Material Marvels: the Taj Mahal

Materials World magazine
,
1 Sep 2018

A mausoleum and example of Indo-Islamic architecture, the Taj Mahal has become synonymous with India. However, it faces threats from pollution and tourism. Kathryn Allen takes a look at its history.

Attracting 7–8 million visitors a year, around one million of whom are from overseas, the Taj Mahal is one of India’s most iconic landmarks. Located in the Agra District, in the Uttar Pradesh state of northern India, the white marble mausoleum was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983. 

The Mughal mausoleum 

Built by Mughal Emperor Shan Jahan in 1631, it was a tribute to his wife Arjumand Banu Begum, also known as Mumtaz Mahal, who died in childbirth in 1621. According to art historian Giles Tillotson’s 2008 book titled Taj Mahal, the position of Mumtaz Mahal’s grave in the centre of the building, and Shan Jahan’s to the side of it, led to the belief that the tomb was built for her. While visitors can view the couple’s cenotaphs, their real tombs lie beneath the main chamber, out of sight. 

Rumour has it that Shan Jahan intended to build another mausoleum, this time made of black marble, on the other side of the Yamuna River for himself. Whether this is true or not, he was removed from power after falling ill and put under house arrest before he got the chance. 

Tillotson notes in Taj Mahal that the mausoleum is iconic as a symbol of India. Despite the Mughal emperors being Muslim, Tillotson claims, ‘The popular attitude towards [the Taj] is secular rather than sectarian: it is regarded as common heritage rather than the legacy of one religious group.’

While it is unorthodox, as ‘Islamic law prohibits grand sepulchral architecture’, according to Tillotson, historically Islamic rulers built tombs to commemorate themselves and their families. Tillotson acknowledges the claim that Mughal tombs dodge this prohibition by using open doorways and being more like canopies than buildings, but says the idea of ‘the Taj Mahal as a mere canopy seems a trifle far-fetched’. 

Controversy abound

There has, furthermore, been controversy over the Taj’s history, including who built it and which religion has a claim over it. In late 2017, Vinay Katiyara, a member of India’s political party Bharatiya Janata, added to this ongoing debate by claiming that the mausoleum was a Hindu temple and requested its name to be changed. 

The Taj Mahal was also omitted from the Uttar Pradesh Government’s tourism booklet, Utter Pradesh Tourism – Unlimited Possibilities, in 2017. Amid accusation of religious bias, a senior official in the Uttar Pradesh Government told the Times of India that it was not deliberately dropped and that the booklet covered recent and upcoming projects. This exacerbated reports that Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, of the Bharatiya Janata party, made comments concerning the Taj Mahal not representing Indian culture. 

Despite this, the government’s official website states, ‘The Taj Mahal is considered the finest example of Mughal architecture, a style that combines elements from Persian, Indian, and Islamic architectural styles.’ 

A marble masterpiece

Construction began in 1631, with the mausoleum finished in 1648 and outlying buildings, including the assembly hall and main gateway, completed in 1653 – thanks to a workforce of 20,000. Artisans, including masons, stonecutters, carvers, and painters, came from India, the Ottoman Empire, Persia, and Europe. Bricks for internal construction were made locally, while white marble for the exterior was brought in from Makrana, Rajasthan, according to the Archaeological Survey of India, which manages the site. 

Because of the tomb’s proximity to the Yamuna River and the consequent need to stabilise the site, drainage pipes coated in stone and mortar were constructed in the foundations. Wells encased with ebony and mahogany wood were used to ventilate this drainage system, which, when complete, was covered over with stone and mortar, bringing the excavated area to ground level, according to Lesley A DuTemple’s The Taj Mahal, published in 2003.

The mausoleum sits on a 7m-high marble platform, accessed by stairs from the terrace, and its façades each feature a 33m-high arch, with surrounding smaller arches. A feature of Islamic architecture, this style of arch is called a pishtaq, forming an opening or gateway within a rectangular frame. 

Four minarets – towers, usually on a mosque and featuring a balcony used to call Muslims to prayer – sit at the corners of the platform, each reaching more than 39m high, adding to the building’s symmetry. The platform sits on a second, larger platform that forms a 300m-long red sandstone terrace overlooking the Yamuna River. 

The terrace was the first part of the building to be constructed after the foundations. Built with masonry by unskilled workers, it was then faced with red standstone by skilled labourers. 

The central dome, sitting on a cylindrical drum, reaches 73m at its highest point, and features a lotus design at the top. This design is replicated on the four surrounding chhatris – domed pavilions or canopies. On top of each dome is a finial. Initially made from gold, the main dome’s finial is now made from gilded bronze, having been replaced in the early 1800s. It features a moon, with its ends pointing upwards – an Islamic symbol. However, resting on the spire, it also forms the shape of a trident – alluding to Hindu symbols of Shiva, according to the Indian government’s official Taj Mahal website.

The central dome, sitting on a cylindrical drum, reaches 73m at its highest point, and features a lotus design at the top. This design is replicated on the four surrounding chhatris – domed pavilions or canopies. On top of each dome is a finial. Initially made from gold, the main dome’s finial is now made from gilded bronze, having been replaced in the early 1800s. It features a moon, with its ends pointing upwards – an Islamic symbol. However, resting on the spire, it also forms the shape of a trident – alluding to Hindu symbols of Shiva, according to the Indian government’s official Taj Mahal website.

Symmetry throughout

Detached from the mausoleum but part of the overall complex, the mosque and assembly hall are symmetrical red sandstone buildings with marble domes. The mosque sits to the west of the mausoleum, the assembly hall to the east. The floor of the mosque is decorated in black marble showing images of prayer rugs. The main purpose of the assembly hall is to provide symmetry – a balance to the mosque. However, according to the official website, it was also used to house visitors observing anniversaries of Mumtaz Mahal’s death. 

The great gate is also constructed of red sandstone with white marble panelling – decorated with floral designs and Arabic calligraphy – around a central arch. Calligraphy on the great gate reads ‘O Soul, thou art at rest. Return to the Lord at peace with Him, and He at peace with you’. Arabic inscriptions inlaid in black marble also appear on the mausoleum, and to improve uniformity for people standing below, those that are higher up are written in a larger script.

As well as lettering, the decorative technique of pietra dura is used on the buildings. It involves inlaying semi-precious stones – obtained from India, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan – such as jade and jasper to create designs, including flowers and vines. 

The mausoleum sits in ornamental gardens, which are laid out along classical Mughal Charbagh lines – Persian and Islamic square or rectangular gardens with watercourses. 

The symmetry of the exterior is continued inside the mausoleum. The main octagonal hall houses the cenotaphs, which are made from marble and decorated with floral designs and semi-precious stones. The geometric pattern of the floor is made using black marble inlaid on white marble. A border design on the floor surrounds Mumtaz Mahal’s cenotaph, but not Shan Jahan’s, which was added later. The real tombs are similar to the false ones above. 

An octagonal marble lattice screen, featuring floral designs, separates visitors from the cenotaphs, and replaces the original enamelled gold screen. According to the official Taj Mahal website, the original was made by the goldsmith and poet Bibadal Khan and took 10 years to make. 

A muddy face-lift

In 1996, to protect the site from pollution the Supreme Court of India prohibited the use of coal in industries inside the Taj Trapezium Zone – an area of 10,400km2 surrounding the Taj Mahal. This zone also includes Agra Fort – a red sandstone and marble fort located near the Yamuna River. 

Despite this buffer zone, air pollution is turning the mausoleum’s surface yellow. Insects from the nearby polluted Yamuna River also leave green marks on the marble. A cleaning process began in mid-2015, with the application of a natural mud paste to the marble surface, which absorbs dirt and animal excrement. The process began with the minarets, but is being applied in phases across the entire mausoleum. 

Concerns have been raised over lost tourism due to the cleaning process and the scaffolding required to carry it out. Fodor’s Travel, USA, included the Taj Mahal on its list of places not to visit – Fodor’s No List 2018 – stating, ‘unless your dream Taj Mahal visit involves being photographed standing in front of a mud-caked and be-scaffolded dome, maybe give it until 2019 at the earliest’. 

However, the Australian travel company Intrepid Travel reported in early 2018 that one side of the mausoleum will be uncovered for visitors at all times, encouraging tourists to still visit the site. 

High tourist numbers have proved an issue for the site, causing overcrowding and congestion. A cap on the amount of time visitors can spend in the complex was announced in April 2018, and a limit on the number of visitors allowed per day has also been discussed due to the site’s popularity with both foreign and Indian tourists. It would seem a mud-caked Taj Mahal is still high on tourists’ bucket lists.