In the last instalment of this series on the Taj Mahal, we took a whirlwind tour of its history and looked at the broad timelines of its construction. Now that we have a sense of when and, perhaps to a lesser extent, why it was built, let us now take an equally speedy glimpse at some of it architectural features.

When I utter the words “Taj Mahal” the image that instantly pop into your mind is most likely that of the splendid marble mausoleum by the banks of the river Yamuna. This is one of the great “India” images. Indeed it is an image that often stands in for “India” itself.

And yet while the mausoleum is no doubt the most important element of the Taj Mahal experience, it forms only a part of the architectural richness of the complex. There are several other buildings, several gardens, other lesser tombs, one great gate and several lesser ones, and some other elements that have been built over and lost. Each of these elements tell rich, diverse architectural stories of their own that often span time and space.

Take the case of the darwaza-i-rauza or the great gate.

The gate serves several functions, not least of which is to separate the funerary or, I daresay, heavenly part of the complex from the more mundane and worldly. Once you pass through the gates you leave behind the bazaars, caravans and caravanserais and lesser tombs. From this point on things are focused 100% on Mumtaz Mahal.

The gate is very much a part of Mughal architectural canon. You can easily compare it to the great gate outside Akbar’s tomb in Sikandra, Agra.

Perhaps, and this is my personal opinion, the gate is also meant to play an optical illusion on the visitor. By making us funnel through relatively narrow gates, it surprises us when we emerge on the other side. Suddenly the canvas of our vision bursts out of its temporary confines, and we see the garden and then the marble mausoleum before us. We are shocked by their beauty.

Or maybe that is just me.

My point is that it would be impossible to discuss every aspect of the Taj Mahal’s architecture in the space of an online article. Because there are so many.

So, instead I am going to focus on just four perspectives that, accompanied by a few pictures, will give readers some sense of the Taj Mahal’s fascinating architectural history. A history that is nearly always overtaken by the sheer visual effect of the end product or the endless controversies that surround it.

Perspective 1: White and Red

One thread running through several “Taj Mahal” conspiracy theories is that the building has Hindu origins of some kind.

There is actually an element of truth to this. Not only is this Hindu connection devoid of any conspiracy, but it is also staring us right in the face: the red and white colour combination. Apart from the mausoleum, which is finished with white marble, the rest of the complex features swathes of red sandstone decorated with marble inlays and decorations.

Ebba Koch, an expert on the Taj Mahal who I have frequently quoted in this series before, believes this colour combination owes much to an 8th century Hindu religious text called the Vishnudharmottara Purana. Believed to be an appendix to the great Vishnupurana, the Vishnudharmottara Purana, according to one translator, “gives the fullest account hitherto known of the various branches, methods and ideals of Indian painting. It deals not only with its religious aspect but also, and to a far greater extent, with its secular employment. It proclaims the joy that colours and forms and the representation of things seen and imagined produce”.

That is from a 1928 English edition of part of the Vishnudharmottara Purana. You can read it here.

In essence the Vishnudharmottara Purana is an ancient Indian art and design manual. And according to this manual, white stones are ideal for Brahmin buildings, while red stones suit Kshatriyas best. Therefore a combination of these colours were seen as the most noble and auspicious for buildings and even for items used in religious rituals.

This combination runs through not just the Taj Mahal but numerous other Mughal buildings. Humayun’s tomb and the Jama Masjid at Fatehpur Sikri are both excellent examples of this.

Koch writes in her book The Complete Taj Mahal: “By using white and red in their buildings, the Mughals represented themselves in the terms of the two highest levels of the Indian social system: architecturally speaking, they were the new Brahmins and the new Kshatryas of the age.” Koch suggests that this was an attitude adopted by all Mughal emperors up till Aurangzeb.

How far Shah Jahan considered himself a Hindu high priest or warrior is worth debating. But the fact that the Mughals had an affinity for the white-red combination is easy enough to see. And the links to ancient Indian design theory seem plausible.

Perspective 2: The Geometry of the Taj Mahal

If you look very carefully at a Google Map overhead photo of the Taj Mahal you may just be able to spot that it has some fractal-like properties. No? Let me help you.

Look at this layout of the mausoleum and gardens in front of it. You have the mausoleum on an oblong plinth and the checkerboard pattern gardens laid out in front of it.

Now look at this slice of the overhead photo further onward from the mausoleum towards the courtyard and away from the river. Look closely and you should spot the two little tombs on either end of the strip. Look even closer and you will realise that they are miniature Taj Mahals, complete with gardens laid out in front of oblong plinths. This is clearly a motif.

As I mentioned in the previous instalment, the waterfront in Agra was where the richest and most powerful people in the Mughal city lived. And this kind of waterfront complex, with a building on a terrace by the river and gardens rolling away from it, appears to have been the standard design for houses up and down the riverbank.

There is much to talk about this style of garden, which is laid out in a grid divided into quadrants. Experts believe Babur commissioned his first Mughal gardens in India in Agra, in or around 1526. He may have imported this design from Central Asia via Afghanistan. And indeed the Taj Mahal may well be the most famous execution of this style of garden in the world.

However the Mughals probably did not invent it. Nor were they the first to bring the concept to this part of the world. The ancient palace of Sigiriya in central Sri Lanka sits on some of the oldest landscaped gardens in the world. These gardens, which are quite strikingly similar to the Mughal style, were designed a thousands years before Babur commissioned his, in the 5th century AD.

But the true pioneers of the “four garden” or “chaar bagh” may have been the Achaemenids of Persia. Check this UNESCO document to read how Pasargadae, the Achaemenid capital, could have been the site of a Mughal-style garden back in the 6th century BC.

The gardens and the layout of the Taj Mahal is just the most obvious example of the intense geometric nature of the Taj Mahal’s designs. The entire complex abounds with symmetries, balance and a certain geometric discipline. A discipline that is sometimes difficult to appreciate during the average tour group visit.

Perspective 3: Materials used

Marble and sandstone, right? Yes, of course, but there is a lot more to the Taj Mahal.

First the marble or sang-i-marmar. At least some of it, perhaps all of it, came from the famous marble quarries of Makrana in Rajasthan, 400 kilometers away. How do we know?

Because of a firman dated February 3, 1633, from Shah Jahan to his “best of equals and grandees, the pride of peers and contemporaries, worthy of attention and favors, the sincere, loyal and devoted high-born servant Raja Jai Singh”.

Part of the firman, now in the Rajasthan State Archives, reads as follows:
“We have appointed Sayyid Ilahdad to proceed to Amber and other places, as detailed herewith in the endorsement, and engage the required carts-on-hire, in accordance with the list written under each place. And whatever number of carts the Raja has previously made available from those places for carting white marble from the makrana quarry, having adjusted it against the total number, he should make the balance available to the aforesaid, who will escort them to the Makrana quarry.”

In other words: “Send more marble, bro.”

(I’d like to point out here that this firman and others related to marble procurement has been the source of some controversy. While nobody argues that Shah Jahan did procure a lot of marble for the construction, some advocates of the ‘Tejo Mahalaya’ and other similar theories believe that the marble was only ordered to repair or touch up a pre-existing building – a temple or a Rajput palace. This translation of the firman is from the 1989 edition of Walter Begley and ZA Desai’s Taj Mahal: The Illumined Tomb. This is a widely quoted source of 17th century documentary references to the Taj across Mughal and European sources.)

The brick used in the Taj Mahal, and there is a lot of it, is of a type called lakhauri, that is believed to have been made in or around the Agra area.

The sandstone, or sang-i-surkh, came from two sets of quarries located at Fatehpur Sikri and Rupbas. The stone was chosen for its workability.

Perhaps the most intriguing of all materials was one that was used in small quantities to finish some of the less glamorous surfaces: plaster. Mughal engineers appear to have been plaster nerds. Koch writes that a government of India analysis of the polished plaster used at Agra Fort around 1981 turned up the following recipe: 1 part burnt lime, 1 parts ground shells, calciferous stone or marble dust, ⅛ part gum from the babul tree, ⅛ part sugar mixed with the juice of the bel fruit (Bengal quince), and a little white of egg.

A slightly tweaked variant of this recipe is believed to have been used in the Taj complex.

This leaves us with one category of building material: gemstones. The Taj Mahal used a smorgasbord of stones in its construction. One study of the stones conducted in 1825 resulted in the following list: lapis lazuli, jasper, heliotrope. chalcedony, cornelian, chlorite, jade, clay slate and variegated limestones. Many of these stones are not native to the region, or even the subcontinent, and were almost certainly sourced from elsewhere.

Thanks to a chance archaeological find in 1902-03, we can make an educated guess about one aspect of the stone inlay-work at the Taj Mahal – we may know, roughly, where the inlay-workers had their workshops. The 1903-04 Archaeological Survey of India Annual Report mentions that large and small semi-precious stones were found in an area just west of the Taj Mahal, between the mausoleum complex and what used to be known as the Khan-i-Alam Bagh. In the rainy season, the report says, shards of stone kept popping out of the soil, only to be eagerly picked up by locals. This is perhaps because the craftsmen who worked on the Taj Mahal’s beautiful inlay work plied their trade here, sowing the soil with the remnants of their handiwork.

The 1903-04 report, curiously, says that one of the stones found was a 78lb piece of pazahr or bezoar stone. You can read about this intriguing type of stone here.

Perspective 4: The Evolution Of The Tomb

For most people the Taj Mahal is a singular architectural achievement. A solitary edifice. A teardrop on the cheek of time, as Tagore famously called it. It occupies such a position in our collective sense of Indian architecture that we tend to overlook the fact that it falls within a continuum, if you will, of Mughal architecture. There were mausoleums before it. And there were mausoleums after it.

We have already gone on for much too long. But in this final perspective I would like to use some images to highlight one narrative thread that runs through the design of Mughal mausoleums. And that thread is the constant struggle Mughal emperors had reconciling their architectural ambition with religious orthodoxy.

The religious validity of building tombs, praying at them and decorating them has been a matter of hot debate in Islamic law for centuries. There are numerous webpages dedicated to this discussions. Such as this one. And some hadiths seem to expressly forbid this. For instance Sunan an-Nasa’i, Hadith 2029:
“The Messenger of Allah forbade building over graves, making them larger or plastering over them." (One of two narrators) Sulaiman bin Musa added: "Or writing on them." Source.

How this tension plays out during the lives of the greater Mughal emperors is quite fascinating. Essentially they make alternating statements of grandeur and austerity, starting from Babur and ending with Aurangzeb. Pictures will do this best justice.

This is Babur’s simple tomb:

This is Humayun’s magnificent tomb:

This is Akbar’s tomb. It is an oddball design that looks splendid at first glance. But once inside the emperor’s tomb it has no dome on top and simply sits on a plinth in an open court. You can actually see it in an overhead Google Map.

Jahangir’s tomb is simpler still. There is no dome. But there are four minarets. Austere, but not quite.

Shah Jahan is buried in the Taj of course.

The much more orthodox Aurangzeb does not instantly switch. He builds his wife the Bibi-ka Maqbara in Aurangabad. This is perhaps the last great Mughal mausoleum.

But Aurangzeb himself is buried in an exceedingly simple grave. The simplest of the ones shown here.

Thus there is a really interesting waxing and waning of ambition and scope in these monuments. But it reaches its apex, of course, with the Taj Mahal.

End Note

The idea of these perspectives is to not to inundate the reader with information or pictures, but to impart some sense of the deep and rich history of the Taj Mahal and, by extension, Indian architecture. It is easy to forget, when we see them on a stamp or on the cover of a book or on a tourism poster that these landmarks were built by human beings, living in particular social and religious environments, and grappling with particular political and financial challenges. Hopefully, these four perspective will peel back those curtains a little bit.

In the next instalment of this series I will briefly look at the career and writings of PN Oak, perhaps the most popular critic of the conventional "mainstream history" of the Taj Mahal.

Key sources:

Ebba Koch: The Complete Taj Mahal and the Riverfront Gardens of Agra

W. E. Begley and Z. A. Desai: Taj Mahal: The Illumined Tomb

Archaeological Survey of India: Annual Report 1903-04

Giles Tillotson: Taj Mahal

Priyabala Shah: Shri Vishnudharmottara