The Taj Mahal is a mausoleum complex built by Shah Jahan (reg. 1628 - 1658) in memory of his favorite wife, Arjumand Banu Begam (d.1631), better known by her title "Mumtaz Mahal," or "the exalted one of the palace." The construction of the complex began shortly after Mumtaz's death, and accounts of this process were popularized by foreign travelers who visited Mughal courts. The tomb's fame increased tremendously following the British occupation of India in the late 18th century.
The Taj Mahal complex is organized in a rectangle, measuring approximately 310 x 550 meters. It comprises a number of buildings and structures, all functioning together as the funerary monument for Mumtaz Mahal. From the south, the first part of the complex consists of a (former) bazaar, the forecourt and entry gates; the second part consists of a large garden and garden pavilions, axially arranged along a riverfront terrace with the three main structures: the mosque, the mausoleum and the mihmankhana (literally, "guest house," probably used as an assembly hall).
The complex was planned on the basis of a unit called a gaz
, approximately 32 inches (81.28 cm). Multiples of this "gaz" unit were used throughout the Taj Mahal complex. Overall, the complex is organized in 3 linearly arranged modular squares, each measuring 374 gaz per side, or 374 gaz wide by 1,122 gaz long. The caravanserai (Taj Ganj) and entry forecourt (jilaukhana) areas are organized on a module of 17 gaz, whereas in the area from the entry gate (darwaza-i rauza) to the riverfront terrace, the complex follows a 23-gaz module. This 17-gaz jilaukhana module multiplied by 22= 74 gaz (the width of the complex). The caravanserai measures 416.5 gaz in length, or 17 x 24.5 gaz, and the jilaukhana measures 153 gaz, or 17 x 9 gaz. The garden is further divided into 23 x 16 gaz, and the riverfront terrace measures 138 by 23 x 6 gaz. These gaz modules lend themselves to an axial arrangement, with a cascading hierarchy: each building in the complex is further organized on a smaller grid based on the gaz module. For example, the mosque, mausoleum and mihmankhana are based on a 7-gaz grid, while the great gate (darwaza-i rauza
) is based on a 3-gaz grid. This grid functions not only in plan, but also in elevation.
Taj Ganj and Entrance Gates
The Taj Ganj market aligned on axis with the southern entrance gate of the Taj complex once served as a vital part of the entire complex. From present images it is difficult to see that this market, irregular in appearance, was once a busy marketplace and caravanserai. A small-scale bazaar, it was incorrectly referred to as 'Tage Gunge' or 'Tadgundy' by foreign travelers. This bazaar was a shopping district in the 1640s, but due to a decline in trade, it lost its prominence by the 1650s; nevertheless, it was still functioning when the first colonial travelers arrived in the region. In contrast to the formal organization of the Taj complex, this bazaar is now a mix of residences and commercial establishments, including small hotels and restaurants. The Taj Ganj area leads to the southern gate (Sidhi or Sirhi Darwaza) into the forecourt (jilaukhana
) of the Taj Mahal complex, although the eastern (Fatehabadi Darwaza) and western (Fatehpuri Darwaza) gates of the jilaukhana are more frequently used by tourists.
The latter two gates are identical, with central pointed-arch pishtaqs flanked by octagonal pilasters crowned with guldastas
(ornamental flower pinnacles). The red sandstone parapet of the gateways contains multi-cusped crenellations carved in relief that contrast with the buff sandstone of the spandrels. True to the overall hierarchy of detail within the Taj Mahal complex, the inner walls of these gates, being closer to the mausoleum of Mumtaz Mahal, are more lavishly decorated than their outer faces. The southern gate is similar to the east and west ones in its verticality. Due to the natural gradient of the site, which slopes toward the riverbank, this gate lies 2.4 m above the ground elevation of the jilaukhana itself. Two bazaar streets begin at the east and west gates and lead to the jilaukhana. Formerly an integrated part of the complex, these bazaars contributed financially to the maintenance of the mausoleum. The bazaars consist of individual rooms (hujra
) along an arcaded verandah of multi-cusped arches that are supported on slender columns. The stone overhangs (chajjas
) projecting from this arcade are supported by voluted brackets.
Jilaukhana, Khawasspuras, and Saheli Burj
("in front of the house"), or forecourt, served Mughal ceremonial purposes and acted as a transition space between the street and the palace or royal building. Mumtaz's death anniversary (urs
) was also observed in the jilaukhana of the Taj Mahal. The jilaukhana consists of a large courtyard with 128 hujra rooms opening directly onto the courtyard. The openings to the rooms are framed by multi-cusped arches and capped by a chajja overhang. The jilaukhana rooms served as accommodation for a long period of time, and later fell into disrepair until the British colonial period. During their occupation, the British were responsible for the restoration of the bazaar streets and arcades in the jilaukhana of the Taj Mahal.
To the northeast and northwest of the jilaukhana are the khawasspuras
, two residential enclosures. The north side of the khawasspuras abuts the southern galleries that flank the great gate to the east and the west. The khawasspuras served as living quarters for the caretakers of the tomb and the persons who performed the funerary services. These enclosures are arranged around rectangular courtyards surrounded by arcaded verandahs, two of which form the rear side of the jilaukhana's rooms. The khawasspuras were entered through the wall adjoining the main garden to the north of the southern galleries. The outer southern corners of the enclosures in the khawasspuras have rooms giving access to latrines, and from conjectural reconstruction it has been determined that these latrines consisted of a long platform with openings and a channel below.
The two saheli burj
(inner subsidiary tombs) enclosures to the east and west of the jilaukhana are the tomb complexes of two other wives of Shah Jahan. They are found just after passing through the southern gate into the jilaukhana, and can be reached from steps leading up from the jilaukhana bazaar streets. The saheli burj enclosures have gardens arranged in the chahar bagh style, with a pool of water in the center surrounded by paved walkways. The tomb buildings are octagonal, single-story structures, built on a plinth. The walls are formed of multi-cusped arcades, and each side has a door filled with hexagonal jali work. Above the arches, brackets support a chajja, and two guldasta columns (per side of the octagon) stand on the roof behind the parapet. The building and its plinth are clad in red sandstone; the structure is topped by a bulbous white marble dome. Moving inside, the south door of both of the saheli burj tombs leads to the cenotaph within. The colors of the exterior cladding are reversed in the interior: the walls are clad in white marble, while the jalis and ceiling are sandstone. Eight squinches provide the transition into the circular base of the double dome. The two tombs only differ in the decoration of the cenotaphs; the eastern one is finished in pietra dura
and is more elaborate than its western counterpart, which is finished with relief mouldings. To the northeast and northwest of the two saheli burj was a single-story building that corresponded to each tomb; only one of the pair, that related to the eastern tomb, now survives. This building has a verandah and two hujra rooms; its external walls are decorated with shallow chini khana
The great gate (darwaza-i rauza
) that leads from the north of the jilaukhana to the garden, and ultimately to the mausoleum of Mumtaz Mahal, is a large structure with triadic openings. Looking at the south elevation, the base of the gate measures nearly 38 meters and its peripheral walls, including the cupolas, are 30 meters in height. The central pishtaq, also including the cupolas, is 33 meters in height and 19 meters wide. The gate is composed of red sandstone with decorative panels and accents in white marble. The surface treatment of the pishtaqs is elaborate: it is framed in white marble and inlaid with precious stones. Its central arch is delineated by a triple rope moulding and surrounded by a frame containing the Daybreak Sura (Sura al-Fajr) in thuluth
script. The entry iwan contains muqarnas in red sandstone, which contrast with the white plaster paint outlining each segment. (The northern elevation of the gate is identical to the southern one; the lower left corner of its framed inscription also contains the signature of the calligrapher, Amanat Khan). Topping the central pishtaq is a series of eleven arches in red sandstone, capped by a chajja; eleven white marble chhatris crown the chajja. A single column rises from the pishtaq to complete each end of the arcade; this column terminates in a finial above the chhatris. This same column runs in engaged form along the height of the pishtaq itself.
This arrangement of architectural elements into rows is found on both the north and south side of the gate, in keeping with the design of the Taj Mahal complex and its internal hierarchies. The corners of the gateway are accentuated by engaged towers, also of red sandstone, that project outward slightly; these towers are decorated with frames of white marble. The towers are capped with sandstone chhatris with white marble domes. The pointed arch on the south elevation of the darwaza-i rauza partially frames the visitors' first glimpse of the main structure, the mausoleum of Mumtaz Mahal.
Flanking the darwaza-i rauza on the north, two double-arcaded galleries of multifoliate arches known as the southern galleries (iwan dar iwan
), one to the east and one to the west, overlook the large garden that precedes the main mausoleum. The columns of the outer and inner arcades differ only in the decoration of their bases: the outer ones have floral decoration alluding to the garden. The platform of the galleries extends into the garden, and its decorative tile paving pattern faces the garden. The galleries terminate on the east and west ends in rooms which are entered from within the gallery.
Garden (Bagh-i Firdaus-a'in) and Naubat Khanas
The garden (bagh-i firdaus-a'in
) of the Taj complex is laid out as a cross-axial chahar bagh: a large square divided into four equal quadrants by two large primary intersecting walkways (khiyaban
). Each of these quadrants is further divided into four sections by smaller secondary intersecting walkways. The primary cross-axial walkways all terminate at an outer peripheral walkway that frames the garden as a whole. A shallow water canal (nahr
) runs along the centre of the primary walkways; a line of equidistant water fountains runs down the center of the nahr. Geometric patterns in red sandstone depicting regular and elongated stars decorate the edges of the central pathways running on each side of the nahr.
At the intersection of the primary walkways is a raised platform with a square water tank (hauz
) at its center. Five fountains are located within the tank, one at each of its four corners and one in its center. The four corners of the tank have floral edged designs. Four marble benches, all placed at right angles to one another on each side of the square tank, were added to the platform by Lord Curzon in 1907-8.
The east-west walkways terminate in two-story pavilions (naubat khanas
) that merge into the outer garden walls. These outer garden walls are further articulated by a blind arcade that runs along their entire lengths. Aqueducts supplied water to the garden from the Yamuna river just north of the mausoleum. The central fountains operated with an underground system of copper vessels connected by copper pipes. Travelers' photographs from the 1860s confirm an abundance of plant varieties in the garden; however, at present (2007) the garden contains relatively few trees, consisting mainly of fairly maintained grass lawns.
The two naubat khanas (drum houses) project into the garden where the main east-west garden pathway meets the garden walls (approximately halfway between the darwaza and the mausoleum). The naubat khanas are constructed on raised platforms and have two floors. On each level, the naubat khanas have a triple archway in the center of the east and west elevations, respectively. On the ground level, the arches are closed with a jali screen; on the upper level, they remain open. The floor slab of the upper story projects beyond the wall above and below to form a balcony as long as the building; carved red sandstone handrails run along its length, and carved sandstone brackets help support it from below. The roof of the pavilion is accessed from an internal staircase that emerges externally on the upper level, overlooking the garden, and continues to the roof. In the center of the rooftop is a large chhatri capped with a marble dome.
In historic accounts of the Taj Mahal complex, the riverfront terrace supporting the mausoleum has been referred to as the kursi
, or throne. This terrace, and the marble plinth upon it, supports the mosque, mausoleum and the mihmankhana. Its north (river-facing) elevation is clad in red sandstone and framed with marble inlay and displays a series of now-infilled arches. The vegetal motifs carved on the wall are enlarged versions of those that appear on the mausoleum, the mihmankhana and the mosque. These arches were originally open to the Yamuna river, allowing light and ventilation to reach the inner tahkhana
rooms within. The tahkhana, a gallery of rooms arranged in a row and connected by a narrow corridor, is reached by two staircases that descend from openings in the surface of the plinth to the east and west of the mausoleum. The tahkhana rooms are also connected internally by small passages and are said to have served the visiting emperor and his entourage.
The secondary, square marble plinth, 93 meters long, is centered on the sandstone terrace. The mausoleum proper and the four minarets flanking it are placed on this marble plinth. The base of the plinth is decorated with delicate carvings of vegetal motifs, which also appear on the white marble cladding of the mausoleum. A string of moulded leaves outlines the top of this plinth.
At the north end of the garden is the mausoleum of Mumtaz Mahal (rauza-i munauwara, rauza-i muqqadas, rauza-i mutahhara
), the central element of the Taj Mahal complex. The plan of the mausoleum is based on the nine-fold hasht-bihisht
(eight paradises) plan often employed by the Mughals for tomb and pavilion design in the 16th and early 17th centuries. In this system, a square plan is divided into nine spaces: a central chamber with four additional spaces in the center of each elevation and four rooms at each corner.
In the mausoleum of the Taj Mahal complex, the central chamber is double-height and octagonal in plan. At its center rest the cenotaphs of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan. The chamber is capped by a shallow dome and decorated with niches on each two-story wall. These niches on the cardinal axes have jali screens, fitted on the external faces of the walls, which allow light into the room. The niches on the diagonal axes hold rectangular doors. The niches are separated into lower and upper stories by an inscription band that runs around the interior. The upper and lower niches are identical but for the frames on the lower niches. On the upper level, these frames are replaced by muqarnas that begin to transform the octagonal plan into a circular ring for the dome. The shallow dome, which is the lower portion of the double dome used for construction, thus appears as decorated with an extended pattern of the muqarnas that support its base.
Ambulatory rooms (shish mahal
) are placed on the cardinal axes of the octagonal tomb chamber on both stories. Cruciform in plan, the walls and ceilings of the shish mahal rooms are composed of of glass-filled decorative patterns. These rooms are not accessible to visitors.
The floor of the tomb chamber is tiled with octagonal marble stars in alternating cruciform modules, each outlined with inlaid black stone. The delicate marble screen that currently surrounds the cenotaphs of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz was set up in 1643 in place of the original gold-enameled one that was made in 1633 on the second anniversary (urs
) of Mumtaz's death. Each side of this marble octagonal screen is divided into three panels; only one opens to access the cenotaph. The screen replicates the outer structure of the tomb and echoes its architectural forms, including its engaged shafts and inlay work. Pietra dura work in precious stones fills the opaque surfaces of the screen.
The cenotaph of Mumtaz Mahal is a rectangular block placed on a platform decorated with Quranic verses on the upper block and naturalistic motifs on the lower base. A symbolic pen case sits atop Shah Jahan's cenotaph, which, although similar, is slightly larger in size and has more vegetal motifs than Mumtaz's cenotaph. Shah Jahan's cenotaph is placed parallel and slightly offset (sheared) in relation to Mumtaz's cenotaph.
The lower tomb chamber, which is now closed to the public, can be reached by a pointed barrel vault staircase that lies to the south of the cenotaph. This chamber is completely clad in marble with an undecorated ceiling and contains Mumtaz's cenotaph, on a lightly decorated platform, placed beside Shah Jahan's cenotaph, which is also more simply decorated than its counterpart on the upper story.
On the roof of the mausoleum is a high drum, topped with a bulbous dome measuring 25.6 meters high by 17.6 meters wide. Four diagonally placed chhatris flank the drum. The terrace provides a view of the garden below; it is accessed by staircases from the ground floor that lie on either side of the entrance to the mausoleum.
The four elevations reflect the symmetry of the mausoleum's plan. Each major (N,E,S,W) elevation is similar; each is divided into three frames, with a central pishtaq measuring 32.6 meters in height. The two frames flanking the central pishtaq contain blind arched niches on the upper and lower levels. Each corner of the building presents a chamfered elevation (to the northeast, northwest, southeast, and southwest).
The interiors of the four central pishtaqs are adorned with floral mouldings conjecturally inspired by European paintings of the 16th and 17th century (Shah Jahan's artisans were notably familiar with the works of their European contemporaries). The frame of the mausoleum's central pishtaqs, as with other similar forms within the complex, is decorated with an inlaid thuluth
inscription of a Quranic verse. At the pishtaq's highest point is a linear pattern of floral motifs running between two extended engaged columns capped with guldastas. The spandrels of the pishtaq are also filled with an inlaid mirror-symmetrical arabesque pattern in red, green and dark yellow stones, and the pointed arch of the frame is outlined with rope-form moldings.
The two faces framing each central pishtaq (sub-pishtaqs) contain blind niches on both stories; these niches are rectangular in plan. (In contrast, the niches within the chamfered corner faces of the mausoleum are half-octagons in plan). As compared to the larger central pishtaqs, these two sub-pishtaqs are less elaborately treated, with pilasters on the outer elevations decorated with an inlaid herringbone pattern in black and dark yellow. These pilasters are flanked by square panels, framed with horizontal and vertical chevrons, at their base.
Four marble-clad minarets flank the mausoleum, one at each corner of the mausoleum plinth. Minaret additions were not prevalent in Mughal building until the 17th century, and can also be seen in the gateway of Akbar's tomb in Sikandra, as an addition, and at the tomb of Itmad-ud Daula in Agra. In both cases, the minarets were still not detached from the main structures.
Each minaret at the Taj Mahal mausoleum contains an internal winding staircase made of rough sandstone that accesses its roof. Each of the minarets also has three projecting balconies accessible by a door on each level, and is topped with a chhatri supported by slender columns and multi-cusped arches. Each chhatri is capped with a kalasa finial. The minarets all have a slight outward tilt, believed to be a design measure intended to protect the main mausoleum from damage should a minaret collapse.
Mosque and Mihmankhana
The mosque and mihmankhana are located to the west and east (respectively) of the mausoleum building. Symmetrical and identical in design, it is conjectured from records that the mosque was built first, followed by the mihmankhana. The mihmankhana's function was, speculatively, to accommodate visitors during Mumtaz's urs
, and to balance the architectural composition. In an extended illustration of this theory, the mosque has an ablution tank, while the mihmankhana also has a corresponding tank - one with no actual function.
Both buildings were constructed on the plinth that extends into the riverfront terrace, and both also follow the central design scheme within the complex. A central pishtaq, flanked with blind arched openings on either side, is decorated with red sandstone and white marble. These arched openings are also framed with marble spandrels and rope moldings. Green and dark yellow semiprecious stones form the inlay on the marble cladding. Both buildings are capped with three domes, the central one being largest, which are placed on drums decorated with an interlocking motif pattern of alternating white marble and red sandstone. Amalaka and kalasa finials top the domes.
The mosque has a mihrab in its qibla wall, highlighted by a marble frame with an inscription of the Sun (al-Shams) sura. A minbar sits next to the mihrab. The floor of the mosque also differs from that of the mihmankhana; it is patterned in Muslim prayer mats. The ceilings are finished in the sgraffito
technique, consisting of a coat of red plaster laid over a white one. Floral designs are later carved through the red layer, to appear in white.
Four identical tower pavilions are found at each corner of the riverfront terrace, forming anchor points towards the riverfront. The southwest tower contains a stepwell (baoli
) whereas that to the south of the mihmankhana holds chambers leading to latrines. The southwest tower with the baoli also has a well shaft running down the centre of the structure and extending through its five floors: three above, two below. The two tower pavilions north of the mosque and mihmankhana contain chambers leading to latrines on the lower levels, and stairs leading toward the riverbed. The four riverfront towers are each octagonal in plan. From the riverfront terrace three stories of the towers are visible: the lowest story has solid walls, while the second has a verandah and slender columns supporting the chhatri above. The chhatri forms the uppermost story. An additional story can be seen from the riverfront at the lowest level. Each tower has a central room with an ambulatory path circling around the exterior. The exterior walls have multi-cusped blind arches; each terrace has an oriel window (jharoka
) with views of the river. The towers are clad in red sandstone and have floral motifs carved in relief with marble inlays on panels.
Materials and Construction
The materials most frequently used in the Taj Mahal complex are bricks, sandstone and white marble. Brick sizes varied between 18-19 x 11-12.5 x 2.3 cm, (roughly) a standard size since Akbar's rule. These bricks were baked in kilns on the outskirts of Agra. The sandstone was brought from Fatehpur Sikri, about 40 km west of Agra and Rupbas, 45 km southwest of Agra. The sandstone used in the complex has a color varying from soft red to red with a yellow tint. White marble came from the quarries of Makrana in Rajasthan, approx. 400 kms southeast of Agra (Shah Jahan had initially acquired the site for the Taj Mahal complex from Raja Jai Singh of Makrana). The marble used in the complex was a white one with black and grey streaks. Although difficult to work, it was hard enough for detailed carving, with a translucent appearance. This translucence is most visible during changes in daylight, when the monument appears to glow. A polished plaster coating, locally known as chuna
, was applied to brick walls; this chuna was used as an economical substitute for marble. The chuna was composed of burnt lime, ground shells, calciferous stones, and plant fibers.
The greatest technical problem in the construction of the Taj Mahal was securing the foundations of the heavy superstructures near the riverfront. This was accomplished using wells cased in wood and filled with rubble and iron, spaced at 3.75 meters on center. These worked as pile foundations, and functioned even through the devastating floods of September 1978, when the water level of the river reached the mausoleum's platform. Similar foundations are found in earlier garden complexes in Agra along the Yamuna riverfront: Jahanara Bagh, the Chini-ka Rauza and the garden of Wazir Khan.
The buildings in the Taj Mahal complex are built of brick and faced with sandstone or marble, using a technique called the "Mughal bond." These walls, filled with brick and/or rubble and mortar, have a course of sandstone (such that the edge of the sandstone slab becomes part of the façade and its width spans the wall) as well as sandstone tie-backs, where the sandstone is set perpendicular to its bedding plane and one of its edges is visible on the façade (while its length also runs through the thickness of the wall). A final piece of sandstone acts as simple cladding, placed on the façade perpendicular to its bedding plane, held in place by mortar backing and iron dowels or clamps. Vaults, such as the inner dome of the mausoleum, were constructed with concentric rings of brick plastered with thick layers of mortar.
Precious and semi-precious stones are used more extensively in the decoration of the mausoleum than elsewhere in the complex. These stones include lapis lazuli, sapphire, cornelian, jasper, chrysolite and heliotrope. A strict discipline in colors and patterns is visible in the detailed ornamentation of the Taj. Floral relief carvings are found on the marble and sandstone walls; these carvings are stylistically related to the pietra dura work, yet are worked according to the material of the building they adorn. Overall, the decoration elements with the Taj Mahal complex work to bind the numerous buildings together, in keeping with the formal hierarchy of the complex: each structure, according to its position, uses the established decorative vocabulary realized in the material assigned to its position. Further visual exploration
Begley, Wayne. "Myth of the Taj and a New Theory of its Symbolic Meaning." Art Bulletin 6, Issue 1 (1979): 7-37.
Begley, Wayne and Desai, Z.A. Taj Mahal: The Illuminated Tomb: An Anthology of Seventeenth-century Mughal and European Documentary Sources. Cambridge, MA: Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, 1989.
Koch, Ebba. Mughal Architecture: An Outline of its History and Development, 1526-1858. Munich: Prestel Verlag, 1991.
Koch, Ebba. The Complete Taj Mahal and the Riverfront Gardens of Agra. London: Thames & Hudson, 2006.
Nath, Ram. The Immortal Taj Mahal: the Evolution of the Tomb in Mughal Architecture. Bombay: D. B. Taraporevala Sons, 1972.
Stierlin, Henri. Islamic Art and Architecture. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2002.