The Taj Mahal is one of the most recognizable buildings in the world, and behind its beautiful marble walls there is an enchanting love story full of dedication, loss, remorse, and pain. The history of the Taj Mahal starts with Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan who constructed the monument as a tomb for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died after giving birth to their 14th child.
The Taj Mahal’s construction began in 1632 and this enormous project took 22 years and 20,000 workers to complete. The Taj is unique not only for its incredible beauty, but also because it is one of the only grand Islamic tombs to be built for a woman. It stands as a monument to the lasting love of Shan Jahan for his departed Mumtaz Mahal.
The Love Story behind the Taj Mahal
The Taj Mahal was called “a teardrop on the cheek of time” by poet Tagore. Thousands of visitors have been captivated not only by its unique architecture and stunning beauty, but also by the love story behind it.
The Mughal Empire and Shah Jahan
The Mughal Empire was an Islamic dynasty that controlled large parts of North India from 1526 until it's defeat by the British in 1857. Shah Jahan was born in 1592 as Prince Khurram. He was the son of King Jahangir and grandson of the famous ruler Akbar the Great. Jahan became ruler of the Mughal Empire in 1628 after the death of his father and a bitter power struggle with his brothers.
Shah Jahan ruled over the golden age of the Mughal Empire when it was one of the wealthiest kingdoms in the world and included much of Afghanistan and Bangladesh as well as all of Pakistan and North India. This entire territory was controlled from the capital city of Agra where the Taj Mahal stands today.
During the rule of Shah Jahan, many incredible monuments were built and added to the legacy of the Mughals including the Taj Mahal, multiple palaces in the Agra Fort, the Red Fort, and the Jama Masjidin in Delhi. Today, Shah Jahan is known as one of the greatest patrons of Mughal architecture and many of India's most famous monuments were built by him.
Mumtaz Mahal was born in 1593 as Arjumand Banu Begum to Persian nobility. Her father Abu’l-Hasan Asaf Khan had a high office in the Mughal Empire. When his younger sister Mehr-Un-Nisa married Shah Jahān’s father Emperor Jahangir in 1611 and became his favorite wife (titled Nur Jahan — ‘Light of the World’), high status was secured for his family.
Mumtaz Mahal was a talented and cultured lady who was good at Arabicand Persian languages and attracted many nobles’ attention. She became the empress consort of the Mughal Empire from 19 January 1628, when Shah Jahan’s rule began, to 17 June 1631. Although she was Shah Jahan’s favorite woman, she only enjoyed being ‘Queen of the World’ for 3 years and died in 1631.
Mumtaz Mahal is most well-known as the woman who inspired a world wonder — the reason the Taj Mahal was built.
Shah Jahan’s Marriage to Mumtaz Mahal
Shah Jahan first met her when he was only 14 and she was 15 selling silk and beads with other royal girls in the Meena Bazaar.
From all accounts, it was love at first sight and although the two wanted to be together they were not allowed to marry at first because Shah Jahan's father wanted to arrange other politically beneficial marriages. The two were eventually married five years later in 1612 and although Shah Jahan also had two other wives, Mumtaz Mahal was well known to be the only wife he favored and with which he had more than one child.
Shah Jahan became ruler of the Mughal Empire in 1628 and immediately gave Arjumand Banu the royal seal and the title Mumtaz Mahal meaning the ‘Chosen One of the Palace’. Mumtaz was the closest confidant and trusted adviser of Shah Jahan. He consulted with Mumtaz Mahal not only on private matters but also on affairs of state.
In general, Mumtaz Mahal was well-loved by the people for being smart and kind. Some accounts relate that she used to make lists of widows and orphans to ensure that they received enough money and food.
Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal had 14 children (though seven of the children died at birth or at a very young age). It was during the birth of their last child called Gauhara Begum in 1631, while accompanying her husband on a military campaign in Burhanpur, central India, that Mumtaz Mahal died at the age of 38.
The Death of Mumtaz Mahal
In 1631, Shah Jahan was three years into his reign and fighting against a rebellion led by Khan Jahan Lodi. Mumtaz Mahal often joined her husband on military campaigns and was also at his side during this one despite being heavily pregnant.
During the war, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl and although things looked fine at first, her condition soon worsened and she died from complications. Mumtaz Mahal died one day after the birth of her daughter in the arms of Shah Jahan. Some reports say that the emperor cried for 8 days without stopping.
Mumtaz Mahal was temporarily buried at the encampment in Burbanpur until Shah Jahan was able to defeat the rebellion. She was then transferred back to Agra where the construction of her tomb would begin.
Some people believe that Shah Jahan promised Mumtaz on her deathbed that he would build her the richest mausoleum ever created. This promise spawned the construction of the incredible Taj Mahal, the only tomb like it and the first of its kind built for a woman.
When was the Taj Mahal Built?
The construction of the Taj Mahal began in 1631 and took 22 years, 22,000 workers and artisans, and 1,000 elephants. These 20,000 workers were not mistreated slaves as some legends suggest but highly skilled artisans that came from India, Persia, Europe, and the Ottoman Empire.
Shah Jahan intended for the Taj Mahal to be the 'crown of the region' and represent the Islamic ideals of paradise on Earth. The emperor spared no expense on the construction of the mausoleum, building the entire structure out of white marble from all over India and central Asia that was later inlaid with thousands of semi-precious stones including jade, crystal, lapis lazuli, amethyst, and turquoise.
The total cost of building the Taj Mahal is believed to have been around 32 million rupees. It took great feats of ancient engineering to carry those large slabs of marble up 73 meters (240 feet) to form the tomb's central dome. Most historians believe that this was done using a 10-mile long earthen ramp.
Once the construction of the Taj Mahal was complete, the body of Mumtaz Mahal was moved into the lower burial chamber and a beautiful cenotaph was carved and placed in the octagonal chamber inside.
Although Shah Jahan would eventually be buried right next to her, some prominent legends believe that he had intended to build a second identical Taj Mahal for himself made of black marble. Today, this legend is commonly known as the myth of the Black Taj.
Aurangzeb Overthrows His Father
By many accounts, Shah Jahan never fully recovered from the death of his wife and distracted himself by pouring all of his attention and money into the construction of her mausoleum complex. This distraction gave his fourth son, Aurangzeb the chance to kill his three older brothers and successfully overthrow his father in 1658.
Once overthrown, Shah Jahan was confined in the Agra Fort with a view of the Taj Mahal in the distance. He spent the rest of his life imprisoned there until he died in 1666. Upon his death, Aurangzeb had his father buried next to Mumtaz inside the Taj.
Today, when exploring the World Wonder, you'll see the two empty cenotaphs (public tombs) of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal laying side by side in the emperor's vision of paradise on Earth.
Although Aurangzeb is often vilified for the way he gained power, the Mughal Empire did reach its peak under his rule. Aurangzeb drastically expanded the empire to encompass most of the Indian subcontinent.
In fact, Aurangzeb used the Taj Mahal as a model for his favorite wife’s tomb known as the Bibi Ka Maqbara, but there is no doubt its charm and harmony is not as good as the Taj Mahal’s. After all, the love behind it was not duplicated.
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The Taj Mahal and British Colonization
While the Mughal Empire went through many ups and downs during its gradual decline after Aurangzeb's rule, the Taj Mahal was almost always well-maintained. It is believed that the Taj Mahal was considered a symbol of the strength of the empire and an example of the Islamic ideals of paradise.
In the 1800s, when the British defeated the Mughals and took over India, the Taj Mahal was looted by British soldiers who cut gemstones from the walls as well as stole candlesticks, doors, and even tried to sell some of the marble.
Years after the Taj was desecrated by soldiers, Lord Curzon the British Viceroy of India in 1900 recognized that this was a structure of immense cultural value and tried to restore it to its former glory. During the restoration, the traditional Mughal-style gardens that surrounded the Taj were updated to the more European-style green lawns.
When India gained independence, the government did not recreate the original gardens but instead chose to maintain and preserve the immaculate lawns that we see in most famous Taj Mahal photos today.
The Taj Mahal Today
Because of its immaculate beauty and important cultural significance, the Taj Mahal was named not only one of the Seven New Wonders of the World , but also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, the Taj sees around 2.5 million visitors per year who head to Agra to catch a glimpse of the 'World's Greatest Testament of Love'.
Today, the biggest threats to the Taj Mahal are air pollution and wear and tear from the sheer number of visitors it receives. Agra, while once the gem of the Mughal Empire, today is an industrial and dusty city. The pollution released from nearby factories and road traffic over the past century has tarnished the mausoleum’s walls turning them yellow.
To prevent further damage, the Indian government has enacted laws concerning the restriction of traffic and factory pollution. The Taj has also undergone a facelift in the last five years where its marble walls were cleaned using a special mud pack.
See More on Visiting the Taj Mahal on Asia Highlights:
- Best Time to Visit the Taj Mahal
- Ways to See the Taj Mahal
- Essential Guide to Visiting the Taj Mahal
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