Described by Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore as “a teardrop on the face of eternity”, the Taj Mahal is undoubtedly the zenith of Mughal architecture. Volumes have been written on its perfection, and its image adorns countless glossy brochures and guidebooks; nonetheless, the reality never fails to overwhelm all who see it, and few words can do it justice.
The magic of the monument is strangely undiminished by the crowds of tourists who visit, as small and insignificant as ants in the face of the immense mausoleum. That said, the Taj is at its most alluring in the relative quiet of early morning, shrouded in mist and bathed with a soft red glow. As its vast marble surfaces fall into shadow or reflect the sun, its colour changes from soft grey and yellow to pearly cream and dazzling white. This play of light is an important decorative device, symbolically implying the presence of Allah, who is never represented in physical form. To really appreciate it fully however, you’d have to stick around from dawn until dusk.
Overlooking an increasingly polluted tract of the Yamuna River, the Taj Mahal stands at the northern end of a vast walled garden. Though its layout follows a distinctly Islamic theme, representing Paradise, it is above all a monument to romantic love. Shah Jahan built the Taj to enshrine the body of his favourite wife, Arjumand Bann Begum, better known by her official palace title, Mumtaz Mahal (“Chosen One of the Palace”), who died shortly after giving birth to her fourteenth child in 1631 – the number of children she bore the emperor is itself a tribute to her hold on him, given the number of other wives and concubines that the emperor would have been able to call on. The emperor was devastated by her death, and set out to create an unsurpassed monument to her memory – its name, “Taj Mahal”, is simply a shortened, informal version of Mumtaz Mahal’s palace title. Construction by a workforce of some twenty thousand men from all over Asia commenced in 1632 and took more than twenty years, not being completed until 1653. Marble was brought from Makrana, near Ajmer in Rajasthan, and semiprecious stones for decoration – onyx, amethyst, lapis lazuli, turquoise, jade, crystal, coral and mother-of-pearl – were carried to Agra from Persia, Russia, Afghanistan, Tibet, China and the Indian Ocean. Eventually, Shah Jahan’s pious and intolerant son Aurangzeb seized power, and the former emperor was interned in Agra Fort, where as legend would have it he lived out his final years gazing wistfully at the Taj Mahal. When he died in January 1666, his body was carried across the river to lie alongside his beloved wife in his peerless tomb.
The south, east and west entrances all lead into the Chowk-i-Jilo Khana forecourt. The main entrance into the complex, an arched gateway topped with delicate domes and adorned with Koranic verses and inlaid floral designs, stands at the northern edge of Chowk-i-Jilo Khana, directly aligned with the Taj, but shielding it from the view of those who wait outside.
Once through the gateway from the Chowk-i-Jilo Khana, you’ll see the Taj itself at the end of the huge charbagh (literally “four gardens”), a garden dissected into four quadrants by waterways (usually dry), evoking the Koranic description of Paradise, where rivers flow with water, milk, wine and honey. Introduced by Babur from Central Asia, charbaghs remained fashionable throughout the Mughal era. Unlike other Mughal mausoleums such as Akbar’s and Humayun’s, the Taj isn’t at the centre of the charbagh, but at the northern end, presumably to exploit its riverside setting.
At the far end of the charbagh, steps lead up to the high-square marble platform on which the mausoleum itself sits, each corner marked by a tall, tapering minaret. To the west of the tomb is a domed red-sandstone mosque and to the east a replica jawab, put there to complete the architectural symmetry of the complex – it cannot be used as a mosque as it faces away from Mecca.
The Taj is essentially square in shape, with pointed arches cut into its sides and topped with a huge central dome that rises for over 55m, its height accentuated by a crowning brass spire almost 17m high. On approach, the tomb looms ever larger and grander, but not until you are close do you appreciate both its sheer size and the extraordinarily fine detail of relief carving, highlighted by floral patterns of precious stones. Arabic verses praising the glory of Paradise fringe the archways, proportioned exactly so that each letter appears to be the same size when viewed from the ground. The south face of the tomb is the main entrance to the interior: a high octagonal chamber whose weirdly echoing interior is flushed with pale light. A marble screen, decorated with precious stones and cut so finely that it seems almost translucent, protects the cenotaph of Mumtaz Mahal in the centre, perfectly aligned with the doorway and the distant gateway into the Chowk-i-Jilo Khana, and that of Shah Jahan crammed in next to it – the only object which breaks the perfect symmetry of the entire complex. The inlay work on the marble tombs is the finest in Agra, and no pains were spared in perfecting it – some of the petals and leaves are made of up to sixty separate stone fragments. Ninety-nine names of Allah adorn the top of Mumtaz’s tomb, and set into Shah Jahan’s is a pen box, the hallmark of a male ruler. These cenotaphs, in accordance with Mughal tradition, are only representations of the real coffins, which lie in the same positions in a crypt below.
The Taj’s museum, in the enclosure’s western wall, features exquisite miniature paintings, two marble pillars believed to have come from the fort and portraits of Mughal rulers including Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, as well as architectural drawings of the Taj and examples of pietra dura stone inlay work.
Despite the seemingly impregnable sense of serenity and other-worldliness which clings to the Taj, in reality, India’s most famous building faces serious threats from traffic and industrial pollution, and from the millions of tourists who visit each year. Marble is all but impervious to the onslaught of wind and rain that erodes softer sandstone, but it has no natural defence against the sulphur dioxide that lingers in a dusty haze and shrouds the monument. Sometimes the smog is so dense that the tomb cannot be seen from the fort. Sulphur dioxide is only one part of the problem: mixing with atmospheric moisture, it settles as sulphuric acid on the surface of the tomb, making the smooth white marble yellow and flaky, and forming a subtle fungus that experts have named “marble cancer”. On top of that, increasing pollution levels in the Yamuna River are killing fish, and helping breed swarms of insects, whose droppings contribute to discolouring the Taj. The river's low level also threatens the Taj's wooden foundations, which need constant irrigation to avoid drying up and eventually collapsing.
The main sources of pollution are the continuous flow of vehicles along the national highways that skirt the city, and the seventeen hundred factories in and around Agra – chemical effluents belched out from their chimneys are well beyond recommended safety limits. Despite laws demanding the installation of pollution-control devices, the imposition of a ban on all petrol- and diesel-fuelled traffic within 500m of the Taj Mahal, and an exclusion zone banning new industrial plants from an area of 10,400 square kilometres around the complex, pollutants in the atmosphere have continued to rise.
Cleaning work on the Taj Mahal rectifies the problem to some extent, but the chemicals used will themselves eventually affect the marble – attendants already shine their torches on “repaired” sections of marble to demonstrate how they’ve lost their translucency. In November 2018, a BBC News feature reported that treating the Taj with a non-corrosive clay pack – something like a building-sized face-pack – to remove particle deposits from the marble makes the monument's surface rougher and more vulnerable to the dust storms that, thanks to climate change, sweep over Agra with an increasingly alarming frequency.
In a bid to save the Taj by reducing human impact, the Archaeology Survey of India introduced an additional ₹200 ticket cost on 10 December 2018. The extra cost applies to those accessing the main mausoleum; a three-hour limit to each entry was also set, along with a maximum quota of 4,000 tourists per day. Despite these efforts, the Taj's decade-long exposure to pollutants has yet to find a permanent solution.
Daily except Fri sunrise–sunset.
Entrance to the Taj Mahal costs ₹1300 (₹250 Indians – ₹50 without access to the main mausoleum – and ₹740 SAARC nationals); free for children below 15 years; ticket valid for one entrance and a maximum stay of three hours; also gives tax-free entry to other sites if used on the same day, giving ₹50 off the admission fee at Agra Fort, and ₹10 off at Sikandra, Itimad-ud-Daulah and Fatehpur Sikri. Ticket queues are longest at the west gate, shortest at the south gate; the east gate ticket office is 500m down the road, by the Shilpgram crafts village. You are not allowed to enter with food (and none is available inside), nor with a travel guidebook – these can be deposited at lockers near the entrances. Foreigners are given a free bottle of water and a pair of shoe covers on entry.
It’s possible to see the Taj by moonlight on the night of the full moon itself and on the two days before and after. Four hundred visitors are admitted per night (in batches of fifty between 8pm and midnight, but not on Fridays or during Ramadan). Tickets (₹750 [₹510]) have to be purchased a day in advance from the ASI office, 22 The Mall. If a viewing is cancelled, you get a refund.
You can see the Taj for free from a Taj Ganj hotel rooftop (many have restaurants with a Taj view), or by heading down the eastern side of the compound to a small Krishna temple by the river, where you can see the Taj, and also take a little boat ride (₹250–1000, depending on the size of your camera) to see it from the river. The view is breathtaking from Mehtab Bagh on the opposite bank of the river (daily sunrise–sunset; ₹300 [₹25]), especially at dawn. You cross the river on the road bridge north of Agra Fort, and turn right when you reach the far bank, following the metalled road until it enters the village of Katchpura and becomes a rough track that eventually emerges at a small dalit shrine on the riverside, directly opposite the Taj and next to the entrance of Mehtab Bagh. You can see the Taj from the garden’s floodlit walkways, and from outside the gardens on the riverbank, but unfortunately you cannot access the gardens by boat from across the river by the Taj itself.
Top image: Agra city, India with Taj Mahal in the background © pzAxe/Shutterstock