Agra and the Taj Mahal

History and growth

Red Fort, Agra

The ebb and flow of unfathomable beauty and deep loss have been constant companions to the Yamuna River in Agra.

Once fêted as the capital of the Mughal Empire, Agra is mentioned in the same breath as the Taj Mahal, described eloquently by the poet Tagore as "a tear drop on the cheek of time."

Founded in 1475 by Badal Singh on the banks of the Yamuna River, Uttar Pradesh, Agra was the capital of the Mughal Empire from 1526 to 1658 during its golden age. At the height of its powers the Mughal Empire ruled much of the South East Asian subcontinent.

Prior to being called Agra, it was known as Akbarabad and this continued throughout the reign of Akbar, Jehangir and Shah Jahan. Akbar made it a centre of art, culture and commerce and also commissioned the building of the Red Fort. Akbar's son, Jahangir, continued its development with the laying of gardens inside the fort. However, it was Shah Jahan who, with his keen interest in architecture, developed Agra's most famous building, the Taj Mahal.

Shah Jahan also moved the capital to Delhi during his reign, but his son moved it back to Akbarabad where he imprisoned his father in the Red Fort. Legend has it that Shah Jahan spent the remainder of his days gazing at the Taj Mahal. With the decline of the Mughal Empire, the city came under the influence of the Marathas and Jats, who renamed it Agra.

The Taj Mahal

Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal as a mausoleum in loving memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal. Construction of the Taj Mahal started in 1631 and took 22 years to complete. It was built entirely out of white marble, which was brought from all over India and south-east Asia.

In 1983 it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site[1]. The style of building brings together many of the formal themes of Islamic architecture. The classic architectural reference book, A History of Architecture, describes the hypnotic effect of the Taj Mahal:

"The Mausoleum of the Taj Mahal at Agra stands in a formally laid-out walled garden entered through a pavilion on the main axis. The tomb, raised on a terrace and first seen reflected in the central canal, is entirely sheathed in marble, but the mosque and counter-mosque on the transverse axis are built in red sandstone. The four minarets, set symmetrically about the tomb, are scaled down to heighten the effect of the dominant, slightly bulbous dome. The mosques, built only to balance the composition, are set sufficiently far away to do no more than frame the mausoleum. In essence, the whole riverside platform is a mosque courtyard with a tomb at its centre. The great entrance gate with its domed central chamber, set at the end of the long watercourse, would in any other setting be monumental in its own right."

 

"The interior of the building is dimly lit through pierced marble lattices and contains a virtuoso display of carved marble. Externally the building gains an ethereal quality from its marble facings, which respond with extraordinary subtlety to changing light and weather."[2]

As decorative motifs, these marble facings will at times appear to glow soft pink, or be shadowed in pearl gray, or soften to creamy yellow, or gleam bright white under the powerful Agra sun. They were designed to produce an assortment of responses in the viewer. According to the principles of Mughal architecture, light symbolizes the presence of Allah.[3]

Taj Mahal, Agra

 The exterior decorations of the Taj Mahal are arguably the finest examples in Mughal architecture. The calligraphy found on the Taj Mahal are of the florid thuluth script.
Throughout the building passages from the Qur'an are used as decorative elements. These passages refer to themes of judgement and include Surah 91 - The Sun; Surah 112 - The Purity of Faith; Surah 89 - Daybreak; Surah 93 - Morning Light; Surah 95 - The Fig; Surah 94 - The Solace; Surah 36 - Ya Sin; Surah 81 - The Folding Up; Surah 82 - The Cleaving Asunder; Surah 84 - The Rending Asunder; Surah 98 - The Evidence; Surah 67 - Dominion; Surah 48 - Victory; Surah 77 - Those Sent Forth; and Surah 39 - The Crowds.
The calligraphy on the entry to the Taj Mahal gate reads "O Soul, thou art at rest. Return to the Lord at peace with Him, and He at peace with you."[5]

Commenting on these verses the art historian Milo Beach says, "The Koranic inscriptions around the archways and the gateways of the Taj are stone inlayed into stone. Simply as an artistic device it's breathtaking, because it has all the naturalness of a pen stroke, but it was designed by a calligrapher and then, essentially, copied in stone.

"Calligraphy was an enormously important art form, because the calligrapher was writing the word of God, the holy word itself. So he was considered to be a direct conduit for the revelation of divinity on earth and was given an enormous amount of importance. In the hierarchy of the arts, calligraphy would have been considered the most important of all."[6]

 

[1] UNESCO
[2] B. Fletcher A History of Architecture. Boston: Butterworths, 1987
[3] How Stuff Works
[4] Ibid.
[5] E. Koch The Complete Taj Mahal: And the Riverfront Gardens of Agra. London: Thames & Hudson, 2006
[6] Quoted on PBS Treasures of the World

 

Picture 1: Agra Fort. by Shami Chatterjee, Flickr

Picture 2: Agra, Taj Mahal, by micbaun, Flickr

Picture 3: Agra Fort, Abbey Road, by H4NUM4N, Flickr

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Introduction: 

The history of one of the most prominent pieces of Islamic architecture in the world