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The Taj Mahal - Architecture of a Love Story

Article of the Month - May 2001

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On the hot, flat plains outside Burhanpur the queen lay dead. Her husband's prolonged war against Khan Jahan Lodi was almost at a close and soon the traitor's head would be displayed on a pike high above the city gates. But on this day talk of war was of no interest to the great king- for his queen was dead and he was in despair.

The throne room was empty. Emperor Shah Jahan did not display himself in finely embroidered robes at the royal window that day, nor did he sit with his concubines in the Jasmine pavilion enjoying the drama of an elephant fight in the river beds. He canceled all appointments and went directly into his rooms, where he locked the doors behind him for eight days. During this time he refused to take any food or wine, and the only sound that the ministers who gathered outside his apartments could discern was a low, continuos moan.

On the ninth day the doors opened, and to the surprise of everyone who had known the worldly ruler, Shah Jahan emerged speaking of the impermanence of life and of a desire to renounce his title and become a homeless fakir- this from the same man who, a few years earlier, had cut down four brothers to gain the throne. A strange physical transformation had also taken place: the emperor's back was now bent in a peculiar way and his hair, which had been raven black, had turned totally white. Whispers in the Hall of Public Audience hinted at something even stranger: was it an illusion, or had the emperor grown smaller since the queen's death?

Shah Jahan's unceasing misery wanted company, and he ordered his entire kingdom into mourning. A pall of solemnity hung over North India, and all popular music and public amusements, all perfumes, cosmetics, jewelry, and brightly colored clothes were forbidden. Offenders, no matter what their age or rank, no matter the innocence of their games, were arraigned before a court tribunal; if their behavior was judged disrespectful to the memory of the queen, they were executed. In keeping with his own decrees, Shah Jahan exchanged his royal cape for white robes. His subjects followed his example. Before long the entire country was dressed in white. So intense was this obsessed man's passion for his dead wife that he mourned her for almost ten years. It was recorded by an historian that "when she died, he was in danger to die himself."

Half a year after the queen's death, her corpse was brought from Burhanpur to the city of Agra, south of Delhi, which for generations had been the seat of rule for the Mughal Empire. In Agra, less than a league from the emperor's palace, a silent garden along the banks of a shallow river was chosen as the site for the queen's mausoleum. In the year 1631 the body of Queen Mumtaz Mahal arrived in Agra and was transferred to a temporary crypt in the garden grounds. After prayers were sung for souls of the dead, work began on the construction of a tomb that would be the most resplendent monument ever built by man for a woman. But although its brick foundations were laid in 1631, its history - according to one popular legend - can be traced back further, back to Agra on a day in 1607 when a festival was in progress at the Royal Meena bazaar.

The Royal Meena Bazaar, a private marketplace attached to the palace harem, was in turn a combination royal post exchange and sanctum sanctorum where the women of the aristocracy purchased the dyes, oils, and waxes fundamental to their elaborate toilet. Inside these walls no male dared trespass, for if he were caught he might expect - at the very least - to lose his hands and feet on the executioner's block. However, certain dates were set aside as "contrary days," when everything was done in reverse; and then, for one or two uninhibited days a month, the Royal Meena Bazaar opened wide its gates and became a lusty public pleasure ground.

On such a day everyone was welcome, male and female, royalty and lesser nobility - and anyone of rank or aspiration was certainly there. Most came to indulge in a peculiar game that was customarily played on such occasions. The ordinarily docile wives and concubines of the court reversed their roles and became noisy shopkeepers for the morning, selling trinkets from behind pavilions in the marketplace and flirting and bargaining with the young male courtiers, who - momentarily freed from the suffocating monotony of courtly routine - competed for feminine attentions or showed of their cultured wit by asking prices in rhymed Persian verse. On such days even the emperor might himself arrive, that great Oriental doge who was normally seven times removed from the stream of common life that flowed beneath him. And if he did come, then the Meena Bazaar's rule of the "converse" allowed that even His Majesty was fair target for a discreetly insulting haggle.

At one particular Meena Bazaar in 1607, the vendor hawking silks and glass beads was a newcomer; a girl of fifteen named Arjumand Banu Begam. She was lovely and high born, the daughter of the prime minister. These facts did not draw customers, however, but instead frightened away the young bloods who ordinarily might have approached the stall of one so fair and well-favored. For the prime minister was Asaf Khan, a powerful and suspicious statesman not to be treated disrespectfully, even on contrary days; only the highest in the land would dare flirt with the daughter of the king's wazir (prime minister).

On this same day, come to take his pleasure at the Meena Bazaar, was the handsome prince Khurram. Just sixteen, the prince was already a veteran of one war and a poet who could match couplets with the court laureate. His singing voice and his mastery of Koranic calligraphy were both well-regarded, and he had learned the principles of architecture so well that he was often asked to design balconies and municipal warehouses for his father, the emperor Jahangir. If he did at times enjoy attending executions in his father's underground torture chambers, and if he was especially fond of watching the spectacle of death by strangulation, he was, after all, a Mughal prince.

Following the fanfare of his royal arrival, Prince Khurram began to stroll from stall to stall, chatting with his friends and occasionally pausing to inspect the pretty faces, which on any occasion but this would be obscured by veils. Glancing past row upon row of bargaining courtiers and gaily colored tents, he caught a fleeting glimpse of Arjumand positioned near a niche in the corner of the marketplace. Within a moment he was standing at her stall. He wished, he said, to know the price of the large piece of glass on the counter, the one that was cut to look like a diamond. It was indeed a diamond, she facetiously insisted, and its price was high, very high - ten thousand rupees. It was more, she suggested, than even a prince of such eminence and reputation as he enjoyed could pay.

For a moment Khurram remained motionless, looking steadily at the young woman - wondering, according to legend, why the court gossips who discussed the ladies every afternoon at the underground baths had never spoken of Arjumand Banu Begam. Then, without a word, he drew ten thousand rupees from his sleeve, took the piece of glass, turned, and vanished into the ground, carrying the stone and Arjumand's heart with him.

The next day Khurram made an unusual and bold request to his father. Unusual and bold because in those days one did not marry for love alone. He sought the hand of Arjumand Banu in marriage. It is said that Jahangir smiled mysteriously - recalling perhaps his own love for Nur Jahan - and silently raised his right hand in assent.

Arjumand was born in her father's harem in 1592 and grew up there in the manner of all daughters of aristocrats. She studied the Moslem holy books, Islam being the official religion of the Mughals (it was a standard part of each child's education to memorize parts of the Koran), and we may assume that she was well-versed in the writings of the Prophet. Further education came from her father and from an even more important political figure, her aunt Nur Jahan (for she was Arjumand's father's sister), favorite wife of the emperor and the most powerful woman in India.

Mughal Harem

 

One year after the request was granted, Prince Khurram was indeed married - but not to Arjumand Banu Begam. His first wife was a Persian princess, Quandari Begam, a relative of the royal family of Persia. If the appearance of this Persian interloper seems to break the romantic sequence, one must bear in mind that in those days members of the royal family could not pick their wedding days and were indeed fortunate if they could pick their wives. The actual wedding dates were at the discretion of the emperor's astrologers, who demanded that all planetary aspects be perfected for state occasions. Likewise, the marriage arrangements of royalty depended on external political considerations, on military coalitions, alliances, fat dowries, or family ties, all of which were first checked against the stars. Then too, Moslem law allowed every man four wives; moreover, any respectable Mughal nobleman, if he did not wish to have his virility or solvency questioned, was expected to keep many concubines as well. For a prince, monogamy was impractical and unacceptable.

 

Mughal Painting of Mumtaz MahalFor five years Khurram and Arjumand waited. He grew into a startlingly handsome man and she matured into a lady of gentle temperament. For the entire period before their marriage they were not allowed to meet, and they passed the full five years of their engagement without ever once laying eyes on each other again. Finally, on March 27, 1612, when all the calculations of the astrologers were in accord, the long anticipated event took place.

The ceremony as is customary in Moslem weddings took place at the home of the bride. At midnight a gigantic feast - attended by the emperor himself, a rare honor - was given. And Jahangir, whose life considered principally of hunting antelope, drinking large quantities of wine mixed with tincture of opium, torturing men by sewing them wet animal carcasses, and romancing Nur Jahan - and who, from this bizarre range of worldly experience, had come to consider himself a walking encyclopedia - judged that the charm of Arjumand was incontestable. To show the great esteem he felt for his new daughter-in-law he bestowed on her the highest of honors, a new name. Henceforth she was to be known as Mumtaz Mahal, "Chosen One of the Palace."

Mumtaz Mahal : wife of Shah Jahan, Mughal Emperor

 

 

After their wedding, the prince was with Mumtaz Mahal day and night. She was beautiful and demure; the royal poets wrote that her loveliness made the moon hide its face in shame, while the stars extinguished their light in fear of being compared to her radiance. She was so intelligent that she soon became a political adviser to her husband. She was charitable, giving food to the peasants and silver to the beggars who called to her each morning outside the brick walls of the palace. She was compassionate, every day drawing up lists of helpless widows and orphans and making certain that the prince attended to their needs. She was generous, supporting hundreds of poor families and arranging pensions for hundreds more. She was, in short, a model of feminine virtue.

 

 

Mughal Emperor Shah JahanMeanwhile Khurram ascended to the Mughal throne on the 4th of February 1628. Shah Sultan Khurram became Shah Jahan, Emperor of the World.

The festivities of the coronation lasted for an entire month. When they were over, Shah Jahan quickly discovered his inheritance to be a vexatious legacy - a considerably overextended empire that already showed troublesome deterioration from the vagaries of his pleasure-loving father's negligent reign. On the other hand, Shah Jahan's private life, his life with Mumtaz Mahal, continued to be idyllic.

During their nineteen years together, Mumtaz Mahal gave Khurram fourteen children, only seven of whom survived. In 1630, during the third year of Shah Jahan's reign, Mumtaz Mahal was once again with child. Although she was pregnant, the emperor had allowed her to accompany him on his campaign against Khan Jahan Lodi, a treacherous renegade who had raised a large army in the Deccan.

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