In October 1629 the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan was faced with an uncommonly serious challenge to his power. Just 20 months into his reign, one of his most senior noblemen, and a favourite of his father Jahangir, rebelled. The rebel Khan Jahan Lodi fled Agra and galloped away to the Deccan. He was pursued by Mughal forces and suffered severe losses at an initial engagement near Dholpur.

An increasingly desperate Lodi found reinforcements and support from sympathetic rulers and managed to stay on the run. The rebellion evoked such fear in the Mughal capital that in 1630 Shah Jahan moved his court from Agra to the fort at Burhanpur on the banks of the river Tapti. (These days this is an 800-km drive south along National Highway 3.)

Eventually Lodi was vanquished and his head was sent to Burhanpur, where Shah Jahan received it on his pleasure boat. It was a triumph for the 36-year old emperor. But the very next summer, while still in Burhanpur, a vastly greater tragedy struck the emperor and his court.

On the night of July 16, 1631, his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal Begum, gave birth to a girl, their fourteenth child. Suddenly, after the delivery, the queen fell ill. Her condition plunged so rapidly that she sent for Shah Jahan. After bidding a shocked emperor farewell, Mumtaz Mahal passed away.

(At this point in the story I’d like to leave a little mental Post-It Note here. And that Post-It Note reads: Begley and Huxley and Keyserling and Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay. We’ll come to that in a bit.)

The chosen one

Deprived of the greatest love of his life Shah Jahan was devastated and plunged into a prolonged period of mourning. So much so, writes court historian Abd-al Hamid Lahori, that the emperor briefly considered abdicating his throne and living the life of a recluse.

For anyone even vaguely aware of the life and times of the average polygamist Mughal emperor, this reaction to the death of a queen might seem excessive. Yet many records indicate that Shah Jahan had a special bond with this woman originally named Arjumand Banu Begam.

They were engaged to be married in 1607, when the 15-year-old Shah Jahan was still Prince Khurram and Banu Begum, the daughter of a Persian noble, was 14. Then, for reasons that have never been fully understood, the marriage was postponed for five years. (One theory is that the marriage was put off for astrological reasons.)

Arjumand Banu Begum eventually became the prince’s second wife in 1612. Court historian Mirza Muhammad Amin Qazwini writes that “finding her in appearance and character elect (mumtaz) among all the women of the time, he gave her the title Mumtaz Mahal Begam”. A title that meant “Chosen One of the Palace”.

Over the 19 years of their marriage, Mumtaz bore her husband 14 children, half of whom survived childbirth. It is perhaps one sign of his special affection for Mumtaz that Shah Jahan had only one child each with his other two official wives. (This may placate some people who wonder why Shah Jahan chose to erect a glittering memorial for only one of his wives.)

Remains relocated

After her death this favourite queen was first buried not in Agra, but in the Burhanpur garden of Zainabad on the other side of the river Tapti. There is some suggestion that the queen’s mausoleum was initially meant to be located here. In any case her body lay interred here for some months, till December 1631, when it was exhumed and move to Agra. (This brings us to one of the many side controversies regarding the Taj Mahal: How much of Mumtaz Mahal’s body actually made it to Agra?)

By the time her remains arrived in the Mughal capital, a site had already been chosen for a mausoleum on the right bank of the river Yamuna in the city’s southern part. At the time Agra was, as Mughal art historian Ebba Koch describes it, a beautiful riverfront garden city. The city’s finest real estate was to be found on the river banks adjoining the Mughal fort, and it was here that the rich and mighty owned their havelis or mansions.

Mughal records indicate that the Taj Mahal today sits on land that was once owned by Raja Man Singh of Amber who owned a haveli here. In exchange for this plot of land, these records say, Raja Man Singh’s grandson was given four other havelis in Agra. (There has been enduring controversy about these records. We will discuss this in a future instalment of this series.)

In January 1632 work began on the plot just as the remains arrived from Burhanpur. For a second time the remains were placed in a temporary place of burial. Look at this satellite image of the Taj Mahal on Google Earth and you can see a small enclosure in the garden on the left. Keep your eyes on the three white domes of the mosque on the left of the main building. Then slowly look down, just past another tiny white dome, and you should see the square enclosure amidst the greenery. It does not have a matching symmetric partner on the right. It is believed that this marks the location of this first temporary tomb of Mumtaz Mahal in Agra.

As construction work took place on the site, a temporary enclosure was built over this internment. Work started, Ebba Koch writes, with the riverfront terrace.

Some readers may have noticed at this stage that I have referred so far almost exclusively to Mughal sources. Which is always worrisome. Thankfully, as far as the construction of the Taj is concerned, we have access to accounts by several European travellers. British trader and traveller Peter Mundy, who arrived in Agra in 1632, is one of them. He writes:
“The buildinge is begun and goes on with excessive labour and cost, prosecuted with extraordinary dilligence, Gold and silver esteemed comon Mettall, and Marble but as ordinarie stones. Hee intends, as some thinck, to remove all the Cittie hither, cawseinge hills to be made levell because they might not hinder the prospect of it, places appoynted for streets, shopps, etts. dwellings, commaunding Marchants, shoppkeepers, Artificers to Inhabit [it] where they begin to repaire and called by her name, Tage Gunge.”

More of Mundy here.

Non-romantic reasons

The first and second anniversaries, or urs celebrations, of Mumtaz Mahal’s death were celebrated on some scale and records are available of these. For the next decade or so references to anniversaries and the construction itself are scarce or absent apart from the odd observation by a visiting European. That situation changes with the twelfth urs in 1643, when the construction was ‘officially’ completed. I use single quotes there because decorative and calligraphic work continued for at least another five years.

On the great gate that one walks through to enter the Taj complex, on the side facing the gardens is a signed inscription by calligrapher Amanat Khan: “Finished with His help, the Most High, 1057.” (That is 1057 in the Hijra calendar that corresponds with 1647/48 in the Gregorian.)

Ebba Koch estimates that the Taj Mahal cost the Mughals a total of 50 lakh in 1631 rupees: “A sense of what such a figure meant is given by the fact that in 1637-39 an Indian servant of the Dutch East India Company in Agra earned 3 rupees a month or a little more…”

This is an astonishing amount of money but not singularly so. In 1638 Shah Jahan announced that his capital would move to Delhi. The ensuing construction of the Red Fort cost 60 lakh rupees, 20% more than the Taj. (Which raises the question: did Shah Jahan have any sense of financial management?)

In 1648 Shah Jahan moved his court to the new capital Delhi. There is only one recorded instance of his visiting the Taj Mahal after this, in 1654. The next time he visited the mausoleum was when his body was brought there to be interred.

This, when you think about it, is kind of strange. Why go to the trouble of spending so much money building this fabulous mausoleum to your eternal love if you don’t visit ‘her’ again afterwards.

This is where that mental Post-It Note comes in. What if the Taj Mahal was not a monument to eternal love at all? What if, as Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay theorises in his novel The Final Question, the Taj Mahal is simply a monument to Shah Jahan’s ego or religious fervour? What if Mumtaz Mahal’s death was a convenient excuse? What if Shah Jahan planned to build even if she hadn’t died? Similar ideas have been raised by both Alduous Huxley and German philosopher Hermann Keyserling.

Professor Wayne Begley of the University of Iowa, however, wrote the paper on this non-romantic symbolic meaning of the Taj Mahal. You can read that fascinating paper here.

Now that we have a sense of the conventional timeline of the Taj Mahal’s construction, in the next part of this series we will undertake a visual overview of its design and architecture. How does it fit within the long history of Mughal architecture? What are its most controversial elements?

If you have already totted up a list of outrage-inducing aspects of this story, hang on. We will get back to all of them soon.