Envocare logo: Go to Home page

An Historical Account of the Taj Mahal


Our attempt at a potted history of the Taj Mahal origins

(By Gordon Shaw. With acknowledgements to BBC/Time Life and the Oxford Encyclopedic English Dictionary)

This historical summary of the Taj-Mahal story must be regarded with scepticism. It is highly probable that it is somewhat inaccurate and possible that it is totally misleading. For example, a certain Professor Oak (in his book "The Taj Mahal: The True Story") puts forward persuasive evidence, observations and interpretation that suggest the monument was originally a Hindu temple, palace of Tejo Mahalaya (Shiva), built long before the Shah Jahan came to power and that it was taken over by Jahan and 'developed' into, approximately, what we see today. Allegedly, Indira Gandhi's government tried to ban this book and some would say the Indian government has been politically motivated in suppressing this theory. Certainly the Taj Mahal is a great tourist money spinner with its present dramatic and romantic aura: the asset value might be greatly diminished if Oak's alternative account is correct. Furthermore, it is argued, publicising this 'true story' might alienate a substantial tranche of the electorate: the Muslims. There are chambers in the monument which, it seems, have remained unopened since Shah Jahan's time and which the professor believes could provide evidence to prove the account one way or another. Allegedly the Indian government will not allow an independent investigation within these chambers, and if that is the case it raises suspicions as to their motives. You must form your own opinion.
We are academic engineers, better at producing summaries and reports than historical research so what is offered here is a light hearted summary based on variants of the traditional story, inspired by our own encounter in 1976. It may be that we are describing a myth but it still makes a beautiful 'tale'.
The Tale:
The Taj Mahal in Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India must be one of the most magnificent and wondrous monuments created by man. We have been there and regard it as literally breathtaking, being the most beautiful, astonishing and inspiring sights that we have had the privilege of beholding. The focal point of the monument is constructed in white marble extravagantly inlaid with semi-precious stones and with calligraphed verses from the Quran (Koran). Major parts of the surrounding construction are built from sandstone, distinctively coloured red, in keeping with many other notable buildings of the district and period. The architectural style is Persian but possibly surpasses any other of similar style at any time, in any part of the world, displaying an incredible intricacy of form and decoration throughout its huge entirety. It has become quite understandably a major tourist attraction and the area caters for international sight-seeing visitors with travel facilities, accommodation and formal tours. Yet none of this commercialisation detracts from the impressive spectacle. That summarises what the Taj Mahal is, but lets move on to recount why its there and how it became so exceptional.

Follow Us
Envocare Ltd Facebook Link Google+ Button Twitter logo 40




  The Taj' had its origins, so it is said, with one of the most romantic, but tragic, love stories of all times. It is surprising that the largely Hindu population perpetuates the romantic view (our experience indicated quite strongly that they do) since the hero and heroine are Muslims, the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan and his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal. The Mughals (or Mongols) were historically ruthless conquerors and empire builders who, amongst many other radical activities, discriminated against the Hindus. It must be said, however, that while the Shah Jahan and his grandfather (Akbar) were military rulers and the lavish style of Jahan impoverished the country, there was a toleration of the Hindu kingdoms and some outstanding benefits from the Mughal culture. This period (including the reign of Akbar's son, Jahangir) was renowned for its patronage of the arts and its architectural splendour.
Shah Jahan means King of the world and Mumtaz means the chosen one.
    The Shah and Mumtaz had a close and loving relationship without doubt; they fell in love at first sight when they were 15, married at 20 (10 May 1612) and in the following 19 years they were inseparable and she bore him 14 children. They were together on a military expedition south of Agra when she had their 14th child, a girl. Tragically she died soon after this birth when she was only 39. Jahan was beside himself with grief and, according to popular history, it was this event which inspired him to create this wonderful monument, the Taj Mahal, as a mausoleum in her memory. There are however other theories which, while not denying the connection with his bereavement nor changing the time-course, throw a different light on his motives. But first things first.
View of the Main Entrance to the Taj Mahal
The Taj-Mahal Main Entrance
  To understand how Jahan would have been able to carry out this project one has to realise that the Mughals were not only all powerful but seriously rich. Jahan had become Emperor on his father's death in 1627 and the list of his possessions is unbelievable in terms of gold, silver, and precious gems. The making of the Taj' involved an awful lot of skilled workers brought from all parts of the Mughal Empire. The beautiful white marble brought 200 miles from the west is inset with intricately cut gemstones such as Turquoise, Carnelian, Green Jade, Sapphire, Agate, Amethyst and other gems gathered from all over the world. In a remarkably short time the plinth was laid and in 1632 Mumtaz was laid to rest in what would become the centre of the main building. The site was completed c. 1653 and the name is possibly derived from a corruption of Mumtaz ('taz, hence Taj) together with Mahal which means abode (but Professor Oak has an alternative explanation stemming from Shiva's alternate name; Tejo Mahalaya, see the preface above). Next we can look at the evidence of his persona.
    Jahan was born in the 1000th year of Islam which he considered to be a significant date. Together with this and because he was the King of the largest empire in the world with virtually infinite riches and power he regarded himself almost as divine. At this time his palace was the Red Fort in Delhi and his vanity and arrogance seem to be generally accepted by historians. He had a fetish for thrones including perhaps one of the most famous, the Peacock Throne which was encrusted with jewels including the Koh-i-noor diamond [The British Queen has that now; its been with our Royal family for 150 years or so]. Other evidence of his self importance were the titles he gave himself. These included "Lord of the Age", "Shadow of God", "August Representative of God on Earth" and these are considered to be very important by modern researchers in analysing his motives for the particular construction of the Taj Mahal. He was indeed vainglorious and it is now believed he saw himself as the perfect man. At least he seemed to think he was God's representative on earth and it has even been suggested that he viewed himself as a rival to God. Now for a bit of speculation.
Taj Mahal beyond the water
Taj Mahal and Water
  Having interred Mumtaz in the Taj Mahal mausoleum, there is some evidence that he planned a mirror image of the white Taj across the other side of the river Jumna but one which would be built with black marble. It has been suggested that he had this in mind for his own mausoleum, but to us this begs the question as to why he should have constructed the 'white' Taj with so much attention to its heavenly detail if it was not intended for himself as well as 'taz (the next paragraph explains the reasoning behind our scepticism). Current research has unearthed foundations and an outline of a planned garden exactly where this 'black 'Taj might have been, which could conceivably support this theory but further investigations have thrown doubt on this speculation. For example, Monty Don ('Around the World in 80 Gardens', BBC 2, 10 February 2008) argued that this site was simply a garden from which the 'Taj could be observed. So let us get back to the story.
    Leaving aside the unsubstantiated hypothesis of the Black Mahal, the design of the actual Taj Mahal site and the inscriptions which adorn its structures are now considered to be quite significant in the context of his vainglory. Unlike previous mausoleums where the body was laid in the centre of the gardens the Taj Mahal focus is located at the far point of the site. An Islamic academic treatise existed in his time which laid out the predicted plan of the assembly on The Day of Judgement. Comparison of this plan with the layout of the Taj Mahal gardens shows remarkable similarities, so it has been argued. The sites display, amongst other things, four rivers, a tank of abundance and the Throne of God in very similar layouts. The inscriptions adorning the Mahal contain more than twenty different passages and more than ten complete chapters from the Koran starting with a very significant one around the main gate and culminating in the burial chamber. Putting these indicators together certainly seems to suggest that he was creating at least a replica of heaven. Whatever the truth, a second tragedy was about to befall him and this one was particularly horrible because it was vicious and premeditated.
    It seems that The Shah and 'taz had four sons and several years after the completion of the Taj Mahal, Jahan fell ill. The four sons entered into conflict and 3 of these sons were killed leaving only Aurangzeb who took advantage and deposed his dad c. 1658. The Shah Jahan was imprisoned in the Agra Fort until his death. We have heard two versions of this phase of the Shah's life. According to the Hindu youngster who recounted the story to us in 1976 Jahan was incarcerated in a cell where he was able to view his great creation, the Taj, only through a mirror on the wall. The BBC/Time Life account however describes what could better be called house arrest. The Agra Fort would have been a pleasant place to be restrained and he was allowed all his wives and concubines. He shared this retreat with one of his daughters and could view the Taj without difficulty, albeit from some distance. When he was 74 he died but apparently this was from a massive overdose of aphrodisiac [unfortunately history does not identify the substance which seems to have been particularly effective]. Certainly, if the BBC/Time Life account is to be believed, there are worse ways to spend the last 8 years of ones life. The story then rounds off by stating that his daughter spirited his body away across the river Jumna and laid him to rest in the Taj Mahal alongside 'taz [frankly, it is difficult to believe that this was a secret happening and presumably it was blessed by Aurangzeb but then we couldn't know].
The Shah Jahan despite a traumatic bereavement was exceedingly rich, extremely powerful, infinitely vainglorious and appears to have had unlimited sexual satisfaction. To top this he created one of the greatest existing unofficial wonders of the world. What a memorable life!
Aurangzeb imposed stricter Muslim rules at the court and gave himself the grand title of Alamgir (Conqueror of the World) and became perhaps the most expansionist emperor of the sequence. He created a period of great wealth, however, his particular brand of expansion led to over extension of his power base and constant rebellions and the empire crumbled after his death in 1707.


© Copyright 2001-2013, Envocare Ltd.
ENVOCARE is a registered trade mark of Envocare Ltd.
For legal matters see the section "About Us & Contact Us".
Originated 28 September, 2001  Updated: 26 October, 2013