The Taj Mahal is one of the new 7 wonders of the world. But behind all the magnificence stays a hidden gem, one of the most touching Mogul love story.
We were there in March 2015, but let’s go back a few centuries more!
A few written documents trace back the origin of Agra to (at least) the 14th century. Under Persian rule, she was the capital city of the empire, the first stone of her foundations dating back to 1500 (ish. Yes yes, how very accurate).
Many sultans went after the city, a crown jewel in their legacy: Agra’s cultural and economical apogee happened under the rule or the renowned sultan Akbar.
But more importantly maybe (for us lowly visitors anyway) , was the emperor Shah Jahan, writing a new chapter of History with his "Palace of the Crown", or in other words, Taj Mahal.
Nowadays, the city is a haven where we enjoyed quiet walks in her large, clean streets. Maybe it’s the abundance of trees, or maybe the lack of insane traffic compared to the rest of the country, but one thing is certain, Agra -feels- different.
With contemporary photographs and illustrations inspired from the paintings of the Mogul art.
Prince Kurram is the son of the great Jehengar, 5th Mogul emperor of India, biggest Empire of the world at the time. Kurram inherits the throne in 1627, at the (somewhat young) age of 35, earning the (humble) title of "King of the World".
During his teenage year spent in Agra, he meets the beautiful Arjumand Banu Begam, who is only a year younger than him. But their mutual, passionate love for each other has to wait a few more years.
Indeed, mariage is more a political tool at the time than a matter of feelings. Tradition and family bind Kurram to two spouses, before he gets his family’s consent to marry his loved one, at the age of 20.
Arjumand Banu Begam takes a new name as the third wife of Kurram: Mumtaz Mahal (Light of the Palace). As expected, she instantly becomes his favorite, and soon becomes his trusted advisor during his conquests. His strong will naturally leads him on the path of his ancestors, pushing the borders of the empire further and further.
Sweet and ever supporting, Mumtaz Mahal becomes essential in Kurram’s life, despite his harrem’s continuous expansion. She becomes his most trusted advisor even on matters of strategy and warfare, a role very rarely given to women at the time.
Their passion lasts for 19 years after being married, and she gives him 14 children.
The 14th was their downfall. Feeling the complications of the birth would prove fatal, Mumtaz asks her loved one to build a testament to their passion, a mirror of the pure, timeless, indestructible love they have felt for each other.
The Shah, thunderstruck by her death, becomes obsessed with his pledge. For the next 23 years, he becomes feverish, relentless, and so oversees the construction of the masterpiece we know nowadays.
Kummar keeps his promise. The palace’s foundation -must- lie in the city he met her. The right bank of the Yamunâ river is chosen, the river’s size being of symbolic importance in India, and so the construction starts in 1632, amongst the gardens of princes and dignitaries.
All the possible ornamental and architectural pieces of knowledge are used and exploited for that purpose. The architect Ustad Amad Lahori supposedly needed 1000 elephants and 20 000 workers (or slaves ?) to accomplish that feat.
The mahogany foundations, built to support an impressive 25 tons/m², are erected in deep wells, then filled with mortar and and rubble. They won’t budge, as long as the wells are immersed in the waters of the Yamunâ river.
The Shah’s knowledge of his empire will help him pick the best materials India has to offer for his biggest life project.
The white marble, main material, comes from Rajasthan, jaspers is extracted in Panjâb, turquoise and malachite come from Tibet, lapis lazuli are from Sri Lanka, and the coral is taken from Red sea.
There are also cornelians from Persia and Yemen, onyx from Deccan and Persia, garnets from the Ganges and Boundelkand, Agates from Yemen and Jaisalmer (western India).
Along with crystal rock from the Hymalayas, 28 different types of gemstones are inlaid in that white marble.
Perfect crown jewel of the Muslim art in India, the Taj Mahal unites the Mogul, Iranian, Ottoman and Indian art under the same banner.
The center of the palace is the mausoleum where the sweet princess lies for a final rest since 1654.
(Photograph taken on the occasion of a previous trip in 2007 when it was still allowed)
Having lost his purpose after these 23 years, the Shah falls ill soon after. His sons, lusting after his power, throw him in prison. He spends his remaining years contemplating his life’s work, the testament and dedication to his loved one, through the window of his cell, where he dies in January 1666. He is buried next to his love, Mumtaz Mahal.
Yes, Taj Mahal is, in fact, a tomb!