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The Taj Mahal: History & Architecture

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Taj Mahal is one of the most famous buildings in the world, but how much do you really know about it? In this lesson, we'll examine the history and architecture of this magnificent structure.

The Taj Mahal

Not everyone has heard of the Mughal Empire, the powerful political state that ruled India from the 16th through 19th centuries. Almost everyone, however, is familiar with their most famous architectural achievement. The Taj Mahal is a massive mausoleum and funerary complex in Agra, India created in the 17th century. It's one of the most famous buildings in the world, and a monument to a pretty great love story as well.

The Taj Mahal
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History

In the early 17th century, the ruler of the Mughal Empire, Shah Jahan, married a woman from a Persian dynasty. Her name was Arjumand Banu Begum, but upon her marriage took on the name/title of Mumtaz Mahal. Mumtaz Mahal was Shah Jahan's second wife, but quickly became his favorite.

Mumtaz Mahal
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Mumtaz Mahal accompanied Shah Jahan everywhere as his constant companion, but unfortunately she died in childbirth somewhere between 1629 and 1631. According to historical sources, Shah Jahan was absolutely inconsolable at the loss of his favorite wife. He may have even considered giving up his throne to his sons. Eventually, Shah Jahan's sons managed to console him and the emperor decided to build Mumtaz Mahal the most incredible mausoleum the world had ever seen. The result would be the Taj Mahal.

Building

The Taj Mahal is the largest and most elaborate structure of the Mughal Empire, and is one of the greatest achievements of Islamic architecture in all history. While there are many theories as to who actually designed the complex, most scholars agree that the primary architects were the Persian builders Ustad Isa Khan Effendi and Ustad Ahmad. A third architect, Ismail Khan, may have been responsible for designing the main dome.

Building the Taj Mahal was a major feat. Builders, designers, and artists were brought in from across the Mughal Empire as well as imported from Persia, Central Asia, and other Islamic kingdoms. For 22 years after ground was broken in 1632, the greatest artists and builders of the Islamic world were employed on this massive mausoleum. According to most sources, over 20,000 people worked on the Taj Mahal. When it was completed it included a main gateway, a mosque, a rest house, gardens, and the actual mausoleum itself, covering 42 acres of land in total.

Architecture

Thanks to the great number of designers, artists, and craftsmen who worked on the Taj Mahal, the overall design is a fascinating blend of Indian, Islamic, and Persian features. It's a complex and beautiful building, well deserving of the respect it has maintained over the centuries.

Features

There are entire seminars on the architecture of the Taj Mahal, but for now let's just focus on the major features that define this structure. Off the bat, the Taj Mahal is identifiable by the presence of Islamic architectural features, which were some of the most technically complex in the world at that time. Specifically, we see Islamic interpretations of both arches and domes across the building. Islamic arches are pointed, rather than perfectly rounded, and the spire-topped Islamic dome has a somewhat bulbous shape, earning it the architecture moniker of an onion dome. Islamic towers called minarets also dominate the complex.

However, the Taj Mahal is also a tapestry of Indian features. For one, the marble used to build the structure was quarried at the Indian site of Makrana. The subtle hues of this marble and the Indian skill in polishing and carving it give the Taj Mahal its almost ephemeral glow that changes with the sunlight. Additionally, the Taj Mahal's gardens are very much a representation of Mughal Empire gardens. Gardens were very important to the Mughal emperors, and symbolized the refinement and grace of the empire, as well as the peace and tranquility of Islam.

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