Agra: "The Taj Mahal: Mumtaz Mahal"


Uttar Pradesh 


February 14, 2007


Dear Loved Ones... and Lovers,

A very, very belated Happy Valentine's Day.

One of my friends in the USA reported that she received chocolate strawberries AND dark chocolate covered blackberries from her husband. What a guy! What love!

But life is not always a bowl of cherries. Or strawberries.


What if tragedy strikes? What can a man do if he should lose his love? How shall he remember her? Place a memorial plaque in a peaceful park? What will a wealthy King do for his lost love? Build a tomb? What must, what did, a powerful Emperor, a heartbroken Shah, do for his lost love? The Shah created an eternal monument to love and paradise.

The author and photographer Tarun Chopra tells the story: *

"Prince Khuran was only sixteen years old when he fell in love with Asaf Khan's daughter, Arjuman Bano Begum, later known as Mumtaz Mahal. Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal first met at the Meena Bazaar, a weekly market held in the palace every Friday. Here, the women from noble families would set up stalls for the pleasure of the their male buyers from the royal family.

Shah Jahan, then known as Prince Khurram, was being carried in a palanquin by four Tartar women slaves when he stopped before a stall where a young girl was selling mishri, crude sugar crystals. The prince picked up a piece and asked its price. The girl flirtatiously quoted an astronomical amount. Showing no surprise, the prince paid up in gold coins. Seeing the prince mistake the mishri for a diamond, the girl started laughing and her veil was uncovered to reveal her face. Mesmerized by his stepmother's niece, the prince vowed to make her his bride.

They were married in 1612 when he was twenty and she was nineteen. In all she gave birth to fourteen children, averaging one child every sixteen months. Of those, only four boys and three girls survived.

Mumtaz Mahal died four years after Shah Jahan's accession to the throne, during the birth of her fourteenth child, in 1631. At that time she was camping with Shah Jahan in Burhanpur. She accompanied the emperor on all his travels and pregnancy did not prevent her from undertaking those journeys, no matter how arduous. It was in the early hours on the morning on June 17, 1631 that a hemorrhage caused during the birth of her third daughter, Gauhara Begun, resulted in her death.

When the news of the queen's condition reached Shah Jahan, he rushed to her side, but it was clear that the empress would not revive. Kneeling beside her, he asked her if there was anything he could do for her. There was, said the dying princess. She made him promise that he would not have any more children from his other wives and that he would build a tomb over her grave that would be so beautiful, it would remind coming generations of the story of their love.

As the empress closed her eyes, a last teardrop slipped our from her beautiful eyes and caressed her cheek. The grief stricken emperor removed the teardrop from his beloved's face and eventually built her a mausoleum that looked as though it was.

"An eternal teardrop,
Descending from heaven,
On the cheek of time."

Mumtaz Mahal's body was bathed with cold camphor and rosewater by female bearers and wrapped in five pieces of cloth. Four close relatives carried her body to the burial site. She was temporarily buried in a garden on the banks of the river Tapti, two yards below the earth, her body aligned from north to south with the face turned west towards the holy city of Mecca.

Shah Jahan mourned for forty days. He wore only white. His hair too turned to white. He would often visit her grave at night and cry there till the morning. He would hardly eat or listen to music. He refused to enter the women's quarters that would remind him of her. Shah Jahan was a broken man.

After six months, he had her body transported to Agra, close to the site where she would finally lie. The garden where her tomb was to be built was bought from the Maharaja of Jaipur. The body was buried, again temporarily, in the northwest corner of the garden close to the mosque.

The final blueprint for the tomb was drawn by leading architects of the empire. The final plan was submitted to Shah Jahan for his approval. After work on it began, sixteen years were to pass before the main building was ready and another five before the garden and the courtyard were completed.

Twenty thousand workers, artisans and master-craftsmen worked on the site. A township called Mumtazabad sprang up around the site. Some fifteen hundred elephants transported the white marble blocks, each weighing a ton and a half, to the site. Large numbers of Brahmi bulls were used to transport the raw material. The marble quarries were located in Makrana, 140 miles west of Agra. Red sandstone was brought from Fatehpur Sikri. A 2.5 mile long ramp was constructed to transport the marble blocks to the top of the building.

Architecturally, the Taj Mahal represents the epitome of Mughal architecture. It is a synthesis of Hindu and Islamic building traditions. It is certainly the most symmetrical of all Mughal buildings.

A gold and silver railing surrounded the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal. The tomb, in accordance with Muslim tradition, was covered by woven pearls. The doors were made of pure silver with nails of gold. Precious stones imported from all over the world were inlaid in the white marble. Peter Mundy, an Englishman residing in Agra wrote, "Gold and silver were used as common metal and marble as ordinary stone."

In the thirty-second year of his accession, Shah Jahan, the fifth emperor among the great Mughals, the builder of the Taj Mahal in Agra and the Red Fort and Jama Masjid in Delhi, was imprisoned in the palace of Agra by his son Aurangzeb. Here he lived for another eight years. He was found one morning, sitting on the verandah of Mussam Burj, his eyes gazing at the Taj Mahal across the river, united once more with his beloved empress. His body was bathed, shrouded and taken to the river. Here it was transferred into a boat and taken to his final resting-place, the Taj Mahal. There were no nobles or princes in attendance, only a handful of retainers. Aurangzeb never came to see his father.

And what poor words can I possibly add to the story? Selections from a scholarly text of art and architecture? ** Carefully chosen adjectives from a thesaurus? My journal of reactions and emotions?

I wandered through the gardens and in and out and up and down the white marble of the Taj and the red sandstone of the two adjacent monuments. I can think of only two words, and they are "Thank you."

Yes, I am sad for Mumtaz Mahal, especially by the way she died. I mourn with Shah Jahan. Yet I admire the strength of his recovery and the power of his affection for Mumtaz. And I am grateful for their love of each other and their gift of love to me and to everyone who visits them here.


* "The Holy Cow and Other Indian Stories." Tarun Chopra. Prakash Book Depot. New Delhi. 2000


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