The Taj Mahal is considered to be one of the seven wonders of the world. Of course, this is no surprise when you set foot onto the grounds of the massive domed building. The painstaking work which went into its construction is a breathtaking marvel.
While travelling in northern India, we visited Agra from Delhi. I booked a tour of the Taj Mahal with Maria Tours through Get Your Guide online. You can also find tour operators in Delhi offering Taj Mahal tours for a cheaper price. A driver picked us up from our Airbnb and dropped us off at the train station. The train took almost two hours from Delhi to Agra. We met our guide, Kabir, at the train station in Agra. He would take us on a historical journey through the Taj Mahal monument.
Agra lies in the northern region of India, in Uttar Pradesh. It used to be the capital of the Mughal empire for a period of time during their reign.
The Mughal Empire
The Mughals (or Mogul) in India were descendents of the Mongol empire, and had a significant influence on India. In fact, many of the cuisine we know of today as Indian food has been heavily influenced by the Mughals, such as the combination of various spices and use of cream or butter to add rich textures. The Mughal empire spanned from 1526 – 1761. This was a time when India was expanding its trade with the rest of the world, exporting versatile and sought-after goods, for example, textiles and spices.
The empire changed hands between many emperors. They brought with them Persian culture and arts, including language – mixing Arabic with local languages to create Urdu. The first emperor to rule was Bābur, a descendant of Genghis Khan.
The beautifully structured architecture which the Mughals are well-known for was started by Jahāngīr, the fourth Mughal emperor. Employing Persian architects, he created brilliant palaces and beautiful gardens.
History of the Taj Mahal
The creation of the Taj Mahal is a romantic and inspiring story. The mausoleum sits on the bank of the Yamuna River, considered to be one of the sacred rivers in India. The point at which the Yamuna River intersects with the Ganges River is a significant site for annual Indian festivals.
The fifth Mughal emperor, Shah Jahān, who ruled from 1628 – 1658, was Jahāngīr’s successor. He built the Taj Mahal for his wife, Mumtāz Mahal. From his harem of wives (polygamy was common at the time), Jahān had a special place in his heart for his wife Mumtāz. When she died of childbirth, in order to commemorate her death, he built the Taj Mahal to show his devotion.
This flawless and symmetrical mausoleum incorporates Persian, Indian, and Islamic styles of architecture. It is believed that the chief architect of the palace, along with others, was an Indian man of Persian descent, Ustad Ahmad.
The complex includes a gateway, garden, the mausoleum, a mosque, and a building mirroring the mosque. The mausoleum has four minarets, which are towers built adjacent to mosques used for calls to prayer. The construction commenced in 1632 and took 22 years to complete. Over tens of thousands of workers from the Ottoman Empire, India, Persia, and Europe contributed to its laborious task, including elephants.
The Taj Mahal Structure
Seeing the Taj Mahal up close is incredibly spectacular. It stands as the epitome of monumental beauty – symmetrical, meticulously detailed, gorgeously structured, and surrounded by a stunning garden with beautiful mosques on either side.
The mausoleum is made of white marble which reflects the sun and moonlight, changing colours as the sky shifts shades. The white marble is inlaid with various semi-precious stones such as jade, lapis, amethyst, turquoise, and crystal which have been designed into floral patterns.
A pool of water in the garden resembling a pathway extends towards the entrance of the mausoleum. Adjoining the entrance of the palace on either side are four identical facades. The large dome at the top, representing an inverted lotus flower, sits at the centre surrounded by smaller domes. The height of the Taj Mahal is 73 metres (240 feet). The minarets extend out at each corner of the square surrounding the mausoleum, forming a wide platform.
When you step inside it is quiet yet loud. You can hear your own breathing, instinctively speaking in a whisper to keep your voice from reverberating on the stones of the chamber.
Below the chamber you walk into, at garden level, are the real tombs of the lovers. However, no one is allowed to travel below to get up and close with the tombs. Although, it was allowed in the past. No photographs are allowed inside the chamber, nor is visiting the dome.
At the time of Jahān’s death in 1666, 35 years after Mumtāz’s death, he was buried with her below. Above the burial site, in the chamber where visitors can walk through, are two cenotaphs. The first one for Mumtāz was built when the mausoleum was erected, lying right at the centre of the entire structure. However, the second one was put in place for Jahān after his death. Jahān’s cenotaph is the only element which opposes the symmetrical intention of the structure. Jahān had actually planned to be buried in a separate mausoleum made of black marble situated across the river and connected to the Taj Mahal by a bridge.
Two identical mosques lie on either side of the Taj Mahal, one facing east and the other west. They are made of red skiri sandstone with white marble domes. The gateway into the Taj Mahal complex is also made of sandstone with white domes.
Over time the structure of the Taj Mahal deteriorated but was restored during the 20th century under the British empire. In 1983, the Taj Mahal became a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Agra Fort and Baby Taj
The tour also included a brief visit of Agra Fort, another UNESCO heritage site, lunch at a nearby restaurant, and Baby Taj.
The Agra Fort
The Agra Fort (a.k.a. Red Fort), is a military fortress and residence made of sandstone from the 16th century. It is close to the Taj Mahal, by the Yamuna River. This fort was built during Abū Akbar’s reign, the third emperor of the Mughal empire. The fort reflects the architectural style of the Mughals and took eight years to build.
The Baby Taj
This structure made of white marble is considered to have been the initial inspiration for the great Taj Mahal. It is actually called Itmad-ud-Daula, meaning pillar of the state and built as a mausoleum. The tomb is for the treasurer who worked under Jahāngīr, the emperor before Shah Jahān. It has been nicknamed Baby Taj because it is characteristically similar to the Taj Mahal, not only in the material used, but also in its symmetry with four towers on each corner, floral inlays, and a dome on the top, which is flattened. Inside, where you will find two tombs, the details are just as intricate as the Taj Mahal.
Thousands of people visit the Taj Mahal each day. It is such a popular site that the Archaeological Survey of India, founded in 1861 to preserve and manage the site, has now restricted visits to three hours in order to limit the number of visitors. When it gets incredibly busy, long lines form to see inside the mausoleum. The Archaeological Survey of India is not only worried about the erosion of the marble from thousands of feet, but also air pollution.
We spent the last hour of our tour sitting with Kabir at Mehtab Bagh park, which provides a stunning view of the Taj Mahal from a distance. Nearby, we could see smoke spewing from a crematorium.
Visiting Taj Mahal’s monolithic structure is a jaw-dropping experience. The absolute labour and love that went into designing and constructing the Taj Mahal captures the multi-faceted cultural influence of the Mughal empire, as well as the depth of love existing within the human soul.
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