Questions on Taj Mahal In continuation of Taj Mahal article from stephen-knapp.com
The Question of the Taj Mahal
By P. S. Bhat and A. L. Athawale
(from the Itihas Patrika, Vol. 5, pp 98-111, 1985, Our source http://www.stephen-knapp.com )
This paper deals with the Taj Mahal, the magnificent marble
edifice on the banks of the river Jamuna, in the
southern part of
The basis of these claims has been
questioned by Shri P. N. Oak in his book "The Taj Mahal is a
The controversy assumes importance as it questions some of the basic premises of mediaeval Indian archeology. This paper attempts to place in perspective some of the pertinent questions that arise on the subject.
Mumtaz died in 1631 AD, at Barhanpur
where she was buried and a mausoleum was erected. Six months later her body was
The main supporting pieces of the above thesis are cited from the following documents, which will be discussed in detail in the course of this paper.
i) The Badshahnama1, an important court journal of Shah Jahan, written by Mulla Abdul Hamid Lahori.
ii) The firmans (court orders) of Shah Jahan to Raja Jai Singh of Jaipur2, pertaining to the acquisition of marble from the Makrana quarries in Rajasthan.
iii) Travelogue of Peter Mundy3,
an employee of the East India Company, who visited
iiii) Travelogue of J. B. Tavernier4,
a French merchant who visited
The Taj Mahal is a seven storeyed edifice
with its plinth at the level of the riverbed. The courtyard in front of the
building corresponds to the third storey of the edifice. The entire skeleton of
the edifice is made of red stone, the top four floors being plastered with
marble. It measures a height of 243 ½ ft (whereas the Qutb
The central edifice is flanked with two identical red-stone buildings--the one on the western side is a mosque and the other a community hall--each having three domes. Facing the main building at the other end of the courtyard is the Main Gateway, which is a four-storeyed edifice covering a floor area of 140 ft x 110 ft. Midway between the Gateway and the marble edifice, there are two identical double-storeyed buildings, placed on either side of the courtyard known as the "Nagar Khanas" (Drum Houses). The courtyard covers a net area of 1460 ft x 100 ft.
Outside the Main Gateway is the Great courtyard, which covers an additional area of 430 ft x 1000 ft, having rows of redstone constructions, at present used as shops. Thus, the Taj Complex covers a net area of 1890 ft x 1000 ft, which is roughly equal to half the area of the Red Fort of Agra. The whole complex is perfectly symmetrical about the North-South axis, the two halves forming mirror images of each other to minutest details.
It must have been a challenging project both architecturally and financially, so much so that it made both Shah Jahan and his wife immortal. But it is surprising that in none of the hitherto known court papers of Shah Jahan--there are several of them--there is any record of the date of its commencement or of its completion, or the total period of its construction or the details of expenditure. (There is a brief remark in the Badshahnama that the expenditure incurred upon the building was Rs. 40 lakhs. And the present estimate of 20,000 workers and 22 years are based upon the writings of Tavernier, which shall be examined later.) Besides, several details of traditional Hindu symbolism can be located at various places in the Taj Complex. Therefore, it is a pertinent question whether Shah Jahan himself built the edifice, or he converted an existing building into a mausoleum.
2. Court Papers
(On) "Friday--15th Jamadi-ul Awwal, the sacred dead
body of the traveller to the
The site covered with magnificent lush garden, to the south of that great city and amidst which (garden) the building known as the palace of Raja Mansingh, at present owned by Raja Jaisingh (Pesh az ein Manzil-e Rajan Mansingh bood Wadaree Waqt ba Raja Jaisingh), grandson (of Mansingh) was selected for the burial of the queen whose abode is in heaven.
"Although Raja Jaisingh valued it greatly as his ancestral heritage and property, yet would have been agreeable to part with it gratis for the Emperor Shahjahan. (Still) out of sheer scrupulousness so essential in the matters of bereavement and religious sanctity, in exchange of that grand place, he was granted a piece of government land (Dar' awaz aan aali Manzil-e az khalisa-e sharifah badoo marahmat farmoodand) after the arrival of the dead body in that great city on 15th Jamadul Soniya.
"Next year that illustrious body of the heavenly queen was laid to rest. The officials of the capital, according to the royal orders of the day, under the sky-high lofty mausoleum hid the pious lady from the eyes of the world, and the edifice so majestic and with a dome, and so lofty in its stature, is a memorial to the courage of sky-dimensions of the king--and a strength so mighty in resolution so firm--the foundation was laid and geomatricians of farsight and architects of talent incurred an expenditure of Rs. 40 lakhs (chihal lakh roopiah) on this building."
Normally, the above quoted passages would
need no further commentary. It is explicitly stated that the "
What then is the basis of the claim that Shah Jahan built the edifice? In the last paragraph quoted above, there occurs a phrase, "...foundation was laid..." Some historians interpret it to mean that Shah Jahan laid the foundation of a new edifice--the Taj Mahal, and the support to this view is drawn from the Persian line quoted in the third paragraph dealing with the transaction. It is interpreted as a grand palace being granted to Raja Jai Singh in exchange of the land for building the mausoleum.
From the clear and explicit reference to Raja Man Singh's palace, and the absence of any details about the duration and efforts involved in building the gigantic edifice, the operative phrase, "foundation was laid" can also be viewed as a figurative reference to the initiation of alterations in the edifice. However, the controversy makes it necessary to examine the issue more carefully.
The confusion can be resolved only by examining all other evidences including the architecture of the edifice. The details of architecture--the bulbous dome and the minarets being Mogul characteristics, etc.--are examined in the second part of this paper; but it is relevant to examine one particular aspect of the architecture at this stage.
As mentioned earlier, the Taj Mahal is a multi-storeyed edifice with its plinth at the level of the riverbed. The entire skeleton of the edifice is of brick and red-stone, with the superstructure standing upon the red-stone terrace being plastered with marble. In Mogul tombs it is customary to have two graves: the real grave containing the dead body in the basement of the building, and a well decorated cenotaph meant for the public eye on the upper floor. In the Taj Mahal the real grave is on the third storey of the edifice and the decorated cenotaph is on the fourth.
The basement floor is now completely sealed; but the floor immediately below the real grave has long corridor running East-West on the northern part of the edifice, which can be entered at either end by means of staircases from the red-stone terrace. The corridor is 5'8" wide and about 322 ft long and opens into 22 rooms (between the corridor and the river side wall) of sizes ranging from 11 ft x 20 ft, to 22 ft x 20 ft. These rooms had windows opening to the riverside, but all of them are permanently sealed with brick and mortar from inside and with red-stone slabs having floral decorations from outside. On the other side of the corridor there are at least three entrances opening to the South, which are crudely sealed with brick and mortar. The staircases to the corridor from the floor above were detected in 1900 AD.
If the edifice was originally constructed for the purpose of a tomb, of what utility were these underground chambers conceived? And then why were they sealed subsequently? Or, was it that the edifice was originally constructed for an altogether different purpose?
Badshahnama (vol I, p.
384) records the date of Mumtaz's death at Barhanpur as the 17th Zi-it
Quada 1040 AH (20th June, 1631). The passages quoted above mentions the date of arrival of the
dead body at
That it was done certainly before the 25th
February, 1633 becomes obvious from the writings of Peter Mundy (see Section
5), who finally left
A completed mausoleum at Barhanpur indicates that the idea of a sepulcher in
How does it compare with the supposed period of construction of the Taj Mahal, 1631-53 AD? Is it plausible that beginning with the selection of the architects and building plan, the lower three floors of the edifice would be raised upon the riverbed within the span of a year?
Therefore, the translations quoted above regarding the acquisition of Raja Man Singh's palace seem to be the correct interpretation of the Badshahnama. However, there is another aspect of the question which needs to be examined. Could it be that the marble superstructure upon the red-stone terrace was erected by Shah Jahan himself?
"The dome of the holy tomb leaked in two places towards the north during the rainy season and so also the fair semi-domed arches, many of the galleries on the second storey, the four smaller domes, the four northern compartments and seven arched underground chambers which have developed cracks. During the rains last year the terrace over the main dome also leaked in two or three places. It has been repaired, but it remains to be seen during the ensuing rainy season how far the operations prove successful. The domes of the Mosque and the Jama'at Khana leaked during the rains...
"The master builders are of the opinion that if the roof of the second storey is reopened and dismantled and treated afresh with concrete, over which half a yard of mortar grout is laid the semi-domed arches, the galleries and the smaller domes will probably become watertight, but they are unable to suggest any measures of repairs to the main dome..."
The letter is eloquent enough. In 1652 AD, the dome of the holy tomb, the fair semi-domed arches, the four smaller domes and the domes of the Mosque and the Jama'at Khana all had developed serious defects. How does it compare with the supposed period of its construction 1631-53 AD?
And do the master builders of Shah Jahan who were "unable to suggest any measures of repairs to the main dome" appear to be the original architects of the edifice? Does it mean that the statement of Badshahnama, "Next year that illustrious body... was laid to rest... under the sky-high lofty mausoleum... with a dome" is literally true?
4. The Firmans
There are records of three firmans by Shah Jahan to Raja Jai
Singh of Jaipur pertaining to the acquisition of
marble2. These firmans are cited as a
conclusive proof of the claim that it was Shah Jahan
who built the Taj Mahal.
i) dated 9 Rajab, 1041 Hijra (Jan 21, 1632)
"As a great number of carts are
required for transportation of marble needed for constructing building (at the
capital), a firman was previously sent to you (to
procure them). It is again desired of you, that as many carts on hire be arranged as possible in the earliest time, as has already
been written to you, and be dispatched to Makrana for
expediting the transport of marble to the capital. Every assistance be given to Allahood who has been
deputed to arrange the transportation of marble to Akbarabad.
Account (of expenditure on carts) along with the previous account of amount
allocated for the purchase of marble be submitted (to
the mutsaddi in charge of payment).
ii) dated 4 Rabi-ul-Awwal, 1043 Al Hijra (Sept. 9, 1632)
has been deputed to Amber (Amer) to bring marble from
the new mines (of Makrana). It is commended that
carts on hire be arranged for transportation of marble and Mulkshah
be assisted to purchase as much marble as he may desire to have. The purchase
price of marble and cartage shall be paid by him from the treasury. Every other
assistance be given to him to procure and bring marble
and sculptors to the capital expeditiously."
iii) dated 7 Saffer, 1047 Al Hijra (June 21, 1637)
"We hear that your men detain the stone-cutters of the region at Amber and Rajnagar. This creates shortage of stone-cutters (miners) at Makrana and the work (of procuring marble) suffers. Hence it is desired of you that no stone-cutter be detained at Amber and Rajnagar and all of them who are available be sent to the mutsaddis of Makrana."
The firmans conclusively prove that Shah Jahan did acquire marble from the Makrana quarries. But does it also prove that he was the original builder of the Taj Mahal?
The marble walls of the cenotaph chamber, the border of the door arches and the top border of the entire edifice are replete with Koranic inscriptions which can be attributed only to Shah Jahan, even if he was not the builder of the edifice. It is said that fourteen chapters of Holy Koran are inscribed on the walls of the Taj Mahal. In addition, there is commendable amount of inlay-work and flower carving in the Taj Mahal. All these would require considerable amount of fresh marble.
The body of Mumtaz
5. Peter Mundy
He was an employee of the East India
Company, and visited
"Places of note (in and about
"The king is now building a sepulchre for his late deceased queen Taje Maholl... There is already about her tombe a rail of gold... the building is begun and goes on with excessive labor and cost, prosecuted with extraordinary diligence, gold and silver esteemed common metal and marble but ordinary stones..."
Mundy uses two phrases, "The king is now building a sepulchre..." and "The building is begun..." which can be understood as Shah Jahan was actually erecting an edifice.
But he also states that the Taj Mahal was already a centre of
tourist attraction (in 1632-33 AD) comparable with Akbar's
tomb and the fort. The cenotaph on the fourth storey was complete with a gold
railing around it, and the tourists were allowed to visit the grave. "The
building is begun", declares Peter Mundy, and the work in progress had
much to do with "gold and silver... and marble". Was it the erection
of the edifice or was it calligraphy and decorations?
6. J. B. Tavernier
Great importance is attached to
Tavernier's (a French merchant) records about the Taj
Mahal, as he was an impartial foreigner. His writings
form the most important basis of the claim that Shah Jahan
was the original builder of the Taj Mahal. He visited
"I witnessed the commencement and accomplishment of the great work on which they expended 22 years during which 20,000 men worked incessantly...
"It is said that the scaffolding alone cost more than the entire work, because, for want of wood, they had all to be made of brick as well as the support of the arches."
Tavernier made his first appearance in
The marble walls of the cenotaph chamber are full of Koranic inscriptions8, which ends with the name of the calligrapher and the dates "...written by the insignificant being Amanat Khan Shirazi in the year 1048 Hijri and the 12th year of His Majesty's reign." (i.e, 1639 AD)
That is, the calligraphical
work was complete at least a year before Tavernier first visited
He then makes the other important claim
that 20,000 men worked incessantly for 22 years to complete the building. This
statement seems to the be the basis of the claim that
the building was constructed between 1631-53 AD, though, obviously, it does not
tally with his claim about its commencement. Nor does the supposed date of
completion (1653 AD) tally with Tavernier's claim of seeing it completed. It is
true that he visited
If the above amount is assumed to have been spent purely upon the labour charges to the exclusion of material costs, then the average salary of a worker comes out to be three-quarters of a rupee per month. Obviously, the lowest paid worker would be getting only a small fraction of this amount. Compare it with Tavernier's own account (Book I, p. 46) of contemporary labour charges "...you pay each attendant for everything only 4 rupees a month, but up to 5 rupees when the journey is long."
Surprisingly, he then goes on to quote a rumour, that the brick scaffolding alone had cost more than the entire work! Is this claim reliable? Can the cost of brick scaffolding be more than that of the marble edifice? If at all it is true, then the "entire work" can only mean the alterations in the building and not the erection of it.
That is, the claims of Tavernier
regarding the commencement of the edifice, the duration of the work and the labour involved are unreliable; but the rumour
he quoted appears to be closer to truth.
7. Other Records
(i) Havell9 quotes a Persian manuscript having the name of several chief craftsmen working in the Taj Mahal as drawing monthly salaries ranging from Rs. 200/- to Rs. 1000/-. The name of the chief calligrapher (Amanat Khan Shirazi) listed in the manuscript is also inscribed inside the cenotaph chamber (Section 6). And, therefore, the manuscript seems to be authentic (Table 1).
It lists the names of a chief architect (Ustad Isa), a dome expert (Ismail Khan Rumi), two pinnacle experts, four calligraphers, four inlay workers, five flower carvers, six master masons, etc. The net salary of 20 of these craftsmen exceeds Rs. one lakh per year. It further weakens the claim of Tavernier, since it reduces the average salary of the rest of 20,000 workers to less than half the amount calculated above.
It is also noteworthy that the chief architect (Ustad Isa), the chief mason (Muhammad Hanief) and the chief calligrapher (Amanat Khan Shirazi)--each was drawing the highest salary of Rs. 1000/- per month. If the chief architect were the one who conceived and designed the Taj Mahal, it is unlikely that he would be treated at par with the chief mason and the calligrapher. Note also the fact that among the names listed, the architect and the dome expert are vastly outnumbered by the masons, calligraphers, flower-carvers and inlay workers.
(ii) Fray Sebastion
Manrique10, a Portugese traveller who also visited
"On this building as well as other works, 1000 men were usually engaged as overseers, officials and workmen; of these many were occupied in laying out ingenious gardens, others planting shady groves and ornamental avenues; while the rest were making roads and those receptacles for the crystal water, without which their labour could not be carried out.
"The architect of these works was a
Venetian, by the name Geronimo Veroneo, who had come
to this part in a Portugese ship and died in the city
Manrique quotes a prevalent story about the architect Veroneo (who died before the arrival of Manrique) and the expenditure of Rs. 3 crores. But this seems to be a boneless legend, since it is enormously at variance with the Persian manuscript (which records the name of Ustad Isa as the chief architect) and the official account of expenditure (Rs. 40 lakhs) as recorded in the Badshahnama.
But Manrique seems to be an eye-witness for the work inside the Taj Complex, since he is very specific about the nature of the work in the gardens. He does not say anything about the work upon the edifice, which also tallies well with the inscription inside the cenotaph chamber that the calligraphical work was complete by 1639 AD.
He mentions the number of workers to be
around 1,000. This is significantly different from the claim of Tavernier; but
it tallies well with the expenditure upon the building, as stated in the Badshahnama. If it is assumed that a thousand workers
worked in the Taj Complex for a decade since 1632 AD,
making allowance for the salaries of the chief craftsmen mentioned in the
Persian manuscript, the average salary of the rest of 1000 workers comes out to
be Rs. 25/- per month. Compared with the contemporary
labour charges, this claim appears to be more
reasonable than that of Tavernier. (The actual number of workers would
certainly be fluctuating and their average number over the decade could be
substantially lower than what Manrique had seen in
TABLE - 1
Taj Mahal - Details of Monthly Salaries
Persian Manuscript placed in the National Library, Calcutta, as quoted by E. B.
Havell, pp. 31-33)
8. Age of the Taj
Modern techniques of archaeometry
are used to determine the approximate age of historical buildings with
reasonable accuracy. Marvin Mills11 of New York reports about the
Carbon-14 dating of the Taj Mahal:
"Another item of evidence concerning the alleged date of the Taj is adduced from a radiocarbon date from a piece of wood
from a door on the north facade of the
That is, it can be said with 67% certainty that the particular door was made during the period 1270-1448 AD. However, the radio-carbon dating of a single door is not a conclusive evidence about the age of the building for two reasons; the sample itself might be contaminated. And that there is a possibility of the door being a subsequent replacement of the original one in the ancient edifice. Therefore, to arrive at a conclusion, more such samples need to be examined.
To sum up: The statement of Badshahnama about the acquisition of Raja Man Singh's palace for the burial of the queen is clear and explicit. The numerous underground chambers and Aurangzeb's exhaustive list of defects in all the three major buildings, including all the five domes of the marble edifice give the distinct impression that the edifice was already ancient and was built for an altogether different purpose. The statement of Peter Mundy that the cenotaph (which is on the fourth storey of the edifice) was complete with costly decorations in 1632-33 AD, and that the Taj Mahal was already a centre of tourist attraction, only support the above claim. The radio carbon test result, though not conclusive about the date, makes the above conclusion more emphatic.
The work upon the building might have started in 1632 AD and must have lasted as the inscription inside the cenotaph chamber indicates--for nearly a decade. The records of Tavernier regarding the date of commencement, total duration of work and labour involved are not reliable.
The firmans, if viewed in isolation, can mean that Shah Jahan was actually erecting the marble superstructure. But in the light of other evidences, the acquisition of marble could only be for the purpose of alterations in the edifice. The Persian manuscript listing the names of several craftsmen and their salaries, and the rumour quoted by Tavernier, further support this thesis.
It may be relevant to discuss another
pertinent point at this stage. Usually the court historians do not spare an
opportunity to indulge in needless hyperboles to enhance the glory of their
paymasters. But in the 1600 pages of Badshahnama,
only two pages deal with the burial of Mumtaz and
only one paragraph can be construed as dealing with the construction of the Taj Mahal. If Shah Jahan were to undertake so challenging a project like the Taj Mahal, does it not merit
greater attention in the Badshahnama than the single
paragraph quoted above? And that the date of Mumtaz's
burial more than a casual reference?
The discussion upon the historical evidences raises many pertinent questions regarding the architecture of the building. Does the edifice look like a palace or like a Mogul tomb? Is not the dome--the bulbous dome--a characteristic of Mogul architecture? Do the minarets and the single pointed arch not have religious significance in Islamic architecture? The discussion upon the Taj Mahal cannot be complete unless one finds satisfactory answers to the above questions.
Many historians (Havell, Batley, Kenoyer, Hunter, etc.), from time to time, have pointed out that the architecture of the Taj Mahal is not in the traditions of Saracenic style but resembles that of a Hindu temple. But this view has largely gone unnoticed primarily because it runs against the grain of some of the accepted premises of Indo-Saracenic architecture.
The single pointed door arch had great
religious significance in Saracenic architecture as
it represents the one and the only God of Islam. Such arches are commonly seen
in the Islamic architecture of
It is also generally believed that the
bulbous dome seen in the Taj Mahal,
These premises were originally propounded
by the well-known British historian James Fergusson12 who conducted
the pioneer work in the field of Indian archaeology for nearly five decades
from around 1835 AD. His assumptions--widely accepted today--preclude the
question of the Taj Mahal
being a Hindu construction. However, the historical evidences discussed so far,
call for a thorough examination of the architecture of the edifice,
notwithstanding the assumptions.
9. The Arch And
It is not necessary here to go into the
debate whether the single pointed arch (and the arcuate
style of constructing it) was exclusively of Saracenic
origin. Even if it were so, it was well assimilated into the Hindu architecture
by the middle of the 14th century. In the latter half of the 14th
century the rulers of Vijayanagara (1346-1563 AD) in
However, the assumption that the bulbous
dome originated in Samarkhand requires a closer
examination. The initiation and development of medieval architecture of Samarkhand is attributed to Timurlung
(1394-1404 AD), the 6th generation predecessor of Emperor Babur. He invaded
It is important to note that the
approximate period of construction of the Taj Mahal is around 1359 AD, whereas Timurlung
There are several important points which need to be considered in favour of the above conjecture:
(i) Similar buildings of the same period: There are several (more than a hundred) Jaina temples in the sacred mounts of Sonagarh (Bundelkhand) and Muktagiri (Berar) which contain the bulbous domes as well as the single pointed arches. Fergusson (p.62) attributes these temples to the 16th and 17th centuries, but it is important to note his uncertainty about their true antiquity: "So far as can be made out most of these temples date from 16th and 17th centuries, though a few of them may be older. Their original foundation may be earlier, but of that we know nothing, no one having yet enlightened us on the subject, nor explained how and when this hill became a sacred mount.
In fact, Fergusson here uses his own assumption (about the origin of the bulbous dome) as the touchstone to determine the period of the superstructure though he could not reconcile their foundations to the same period.
(ii) The Lotus Canopy: various kinds of
domes were used in the ancient temples of
It is noteworthy that the lotus is a sacred flower of the Hindus associated with their gods and goddesses, whereas it does not seem to have any special significance in Islamic culture, and the Saracenic architecture of Samarkhan, Persia, Bagdad and Egypt do not contain the lotus canopy over the dome. Even the Humayun's tomb, widely believed to be the prototype of the Taj, does not contain the lotus canopy.
In this regard, it is necessary to
clarify another point. There are many Hindu religious symbols seen in the Taj Mahal, which are often
attributed to the religious tolerance of Shah Jahan,
under whom the Hindu craftsmen enjoyed considerable freedom. But the Persian
manuscript (Section 7) lists the names of Ustad Isa and Ismail Khan Rumi as the chief architect and the dome expert
respectively. There is some ambiguity about the nativity of Ustad
Isa (as to whether he was a citizen of
(Incidently, what was this dome expert doing in the Taj Mahal? He was drawing a stately salary of Rs. 500/- per month, and if Aurangzeb's letter (Section 3) is to be believed, he did not even carry out the badly needed repairs to any of the five domes of the marble edifice!)
(iii) Arrangement of Domes: In architecture, even minor details normally embody certain meaning, and it would be more so in the case of gigantic domes which form the most important aspect of such buildings. Do the arrangements of numerous domes in the Taj Complex have any special significance?
A well-known authority on Indian architecture E. B. Havell (pp.22-23) points out: "... the arrangement of the roofing of the mausoleum itself consists of five domes... this structural arrangement is not Saracenic, but essentially Hindu. It is known in Hindu architecture as the pancharatna, the shrine of the five jewels, or the five-headed lingam of Siva... A typical example of it is found in one of the small shrines of Chandi Sewa at Prambanam in Java, which has an arrangement of domes strikingly similar to that of the Taj." (According to Sir Stanford Raffles, the Chandi Sewa temple was completed in 1098 AD.)
In front of the marble edifice, at the other end of the courtyard is the main Gateway which contains 22 mini-domes arranged on top of two parallel walls--one facing the Taj Mahal and the other facing the outer southern gate. (According to the legend, it represents the 22 years it took to build the Taj Mahal. The legend has its origin in the records of Tavernier, which is already examined in an earlier section, and is found baseless.)
It is noteworthy that the two rows of mini-domes are separated by more than 100 ft. (The floor area of the main Gateway is 140 ft x 110 ft.) And that the number derives its significance from the Ekadasa Rudra (Eleven forms of Siva?).
The central edifice is flanked with two
identical buildings, each having three huge domes. Could it be that they derive
their significance from the Trinity of the Hindus? There seems to be no special
significance attached to the number of domes in Saracenic
(iv) The Direction of the Mosque: Normally
mosques are built facing the Holy Mecca, the direction in which the faithful is
commanded to turn while he prays. But the mosque inside the Taj
Complex is facing the cardinal West instead of the
Therefore, the fact that the Taj Mahal contains the bulbous
dome, in itself is not sufficient to attribute its authorship to Shah Jahan. On the other hand, the fact that the domes having
lotus canopy needed repairs in 1662 AD, the arrangement of the dome in the
marble edifice, the main gateway and the adjacent buildings and also the
direction of the mosque give rise to speculation that the bulbous dome was part
of temple architecture. The temples of Muktagiri
and Sonagarh further substantiates this
conjecture, indicating the possibility of the bulbous dome existing in
10 The Minarets
In the mediaeval architecture of
However, the style and the purpose of the
minarets of the Taj Mahal
appear to be quite different from those of the Saracenic
(i) The marble edifice, which is a mausoleum, has four minarets at its corners, whereas the adjacent mosque for which a minaret would have been of functional utility does not have any.
(ii) In pure Saracenic architecture, the minaret normally rises from the shoulder of the edifice to well-above the dome. In the case of the Taj Mahal, they stand separated from the edifice and are shorter than the domes.
Therefore, the purpose of the minarets is not functional but decorative, and the inspiration behind them is not Saracenic.
In fact, the "era of minarets"
seems to have begun with Shah Jahan himself. Among
the buildings of his predecessors, only one--the southern gateway to Sikandara (Akbar's tomb) in
Therefore, it is reasonable to speculate
that the minarets of the Taj Mahal
were not inspired by the Saracenic architecture; but
on the other hand, it is from the Taj Mahal that the subsequent Mogul architecture adopted the
concept of decorative minarets.
11. Hindu Symbolism
In addition to the lotus canopy over the dome, there are many other symbolic and sculptural details in the Taj Mahal which are quite appropriate in a Siva temple.14 Some of them are quoted below:
above the entrance: In the southern entrance to the outer precincts of the Taj Complex (i.e., the Taj Gunj gate facing the main gateway), above the door arch,
there is a small arched recess. It is customary in Hindu Forts (for example,
the Nagardhan Fort,
(ii) The Rajput Welcome Signs: The walls of the main gateway and the "kitchen" in the great courtyard are marked with typical Rajput welcome signs, such as the "gulab-dani" (rose-water cans) and "ilaichi-dani" (cardamon pots). The Rajput palaces at Deeg (Bharatpur) and Jaipur also contain similar welcome signs.
(iii) Ganesa Torana: On the main gateway, the entire border at waist-height is decorated with what is called the "Ganesa Torana" (the elephant trunk and the crown can be clearly identified). It is noteworthy that animate decorations are taboo in Islam.
(iv) Other sculptural details: Upon the marble
walls of the central edifice, there are sculptural details of flowers in the
(v) The pinnacle: On top of the central dome of the Taj Mahal, there is a copper pinnacle which measures a height of 32' 5 ½". On the eastern red-stone courtyard, in front of the community hall, there is a figure of the pinnacle inlaid in black marble which measures a length of only 30' 6".
There is reason to believe that the copper pinnacle is not the original one. The Shahjahannama of Muhammad Salah Kumbo mentions that the pinnacle was pure gold15. But by 1873-74 it was already of copper and when it was taken down for regilding, the words "Joseph Taylor" were found engraved on the copper16. Captain Taylor was the British official who carried out the repairs to the Taj Mahal in 1810 AD. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that the original gold pinnacle was removed by either Joseph Taylor or his predecessors. The discrepancy between the lengths of the pinnacle and its figure in the courtyard supports this conclusion. However, because of the similarity between the copper pinnacle and its figure in the courtyard, it can be assumed that the original shape remains unaltered.
The end of the pinnacle branches into a trident, its central tongue extending farther than that of the other two. On closer observation, the central tongue appears to be in the shape of a "Kalasha" (water pot) topped with two bent mango leaves and a coconut. This is a sacred Hindu motif. Could it be that the trident pinnacle was symbolic of the deity Lord Shiva worshipped inside?
The symbols listed above are directly Hindu and some of them--the animate decorations such as the cobra twins and Ganesha--"torana" are toboo in Islam. It is likely that these details, not being very obvious, are only those that have survived the alterations in the building.
An alternate explanation attributes the
Hindu symbolism to the benevolent religious tolerance of Shah Jahan, under whom the Hindu craftsmen enjoyed complete
freedom to express their talent in their own traditional style. However, regarding
his religious tolerance, his own court journal Badshahnama
has an altogether different commentary to make: "It has been brought to
the notice of His Majesty that during the late region many idol temples had
begun, but remained unfinished at Benaras, the great
stronghold of infidelity. The infidels were now desirous of completing them.
His Majesty, the defender of the faith, gave orders that at Benaras
and throughout all his dominions at every place, all
temples should be cast down. It was now reported from the
12. General Layout And
(i) Numerous rooms in the edifice: It has been discussed in an earlier section that there are two floors below the real grave containing numerous rooms. Obviously, these rooms did not have any utility in a mausoleum, and their presence is not explicable unless it is accepted to be an ancient edifice built for an altogether different purpose. They do not appear to have been living rooms, but were they meant for storing provisions and other materials of a vast temple complex?
(ii) The Nagar Khanas: Midway between the main gateway and the marble edifice, on either side of the courtyard, there are two identical buildings known as the "Nagar-khanas" (Drum Houses).
Is it plausible that Shah Jahan, who was very "scrupulous...in the matters of bereavement and religious sanctity" (Section 2) built these drum houses? Music is taboo in Islam--there is a mosque nearby. And a mausoleum is certainly not a place for festivity!
On the other hand, drums are important accompaniments in the worship of Lord Shiva.
(iii) The Gow-Shala: within the precincts of the Taj Mahal, to the east of the Main Gateway, at the extreme end of the courtyard, there is a cow-shed known as the "Gow-Shala". What could have been the purpose of a cow-shed in a mausoleum? Or was it part of the temple complex?
It is possible that it was not part of the original plan--as it disturbs the symmetry of the complex--but because of its Sanskrit name, the "Gow-Shala" appears to have been introduced by the Hindu rulers, who were using the edifice as a palace or temple.
To Sum Up: The arrangement of the domes, the lotus canopy, the trident pinnacle, the numerous rooms in the building, the direction of the mosque and its triple domes, the "Gow-shala", the "Nagar-khanas," and the surviving Hindu symbolism indicate that it was originally built as a temple complex. The purpose of the minarets is not functional but decorative, and the inspiration behind them does not appear to be Saracenic. The graves and the Koranic inscriptions upon the marble wall, of course, should be attributed to Shah Jahan.
The whole argument about the Taj Mahal being a Mogul
construction hinges solely upon the assumption about the origin of the bulbous
dome, which certainly is debatable. Havell had
emphatically asserted (pp.1-38) that the prototype of bulbous dome existed in
the Buddhist stupa and the carvings of
The discussion on the historical evidence
indicates that the Taj Mahal
was already ancient at the time of Shah Jahan. And
the discussion upon the architecture leads to the conclusion that the general
layout of the Taj Complex resembles a Shiva temple.
The whole thesis of Shah Jahan himself building the
edifice rests upon the premise that the bulbous dome originated in Samarkhand and migrated to
The discussion cannot be complete unless we examine two other questions: What is the plausibility of Shah Jahan constructing the edifice, and how did the legend come to be?
There is universal agreement about the architectural splendour and grandeur of the Taj Mahal. It was conceived by an inspired mind which knew the meaning of beauty, and it signifies the culmination of a mature style in architecture. It is a testimony to the peace and prosperity of its period.
The Moguls were rich in wealth and taste and seem to have had the leisure to undertake a project of this kind. But what about its style? Does it appear to be in the tradition of the style developed and perfected by the successive rulers of Mogul dynasty? Listen to James Fergusson (pp. 307-308): "It would be difficult to point out in the whole history of architecture any change so sudden as that which took place between the style of Akbar and that of his grandson Shah Jahan--nor any contrast so great as that between the manly vigour and exuberant originality of the first, as compared with the extreme but almost effeminate elegance of the second. Certainly when the same people, following the same religion, built temples and palaces in the same locality, nothing of the sort ever occurred in any country whose history is known to us."
It should be remembered that Fergusson was the pioneer in the field of Indian archeaology and was the first--and considered the most authoritative--historian to propound that the bulbous dome originated in Samarkhand. But at the same time he found that the difference between the styles of Akbar and Shah Jahan so unique, that it was the only one of its kind in the human history. Having said this, he does not discuss the possibility of some of those buildings belonging to an altogether different era, but a few pages later (p. 316) makes a brief but startling remark about the Taj Mahal, "When used as a Baradhari, or pleasure palace, it must always have been the coolest and loveliest of garden retreats, and now that it is sacred to the dead it is the most graceful and the most impressive of the sepulchres of the world."
That is, the version of the Badshahnama as quoted at the beginning of this essay--that Shah Jahan had acquired a palace for the burial of his queen--was known to Fergusson during the middle of the 19th century. (The above statement occurs repeatedly in his books published in 1855, 1867 and 1876.) He also found its style too uniquely different to reconcile with that of Shah Jahan's immediate predecessors. And yet, the doyen of Indian archaeology glossed over the issue of its antiquity and attributed it to Shah Jahan! Why then did Fergusson not question the claim--if at all there was any single cogent claim at the time--and thereby perpetuate the legend of Shah Jahan himself building the Taj Mahal?
The legend had originated at the time of Shah Jahan himself--as both Tavernier and Manrique testify, though their versions do not match with each other--and drew powerful support from the writings of Fergusson save the above quoted sentence. The above sentence not only appears in all the three major publications of Fergusson (1867 and 1876), but also was quoted in the 9th edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875)--where it remained until the 11th edition in 1910--and also in "Murray's Handbook (for travellers) to India and Ceylon" (1891). In 1896, Syad Muhammad Latif19 wrote that the building "was originally a palace of Raja Man Singh but now it was the property of his grandson Raja Jai Singh. His Majesty gave the Raja a lofty edifice from the Khalsa estate in exchange of this building; and the spot was used for the mausoleum of the deceased empress."
Meanwhile the legend also grew, as can be made out from the numerous writings of the period though the details pertaining to the construction of the edifice, such as the identity of the architect, expenditure, duration of construction, etc., did not go beyond vague conjectures. In 1905, Moin-ud-din Ahmed20 quoted from Badshahnama (Vol. II, pp. 325-6) that the gold railing around the tomb "was made under the supervision of Bebadal Khan, Master of king's kitchen". But the identity of the architect of the edifice remained unsolved. The 22 basement rooms were detected in 1900 AD, and Moin-ud-din Ahmed discussed them in his book (pp. 35-36) and stated that, "The real object of building them remains a mystery."
In fact, by the turn of the century, the legend had grown so powerful that it made all the evidences to the contrary appear irrelevant. Even though the discovery of the sealed underground chambers was a powerful reason to re-examine the legend carefully, the 11th edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica (1910) chose to omit the above statement of Fergusson from its columns--apparently because of its incongruity with the powerful legend. It mentioned the name of Ustad Isa as the Chief architect. By 1913, E. B. Havell, while emphatically asserting that the architecture of the edifice is Hindu, and not Saracenic, does not at all discuss the possibility of Shah Jahan acquiring the edifice. By 1931, the letter of Aurangzeb discussing the serious defects in the Taj Mahal was published ("Marakka-i-Akbarabad" by Said Ahmed, 1931), which was translated by M. S. Vats of Archaeological Survey of India in 1945. But the legend survived the publication.
To revert back to Fergusson, why did he
not question the legend, though he had very good reason to do so? Obviously, he
was labouring under the burden of his own assumption
that the bulbous dome was a resultant contribution of Mogul invasion upon
"It is probable that very
considerable light will yet be throne upon the origin of the style which the
Moguls introduced into
Therefore, it can be said with certainty that the legend of Shah Jahan building the Taj Mahal rests purely upon the erroneous assumption about the origin of the bulbous dome. (In fairness, Shah Jahan himself never claimed that he built the Taj Mahal.) And that the architecture of the Taj Mahal, to put it in the words of Havell, "more Indian than St. Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Abbey are English."
What then is the true age of the Taj Mahal?
Though it was put to use as a palace, its
architecture is not that of a residential mansion, but of a temple. Obviously,
it was converted into a palace, and Raja Man Singh was not the one to effect
the conversion. It is not unreasonable to speculate that the edifice acquired
his name due to his pre-eminent position in the
However, if radio-carbon test result quoted above can be treated as a pointer, it raises certain important questions regarding Indian archaeology.
i) Was the bulbous dome an exclusive innovation of Indian architecture, and migrated to Samakhand through the architects taken captive by Timurlung?
ii) If the architecture style could
produce so fine a piece as the Taj Mahal in the 14th century, how long ago did the
style originate? Is it true, as Havell has asserted, that the bulbous dome had its origin in the
Buddhist stupas and the carvings of
Thus, the question of antiquity of the Taj Mahal has powerful bearing upon the study of Indian archaeology. It raises certain pertinent questions about the origin, development, influence and classification of one of the important streams of mediaeval architecture. And since an architectural style carries with it the stamp of the contemporary epoch, the above questions have bearing upon the study of Indian history as well. Therefore, it calls for a thorough re-examination of the Mogul architecture--particularly that of Shah Jahan, which Fergusson found it so difficult to reconcile with the style of that period.
(The authors (Stephen is the author not theindianwealth) wish to acknowledge their
debt to Shri V. S. Godbole
for his notes on the subject)
Abdul Hamid Lahori, "Badshahnama", Vol. 1, Royal Asiatic society,
3. Peter Mundy, "Travels in Asia and Europe", Vol. II, Edited by R. C. Temple, Hakluyt Society, 1907-36, pp. 208-213.
4. J. B.
Tavernier, "Travels in
5. P. N. Oak,
"The Taj Mahal is a
6. "Adaab-a-Alamgir", National Archives,
7. M. S. Vats,
"Repairs to the Taj Mahal",
An Archaeological Survey of
9. E. B. Havell, "Indian Architecture", S. Chand & Co.(Pvt) Ltd., 1913, pp. 1-38.
"Travels of Fray Sebastion Manrique",
Vol. II, Translated by St.
11. Marvin H Mills, "Archaeometry in the Service of Historical Analysis to Re-examine the Origin of Moslem Building", Itihas Patrika Vol. 4, No. 1, March 1984, pp. 12-13.
Fergusson, "History of Indian and Eastern Architecture", 2nd
Edition, Munshiram Manoharlal,
13. Elliot and Dowson, "History of
14. Satish Grover, "The Architecture of
15. Hemant Gokhale, "The Taj Mahal--A Tomb or Shiva temple?", Itihas Patrika, Vol. 2, No. 3, Sept. 1982, pp. 99-113.
Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of
17. Ram Nath, "The Immortal Taj",
18. Elliot and Dowson, "History of
19. Syad Mohammad Latif, "
20. Moin-ud-din-Ahmed, "History of the Taj", 1903, pp. 35-36, 46-47.
21. V. S. Godbole, "The Taj Mahal--Simple Analysis of Great Deception", Itihas Patrika, Vol 2, No. 1, March, 1982, pp. 16-32.
Articles Posted by Consultants or Readers