Origins and architecture of the Taj Mahal

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Mausoleum of the Taj Mahal complex at Agra, India

The Taj Mahal represents the finest and most sophisticated example of Mughal architecture. Its origins lie in the moving circumstances of its commission and the culture and history of the Islamic Mughal empire's rule of large parts of India.

The distraught Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan commissioned the monument after the death of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal on the south bank of the River Yamuna in Agra, India. The Taj Mahal is an extensive complex of buildings and gardens that extends over 22.44 Hectares[a] and includes subsidiary tombs, waterworks infrastructure, the small town of 'Taj Ganji' a 'moonlight garden' to the north of the river, but most famously,[[ the white marble mausoleum. Construction began in 1632 CE, (1041 AH) and was completed in 1648 CE (1058 AH). The design was conceived as both an earthly replica of the house of Mumtaz in paradise and an instrument of propaganda for the emperor.

It is uncertain who designed Taj Mahal; although it is known that a large team of designers and craftsmen were responsible, with Jahan himself taking an active role. Ustad Ahmad Lahauri is considered the most likely candidate as the principal designer.[1]

Early History

Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal

Early years and marriage

An idealised portrait of Shah Jahan (the lord of the world) standing on the globe

Prince Khurrum Shihab-ud-din Muhammad, later to become Shah Jahan the fifth Mughal emperor of India, was born in 1592 in Lahore as the third and favourite son of the emperor Jahangir.[2] His early years saw him receive a cultured, broad education and distinguish himself in the martial arts and as a commander of his father's armies in numerous campaigns[b] where he became responsible for most of the territorial gains of his father's reign.[3] Khurrum also demonstrated a precocious talent for building, impressing his father at the age of 16 when he built his own quarters within Babur's Kabul fort and redesigned several buildings within Agra fort.[4] As a young man, he was married to two wives known as Akbarabadi Mahal (d.1677 CE, 1088 AH), and Kandahari Mahal (b. c1594 CE, c1002 AH), (m.1609 CE, 1018 AH). Beforehand however, in 1607 CE (1016 AH) Khurrum had been betrothed to Arjumand Banu Begum, the grand daughter of a Persian noble, who was just 14 years old at the time. She would become the unquestioned love of his life and they were married in 1612 CE (1021 AH). After their wedding celebrations, Khurrum "finding her in appearance and character elect among all the women of the time", gave her the title Mumtaz Mahal Begum (Chosen one of the Palace).[5] By all accounts, Khurrum was so taken with Mumtaz, that he showed little interest in exercising his polygamous rights with the two earlier wives, other than dutifully siring a child with each. According to the official court chronicler Qazwini, the relationship with his other wives "had nothing more than the status of marriage. The intimacy, deep affection, attention and favour which His Majesty had for the Cradle of Excellence [Mumtaz] exceeded by a thousand times what he felt for any other."[6][7][5]

Khurram's military successes of 1617 CE (1026 AH), against the Lodi in the Deccan secured the southern border of the empire and his grateful father rewarded him with the prestigious title 'Shah Jahan Bahadur' (Lord of the World) which effectively sealed his inheritance.[c][8] Despite her frequent pregnancies, Mumtaz travelled with Jahan's entourage throughout his earlier military campaigns and the subsequent rebellion against his father. Jahan was utterly devoted; she was his constant companion and trusted confidante and their relationship was intense. Indeed, the court historians go to unheard of lengths (for the time) to document the intimate and erotic relationship the couple enjoyed. In the 19 years after their marriage they had 14 children together. It was quite common for women of noble birth to commission architecture in the Mughal Empire. Mumtaz devoted some time to a riverside garden in Agra and it may have been her affection for this garden that prompted the eventual form of her monument.[8]

Death of Mumtaz

Majnun - the epitome of chaste Muslim love, going mad in the wilderness

Mumtaz died in Burhanpur in 1631 CE (1040 AH), after the childbirth of their fourteenth child.[9] Characteristically, she had been accompanying her husband whilst he was fighting a campaign in the Deccan Plateau.[10] Her body was temporarily buried in a garden known as Zainabad on the bank of the Tapti River.[9] The contemporary court chroniclers paid a considerable degree of attention to Mumtaz Mahal's death and Shah Jahan's grief at her demise. In the immediate aftermath of her passing the emperor was reportedly inconsolable. He was not seen for a week at court and considered abdicating and living his life as a religious recluse. The court historian Muhammad Amin Qazwini, wrote that before his wife's death the emperor's beard had "not more than ten or twelve grey hairs, which he used to pluck out' [and after] turned grey and eventually white"[11] and that he soon needed spectacles because his eyes deteriorated from constant weeping. Since Mumtaz had died on Wednesday, all entertainments were banned on that day. Jahan gave up listening to music, wearing jewellery or rich and colourful clothes and using perfumes for two years. So concerned were the imperial family that an honorary uncle wrote to say that "if he continued to abandon himself to his mourning, Mumtaz might think of giving up the joys of Paradise to come back to earth, this place of misery - and he should also consider the children she had left to his care." The Austrian scholar Ebba Koch notes that Shah Jahan is portrayed as becoming like "Majnum, the ultimate lover of Muslim lore, who flees into the desert to pine for his unattainable Layla."[12]

Jahan's eldest daughter, the devoted Jahanara Begum Sahib, gradually brought him out of grief and took the place of Mumtaz at court. Immediately after the burial in Burhanpur, Jahan and the imperial court devoted itself to the planning and design of the mausoleum and funerary garden in Agra.[12]


Taj Mahal, scaffolding.jpg

A site was chosen on the banks of the Yamuna River on the southern edge of Agra and was purchased from Raja Jai Singh[d] in exchange for four mansions in the city. The site "from the point of view of loftiness and pleasantness appeared to be worthy of the burial of that one who dwells in paradise".[13] In January 1632 CE (1041 AH), Mumtaz's body was moved with great ceremony from Burhanpur to Agra. During the journey, to curry favour from heaven, food, drink and coins were distributed amongst the poor and deserving. Work had already begun on the foundations of the river terrace when the body arrived.[14][15] A small domed building was erected over her body, thought to have been sited, and now marked, by an enclosure in the western garden near the riverfront terrace. The foundations represented the biggest technical challenge to be overcome by the Mughal builders. In order to support the considerable load resulting from the mausoleum, the sands of the riverbank needed to be stabilised. To this end, wells were sunk and then cased in timber and finally filled with rubble, iron and mortar - essentially acting as augured piles.[16] After construction of the terrace was completed, work began simultaneously on the rest of the complex. Trees were planted almost immediately to allow them to mature as work progressed.

The initial construction stages were noted by Shah Jahan's chroniclers in their description of the first two 'Urs, the anniversary celebrations in honour of Mumtaz. The first, held on the June 22, 1632 CE (1041 AH), was a tented affair open to all ranks of society and held in the location of what is now the entrance courtyard (Jilaukhana). Alms were distributed and prayers recited. By the second Urs, held on May 26, 1633 CE (1042 AH),[e] Mumtaz Mahal had been interred in her final resting place, the riverside terrace was finished; as was the plinth of the mausoleum and the tahkhana, a galleried suite of rooms opening to the river and under the terrace.[17] It was used by the imperial retinue for the celebrations. Peter Mundy, an employee of the British East India company and a western eye witness, noted the ongoing construction of the caravanserais and bazaars and that "There is alreadye[sic] about Her Tombe a raile[sic] of gold". To deter theft it was replaced in 1643 CE (1053 AH) with an inlaid marble jali.[18]

After the second Urs further dating of the progress can be made from several signatures left by the calligrapher Amanat Khan. The signed frame of the south arch of the domed hall of the mausoleum indicates it was reaching completion in 1638/39 CE (1048/1049 AH). In 1643 CE (1053 AH) the official sources documenting the twelfth Urs give a detailed description of a substantially completed complex. Decorative work apparently continued until 1648 CE (1058 AH) when Amanat Khan dated the north arch of the great gate with the inscription "Finished with His help, the Most High".[19]

The Taj Mahal was constructed using materials from all over India and Asia. The buildings are constructed with walls of brick and rubble inner cores faced with either marble or sandstone locked together with iron dowels and clamps. Some of the walls of the mausoleum are several meters thick.[20] Over 1,000 elephants were used to transport building materials during the construction.[21] The bricks were fired locally and the sandstone was quarried 28 miles away near Fatehpur Sikri. The white marble was brought 250 miles from quarries belonging to Raja Jai Singh in Makrana, Rajasthan. The jasper was sourced from the Punjab and the jade and crystal from China. The turquoise was from Tibet and the Lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, while the sapphire came from Sri Lanka and the carnelian from Arabia. In all, 28 types of precious and semi-precious stones were inlaid into the white marble.[22] Jean-Baptiste Tavernier records that the scaffolding and centering for the arches was constructed entirely in brick. Legend says that the emperor offered these scaffolding bricks to anyone who would remove them and that at the end of the construction and they removed within a week. Modern scholars dispute this and consider it much more likely that the scaffolding was made of bamboo and materials were elevated by means of timber ramps.[20]

Initial estimates for the cost of the works of 4,000,000 rupees had risen to 5,000,000 by completion.[f] A waqf (trust) was established for the perpetual upkeep of the mausoleum with an income of 300,000 rupees. One third of this income came from 30 villages in the district of Agra while the remainder came from taxes generated as a result of trade from the bazaars and caravanserais which had been built at an early stage to the south of the complex. Any surplus would be distributed by the emperor as he saw fit. As well as paying for routine maintenance, the waqf financed the expenses for the tomb attendants and the Hafiz, the Qur'an reciters who would sit day and night in the mausoleum and perform funerary services praying for the eternal soul of Mumtaz Mahal.[19]

Fate of Shah Jahan

Shah Jahan holding a durbar in the public audience hall of his palace

During his reign, Shah Jahan consolidated the Mughul Empire and facilitated its greatest period of prosperity and stability by centralising the administration and systematising court affairs. Increasingly, historiography and the arts became instruments of propaganda. Beautiful artworks or poetry expressed and promoted specific state ideologies which suggested that central power and hierarchical order would create balance and harmony for society. After completion of the Taj Mahal, Jahan's historians mention he visited three times; presiding over the anniversary of Mumtaz's death in 1644, 1645 and 1654 CE (1054, 1055, 1064 AH). When Jahan fell ill in 1657 CE (1067 AH), his son Aurangzeb led a rebellion and publicly executed his brother and heir apparent, Dara Shikoh. Although Jahan fully recovered from his illness, Aurangzeb declared Jahan incompetent to rule and put him under house arrest in Agra Fort. Jahanara Begum Sahib voluntarily shared his 8 year confinement and nursed him in his dotage.[4][23]

In January of 1666 CE (1076 AH), Jahan fell ill with strangury and dysentery. Confined to bed he became progressively weaker until on January 31, he commended the ladies of the imperial court, to the care of Jahanara. After reciting the Kalima and verses from the Qur'an, he died. Jahana planned a state funeral which was to include a procession with Jahan's body carried by eminent nobles followed by the notable citizens of Agra and officials scattering coins for the poor and needy. In the event, Auranqzeb refused such ostentation and Jahan's body was washed in accordance with Islamic rites, taken by river in a sandalwood coffin to the Taj Mahal and there was interred next to the body of Mumtaz Mahal.[23]



The erection of tombs to honour the dead was the subject of a Mughal theological dialogue exemplified by the varied ways in which they built their funery monuments. Orthodox Islam found tombs problematic because a number of Hadith forbade the construction of tombs as irreligious. As a culture also attempting to accommodate and rule a mostly Hindu populous, opposition came from their tradition which held dead bodies as impure, and by extension, the structures over them similarly impure. However for a majority of Muslims, the spiritual power (barakat) of visiting the resting places (ziyarat) of those venerated in Islam was a force by which greater personal sanctity could be achieved. So for many Muslims, tombs could be considered legitimate providing they did not strive for pomp and were seen as a means to provide a reflection of paradise (Jannah) here on earth. The ebb and flow of this debate can be seen in the Mughul's dynastic mausoleums stretching back to the Tomb of Timur in Samarkand. Here Timur is buried under a fluted dome and a traditional Persian Iwan is employed as an entrance. The Tomb of Babur in Kabul is a much more modest affair where a simple cenotaph, exposed to the sky, is laid out in the centre of a walled garden.[24] Humayun's tomb is seen as one of the most direct influences on the Taj Mahal's design and was a direct response to the Tomb of Timur, featuring a central dome of white marble, red sandstone facings, a plinth, geometric symmetrical planning, chatris, iwans and a charbagh. Designed by Humayun's son Akbar it set the precedent for Mughal emperor's children constructing the mausoleums of their fathers.[25] Akbar's tomb at Sikandra, retains many of the elements of his father's tomb but possesses no dome and reverts to a cenotaph open to the sky. The Tomb of Jahangir at Shahdara, Lahore, begun in 1628 CE (1037 AH), only 4 years before the construction of the Taj and again without a dome, takes the form of a simple plinth with a minaret at each corner.[24]

Paradise gardens (Charbagh)
Charbagh in the Amber Fort, near Jaipur, Rajasthan, 1592 onwards, demonstrating how the basic four parts can divided in complex geometric ways

The concept of the paradise garden was one the Mughals brought from Persian Timurid gardens. It was the first architectural expression they made in the Indian sub-continent, fulfilling diverse functions with strong symbolic meanings. Known as the charbagh, in its ideal form it was laid out as a square subdivided into four equal parts. The symbolism of the garden and its divisions are noted in mystic Islamic texts which describe paradise as a garden filled with abundant trees flowers and plants. Water also plays a key role in these descriptions: In Paradise four rivers source at a central spring or mountain, and separate the garden by flowing towards the cardinal points. They represent the promised rivers of water, milk, wine and honey.[26] The centre of the garden, at the intersection of the divisions is highly symbolically charged and is where, in the ideal form, a pavilion, pool or tomb would be situated. The tombs of Humayun, Akbar and Jahangir, the previous Mughal emperors, follow this pattern. The cross axial garden also finds independent precedents within South Asia dating from the 5th century with the royal gardens of Sigiriya in Sri Lanka which were laid out in a similar way.[27]

For the tomb of Jahan's late wife though, where the mausoleum is sited at the edge of the garden, a variant of the charbagh is suggested by Ebba Koch; that of the waterfront garden. Developed by the Mughuls for the specific conditions of the Indian plains where slow flowing rivers provide the water source, the water is raised from the river by animal driven devices known as purs and stored in cisterns. A linear terrace is set close to the riverbank with low-level rooms set below the main building opening on to the river. Both ends of the terrace were emphasised with towers. The riverside terrace was designed to enhance the views of Agra for the imperial elite who would travel in and around the city by river. Other scholars suggest another explanation for the eccentric siting of the mausoleum at the Taj Mahal complex. If the Midnight Garden to the north of the river Jumna is considered an integral part of the complex, then the mausoleum can be interpreted as being in the centre of a garden divided by a real river and thus is more in the tradition of the pure charbagh.[28][29]

Tomb of Itmad-Ud-Daulah and his wife, located in Agra a little upstream from the Taj Mahal

The favourite form for both Mughal garden pavilions and mausolea (seen as a funery form of pavilion) was the hasht bihisht which translates from Persian as 'eight paradises'. These were square or rectangular planned buildings divided into nine sections such that a central domed chamber is surrounded by eight elements. Later developments of the hasht bihisht divided the square at 45 degree angles to create a more radial plan which often also includes chamfered corners; examples of which can be found in Todar Mal's Baradari at Fatehpur Sikri and Humayun's Tomb. Each element of the plan is reflected in the elevations with iwans with the corner rooms finding expression through smaller arched niches. Often such structures are topped with chhatris, small pillared pavilions at each corner. The eight divisions and frequent octagonal forms of such structures represent the eight levels of paradise for Muslims. The paradigm was not confined solely to Islamic antecedents. The Chinese magic square was employed for numerous purposes including crop rotation and also finds a Muslim expression in the wafq of their mathematicians. Ninefold schemes find particular resonance in the Indian mandalas, the cosmic maps of Hinduism and Buddhism.[30]

In addition to Humayun's tomb, the more closely contemporary Tomb of Itmad-Ud-Daulah provided many influences on the Taj Mahal and marked a new era of Mughal architecture. It was built by the empress Nur Jehan for her father from 1622–1625 CE (1031–1034 AH). It is small in comparison to many other Mughal-era tombs, but so exquisite is the execution of its surface treatments, it has been described as a jewel box. The garden layout, hierarchal use of white marble and sandstone, Parchin kari inlay designs and latticework presage many elements of the Taj Mahal. It is also interesting to note that the cenotaph of Nur Jehan's father is laid, off centre, to the west of her mother. These close similarities with the tomb of Mumtaz have earned it the sobriquet - The Baby Taj.[31]


Minarets did not become a common feature of Mughal architecture until the 17th century, particularly under the patronage of Shah Jahan. A few precedents exist in the 20 years before the construction of the Taj in the Tomb of Akbar and the Tomb of Jahangir. Their increasing use was influenced by developments elsewhere in the Islamic world, particularly in Ottoman and Timurid architecture. This development has been seen as evidence of an increasing religious orthodoxy of the Mughal dynasty.[32]

Hindu precedents

Since the time of the Delhi Sultantate (1192-1451) Indo-Islamic architecture had incorporated and reinterpreted many of the traditions, forms and symbollism of both indigenous Hindu architecture with the predominant Islamic architecture. During the Mughal empire, the extent varied according to the current political climate; scant with Babur, extensively with Akbar, but they ruled a land dominated by non-muslims and most buildings were built with Hindu craftsmen and labour under the direction of Muslim artists and architects. The vegetative tracery, parchin kari work and most obviously the lotus dome and finial of the Taj Mahal are all testament to this synthesis.[33][34]

Concepts, symbolism and interpretations

Under the reign of Shah Jahan the symbolic content of Mughal architecture reached its peak.[35] Inspired by a verse by Bibadal Khan[g], the imperial goldsmith and poet, and in common with most Mughal funerial architecture, the Taj Mahal complex was conceived as a replica on earth of the house of Mumtaz in paradise. This theme permeates the entire complex and informs the design and appearance of all its elements.[36] A number of secondary principles were also used, of which hiearachy is the most dominant. A deliberate interplay was established between the building's elements, its surface decoration, materials, geometric planning and its acoustics. This interplay extends from what can be seen with the senses, into religious, intellectual, mathematical and poetic ideas.[36] The constantly changing sunlight that illuminates the building reflected from its translucent marble is not a happy accident, it had a metaphoric role associated with the presence of god.[37]

Mid afternoon sun Early Morning Overcast
The particular translucent and reflective qualities of the marble used in the mausoleum dramatically alters its appearance in response to atmospheric changes. This property had a particular resonance with the Mughal sensibility which thought that the light falling on the tomb had a metaphoric role associated with the 'presence of god'.

Symmetry and geometric planning played an important role in ordering the complex and reflected a trend towards formal systematization that was apparent in all of the arts emanating from Jahan's imperial patronage. Bilateral symmetry expressed simultaneous ideas of pairing, counterparts and integration, reflecting intellectual and spiritual notions of universal harmony. A strict and complex set of implied grids based on the Mughul Gaz unit of measurement provided a flexible means of bringing proportional order to all the elements of the Taj Mahal.[38]

Hierarchical ordering of architecture is used by most cultures to emphasise particular elements of a design and to create drama. In the Taj Mahal, the hierarchical use of red sandstone and white marble contributes manifold symbollic significance. The Mughals were elaborating on a concept which traced its roots to earlier Hindu practices, set out in the Vishnudharmottara Purana, which recommended white stone for buildings for the Brahmins (priestly caste) and red stone for members of the Kshatriyas (warrior caste). By building structures that employed such colour coding, the Mughals identified themselves with the two leading classes of Indian social structure and thus defined themselves as rulers in Indian terms. Red sandstone also had significance in the Persian origins of the Mughal empire where red was the exclusive colour of imperial tents. In the Taj Mahal the relative importance of each building in the complex is denoted by the amount of white marble (or sometimes white polished plaster) that is used.[36][39]

The use of naturalist ornament demonstrates a similar hierarchy. Wholly absent from the Jilaukhana and caravanserai areas, it is used with increasing frequency as the processionary path approaches the mausoleum. Its symbolism is multifaceted, on the one hand evoking a more perfect, stylised and permanent garden of paradise than could be found growing in the earthly garden; on the other, an instrument of propaganda for Jahan's chroniclers who portrayed him as an 'erect cypress of the garden of the caliphate' and frequently used plant metaphors to praise his good governance, person, family and court. Plant metaphors also find a commonality with Hindu traditions where such symbols as the 'vase of plenty' (purna-ghata) can be found and were borrowed by the Mughal architects.[40]

Sound was also used to express ideas of paradise. The interior of the mausoleum has a reverberation time (the time taken from when a noise is made until all of its echoes have died away) of 28 seconds providing an atmosphere where the words of the Hafiz, as they prayed for the soul of Mumtaz, would linger in the air.[41]


The popular view of the Taj as one of the world's monuments to a great "love story" is born out by the contemporary accounts and most scholars accept this has a strong basis in fact.[42][43][44] The building was also used to assert Jahani propaganda concerning the 'perfection' of the Mughal leadership. The extent to which the Taj uses propaganda is the subject of some debate amongst contemporary scholars. Wayne Begley put forward an interpretation in 1979 that exploits the Islamic idea that the 'Garden of paradise' is also the location of the 'throne of god' on the day of judgement. In his reading the Taj Mahal is seen as a monument where Shah Jahan has appropriated the authority of the 'throne of god' symbolism for the glorification of his own reign.[45] Koch disagrees, finding this an overly elaborate explanation and pointing out that the 'Throne' sura from the Qur'an (sura2 verse 255) is missing from the calligraphic inscriptions.[46]

This period of Mughal architecture best exemplifies the maturity of a style that had synthesised Islamic architecture with its indigenous counterparts. By the time the Mughals built the Taj, though proud of their Persian and Timurid roots, they had come to see themselves as Indian. Copplestone writes "Although it is certainly a native Indian production, its architectural success rests on its fundamentally Persian sense of intelligible and undisturbed proportions, applied to clean, uncomplicated surfaces."[25]

Architects and craftsmen

History obscures precisely who designed the Taj Mahal. In the Islamic world at the time, the credit for a building's design was usually given to its patron rather than its architects. From the evidence of contemporary sources, it is clear that a team of architects were responsible for the design and supervision of the works, but they are mentioned infrequently. Shah Jahan's court histories emphasise his personal involvement in the construction and it is true that, more than any other Mughal emperor, he showed the greatest interest in building, holding daily meetings with his architects and supervisors. The court chronicler Lahouri, writes that Jahan would make "appropriate alterations to whatever the skilful architects designed after many thoughts, and asked competent questions."[47] Two architects are mentioned by name, Ustad Ahmad Lahauri[1][48] and Mir Abd-ul Karim in writings by Lahauri's son Lutfullah Muhandis.[14] Ustad Ahmad Lahauri had laid the foundations of the Red Fort at Delhi. Mir Abd-ul Karim had been the favourite architect of the previous emperor Jahangir and is mentioned as a supervisor,[h] together with Makramat Khan,[14] of the construction of the Taj Mahal.[49]

The exquisite and highly skilled parchin kari work was developed by Mughal lapidarists from techniques taught to them by Italian craftsmen employed at court. The look of European herbals, books illustrating botanical species, was adapted and refined in Mughal parchin kari work.[50]


16th–17th Century Agra

Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty, created the first Mughal garden known as Ram Bagh in Agra in 1526CE. Thereafter, gardens became important Mughal symbols of power, changing the emphasis from pre-Mughal symbols such as forts. The shift can be explained in terms of the intoduction of a new ordered aesthetic, an artistic expression with religious and funery aspects and as a metaphor for Babur's ability to control the arid Indian planes and hence the country at large.[51] Babur rejected much of the indigenous and Lodhi built forms on the opposite bank and attempted to create new ones inspired by Persian gardens and royal encampments. Ram Bagh was followed by an extensive, regular and integrated complex of gardens and palaces stretching for more than a kilometer along the river. A high continuous stone plinth bounded the transition between gardens and river and established the framework for future development in the city.[52]

In the following century, a thriving riverfront garden city developed on both sides of the Yamuna. Subsequent Mughal emperors developed both sides of the river including the rebuiding of Agra Fort, by Akbar, completed in 1573. By the time Jahan ascended to the throne, Agra's population had grown to approximately 700,000 and was, as Abdul Aziz writes, "a wonder of the age - as much a centre of the arteries of trade both by land and water as a meeting-place of saints, sages and scholars from all Asia.....a veritable lodestar for artistic workmanship, literary talent and spiritual worth".[53][54]

Agra became a city centred on its waterfront and developed partly eastwards but mostly westwards from the rich estates that lined the banks. The prime sites remained those that had access to the river and the Taj Mahal was built in this context, but uniquely, on both sides of the river.


Click map to navigate

Moonlight garden (Mahtab Bagh)River YamunaRiverfront terrace (Chameli Farsh)Riverfront terrace (Chameli Farsh)Garden (Charbagh)MosqueJawabMausoleum (Rauza-i munauwara)Great gate (Darwaza-i rauza)Southern galleries (Iwan Dar Iwan)Southern galleries (Iwan Dar Iwan)Forecourt (Jilaukhana)Inner subsidiary tomb (Saheli Burj)Inner subsidiary tomb (Saheli Burj)Northern courtyard (Khawasspuras)Northern courtyard (Khawasspuras)Bazaar streetBazaar streetBazaar and caravanserai (Taj Ganji)WaterworksTaj site plan2.png
About this image

The Taj Mahal complex can be conveniently divided into 5 sections. 1. The riverfront terrace, containing the Mausoleum, Mosque and Jawab 2. the Charbagh garden containing pavilions. 3. the jilaukhana containing accommodation for the tomb attendants and two subsidiary tombs 4. The Taj Ganji, originally a bazaar and caravansarai only traces of which are still preserved, and finally, to the north of the river Yamuna, 5. the 'moonlight garden'. The great gate lies between the Jilaukhana and the garden. Levels gradually descend in steps from the Taj Ganji towards the river. Contemporary descriptions of the complex list the elements in order from the river terrace towards the Taj Ganji.[55]

Dimensional organisation

That the Taj comlex is ordered by grids is self evident from examination of any plan. However, it was not until 1989 that Begley and Desai attempted the first detailed scholastic examination of how the various elements of the Taj might fit into a coordinating grid. Numerous 17th century accounts detail the precise measurements of the complex in terms of the Gaz or zira, the Mughal linear yard, equivalent to approximately 80-92cm. Begley and Desai concluded a 400 gaz grid was used and then subdivided and that the various descrepancies they discovered were due to errors in the contemporary descriptions.[56][57]

More recent research and measurement by Koch and Richard André Barraud suggests a more complex method of ordering that relates better to the 17th century records. Whereas Begley and Desai had used a simple fixed grid on which the buildings are superimposed, Koch and Barraud found the layout's proportions were better explained by the use of a generated grid system in which specific lengths may be divided in a number of ways such as halving, dividing by three or using decimal systems. They suggest the 374 gaz width of the complex given by the contemporary historians was correct and the Taj is planned as a tripartite rectangle of three 374 gaz squares. Different modular divisions are then used to proportion the rest of the complex. A 17 gaz module is used in the jilaukhana, bazaar and caravanserais areas whereas a more detailed 23 gaz module is used in the garden and terrace areas (since their width is 368 gaz, a multiple of 23). The buildings were in turn proportioned using yet smaller grids superimposed on the larger organisational ones. The smaller grids were also used to establish elevational proportion throughout the complex.[56]

Such apparently peculiar numbers make more sense when seen as part of Mughal geometric understanding. Octagons and triangles, which feature extensively in the Taj, have particular properties in terms of the relationships of their sides. A right handed triangle with two sides of 12 will have a hypotenuse of 17, similarly if it has two sides of 17 it's hypotenuse will be 24. An octagon with a width of 17 will have sides of exactly 7, which is the basic grid upon which the mausoleum, mosque and Mihman Khana are planned.[56]

Descrepancies remain in Koch and Barraud's work which they attribute to some figures being rounded fractions, innacuracies of reporting from third persons and errors in workmanship (most notable in the caravanserais areas further from the tomb itself).[56]

Element Metres Gaz
length / width / diameter breadth / depth / side height length / width / diameter breadth / depth / side height
Overall complex 896.1 300.84 1112.5 374
Overall preserved complex 561.2 300.84 696 374
Taj Ganji 334.9 300.84 416.5 374
Jilaukhana 165.1-165.23 123.51 204 153
Great gate 41.2 34 23.07 51 42 28.5
Charbagh 296.31 296.31 368 368
Riverfront terrace 300 111.89 8.7 373 138
Mausoleum 56.9 56.9 67.97 70 70 84
Minaret 5.65 43.02 7 53.5
Mosque 56.6 23.38 20.3 70 29 25-29
All dimensions from Koch, p.258-259 credited to Richard André Barraud

Mausoleum (Rauza-i munauwara)

The focus and climax of the Taj Mahal complex is the symmetrical white marble tomb; a supremely proportioned cubic building with chamfered corners and arched recesses known as pishtaqs. It is surmounted by a large dome and several pillared, roofed chhatris. In plan, it has a near perfect symmetry about 4 axes and is arranged in the 'hasht bihisht' form found in the tomb of Humayun. It comprises 4 floors; the lower basement storey containing the tombs of Jahan and Mumtaz, the entrance storey containing identical cenotaphs of the tombs below in a much more elaborate chamber, an ambulatory storey and a roof terrace.


The hierarchical ordering of the entire complex reaches its crescendo in the main chamber housing the cenotaphs of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz. Mumtaz's cenotaph sits at the geometric centre of the building; Jahan was buried at a later date by her side to the west - an arrangement seen in other Mughal tombs of the period such as Itmad-Ud-Daulah.[58] Marble is used exclusively as the base material for increasingly dense, expensive and complex parchin kari floral decoration as one approaches the screen and cenotpahs which are inlaid with semi-precious stones. The use of such inlay work is often reserved in Shah Jahani architecture for spaces associated with the emperor or his immediate family. In the Taj, the stylised botanical subject matter; roses, narcissus and tulips (amongst others) were associated with 'The Beloved' in Persianate culture. In this context the beloved may be both god and the department Mumtaz. The ordering of this decoration simultaneously emphasises the cardinal points and the centre of the chamber with disipating concentric octagons. Such hierarchies appear in both Muslim and Indian culture as important spiritual and atrological themes. The chamber is therefore an abundant evocation of the garden of paradise. The calligraphic inscriptions in both the sulus and the less formal naskh script, echo the programmatic theme of the exterior writings, but are profuse here. Entire chapters are carved on the walls and cenotaphs and tombs, chosen to emphasise the rewards in paradise to the faithful and the fate of the infidel.[37][39]

Muslim tradition forbade elaborate decoration of graves, so the bodies of Mumtaz and Shah Jahan were laid in a relatively plain chamber beneath the inner chamber of the Taj. They are buried on a north-south access, with faces turned right (west) toward Mecca. The Taj has been raised over their cenotaphs (from Greek keno taphas, empty tomb). The cenotaphs mirror precisely the placement of the two graves, and are exact duplicates of the grave stones in the basement below. Mumtaz's cenotaph is placed at the precise center of the inner chamber. On a rectangular marble base about 1.5 by 2.5 m is a smaller marble casket. Both base and casket are elaborately inlaid with precious and semiprecious gems. Calligraphic inscriptions on the casket identify and praise Mumtaz. On the lid of the casket is a raised rectangular lozenge meant to suggest a writing tablet.

Shah Jahan's cenotaph is beside Mumtaz's to the western side. It is the only asymmetric element in the entire complex. His cenotaph is bigger than his wife's, but reflects the same elements: A larger casket on slightly taller base, again decorated with astonishing precision with lapidary and calligraphy which identifies Shah Jahan. On the lid of this casket is a sculpture of a small pen box. (The pen box and writing tablet were traditional Mughal funeary icons decorating men's and women's caskets respectively.)

An octagonal marble screen or jali borders the cenotaphs and is made from eight marble panels. Each panel has been carved through with intricate piercework. The remaining surfaces have been inlaid with semiprecious stones in extremely delicate detail, forming twining vines, fruits and flowers.

Roof terrace

In a similar manner as the roof of the great gate, the roof terrace of the mausoleum was intended as a viewing point where the rest of the complex, the river and the distant fort might be viewed. The internal features of the floors below, the hasht bihist plan with its five octagonal chambers, are given external expression above in the four chhatris and the large domes. The pishtaqs extend slightly higher than the surrounding parapet level and contain narrow steps which lead to a narrow walkway along their tops.[59]


Two main domes are employed in the mausoleum, a small shallow dome was erected directly over the central chamber and then the large, bulbous, doubled skinned domed which can be seen externally, was erected over that. The lower internal dome is decorated with muqarnas tracery and a sun design at its apex. The external dome rises as a cylinder from its base and then transitions to a more bulbous profile, at which point twisted rope and arch moulding demark the change. At its apex the dome receives a cap moulding of the traditional Indo-Islamic lotus leaf. The dome is topped with a tall, gilded, bulbous finial with a design simultaneously evoking the hindu lotus and the islamic crescent moon.[59]

Riverfront terrace (Chameli Farsh)

Plinth and terrace
One of the four minarets that flanks the Mausoleum.

At the corners of the plinth stand minarets — four large towers each 43 meters tall. The towers are designed as working minarets, a traditional element of mosques, a place for a muezzin to call the Islamic faithful to prayer. Each minaret is effectively divided into three equal parts by two working balconies that ring the tower. At the top of the tower is a final balcony surmounted by a chattri that mirrors the design of those on the tomb. Each of the minarets was constructed slightly out of plumb to the outside of the plinth, so that in the event of collapse (a typical occurrence with many such tall constructions of the period) the material would tend to fall away from the tomb.

Jawab and Mosque

The mausoleum is flanked by two almost identical buildings on either side of the platform. To the west is the Mosque, to the east is Jawab. The Jawab, meaning 'answer' balances the bilateral symmetry of the composition and was originally used as a place for entertaining and accommodation for important visitors. It differs from the mosque in that it lacks a mihrab, a niche in a mosque's wall facing Mecca, and the floors have a geometric design, while the mosque floor was laid out with the outlines of 569 prayer rugs in black marble.

The mosque's basic tripartite design is similar to others built by Shah Jahan, particularly the Masjid-i-Jahan Numa in Delhi — a long hall surmounted by three domes. Mughal mosques of this period divide the sanctuary hall into three areas: a main sanctuary with slightly smaller sanctuaries to either side. At the Taj Mahal, each sanctuary opens onto an enormous vaulting dome.

Garden (Charbagh)

A 360° panoramic view from the "Celestial Pool of Abundance", in the Chahar Bagh "Gardens of Paradise".

The large charbagh (a formal Mughal garden divided into four parts) provides the foreground for the classic view of the Taj Mahal. The garden's strict and formal planning employs raised pathways which divide each quarter of the garden into 16 sunken parterres or flowerbeds. A raised marble water tank at the center of the garden, halfway between the tomb and the gateway, and a linear reflecting pool on the North-South axis reflect the Taj Mahal. Elsewhere the garden is laid out with avenues of trees and fountains.[60] The charbagh garden is meant to symbolize the four flowing Rivers of Paradise. The raised marble water tank (hauz) is called al Hawd al-Kawthar, literally meaning and named after the "Pool of Abundance" promised to Muhammad in paradise where the faithful may quench their thirst upon arrival.[61][62]

Two pavilions occupy the east and west ends of the cross axis, one the mirror of the other. In the classic charbargh design, gates would have been located in this location. In the Taj they provide punctuation and access to the long enclosing wall with its decorative crenellations. Built of sandstone, they are given a tripartite form and over two storeys and are capped with a white marble chhatris supported from 8 columns.[63]

The original planting scheme is one of the Taj Mahal's remaining mysteries. The contemporary accounts mostly deal just with the architecture and only mention 'various kinds of fruit-bearing trees and rare aromatic herbs' in relation to the garden. Cypress trees are almost certainly to have been planted being popular similes in Persian poetry for the slender elegant stature of the beloved. By the end of the 18th century, Thomas Twining noted orange trees and a large plan of the complex suggests beds of various other fruits such as pineapples, pomegranates, bananas, limes and apples. The British, at the end of the 19th century thinned out a lot of the increasingly forested trees, replanted the cypresses and laid the gardens to lawns in their own taste.[64]

The layout of the garden, and its architectural features such as its fountains, brick and marble walkways, and geometric brick-lined flowerbeds are similar to Shalimar's, and suggest that the garden may have been designed by the same engineer, Ali Mardan.[65]

Early accounts of the garden describe its profusion of vegetation, including roses, daffodils, and fruit trees in abundance.[66] As the Mughal Empire declined, the tending of the garden declined as well. When the British took over management of the Taj Mahal, they changed the landscaping to resemble the formal lawns of London.[67]

Great gate (Darwaza-i rauza)

Taj Gatehouse edit.jpg

The great gate stands at the north of entrance forecourt (Jilaukhana) and provides a transition between the worldly realm of bazaars and caravanserai and the spiritual realm of the paradise garden, mosque and the mausoleum. Its rectangular plan is a variation of the 9-part hasht bihisht plan found in the mausoleum. The corners are articulated with octagonal towers giving the structure a defensive appearance. External domes were reserved for tombs and mosques of the time and so the large central space does not receive any outward expression of its internal dome. From the space the Mausoleum is framed along its major axis by the pointed arch of the portal. Inscriptions from the Qur'an are inlaid around the two northern and southern pishtaqs, the southern one 'Daybreak' invites believers to enter the garden of paradise.[68]

Southern galleries (Iwan Dar Iwan)

Running the length of the northern side of the southern garden wall to the east and west of the great gate are galleried arcades. A raised platform with geometric paving provides their base and between the columns are cusped arches typical of the Mughul architecture of the period. The galleries were used during the rainy season to admit the poor and distribute alms. The galleries terminate at each end with a transversely placed room with tripartite divisions.[68]

Forecourt (Jilaukhana)

The Jilaukhana (literally meaning 'in front of house') was a courtyard feature introduced to Mughal architecture by Shah Jahan. It provided an area where visitors would dismount from their horses or elephants and assemble in style before entering the main tomb complex. The rectangular area divides north-south and east-west with an entry to the tomb complex through the main gate to the north and entrance gates leading to the outside provided in the eastern, western and southern walls. The southern gate leads to the Taj Ganji quarter.[69]

Bazaar streets
Bazaar of the Jilaukhana with cusped arches

Two identical streets lead from the east and west gates to the centre of the courtyard. They are lined by verandahed colonnades articulated with cusped arches behind which cellular rooms were used to sell goods from when the Taj was built until 1996. The tax revenue from this trade was used for the upkeep of the Taj complex. The eastern bazaar streets were essentially ruined by the end of the 19th century and were restored by Lord Curzon restored 1900 and 1908.[70]

Inner subsidiary tombs (Saheli Burj)

Two mirror image tombs are located at the southern corners of the Jilaukhana. They are conceived as miniature replicas of the main complex and stand on raised platforms accessed by steps. Each octagonal tomb is constructed on a rectangular platform flanked by smaller rectangular buildings in front of which is laid a charbargh garden. Some uncertainty exists as to whom the tombs might memorialise. Their descriptions are absent from the contemporary accounts[j] either because they were unbuilt or because they were ignored, being the tombs of women. On the first written document to mention them, the plan drawn up by Thomas and William Daniel in 1789, the eastern tomb is marked as that belonging to Akbarabadi Mahal and the western as Fatehpuri Mahal.[71][72]

Northern courtyards (Khawasspuras)

A pair of courtyards is found in the northern corners of the Jilaukhana which provided quarters (Khawasspuras) for the tombs attendants and the Hafiz. This residential element provided a transition between the outside world and the other-worldy delights of the tomb complex. The Khawasspurs had fallen into a state of disrepair by the late 18th century but the institution of the Khadim continued into the 20th century. The Khawasspuras were restored by Lord Curzon as part of his repairs between 1900 and 1908, after which the western courtyard was used as a nursery for the garden and the western courtyard was used as a cattle stable until 2003.[69]

Bazaar and caravanserai (Taj Ganji)

The Bazaar and caravanserai were constructed as an integral part of the complex, initially to provide the construction workers with accommodation and facilities for their wellbeing, and later as a place for trade, the revenue of which supplemented the expenses of the complex. The area became a small town in its own right during and after the building of the Taj. Originally known as 'Mumtazabad', today it is called Taj Ganji or 'Taj Market'. Its plan took the characteristic form of a square divided by two cross axial streets with gates to the four cardinal points. Bazaars lined each street and the resultant squares to each corner housed the caravanserais in open courtyards accessed from internal gates from where the streets intersected (Chauk). Contemporary sources pay more attention to the north eastern and western parts of the Taj Ganji (Taj Market) and it is likely that only this half received imperial funding. Thus, the quality of the architecture was finer than the southern half.[73]

The distinction between how the sacred part of the complex and the secular was regarded is most acute here.[73] Whilst the rest of the complex received imperially funded maintenance after its construction, the Taj Ganji became a bustling town and the centre of Agra's economic activity. It has been constantly redeveloped ever since, to the extent that by the 19th century it had become unrecognisable as part of the Taj Mahal and no longer featured on contemporary plans and its architecture was largely obliterated. Today, the contrast is stark between the Taj Mahal's elegant, formal geometric layout and the narrow streets with organic, random and un-unified constructions found in the Taj Ganji. Only fragments of the original constructions remain, most notably the gates. All manner of goods and services could be obtained in the Taj Ganji, it was where "different kinds of merchandise from every land, varieties of goods from every country, all sorts of luxuries aof the time, and various kinds of necessitities of civilisation and comfortable living brought from all parts of the world" were sold.[74] An idea of what sort of goods might have been traded is found in the names for the caravanserais; the north western one was known as Katra Omar Khan (Market of Omar Khan), the north eastern as Katra Fulel (Perfume Market), the south western as Katra Resham (Silk Market) and the south-eastern as Katra Jogidas.[73]

Structures outside the walls

  • Mosque
  • Tombs


Water for the Taj complex was provided through a complex infrastructure. It was drawn from the river by a series of purs - an animal-powered rope and bucket mechanism.[21] The water flowed along an arched aqueduct into a large storage tank, where, by thirteen additional purs, it was raised to large distribution cistern above the Taj ground level located to the west of the complex's wall. From here water passed into three subsidiary tanks and was then piped to the complex. The head of pressure generated by the height of the tanks (9.5m) was sufficient to supply the fountains and irrigate the gardens. A 0.25 m diameter earthenware pipe lies 1.8 m below the surface,[61] in line with the main walkway which filled the main pools of the complex. Some of the earthenware pipes were replaced in 1903 with cast iron. The fountain pipes were not connected directly to the fountain heads, instead a copper pot was provided under each fountain head: water filled the pots ensuring an equal pressure to each fountain. The purs no longer remain, but the other parts of the infrastructure have survived with the arches of the aqueduct now used to accommodate offices for the Archaeological Survey of India's Horticultural Department.[75]

Moonlight garden (Mahtab Bagh)

To the north of the Taj Mahal complex, across the river is another Charbagh garden. It was designed as an integral part of the complex in the riverfront terrace pattern seen elsewhere in Agra. Its width is identical to that of the rest of the Taj. The garden historian Elizabeth Moynihan suggests the large octagonal pool in the centre of the terrace would reflect the image of the Mausoleum and thus the garden would provide a setting to view the Taj Mahal. The garden has been beset by flooding from the river since Mughal times. As a result, the condition of the remaining structures is quite ruinous. Four sandstone towers marked the corners of the garden, only the south-eastward one remains. The foundations of two structures remain immediately north and south of the large pool which were probably garden pavilions. From the northern structure a stepped waterfall would have fed the pool. The garden to the north has the typical square, cross-axial plan with a square pool in its centre. To the west an aqueduct fed the garden.[76][77]


a. ^ The UNESCO evaluation omits the Taj Ganji and Moonlight garden from its area calculations - the total area with the historic Taj Ganji is 26.95 ha
b. ^ Mewar (1615 CE, 1024 AH), the Deccan (1617 and 1621 CE, 1026 and 1030 AH), Kangra (1618 CE, 1027AH).
c. ^ In the Mughal empire, inheritance of power and wealth was not determined through primogeniture, but rather by princely sons competing to achieve military success and consolidate power at court.
d. ^ The grandson of Raja Man Singh of Amber and a relative of Shah Jahan through his Great Uncle Raja Bhagwant Das.[14]
e. ^ The Islamic Calendar is lunar and so the anniversary dates vary when expressed in the Gregorian Calendar.
f. ^ In 1637–39 CE (1047–1049 AH), an Indian servant of the Dutch East India company could expect to receive 36 rupees a year, a mansabdar would receive 9000 rupees a year.
g. ^ "May the abode of Mumtaz Mahal be paradise".[12]
h. ^ There is some disagreement as to whether the translation of darogha imarat is 'Superintendent of Buildings' as Begley and Koch contend or 'Chief architect' as Qaisar contends.[49]
j. ^ 1643 (1053 AH) by Lahouri.[71]


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