Widely known as the symbol of love and considered as one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, Taj Mahal is located on the right bank of the Yamuna River in the historical city of Agra. Built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, as a memorial for his third and most beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal, alias Arjumand Banu Begum, Taj Mahal stands for the Crown of Palaces in the Persian language. The tomb is laid out in a rectangular shape, and can be approached through a massive gateway, complete with an arch and alcoves on either side. Every year, thousands of visitors from all over the world pass through the arched gateway to catch a glimpse of the breathtaking monument and even the wildest imaginations leave visitors unprepared for this wonderful wonder.
During the earlier phase of the Mughal period, the buildings were primarily constructed of red sandstone and the first Mughal structure that was entirely built of marble was the mausoleum of Itmad-Ud-Daulah that Nur Jahan built for her father Mirza Ghiyas Beg. That marked the transition from the red sandstone structures to those in white marble and is believed to be the forebear of the magnificent Taj Mahal.
Covering a land over 60 bighas (97280.67 sq mts), the Taj Mahal was constructed using white marble from Makrana in Rajasthan and a fleet of 1000 elephants was engaged to transport it to the site. A network of wells was laid down along the river line and was filled with stones and other solid materials in order to lay a strong foundation of this grand mausoleum. To make it the most striking architectural piece, as many as 28 precious and semi-precious stones were used in the ornamentation with their best combination.
The semi-precious stones were brought from different distant regions of India, Ceylon and Afghanistan; Jasper from Punjab, jade and crystal from China, turquoise from Tibet, lapis lazuli & sapphire from Arabia and diamonds from Panna. Red sandstones of different tints that constitute the base were requisitioned from the neighboring quarries of Sikri, Dholpur etc.
The construction of Taj Mahal started in the year 1631 and completed in 1648 AD, with the mosque, the guest house and the main gateway in the south, the outer courtyard and the other structures were added subsequently and completed in 1653 AD. For its construction, stone-cutters, inlayers, masons, painters, calligraphers, and all the other artisans were summoned from the whole of the empire and also from the Central Asia and Iran. The mausoleum was designed by Isa Mohammad Khan and Ustad-Ahmad Lahori was engaged as the main architect of the project.
The structure is situated on a raised square plinth, also made of white marble, at a height of 50 m from the river level and the tomb is situated at the center of the plinth, framed by four 130 feet (39.62 m) tall equidistant minarets, which are spread at a distance of 41.75 m from the tomb wall. With its sides measuring 55 m, the Taj Mahal is a square structure and the most spectacular feature of the structure is its 240 feet (73 m) high bulbous central dome of marble, elevated from the top of the building with a 7 m high cylindrical base and decorated at its top by lotus motif and ended in a gilded terminal, crowned with the Islamic half-moon. The smaller domes on both sides in the form of chhatris, emphasized the grand aspect of the central dome.
The entrance to the main tomb is framed by a huge arched vault or Iwan which in turn is again framed by two similar but smaller arches on each side. Quotations from the Quran were inscribed in calligraphy on the arched entrances to the mausoleum, in addition to numerous other sections of the complex.
The cenotaphs of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan are housed in a large double storied domed chamber, which is a perfect octagon. The cenotaphs are encircled by an exquisite octagonal marble lattice screen, which is highly polished and richly decorated with inlay work. The borders of the frames are masterly inlaid with precious stones representing flowers, which appear almost real. The cenotaph of Mumtaz Mahal, placed on a rectangular platform and decorated with inlaid flower plant motifs, is in the perfect centre of the tomb chamber. The cenotaph of Shah Jahan, installed more than thirty years later to the west side of his wife’s cenotaph, is bigger in size and is the only visible asymmetric element in the entire complex. However, the cenotaphs are empty, without any mortal remains. The real sarcophagi are in the lower tomb chamber, at garden level.
During the time of the so called Indian rebellion of 1857, the Taj Mahal was defaced by British soldiers and government officials, who chiseled out precious stones and stole lapis lazuli from its walls. However, at the end of the 19th century, British viceroy Lord Curzon ordered a massive restoration project, which was completed in 1908. He also arranged the large lamp for the interior chamber. During that period the garden was remodeled according to British-style lawns that are still in place today.