Taj Mahal

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Architecture; Geography of Asia

Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal

The Tāj Mahal ( Hindi: ताज महल; Persian/ Urdu: تاج محال) is a monument located in Agra, India, constructed between 1631 and 1654 by a workforce of 22,000. The Mughal Emperor Shāh Jahān commissioned its construction as a mausoleum for his favourite wife, Arjumand Bano Begum, who is better known as Mumtāz.

The Taj Mahal (sometimes called "the Taj") is generally considered the finest example of Mughal architecture, a style that combines elements of Persian, Indian and Islamic. The Taj Mahal has achieved special note because of the romance of its inspiration. While the white domed marble mausoleum is the most familiar part of the monument, the Taj Mahal is actually an integrated complex of structures.

Origin and inspiration

Agra (location of Taj Mahal)
Location of the Taj Mahal within India

Shāh Jahān, who commissioned the monument, was a prolific [lover] with effectively limitless resources. He had previously created the gardens and palaces of Shalimar in honour of his wife, Mumtaz. After her death in childbirth (she had already borne him fourteen children) Shah Jahan was reportedly inconsolable; the court chronicler 'Abd al-Hamid Lahawri tells us that before her death the emperor had but twenty white hairs in his beard, but thereafter many more. The contemporary court chroniclers paid an unusual amount of attention to Mumtaz Mahal's death and Shah Jahan's grief at her demise, and it may well be that the traditional "love-story" associated with the construction of the Taj has some basis in fact. The Taj Mahal was begun not long after Mumtaz's death in 1631. The principal mausoleum was completed seventeen years later, and the surrounding buildings and garden five years after that. Visiting Agra in 1663, the French traveller François Bernier gave the following description of the Taj Mahal and Shah Jahan's motive for building it:

Taj Mahal
I shall finish this letter with a description of the two wonderful mausoleums which constitute the chief superiority of Agra over Delhi. One was erected by Jehan-guyre [sic] in honour of his father Ekbar; and Chah-Jehan raised the other to the memory of his wife Tage Mehale, that extraordinary and celebrated beauty, of whom her husband was so enamoured it is said that he was constant to her during life, and at her death was so affected as nearly to follow her to the grave".
Taj Mahal

Influences on Taj Mahal design

The Taj Mahal incorporates and expands on many design traditions, particularly Hindu, Ottoman, and earlier Mughal architecture.

The overall design derived inspiration from a number of successful Timurid and Mughal buildings. These include the Gur-e Amir (the tomb of Timur, progenitor of the Mughal dynasty, in Samarkand), Humayun's Tomb, Itmad-Ud-Daulah's Tomb (sometimes called the Baby Taj), and his own Jama Masjid. Under Shah Jahan's patronage, Mughal building reached new levels of refinement; while previous Mughal building had primarily been constructed of red sandstone, Shah Jahan promoted the use of white marble inlaid with semi-precious stones.

Interior of masjid dome, showing inlaid geometric decoration
Interior of masjid dome, showing inlaid geometric decoration

Hindu craftsmen, particularly sculptors and stonecutters, plied trade throughout Asia during this period, and their work was particularly prized by tomb builders. Whilst the rock-cut architecture which characterises much of this construction had little influence on the Taj Mahal (carvings are only one form of the decorative element), other Indian buildings such as the Man Singh palace in Gwalior were an inspiration for much Mughal palace architecture and the source for the chhatris which can be seen on the Taj Mahal.

Design elements

Consistent repeated design elements are employed throughout the complex. These unify the complex with a single aesthetic vocabulary.

Design elements of the Taj Mahal.
Design elements of the Taj Mahal.

Major design features of the tomb are echoed throughout the complex -- both the tomb and the outlying buildings.

  • Finial: decorative crowning element of the Taj Mahal domes
  • Lotus decoration: depiction of lotus flower sculpted on tops of domes
  • Onion dome: massive outer dome of the tomb (also called an amrud or apple dome)
  • Drum: cylindrical base of the onion dome, raising it from the main building
  • Guldasta: decorative spire attached to the edge of supporting walls
  • Chattri: a domed and columned kiosk
  • Spandrel: upper panels of an archway
  • Calligraphy: stylised writing of verses from the Qu'ran framing main arches
  • Arch: also called pishtaq (Persian word for portal projecting from the facade of a building) and
  • Dado: decorative sculpted panels lining lower walls

Most of the elements can be found on the gateway, mosque and jawab as well as the mausoleum.

The garden

The complex is set in and around a large charbagh (a formal Mughal garden divided into four parts). Measuring 320 m × 300 m, the garden has sunken parterres or flowerbeds, raised pathways, avenues of trees, fountains, water courses, and pools that reflect the Taj Mahal.

Each of the four quarters of the garden is divided into 16 flowerbeds by raised pathways. A raised marble water tank at the centre of the garden, halfway between the tomb and the gateway, reflects the Taj Mahal.

The charbagh garden was introduced to India by the first Mughal emperor Babur, a design inspired by Persian gardens. The charbagh is meant to reflect the gardens of Paradise (from the Persian paridaeza -- a walled garden). In mystic Islamic texts of the Mughal period, paradise as described as ideal garden, filled with abundance. Water plays a key role in these descriptions: In Paradise, these text say, four rivers source at a central spring or mountain, and separate the garden into north, west, south and east.

Walkways beside reflecting pool
Walkways beside reflecting pool

Most Mughal charbaghs are rectangular in form, with a central tomb or pavilion in the centre of the garden. The Taj Mahal garden is unusual in siting the main element, the tomb, at the end rather than at the centre of the garden. But the existence of the newly discovered Mahtab Bagh or "Moonlight Garden" on the other side of the Yamuna provides a different interpretation -- that the Yamuna itself was incorporated into the garden's design, and was meant to be seen as one of the rivers of Paradise.

The layout of the garden, and its architectural features such as its fountains, brick and marble walkways, geometric brick-lined flowerbeds, and so on, are similar to Shalimar's, and suggest that the garden may have been designed by the same engineer, Ali Mardan.

Early accounts of the garden describe its profusion of vegetation, including roses, daffodils, and fruit trees in abundance. As the Mughal Empire declined, the tending of the garden declined as well. When the British took over management of the Taj Mahal, they changed the landscaping to resemble more the formal lawns of London.

Outlying buildings

Gateway to the Taj Mahal
Gateway to the Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal complex is bounded by a crenellated red sandstone wall on three sides. The river-facing side is unwalled. Outside the wall are several additional mausoleums, including those of many of Shah Jahan's other wives, and a larger tomb for Mumtaz's favourite servant. These structures, composed primarily of red sandstone, are typical of smaller Mughal tombs of the era.

On the inner (garden) side, the wall is fronted by columned arcades, a feature typical of Hindu temples later incorporated into Mughal mosques. The wall is interspersed with domed kiosks (chattris), and small buildings which may have been viewing areas or watch towers (such as the so-called Music House, now used as a museum).

The main gateway (darwaza) is a monumental structure built primarily of red sandstone. The style is reminiscent of that of Mughal architecture of earlier emperors. Its archways mirror the shape of the tomb's archways, and its pishtaq arches incorporate the calligraphy that decorates the tomb. It utilises bas-relief and pietra dura (inlaid) decorations with floral motifs. The vaulted ceilings and walls have elaborate geometric designs, like those found in the other sandstone buildings of the complex.

Interior of jawab
Interior of jawab

At the far end of the complex, two grand red sandstone buildings open to the sides of the tomb. Their backs parallel the western and eastern walls.

Taj Mahal mosque or masjid
Taj Mahal mosque or masjid

The two buildings are precise mirror images of each other. The western building is a mosque; its opposite is the jawab or "answer", whose primary purpose was architectural balance (and which may have been used as a guesthouse during Mughal times). The distinctions are that the jawab lacks a mihrab, a niche in a mosque's wall facing Mecca, and the floors of the jawab have a geometric design, while the mosque floor was laid out the outlines of 569 prayer rugs in black marble.

The mosque's basic design is similar to others built by Shah Jahan, particularly to his Jama Masjid in Delhi: a long hall surmounted by three domes. Mughal mosques of this period divide the sanctuary hall into three areas: a main sanctuary with slightly smaller sanctuaries to either side. At the Taj Mahal, each sanctuary opens on to an enormous vaulting dome.

The tomb


Simplified diagram of the Taj Mahal floor plan.
Simplified diagram of the Taj Mahal floor plan.
Main iwan and side pishtaqs
Main iwan and side pishtaqs

The focus of the Taj Mahal is the white marble tomb. Like most Mughal tombs, the basic elements are Persian in origin: a symmetrical building with an iwan, an arch-shaped doorway, topped by a large dome.

The tomb stands on a square plinth. The base structure is a large, multi-chambered structure. The main chamber houses the cenotaphs of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz (the actual graves are a level below).

The base is essentially a cube with chamfered edges, roughly 55 metres on each side (see floor plan, right). On the long sides, a massive pishtaq, or vaulted archway, frames the iwan, with a similar arch-shaped balcony above. These main arches extend above the roof of the building by use of an integrated facade.

To either side of the main arch, additional pishtaqs are stacked above and below. This motif of stacked pishtaqs is replicated on the chamfered corner areas.

The design is completely uniform and consistent on all sides of the building. Four minarets, one at each corner of the plinth, facing the chamfered corners, frame the tomb.


Base, dome, and minaret
Base, dome, and minaret

The marble dome that surmounts the tomb is its most spectacular feature. Its height is about the same size as the base of the building, about 35 m. Its height is accentuated because it sits on a cylindrical "drum" about 7 m high.

Because of its shape, the dome is often called an onion dome (also called an amrud or guava dome). The top of the dome is decorated with a lotus design, which serves to accentuate its height. The dome is topped by a gilded finial, which mixes traditional Islamic and Hindu decorative elements.


The dome shape is emphasised by four smaller domed chattris (kiosks) placed at its corners. The chattri domes replicate the onion shape of main dome. Their columned bases open through the roof of the tomb, and provide light to the interior. The chattris also are topped by gilded finials.

Tall decorative spires (guldastas) extend from the edges of the base walls, and provide visual emphasis of the dome height.

The lotus motif is repeated on both the chattris and guldastas.


The main dome is crowned by a gilded spire or finial.The finial used to be made of gold until the early 1800's, but is now made of bronze. The finial provides a clear example of the integration of traditional Islamic and Hindu decorative elements. The finial is topped by a crescent moon, a typical Islamic motif, whose horns point heavenward. Because of its placement on the main spire, the horns of the moon and the finial point combine to create a trident shape -- reminiscent of the traditional Hindu symbols of Shiva.

Similarly, the spire is made up of a number of bulbous forms. The central form bears a striking resemblance to a Hindu sacred water vessel (kalash or kumbh)..


At the corners of the plinth stand minarets: four large towers each more than 40 m tall. The minarets again display the Taj Mahal's basic penchant for symmetrical, repeated design.

The towers are designed as working minarets, a traditional element of mosques, a place for a muezzin to call the Islamic faithful to prayer. Each minaret is effectively divided into three equal parts by two working balconies that ring the tower. At the top of the tower is a final balcony surmounted by a chattri that mirrors the design of those on the tomb.

The minaret chattris share the same finishing touches: a lotus design topped by a gilded finial. Each of the minarets was constructed slightly out of plumb to the outside of the plinth, so that in the event of collapse (a typical occurrence with many such tall constructions of the period) the material would tend to fall away from the tomb.


Exterior decoration

Calligraphy on large pishtaq
Calligraphy on large pishtaq

Nearly every surface of the entire complex has been decorated. The exterior decorations of the Taj Mahal are among the finest to be found in Mughal architecture of any period.

Once again, decoration motifs are repeated throughout the complex. As the surface area changes -- a large pishtaq has more area than a smaller -- the decorations are refined proportionally.

The decorative elements come in basically three categories:

  • Calligraphy
  • Abstract geometric elements
  • Vegetative motifs

Islamic strictures forbade the use of anthropomorphic forms.

The decorative elements were created in three ways:

  • Paint or stucco applied to the wall surface
  • Stone inlay
  • Carvings



Throughout the complex passages from the Qur'an are used as decorative elements. The calligraphy is a florid and practically illegible thuluth script, created by the Mughal court's Persian calligrapher, Amanat Khan, who was resident at the Mughal court. He has signed several of the panels.

The calligraphy is made by jasper inlaid in white marble panels. Some of the work is extremely detailed and delicate (especially that found on the marble cenotaphs in the tomb). Higher panels are written slightly larger to reduce the skewing effect when viewed from below.

Recent scholarship suggests that Amanat Khan chose the passages as well. The texts refer to themes of judgment: of doom for nonbelievers, and the promise of Paradise for the faithful. The passages include: Surah 91 (The Sun), Surah 112 (The Purity of Faith), Surah 89 (Daybreak), Surah 93 (Morning Light), Surah 95 (The Fig), Surah 94 (The Solace), Surah 36 (Ya Sin), Surah 81 (The Folding Up), Surah 82 (The Cleaving Asunder), Surah 84 (The Rending Asunder), Surah 98 (The Evidence), Surah 67 (Dominion), Surah 48 (Victory), Surah 77 (Those Sent Forth) and Surah 39 (The Crowds).

Abstract geometric decoration

Incised painting
Incised painting

Abstract forms are used especially in the plinth, minarets, gateway, mosque, and jawab, and to a lesser extent on the surfaces of the tomb. The domes and vaults of the sandstone buildings are worked with tracery of incised painting to create elaborate geometric forms. (The incised painting technique is to scratch a channel in the stone, and to then lay a thick paint or stucco plaster across the surface. The paint is then scraped off the surface of the stone, leaving paint in the incision.)

On most joining areas, herringbone inlays define the space between adjoining elements. White inlays are used in the sandstone buildings, dark or black inlays on the white marble of the tomb and minarets. Mortared areas of the marble buildings have been stained or painted dark, creating geometric patterns of considerable complexity.

Floors and walkways throughout use contrasting tiles or blocks in tessellation patterns.

Vegetative motifs

The lower walls of the tomb are white marble dados that have been sculpted with realistic bas relief depictions of flowers and vines. The marble has been polished to emphasise the exquisite detailing of these carvings.

The dado frames and archway spandrels have been decorated with pietra dura inlays of highly stylised, almost geometric vines, flowers and fruits. The inlay stones are yellow marble, jasper and jade, levelled and polished to the surface of the walls.

Spandrel detail
Spandrel detail

Interior decoration

The interior chamber of the Taj Mahal steps far beyond traditional decorative elements. One may say without exaggeration that this chamber is a work of jewellery.

Screen surrounding cenotaphs
Screen surrounding cenotaphs

Here the inlay work is not pietra dura, but lapidary. The inlay material is not marble or jade but precious and semiprecious gemstones. Every decorative element of the tomb's exterior has been redefined with jeweler's art.

The inner chamber

The inner chamber of the Taj Mahal contains the cenotaphs of Mumtaz and Shah Jahan. It is a masterpiece of artistic craftsmanship, virtually without precedent or equal.

The inner chamber is an octagon. While the design allows for entry from each face, only the south (garden facing) door is used.

The interior walls are about 25 m high, topped by a "false" interior dome decorated with a sun motif.

Eight pishtaq arches define the space at ground level. As is typical with the exterior, each lower pishtaq is crowned by a second pishtaq about midway up the wall. The four central upper arches form balconies or viewing areas; each balcony's exterior window has an intricate screen or jali cut from marble.

In addition to the light from the balcony screens, light enters through roof openings covered by the chattris at the corners of the exterior dome.

Each of the chamber walls has been highly decorated with dado bas relief, intricate lapidary inlay and refined calligraphy panels, reflecting in miniature detail the design elements seen throughout the exterior of the complex.

The jali

The octagonal marble screen or jali which borders the cenotaphs is made from eight marble panels. Each panel has been carved through with intricate piercework. The remaining surfaces have been inlaid with semiprecious stones in extremely delicate detail, forming twining vines, fruits and flowers.

The cenotaphs

Cenotaphs, interior of the Taj Mahal
Cenotaphs, interior of the Taj Mahal

Muslim tradition forbids elaborate decoration of graves, so the bodies of Mumtaz and Shah Jahan are laid in a relatively plain chamber beneath the inner chamber of the Taj Mahal. They are buried on a north-south axis, with faces turned right (west) toward Mecca.

The Taj Mahal has been raised over their cenotaphs (from Greek keno taphas, empty tomb). The cenotaphs mirror precisely the placement of the two graves, and are exact duplicates of the grave stones in the basement below.

Mumtaz's cenotaph is placed at the precise centre of the inner chamber. On a rectangular marble base about 1.5 by 2.5 m is a smaller marble casket. Both base and casket are elaborately inlaid with precious and semiprecious gems. Calligraphic inscriptions on the casket identify and praise Mumtaz. On the lid of the casket is a raised rectangular lozenge meant to suggest a writing tablet.

Shah Jahan's cenotaph is beside Mumtaz's to the western side. It is the only asymmetric element in the entire complex. His cenotaph is bigger than his wife's, but reflects the same elements: A larger casket on slightly taller base, again decorated with astonishing precision with lapidary and calligraphy which identifies Shah Jahan. On the lid of this casket is a sculpture of a small pen box. (The pen box and writing tablet were traditional Mughal funerary icons decorating men's and women's caskets respectively.)

Details of lapidary

(craftsmanship is best seen in enlarged version -- click image to see enlargement)


The Taj Mahal was built on a stretch of land to the south of the walled city of Agra which had belonged to Maharajah Jai Singh: Shah Jahan presented him with a large palace in the centre of Agra in exchange. Construction began with setting foundations for the tomb. An area of roughly three acres was excavated and filled with dirt to reduce seepage from the river. The entire site was levelled to a fixed height about 50 m above the riverbank. The Taj Mahal is 180 feet tall. The dome itself measures 60 feet in diameter and 80 feet high.

View from the Agra Fort.
View from the Agra Fort.

In the tomb area, wells were then dug down to the point that water was encountered. These wells were later filled with stone and rubble, forming the basis for the footings of the tomb. An additional well was built to same depth nearby to provide a visual method to track water level changes over time.

Instead of lashed bamboo, the typical scaffolding method, workmen constructed a colossal brick scaffold that mirrored the inner and outer surfaces of the tomb. The scaffold was so enormous that foremen estimated it would take years to dismantle. According to legend, Shah Jahan decreed that anyone could keep bricks taken from the scaffold, and it was dismantled by peasants overnight.

A fifteen-kilometre tamped-earth ramp was built to transport marble and materials from Agra to the construction site. According to contemporary accounts teams of twenty or thirty oxen strained to pull the blocks on specially constructed wagons.

To raise the blocks into position required an elaborate post-and-beam pulley system. Teams of mules and oxen provided the lifting power.

The order of construction was

  • The plinth
  • The tomb
  • The four minarets
  • The mosque and jawab
  • The gateway

The plinth and tomb took roughly 12 years to complete. The remaining parts of the complex took an additional 10 years. (Since the complex was built in stages, contemporary historical accounts list different "completion dates"; discrepancies between so-called completion dates are probably the result of differing opinions about the definition of "completion". For example, the mausoleum itself was essentially complete by 1643, but work continued on the rest of the complex.)

Water infrastructure

Water for the Taj Mahal was provided through a complex infrastructure. Water was drawn from the river by a series of purs -- an animal-powered rope and bucket mechanism. The water flowed into a large storage tank, where, by thirteen additional purs, it was raised to large distribution tank above the Taj Mahal ground level.

From this distribution tank, water passed into three subsidiary tanks, from which it was piped to the complex. A 0.25 m earthenware pipe lies about 1.5 m below the surface, in line with the main walkway; this filled the main pools of the complex. Additional copper pipes supplied the fountains in the north-south canal. Subsidiary channels were dug to irrigate the entire garden.

The fountain pipes were not connected directly to the feed pipes. Instead, a copper pot was provided under each fountain pipe: water filled the pots allowing equal pressure in each fountain.

The purs no longer remain, but the other parts of the infrastructure have survived.


The Taj Mahal was not designed by a single person. The project demanded talent from many quarters.

The names of many of the builders who participated in the construction of the Taj Mahal in different capacities have come down to us through various sources.

Ustad Isa and Isa Muhammad Effendi, trained by the great Ottoman architect Koca Mimar Sinan Agha are frequently credited with a key role in the architectural design of the complex, but in fact there is little evidence to support this tradition, and the connection with Sinan (who died in 1588) is clearly a fairy-tale.

'Puru' from Benarus, Persia (Iran), has been mentioned supervising architect in Persian language texts (e.g. see ISBN 964-7483-39-2).

The main dome was designed by Ismail Khan from the Ottoman Empire, considered to be the premier designer of hemispheres and builder of domes of that age.

Qazim Khan, a native of Lahore, cast the solid gold finial that crowned the Turkish master's dome.

Chiranjilal, a lapidary from Delhi, was chosen as the chief sculptor and mosaicist.

Amanat Khan from Persian Shiraz, Iran was the chief calligrapher (this fact is attested on the Taj Mahal gateway itself, where his name has been inscribed at the end of the inscription).

Muhammad Hanif was the supervisor of masons.

Mir Abdul Karim and Mukkarimat Khan of Shiraz, Iran handled finances and the management of daily production.

The creative team included sculptors from Bukhara, calligraphers from Syria and Persia, inlayers from southern India, stonecutters from Baluchistan, a specialist in building turrets, another who carved only marble flowers — thirty seven men in all formed the creative nucleus. To this core was added a labour force of twenty thousand workers recruited from across northern India.

European commentators, particularly during the early period of the British Raj, suggested that some or all of the Taj Mahal was the work of European artisans. Most of these suggestions were purely speculative, but one dates back to 1640, when a Spanish Friar who visited Agra wrote that Geronimo Veroneo, an Italian adventurer in Shah Jahan's court, was primarily responsible for the design. There is no reliable scholarly evidence to back up this assertion, nor is Veroneo's name mentioned in any surviving documents relating to the construction. E.B. Havell, the principal British scholar of Indian art in the later Raj, dismissed this theory as unsupported by any evidence, and as inconsistent with the known methods employed by the designers. His conclusions were further supported by the research of Muhammad Abdullah Chaghtai, who examined carefully the origin of the tradition that the Taj was designed by a European, and concluded that it was a spurious 19th century invention, based on the misapprehension that "Ustad Isa", so often credited with the Taj's design, must have been a Christian because he bore the name "Isa" (Jesus). In fact this is a common Muslim name as well - and furthermore there is no source earlier than the 19th century which mentions an "Ustad Isa" in connection with the Taj Mahal (even if he existed he cannot, in any case, have been trained by Sinan, because the latter died in 1588). Chaghtai thought it more likely that the chief architect was Ustad Ahmad, the designer of Shahjahanabad, but admitted that this could not be conclusively proved from existing sources.


The Taj Mahal was constructed using materials from all over India and Asia. Over 1,000 elephants were used to transport building materials during the construction. The translucent white marble was brought from Rajasthan, the jasper from Punjab and the jade and crystal from China. The turquoise was from Tibet and the Lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, while the sapphire came from Sri Lanka and the carnelian from Arabia. In all, 28 types of precious and semi-precious stones were inlaid into the white marble.


The total cost of the Taj Mahal's construction was about 50 million rupees. At that time, 1 gram of gold was sold for about 1.4 rupees. Based on the October 2005 gold price that would translate to more than 500 million US$. (Comparisons based on the value of gold in two different economic eras are often misleading, however).


Soon after its completion, Shah Jahan was deposed and put under house arrest at nearby Agra Fort by his son Aurangzeb. Legend has it that he spent the remainder of his days gazing through the window at the Taj Mahal. Upon Shah Jahan's death, Aurangzeb buried him in the Taj Mahal next to his wife, the only disruption of the otherwise perfect symmetry in the architecture. By the late 19th century parts of the Taj Mahal had fallen badly into disrepair. During the time of the Indian rebellion of 1857 the Taj Mahal faced defacement by British soldiers, sepoys, and government officials who chiseled out precious stones and lapis lazuli from its walls.

At the end of the 19th century British viceroy Lord Curzon ordered a massive restoration project, completed in 1908. He also commissioned the large lamp in the interior chamber (modelled on one hanging in a Cairo mosque when local craftsmen failed to provide adequate designs). It was during this time the garden was remodelled with the more English looking lawns visible today. By the 20th century the Taj Mahal was being better taken care of. In 1942 the government erected a behemoth scaffolding over it in anticipation of an air attack by the German Luftwaffe and later by the Japanese Air Force (see photo). During the India-Pakistan wars of 1965 and 1971 scaffoldings were erected by the government to mislead would-be bomber pilots.

Its most recent threats came from environmental pollution on the banks of the Yamuna River including acid rain occurring due to the Mathura oil refinery (something opposed by Supreme Court of India directives).

As of 1983 the Taj Mahal was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today it is a major tourist destination.

Recently the Taj Mahal was claimed to be Sunni Wakf property, on the grounds that it is the grave of a woman whose husband Emperor Shah Jahan was a Sunni. The Indian government has dismissed claims by the Muslim trust to administer the property, saying their claims are baseless and the Taj Mahal is Indian national property.

The poet Tagore, a Nobel laureate, called Taj Mahal "a drop of tear on the cheek of history".


The Taj Mahal is often described as one of the seven wonders of the modern world. Millions of tourists have visited the site - more than three million in 2004, according to the BBC - making it one of the most popular international attractions in India.

Legends and theories

Origins of the name

The name Taj comes from Persian, the language of the Mughal court, meaning crown, and Mahal, also Persian, means place, area, or neighbourhood. Together, the term Taj Mahal translated into rough English from the original Persian means "Crown Place" or "The Place of the Crown." Some sources suggest that Taj Mahal is a shorter variant of Mumtaz Mahal, the formal court name and title of Arjumand Banu Begum, meaning First Lady of the Palace. As early as 1663, the French traveller François Bernier referred to the place as Tage Mehale.

The "Black Taj"

A longstanding popular tradition holds that an identical mausoleum complex was originally supposed to be built on the other side of the river, in black marble instead of white, for Shah Jahan himself. The story suggests that Shah Jahan was overthrown by his son Aurangzeb before the black version could be built. Ruins of dark marble found across the river are, the story suggests, the unfinished base of this "Black Taj".

Recent scholarship disputes this theory, and throws some interesting light on the design of the Taj Mahal. All other major Mughal tombs were sited in gardens that form a cross, with the tomb at the intersection of the vertical and horizontal pieces. The Taj Mahal gardens, by contrast, form a great 'T', with the tomb at the centre of the crosspiece. But the outline of the ruins on the other river bank would extend the design of the Taj Mahal gardens to form a cross of proportions typical of other Mughal tombs. Further, the marble in the ruins opposite the Taj Mahal, while dark from staining, were originally white. In addition, an octagonal pool in these ruins would have reflected the Taj Mahal. Scholars have called these ruins the Mahtab Bagh or "Moonlight Garden".

Scholars now believe that the reflection of the Taj Mahal in this pool is in fact what was meant when people referred to the 'black taj'.

Shah Jahan's asymmetric tomb

Shah Jehan's cenotaph, offset from center. Shah Jahan was interred at the tomb eight years after its completion.
Shah Jehan's cenotaph, offset from centre. Shah Jahan was interred at the tomb eight years after its completion.

Aurangzeb had Shah Jahan's tomb and cenotaph placed in the Taj Mahal rather than building him a separate mausoleum such as other emperors had. He thus destroyed the symmetry of the Taj Mahal design. A variation on the Black Taj legend suggests that Aurangzeb's decision was made from malice or parsimony. In Itmad-Ud-Daulah's Tomb however, which was a major influence on the Taj Mahal design, Aurangzeb's grandparents were interred in a similar asymmetric fashion. Note: main chamber contains cenotaphs (false tombs); the actual tombs, configured identically, are in the crypt below.

Mutilation of the craftsmen

A seemingly endless number of stories describe, often in horrific detail, deaths, dismemberments and mutilations which Shah Jahan inflicted on various craftsmen associated with the tomb. No evidence for these legends exists, and no respected authority finds them credible.

Stolen items

Legends abound concerning items originally attached to the Taj Mahal which were stolen. Some original items have been removed over time, but many are mere legends only. These legends include:

  • Gold leaf, supposed to have covered all or part of the dome.
  • A golden railing supposed to have circled the cenotaphs (suggested perhaps by a temporary enamel railing that was replaced after completion of the marble jali)
  • Diamonds supposedly inlaid in the cenotaphs
  • A blanket woven of pearls supposedly covering Mumtaz's cenotaph

Numerous items from the Taj Mahal have gone missing however; these include the following

  • An entrance door of carved jasper
  • Gold leaf that adorned the cast iron joints of the jali screen around the cenotaphs
  • Numerous rich carpets that covered the interior of the tomb
  • Enamelled lamps from the interior of the tomb

British plan to demolish the Taj Mahal

There is an often-repeated story that Lord William Bentinck, governor of India in the 1830s, planned to demolish the Taj Mahal and auction off the marble. In some versions of the tale, the demolition crew were ready to begin their work but were stopped only because Bentinck was unable to make the scheme financially viable. There is no contemporary evidence for this story, which may have emerged in the late nineteenth century when Bentinck was being criticised for his penny-pinching Utilitarianism, and when Lord Curzon was emphasising earlier neglect of the monument, and presenting himself as a saviour of Indian antiquities. According to Bentinck's biographer John Rosselli, the story arose from Bentinck's fund-raising sale of discarded marble from Agra Fort and of the metal from a famous but obsolete Agra cannon.

Was the Taj Mahal originally a temple or a palace?

P.N. Oak, President of The Institute for Rewriting Indian History, has repeatedly asserted that the Taj Mahal was a Hindu temple of the god Shiva, usurped and remodeled by Shah Jahan. The temple's

Oak also claims that the tombs of Humayun, Akbar and Itmiad-u-Dallah — as well as the Vatican in Rome, the Kaaba in Mecca, Stonehenge and "all historic buildings" in India — were also Hindu temples or palaces.

The Taj is only a typical illustration of how all historic buildings and townships from Kashmir to Cape Comorin though of Hindu origin have been ascribed to this or that Muslim ruler or courtier.

He further says that if Taj Mahal was not a Shiva temple, that it might then have been the palace of a Rajput king. In any case (he says), the Taj Mahal was Hindu in origin, stolen by Shah Jahan and adapted as a tomb — although Oak also claims that Mumtaz is not buried there.

Oak further states that the numerous eyewitness accounts of Taj Mahal construction, and Shah Jahan's construction orders and voluminous financial records, are elaborate frauds meant to hide its Hindu origin.

His many provocative assertions have gained a lot of popular interest and made Oak a well-known media figure.

He has sued to break open the cenotaphs, and to tear down brick walls in the lower plinth: In these "fake tombs" and "sealed apartments", Oak says Shivalingams or other temple items were hidden by Shah Jahan.

According to Oak, the Indian government's refusal to allow him unfettered access amounts to a conspiracy against Hinduism.

Oak's assertions are not accepted by legitimate scholars. But these stories are widely believed and publicized by some contemporary Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) activists.

In 2000 India's Supreme Court dismissed Oak's petition to declare that a Hindu king built the Taj Mahal and reprimanded him for bringing the action. In 2005 a similar petition was dismissed by the Allahabad High Court. This case was brought by Amar Nath Mishra, a social worker and preacher who claims that the Taj Mahal was built by the Hindu King Parmar Dev in 1196.

More information about alternate theories of origin

  • The Question of the Taj Mahal by Bhat, P.S.; Athawale, A.L. (1985). Itihas Patrika, vol.5.
  • Taj Mahal: The True Story by P.N. Oak ISBN 0-9611614-4-2
  • Was the Taj Mahal a Vedic Temple? The Photographic Evidence! Stephen Knapp.
  • "An Architect Looks at the Taj Mahal Legend" by Marvin Mills.
  • The Letter of Aurangzeb ordering repairs to the Taj Mahal in the year just before it is said to have been completed.
  • The Badshahnama is the history written by the Emperor's own chronicler. Knapp argues that this proves that Shah Jahan had acquired the Taj Mahal from the previous owner, Jai Singh, grandson of Raja Mansingh, after selecting this site for the burial of Queen Mumtaz.

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