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Taj Mahal

Agra, India

The Taj Mahal, India’s most recognizable icon, was built on the banks of the River Jamuna at Agra by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (reigned a.d.1628–1666), in memory of his beloved wife Arjumand Banu Begam, known as Mumtaz Mahal ("Elect of the Palace"), who died in childbirth in 1631. There is a tradition that, on her deathbed, she entreated her husband to build a tomb that would preserve her name forever. The funerary mosque, faced with white marble, was completed in 1653 after twenty-two years in the building. When it was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1983, the Taj Mahal was acclaimed as “the most perfect jewel of Moslem art in India and … one of the universally admired masterpieces” in the world.

The symmetrical square mausoleum stands on a marble plinth above a 186-foot-square (59-meter) red sandstone platform. A 58-foot-diameter (18-meter) pear-shaped dome soars 213 feet (65 meters) above the octagonal central space—a two-story memorial chamber housing the bejeweled cenotaphs of Mumtaz Mahal and her husband. In fact, the real coffins lie in an unpretentious crypt below. Originally, the interior was opulently furnished with Persian carpets and articles of gold, all dimly lit by dappled sunlight that shone through intricately carved marble lattices in the drum of the dome. Two massive silver doors closed the entrance on the south side. At both levels there are eight interconnected anterooms: the four on the sides are rectangular, and the four corner spaces, also crowned with domes, are octagonal. A 163-foot (50-meter) tapering marble-faced minaret stands at each corner of the plinth. The building is praiseworthy for its composition, balance, and massing.

Closer scrutiny reveals that its surfaces, inside and out, are enriched with flower patterns of inlaid semiprecious stones using a technique known as pietradura, as well as panels and bands of calligraphic inscriptions from the Koran. Each piece of decorative work is in itself a jewel, but all are ingeniously integrated in a complex but harmonious whole. Throughout, the builders made exacting adjustments of line and surface to ensure that the Taj Mahal looked right. For example, the plinth is slightly convex, so that it appears to be horizontal. The walls are slightly inclined for the same reason. Such refinement extended to the detail of the decoration: the calligraphic inscriptions are more widely spaced as they rise, to appear uniform when viewed from below. It has been said that the tomb was “built by giants and finished by jewelers.”

The Taj Mahal was not the creation of an individual. Its overseeing architect was probably the Persian engineer-astrologer Ustad Ahmad, but there were about forty other specialists whose skills combined to