Taj Mahal

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ebba koch
EBBA KOCH

THE TAJ MAHAL: ARCHITECTURE, SYMBOLISM, AND URBAN SIGNIFICANCE

Much has been written on the Taj Mahal, but little has been said about its architecture. There has been only one interpretation of the symbolism of the mausoleum,1 and the urban situation of the monument in the city of Agra has been almost entirely neglected. In brief form, this essay presents the main results of a recently completed monograph in which I address these issues.2 The Taj Mahal is the Mughals’ great contribution to world architecture, and, as the contemporary sources reveal, it was conceived as such from the very beginning (fig. 1). In the words of Shah Jahan’s early historian Muhammad Amin Qazwini, writing in the 1630s: And a dome of high foundation and a building of great magnificence was founded—a similar and equal to it the eye of the Age has not seen under these nine vaults of the enamel-blue sky, and of anything resembling it the ear of Time has not heard in any of the past ages…it will be the masterpiece of the days to come, and that which adds to the astonishment of humanity at large.3

Not only was the monument to be a magnificent burial place for Mumtaz Mahal, Shah Jahan’s beloved wife (d. 1631), but also—and this is explicitly pointed out by the emperor’s main historian {Abd al-Hamid Lahawri—it was to testify to the power and glory of Shah Jahan (r. 1628–58) and Mughal rule: They laid the plan for a magnificent building and a dome of high foundation which for its loftiness will until the Day of Resurrection remain a memorial to the sky-reaching ambition of His Majesty, the Sahib Qiran-Thani (Second Lord of the Auspicious Conjunction of the Planets Jupiter and Venus), and its strength will represent the firmness of the intentions of its builder.4

In other words, the Taj Mahal was built with posterity in mind, and we the viewers are part of its concept. I came to study the Taj Mahal in the context of a survey of the palaces and gardens of Shah Jahan that I have been conducting since 1976 as part of a larger survey of Mughal architecture. With the assistance of

Dr. Yunus Jaffery from Dr. Zakir Hussain College in Delhi,5 I have established from the Persian sources a corpus of thirty-five Shahjahani palaces (sing. dawlatkh¸na) and garden residences (sing. b¸gh), of which twenty-four proved upon field investigation to exist in varying sizes and states of preservation. In the whole of Islamic architecture, this is the largest extant body of palaces built by a single patron. Entirely new measured drawings of seventeen palaces were prepared by the Indian architect Richard A. Barraud, who drew them on the basis of measurements he and I made during extensive fieldwork,6 which I undertook because many of these complexes are hardly or not at all recorded. Altogether, Mughal architecture, like the Islamic architecture of India in general, is not well documented. The art historian cannot rely on measured drawings to the same extent possible for the better-documented areas of Islamic architecture or for Western historical architecture in general. The pioneering surveys of the Archaeological Survey of India from the end of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries included several Mughal sites, but only a few—such as the monographs of Edmund W. Smith on Fatehpur Sikri and on Akbar’s Tomb at Sikandra—were published.7 More often than not, when one wants to have an exact plan of a building one has to go and measure it. On the other hand, while establishing this basic documentation, the art historian is confronted by all the questions the discipline has developed in the span of its existence, during which the approach has moved from formal assessment and analysis towards contextual studies. I began my survey of the palaces at Agra and, during the 1980s, spent months in the Red Fort, measuring and photographing its buildings. From here the Taj Mahal was always before my eyes at a distance across the river...
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