“The Taj Mahal rises above the banks of the river like a solitary tear forever suspended on the cheek of time.” These are the famous words of Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore about the Taj Mahal quoted in history textbooks. Indian history often speaks of the Taj Mahal as an epitome of romantic love. Built by the Emperor Shah Jahan in the memory of his third wife Mumtaz Mahal, the monument holds the tomb of the king’s beloved queen. The aspect which doesn’t get spoken about often is the spiritual legacy this grand work of art embodies. Indeed, the Taj stands as a palpable visual depiction of romantic love transcending into an expression of devotional zeal.
Devotion of a kingdom
The process of transforming a barren piece of land on the banks of River Yamuna into a tangible monument as it stands today was not a single-handed task. Taj Mahal’s construction was a daunting mission of over 22,000 craftsmen, workers, sculptors, calligraphers and architects. They gave to it 22 years of their lives as an expression of devotion to their king whom they considered the ‘shadow of God on earth’. It took over a decade for them to fathom the dedication and grit it would require to erect this marvel. Several of them had to stay away from their families, putting in relentless hours of work.
They gave to it 22 years of their lives as an expression of devotion to their king whom they considered the ‘shadow of God on earth’.
The dragging of marble and precious stones from various corners of the world was an exhausting mission. A colossal expense that went behind the making of this monument was partly born by the taxes charged from the locals in Agra–the city of the Taj. As the king’s treasure gradually emptied, the burden of bearing the expenses of this exotic monument spilled over to the neighbouring cities. Locals endured shortage of food grains which were diverted to feed the massive teams of workers. An artificial famine in Agra resulted in huge supplies of food grains being brought from the cities nearby. It was a devout sacrifice made by the people of a kingdom for their king.
Such sacrifices that went behind building the finest of structures served as a thread connecting cities, countries, religions and cultures. Ideas shared by Italian and Persian merchants travelling to the king’s Mughal durbar were delicately woven into the Hindu artistic techniques. Pietra dura work from Italy, the Persian charbagh or the Mughal-Persian hasht bihisht, all concepts amalgamated into this 17th century Indo-Islamic monument. Taj Mahal exemplifies the peak of religious tolerance that the Mughal Empire attained during the time.
A spiritual unison
It was a yearning desire of the Emperor Shah Jahan to build a mausoleum with a garden that would serve as a home for the late Mumtaz Mahal. Every facet of the monument, including the choice of stone and its colour was planned to create a replica of ‘paradise’ as envisaged in the Quran.
According to Islamic beliefs, every individual after death is destined to arrive at paradise or hell based on their deeds. The paradise has been portrayed in the Quran as a white heavenly body with a garden full of fruits and streams of milk, honey and water gushing through. It is said that Charbagh at the Taj Mahal alludes to this garden of paradise. The mausoleum built in white makhrana marble is a chamber where the queen lies in rest. It resembles hasht bihisht, a Persian translation of eight paradises in the cradle of God’s home. It is believed that the unison of Charbagh and the mausoleum alludes to that blissful moment when the deceased unites with the paradise.
An embodiment of this life and the next, the Taj Mahal carries within the quintessence of spiritual love. It is as if an earnest offering to God was made by the king to bless his beloved queen with enlightenment in paradise.