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     Volume 4 Issue 16 | October 8 , 2004 |

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'Designed by Giants and Finished by Jewelers': The Taj Mahal

Imagine the sight on a sun-scorched road leading to Agra. A ten mile long parade of elephants and bull-drawn carts stretching off into the rising heat on the horizon. Their load, the most magnificent marble imaginable. Their destination, a construction site on the banks of the glittering Jamuna river opposite the city's Red Fort. Imagine caravans and fleets of ships arriving from the far, far corners of the Mughal Empire. Their cargo, an A-Z of gem stones. Turquoise from Tibet, yellow amber from Burma, chrysolite from Egypt, lapis lazuli from Budakhshan, nephrite jade and crystal from Turkestan, quartz from the Himalayas and coral and pearl from the depths of the blue, blue Indian Ocean, to name but a few. Within 22 years the marble and precious stones would become what is now one of the wonders of the modern world: the Taj Mahal.

Although some scholars believe it was completed by the end of 1643 or early 1644, this year has been dubbed 'The Year of the Taj Mahal,' and sees the celebration of the 350th anniversary of its construction.

The plethora of tourists visiting the site primarily remark on one thing: it never looks the same. The wealth of shimmering gemstones and jewels adorning its exterior render it ever changing in colour as the sun draws across the sky and the moon rises. The gleaming marble takes on hues of pinks, yellows and blues.

But due to universal fear and anxiety caused by terrorist attacks and the global war on terror, problems in the Middle East and the increasing outbreaks of epidemics, people have become wary and afraid. Tourism has dwindled worldwide and countries relying on income created by the tourist dollar have, therefore, suffered.

Nonetheless, Indian Tourist Officials regard the anniversary of the Taj Mahal as a chance to lure back tourists and with hotel bookings already nearing 100 per cent, there are hopes that there will be a huge leap in the 3.2 lakh foreign tourists that came to Agra last year.

The next sixth months will see six 'mega-events' in the Uttar Pradesh area organised by the Tourism Department. Last Monday, clouds of heart-shaped balloons and white doves were released into a suitably serene, pale blue sky. The day climaxed with an evening concert at Agra Fort attended by 800 guests amongst whom were a number of Bollywood stars. Bright orange garlands of marigolds were handed out to tourists and two actors re-enacted the love that led to the construction of the Taj Mahal itself.

The reason for its construction, however, is a sad one. Shahjahan, son of Jahangir and 5th Mughal Emperor was deeply in love with his wife. He and Arjumand Banu, a beautiful Persian Princess met at the tender age of 15 and married after five years. The princess, later known as Mumtaz Mahal, died 19 years later after giving birth to their 14th child. On her death bed she is reputed to have asked for four things of her devoted husband: that he build her a tomb; that he visit this on the anniversary of her death, that he remarry; and that he be kind to their children. He honoured just two of her requests.

Construction of the Taj Mahal began in the same year as the death of the princess. Although there remains, even today, a certain lack of clarity concerning exactly who designed and built the tomb, it is commonly believed that the main artist was Isa, also known as Ismail Khan, 'the builder of domes,' from Shiraz in Iran. As if in testimony to the power of Shahjahan and his empire, and mirroring the international make up of the palace, other artisans included the sculptor Chiranjilal from Delhi, Geronimo Veroneo from Italy, the French silversmith, Austin de Bordeaux and two further Khans, Qazim the gold worker from Turkey and Amanat the calligrapher also from Shiraz.

It is commonly believed that the amalgamation of Muslim and Hindu architectural styles in the mausoleum was intended to represent the Muslim idea of paradise. Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that Shahjahan consulted, or at least was aware of, an Islamic academic treatise which visually anticipated the day of judgement. There are marked similarities between the Taj Mahal and its gardens and the treatise that imply that Shahjahan was attempting a replica of heaven on earth.

In addition to the named architects who designed the building, some 20,000 Hindu artisans were also employed, which would account for the numerous examples of Hindu iconography. Indeed it has led some scholars to question the true origin of the Taj Mahal. However, at the time, there was a stong integration between the Muslim and Hindu cultures and the iconography of both religions was often shared. It is also said that Shahjahan inherited his love for the aesthetic from his uncle who frequently blended the two styles in his own building projects.

But Shahjahan was not as tolerant of Hindus as his uncle. Not only did he raise land taxes on them to pay for the Taj Mahal, but it is said that he had the fingers or hands of the artisans amputated for fear that they might endeavour to replicate the splendour of the monument elsewhere. This would have been scandalous for the tomb was to remain, and does, unique in its glittering magnificence.

Shahjahan was an immensely wealthy and powerful (aren't all emperors!) ruler. He had quashed rebellions and uprisings throughout his corner of the Indian sub-continent and further expanded the Mughal Empire. But he was also a fantastically vainglorious man. His self appointed titles included the divine, 'Lord of the Age,' 'Shadow of God,' and 'August representative of God on earth,' and modern researchers even believe that he viewed himself as a direct rival to God.

His military campaigns and exuberance extended to Delhi the new capital where he had had made, amongst other things, the renowned Peacock Throne at an estimated expense of over five million dollars (US) by today's standards. However, Shahjahan's penchant for all things glittery quite literally broke the bank and the hardships he imposed on Hindus made him increasingly unpopular. It is believed that he was also about to embark on another costly building project; a counterpart to the creamy white monument of his adored Mumtaz--a black Mahal. Eventually it was one of his sons, Aurangzeb, who, assuring his succession as the 6th Shah by killing off his brothers, deposed Shahjahan, incarcerating him at Agra Fort and thereby putting a stop to his excesses.

Legend has it that he was only able to view his creation through a mirror on the wall. However, it is more likely that he lived in relative comfort inside the fort with all his new wives and concubines and, in fact, would have been able to see the Taj easily, albeit from a distance of 2 km. Shahjahan died at the grand old age of 74, having overdosed on a particularly potent aphrodisiac--sources are still unsure what--and he was laid to rest inside the Taj next to his beloved.

Over the years the mausoleum has become irreparably harmed by increasing pollution levels and general wear and tear. The marble is becoming stained and losing its lustre and in 1996 it was damaged when a concert was held there. The Indian Supreme Court has also put a stop to the mausoleum remaining open at night because it would require floodlighting which would further tarnish the marble.

The irony is that the Taj Mahal has come to be not only a unifying symbol of Islam and Hinduism but also an emblem of India. Its gleaming whiteness adorns the covers of coffee table books and guidebooks alike and around the world 'Taj Mahal' has become synonymous with all things Indian be it curry houses and naan bread or silk and saffron. In fact, its very existence may have crippled the Indian, or Mughal, economy short-term but it has done more for the tourist infrastructure in India of the last 40 years or so than Aurangzeb would have dared imagine. Here's to another 350 years.

Lally Snow

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