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Photo of the Month - exploring the Story behind the Image...

Taj Mahal at Dawn across the Yamuna River

Taj Mahal at Dawn across the Yamuna River

Year: 2012, Month: June

India > Uttar Pradesh > Agra

There can not be many people in the world who have not heard of the Taj Mahal, or have been haunted by its delicate and ethereal beauty. If you do not quite recognise the building from this angle, you shouldn't be surprised, as this photograph was taken from across the Yamuna River, and shows the rear of the building in early morning light.

Most visitors to Agra do not bother to make the rather complicated journey to the 'Backside Taj', as all the auto-rickshaw drivers refer to it, and indeed these days the trip is not so enjoyable as it once was. The access to the banks of the Yamuna River has been cordoned off with barbed wire, and short of bribing the police guards stationed there, it is no longer possible to walk down to the water's edge as in previous times.

To get a good description of the Taj Mahal, it is necessary to forsake the modern guidebooks and read instead from their predecessors. The following account is taken from a very old copy of Murrays Handbook to India, Ceylon, and Burma.

The building is properly named Tajbibi ka Koza, or 'The Crown Lady's Tomb'. It was commenced in 1040 A.H., or 1630 A.D., by the Emperor Shah Jahan, as a tomb for his favourite queen, Arjmand Banu, entitled Mumtaz-iMahal, the 'Chosen of the Palace', or more freely, 'Pride of the Palace'. She was the daughter of Asaf Khan, brother of Nurjahan, the famous empress-wife of Jahangir. Their father was Mirza Ghiyas, a Persian, who came from Teheran to seek his fortune in India, and rose to power under the title of Itimad-ud daulah. Mumtaz-iMahal married Shah Jahan in 1615 A.D., had by him seven children, and died in child-bed of the eighth in 1629, at Burhanpur, in the Deccan. Her body was brought to Agra, and laid in the garden where the Taj stands until the mausoleum was built. The Taj cost, according to some accounts, Rs. 18,465,186, and according to others, Rs. 31,748,026, and took upwards of twenty-two years to build, according to Tavernier, who records that he saw both its commencement and completion, and that the scaffolding used was constructed of brick. There were originally two silver doors at the entrance, but these were taken away and melted by Suraj Mai and his Jats. Austin of Bordeaux was then in the Emperor's service, probably took part in the decoration, and especially in the inlaid work, of the mausoleum.

The approach to the Taj is by the Taj Ganj Gate, which opens into an outer court 880 ft. long and 440 ft. wide. Inside the court are two tombs, and in the N.W. corner a small caravanserai. On the right is a gate which leads into the quarter S. of the Taj, and on the left is the Great Gateway of the garden-court, built 1648, which Mr Fergusson calls 'a worthy pendant to the Taj itself'. It is indeed a superb gateway of red sandstone, inlaid with ornaments and inscriptions from the Koran in white marble, and surmounted by 26 white marble cupolas. Inside is the beautiful Taj garden. This is laid out in formal style, the whole to the S. of the platform of the Taj and the buildings which support it architecturally being divided by two main thoroughfares into four portions, which are again subdivided into four.

The principal vista, which has a marble water-course all down it interrupted in the middle by a marble platform, leads directly to the Taj, which rises in all its peerless beauty at the end, and is mirrored in the water below. The cypresses which lined the vista have been lately removed, as the size to which they had grown obstructed the view of the Taj, but others have been planted, and will take their place in the scene in due course. The trees of the garden generally have also been wisely thinned, and now admit of endless beautiful views and peeps of the marble dome, the marble walls and the marble minarets, which can be enjoyed at leisure from the seats placed about the gardens. Very fine views are also obtained from the top of the great gate and from the halls in the centre of the side walls. Along the S. wall on either side of the great gate is an extremely fine pillared gallery of red sandstone.

The beauty of the Taj is perhaps most perfect immediately after sunset, or under the moonlight; but every change of light seems to lend new graces to it. The cerrtral marble platform on which the tomb stands is 22 ft. high and 313 ft. sq. At each corner is a minaret of white marble picked out by black lines, 137 ft. high. The tomb itself measures 186 ft. on each side, the corners being bevelled off and recessed into a bay. On either side of each angle corner is another small bay, and in the centre of each side is a splendid deep bay 63 ft. high. The height of the walls and parapet over them is 108 ft.; at each corner above them rise smaller marble domes, and in the centre soars the great central dome, which rises to a height of 187 ft., the metal pinnacle adding yet 30 ft. to the whole: the height of the top of the dome above the level of the garden is just 27 ft. less than that of the Kutab Minar, and of the top of the pinnacle a few ft. higher than that. 'The building', writes Mr Fergusson, 'is an exquisite example of that system of inlaying with precious stones which became the great characteristic of the style of the Mughals after the death of Akbar'.

All the spandrels of the Taj, all the angles and more important details, are heightened by being inlaid with precious stones. These are combined in wreaths, scrolls, and frets as exquisite in design as beautiful in colour. They form the most beautiful and precious style of ornament ever adopted in architecture. Though of course not to be compared with the beauty of Greek ornament, it certainly stands first among the purely decorative forms of architectural design. The judgment with which this style of ornament is apportioned to the various parts is almost as remarkable as the ornament itself, and conveys a high idea of the taste and skill of the Indian architects of the age. The delicately sculptured ornamentation, in low relief, to be found on all exterior walls and the recesses of the building, is in its way as beautiful as the pietra dura work itself. In the centre of the tomb is an octagonal chamber surrounded by a series of other rooms.

Each side of the central room measures 24 ft. The dome rises 50 ft. above the pavement, and is 58 ft. in diameter. Under the centre of the dome, enclosed by a trellis-work screen of white marble, which Mr Fergusson considers 'a chef d'oeuvre of elegance in Indian art', but which most people will rate less highly it probably dates from the reign of Aurangzeb are the tombs of Mumtaz-i-Mahal and Shah Jahan; the simple inlay work on these and the more elaborate work on the screen deserve special examination. These, however, as is usual in Indian sepulchres, are not the true tombs the bodies rest in a vault, level with the surface of the ground, beneath plainer tombstones placed exactly below those in the hall above'.

Over the two tombs hangs a fine Cairene lamp, the graceful gift of Lord Curzon. The inscriptions on them are 'Markad-i-Munawwar i Arimand Banu Begam, Mukhatib ba Mumtaz-i-Mahal, taufiyat san 1040' (the resplendent grave of Arjmand Banu Begam, called Mumtaz-i-Mahal, deceased in 1040), and 'Markad i Mutahhar i Ali i Hazrat i Fardausashyani Sahib Kiran i Sani, Shah Jahan Badshah, Taba Sarrahu' (the famous grave of his Imperial Highness, the resident of Paradise, the second Alexander (Lord of the two horns). King Shah jahan. May his grave be fragrant). The Queen's tomb bears the 99 names of God.

'The light in the apartment where the tombs are', says Mr Fergusson, is admitted only through double screens of white marble trellis work of the most exquisite design, one on the outer and one on the inner face of the walls. In our climate this would produce nearly complete darkness; but in India, and in a building wholly composed of white marble, this was required to temper the glare that otherwise would have been intolerable. As it is, no words can express the chastened beauty of that central chamber, seen in the soft gloom of the subdued light that reaches it through the distant and half-closed openings that surround it. When used as a Barahdari, or pleasure-palace, it must always have been the coolest and the loveliest of garden retreats, and now that it is sacred to the dead, it is the most graceful and the most impressive of sepulchres in the world. There is a most wonderful echo in the dome.

It was seriously proposed by a Governor-General of India to demolish the Taj and sell the marbles; but that was many years ago, and the mausoleum and its surroundings now receive far more loving care than would ever have been the case under a Mohammedan Emperor. For the excellent work done in this connection at Agra and at Fatehpur-Sikri and Sikandarah of late years, the public have to thank, in the first place, Sir John Strachey, and next. Sir Antony, now Lord MacDonnell, and his able assistant, the late Mr E. W. Smith. On a lower level at either side of the mausoleum are two fine buildings of red sandstone, that on the W. side being a mosque, and that on the E. side forming a jawab or complement, a hall. On the pavement in front of the former, which bears the unusual decoration of flowers, is a representation of the finial of the Taj.

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