Arguably the most perfect building on Earth, the Taj Mahal is an Indian ruler's timeless memorial to his lost, lamented love. This white marble pearl of architecture was once described by poet Rabindranath Tagore as "a teardrop on the cheek of eternity." Like love and tears, it cannot be captured in mere words.
The perfectly symmetrical Taj -- a central dome surrounded by four smaller domes, with minarets at each corner, all reflected in a long pool -- appears exceptionally lovely at dawn and sunset, when the luminescent marble building seems almost to float on air. Its beauty changes throughout the day. Sometimes the Taj Mahal is veiled in mist, at other times glowing soft pink, or shadowed in pearl gray, or softening to creamy yellow, or gleaming white under the blazing sun of Agra. The changing illumination is actually a decorative motif, designed to produce an assortment of responses in the viewer. And according to the principles of Mogul architecture, light symbolizes the presence of Allah.
The centuries-old Taj Mahal is menaced by Agra's all-too-modern air pollution.
Factory emissions mix with moisture in the air to create sulphuric acid, which eats
into the surface of the tomb, yellows the pure white marble, and causes it to flake.
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Completed in 1653, the Taj Mahal was erected by the Mogul ruler Shah Jahan to honor the memory and enshrine the body of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal ("Elect of the Palace"), who died while giving birth to their 14th child. Building the mausoleum took 22 years and 20,000 workers. A convoy of 1,000 elephants hauled the marble blocks, each weighing more than two tons, from quarries more than 200 miles away.
The massive scale and grandeur of the Taj Mahal is counterpoised by the extreme delicacy of its ornamentation. Particularly elegant adornments are the floral inlays of precious stones brought from various locales: lapis lazuli from Sri Lanka, turquoise from Tibet, mother of pearl from the Indian Ocean, carnelian from Iraq, crystal and green jade from Turkistan.
Beautiful stone carving abounds at the
Like a treasure, the Taj Mahal is protected behind a towering gateway of red sandstone that looms 100 feet high. Next comes a garden laid out in typical Mogul style, with symmetry as the guiding rule. Waterways divide the garden into quarters to symbolize the Islamic Gardens of Paradise, whose four rivers run with water, milk, wine, and honey. In the garden's former days of glory, bright fish filled the waterways, colorful birds flitted through the air, and symmetrically planted trees symbolized death (cypresses) and life (fruit trees).
The tomb is flanked by a mosque of red sandstone that consecrates the grounds and by an identical replica called the Jawab ("answer"), whose doorway faces away from Makkah, making the building unusable for prayer. At the tomb's four corners stand minarets that slant outward ever so slightly -- a precaution in case of earthquake, designed to ensure that the tall, slender towers fall away from the tomb rather than collapse onto it.
True to Mogul principles of architectural symmetry, the tomb itself takes the shape of a square, measuring 186 feet on each side. Its central arch is set off on either side by smaller arches. The width of the marble pedestal on which the tomb stands equals the tomb's height. And the height of the dome is equal to the height of the facade below.
The globular dome resembles a pearl, recalling Muhammad's portrayal of the throne of God as a dome of white pearl resting upon four pillars. Using an architectural innovation developed in Central Asia, the dome is actually of double construction, a design that allows more height.
The tomb's octagonal main chamber holds the memorial to Mumtaz Mahal, set behind a delicately cut marble screen that transmits an illumination as ethereal as lace. Shah Jahan's memorial is beside it. The inlay of precious stones is so elaborate on these monuments that a single leaf or flower may be fashioned of up to 60 or 70 separate pieces. The actual tombs of the royal duo lie directly below, in the crypt.
When Shah Jahan built this undying monument to romantic love, Mogul power was on the wane, and the project consumed much of the empire's wealth. Furthermore, the inconsolable ruler was quite distracted from matters of state. Eventually his son, Aurangzeb, staged a coup and seized power. Strict and devout, the son imprisoned the father in the nearby fort at Agra. The despondent Shah Jahan spent his last years gazing across at his wife's memorial of pure white marble, the magnificent Taj Mahal.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jerry Camarillo Dunn, Jr., has worked with the National Geographic Society for more than 20 years, starting as a staff editor, writer, and columnist at Traveler magazine, then writing travel guides. His latest work is National Geographic Traveler: San Francisco. Dunn’s Smithsonian Guide to Historic America: The Rocky Mountain States has sold more than 100,000 copies. His travel pieces appear in newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune and The Boston Globe. Jerry Dunn's stories have won three Lowell Thomas Awards from the Society of American Travel Writers -- the highest honor in the field. He also wrote and hosted a pilot episode for a travel show produced by WGBH, Boston's public television station.