Taj Mahal

by Martin Noval

The beauty and perfection of the Taj Mahal, like that of the Great Pyramid at Giza, the only other monument with which it can be compared, has become a cliché—until you confront it head on, that is. A monument to a mortal wife and eternal love, the Taj defies the laws of physics, for it is at one and the same time an enormous and massive marble monument, yet as light and insubstantial as a dream. Floating above its reflecting pool, it is a shimmering image of purity and radiant beauty.

Seeing it for the first time, framed by the enormous gateway that is the entrance to the spacious garden in which the Taj reposes (and which would be a world-class monument in its own right if not for the superlative presence to which it leads), it appears truly ethereal, weightless, unattached to earth and almost diminutive, until you spot the figures on the monument’s parapet and realize that those specks really are people and that if they appear so small then the Taj must be enormous, and it is. You realize just what a weighty, massive pile of marble this is, and you are viscerally struck by that tension between lightness and weight, insubstantiality and massiveness, the perfection of a miniature and the awesomeness of enormity.

The Taj’s symmetry is unrivaled. It is identical from every side. Even the buildings in the garden mirror one another.

With the Taj Mahal it is not only the big picture that is stunning. There is beauty and perfection in every detail too, from the low reliefs of foliage, in which every marble leaf seems ready to shimmer with the slightest breeze, to the semi-precious stone inlay where flower blossoms are composed of 64 pieces of carnelian in shades just right to produce an effect of dappled sunlight. But whatever the stone—turquoise, coral, tiger-eye, lapis lazuli, malachite—all the inlay work is miraculously precise, as if the marble itself were colored that way. The overall effect is unbelievably naturalistic. Yet all the colors of the Taj and of the structures in the complex are due to inlay: not a drop of paint was used anywhere.

From one perspective the Taj is a tomb for Shah Jahan’s beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died in a battlefield camp at the age of 39 while bearing her fourteenth child, and so the entire complex is a representation of paradise and is modeled on the Koranic description of heaven, which is a garden divided into four parts by water courses; the Taj’s dome symbolizes the vault of the sky. The entire complex is an iteration of Paradise. But on another interpretation, the structure is the throne of God and the dome his crown. Here, God sits in judgment of men’s fate for all eternity, which is similar to the Emperor’s sitting in judgment of men’s temporal destiny. The monument can then be seen as an expression of Shah Jahan’s inflated vanity, daring to compare himself to God.  

The entire complex took 20 years to build and employed a work force of 20,000.

Copyright © Martin Noval 2012