated to have worked on the construction.

This included thousands of skilled craftsmen, including stonecutters, painters, and embroiders.

Over 1,000 elephants were used to transport the building materials

The white marble, which covers the entire structure, was brought in from Makrana in Rajasthan, over 325 kilometers away. Jasper was imported from the Punjab, jade and crystal came from China, turquoise from Tibet, Lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, sapphire from Sri Lanka, and carnelian from the Arabian Peninsula.

The construction of the main mausoleum took over ten years. It was finally completed in 1643.

The scaffolding which was used to build the structure was made out of brick, not a temporary scaffolding that is normally made out of bamboo. The architect thought that it would take years just to dismantle the massive brick scaffolding.

However, according to legend, when it was finished, Shah Jahan announced that anyone was free to take the bricks that made up the scaffolding. Peasants, again, according to legend, wanting the free bricks for themselves, dismantled the entire scaffold in a single day.

While the main building took over ten years to complete, that was not the end of the project. It took another decade to complete the other buildings on the site, the gardens, and the four minarets which surround it. 

The minarets were actually tilted slightly outward to collapse away from the main building in the event of an earthquake, which was not an uncommon occurrence at that time. 

The center of the entire mausoleum are the cenotaphs of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan. The dead center of the structure is the cenotaph of Mumtaz Mahal and then slightly offset to the side, and raised slightly higher, is that of her husband.

Shah Jahan’s cenotaph is the only element in the building that is not symmetric. 

I should add, a cenotaph is just an empty tomb, so inside, you will see two tomb-like structures, but they are both empty. 

The reason for this has to do with the Islamic prohibition against elaborate graves and tombs. 

The actual bodies of the couple are located in a plain crypt beneath the main chamber with their cenotaphs. Both of their bodies are laid with their heads pointing toward Mecca. 

The total cost of construction in modern-day amounts is estimated to be ?70 billion or close to $1 billion US dollars. Actually, building a replica of the Taj Mahal today would probably cost many times that amount. 

The name of the site, Taj Mahal, was given to it later. It is believed to be an Urdu adaptation of Persian and Arabic words. In Arabic and Persian, it is referred to as the “illustrious tomb.”

Taj is believed to have come from Mumtaz and also means crown. Mahal means palace. 

After the Taj Mahal was built, Shah Jahan was deposed by his son and imprisoned in the Agra Fort, from which he could look out at the tomb of his wife every day. 

Once the Taj Mahal was built, like many great buildings from history, it fell into a period where it was ignored.

In the 18th century, it was sacked, with all of the silver and gold objects in the building taken away. Thankfully, the building itself wasn’t harmed.

By the end of the 19th century, the entire complex had fallen into disrepair. In 1899, the British Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, ordered a restoration of the Taj Mahal, which took almost as long as the original construction did. It was completed in 1908. 

In the 20th century, the Taj Mahal has faced threats as well. During the Second World War, the structure was covered with bamboo scaffolding to disguise the building from Japanese bombers. 

During the Indo-Pakistani Wars in 1965 and 1971, it was again covered in scaffolding again for the same reason. 

The biggest threat to the Taj Mahal may be environmental. The white marble covering the structure has slowly been turning yellowish-brown due to air pollution in the region.

To combat this, the Indian government has implemented a 10,400-square-kilometre or 4,000-square-mile zone around the Taj Mahal that has emission restrictions. 

Today the Taj Mahal is one of the most visited attractions in India, with 7 to 8 million visitors annually. The vast majority of visitors are domestic tourists from within India. 

The Taj Mahal was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.

If you are visiting Delhi or Uttar Pradesh, I certainly recommend visiting the Taj Mahal. However, I would not recommend trying to visit it on a day trip from Delhi. It technically can be done, but there is simply too much to see in Agra beyond the Taj Mahal that it warrants a stay in the city. 

The Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri are both nearby and are worth visiting.

If you visit the Taj Mahal, I recommend hiring a guide, and I also recommend waking up as early as possible and being first in line. The gates will usually open at 6 am.

When I went, I arrived at 4:30 am and was the first person in line. When it opened, I had a rare window of about two minutes to photograph the Taj Mahal without any people standing in front of it. 

The Taj Mahal is unquestionably one of the most beautiful and iconic buildings in the world. 

Its existence is all due to the love an emperor had for his wife.