Taj Mahal the architectural marvel

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Taj Mahal is one of the greatest buildings on Earth, a masterpiece of architecture and artistic taste and a wonder which has for three centuries  marveled travelers from all round the world. The Taj is  the tomb of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s wife Mumtaz Mahal whose original name is Arjumand Banu Begam and was a much adorable wife of the Emperor.  After her death in 1631 the Emperor was left broken hearted and he would  make her name immortal in the annals of history by constructing the most elegant tomb ever built on Earth.  Rauza-i-Munavvara or the tomb of light, today known as Taj Mahal. That is why Taj Mahal has become a sign of love and the supreme achievement of Mughals who one and half century ago were nothing but desert nomads. And yes the Taj is a desert nomads dream upon Earth and it will stand tall and graceful to bedazzle the onlookers as time goes by.

                The construction of Taj Mahal began in January 1632 according to Shah Jahan’s chronicler Ahmed Lahori. Once the construction started workers from all parts of Mughal Empire began to arrive in Agra.  Almost five thousand workers were present every day anytime when the Taj began. To house this enormous population of workers a township started near Agra and was named after the deceased queen, Mumtazabad, and soon this place became a thriving city full of all the hustle and bustle.

                Shah Jahan’s engineers were aware that the Taj being near to river Yamuna its foundation would be prone to the scouring effect. Which is slipping off of the soil underneath the foundation, thus they choose to make a well foundation. Well foundation was a well used to construct magnificent buildings by Mughal civil engineers. This required the excavation of wells and filling it up with sand and above which the plinth above the ground would be erected. This kind of construction would make the building less prone to the effects of scouring and if the structure is huge would evenly distribute the weight on the foundation.  Even now well foundations are used for building railway bridges, it is the best possible foundation where there is chance of the underlying soil below to slip off.

Construction of well foundation

                Once the construction of well foundation finished the workers started to build the main plinth. Plinth is the structure on which the whole building rests. The plinth of Taj Mahal is 190 metres in length, 71 metres wide and 9 metres high. When the first plinth was constructed a huge celebration followed in which Shah Jahan gave a royal feast to commemorate the death anniversary of Mumtaz Mahal. Alms were given to the poor and about 50000 ruppees were distributed. Rich and poor, nobles and scholars people from all walks of life took part in the celebration.

              Next was the construction of the tomb, and also the plinth upon which the  tomb rests. The plinth for the tomb is 61 metres in length and 4 metres high approximately. As soon as the next round of construction began, carts started rolling into the place carrying huge loads of marble and stones. But initially the whole thing was to be constructed out of bricks and then faced with marble. For this as you might guess a scaffolding is necessary. Mughal engineers preferred to use brick scaffolding than bamboo, probably since the work would go on for 22 years a kind of semi permanent set up was necessary.

American soldiers near the Taj,1943
in the background the bamboo scaffolding around Taj is visible.

  It is amazing to think of the amount of work went on daily, and there were officers appointed to make sure the work goes in a disciplined fashion and according to plans. Interestingly the Taj is built according to the plan and never altered, so that Emperor has what he wants to have. The enormous amount of loads was lifted onto the top by pulleys. Every worker had his own team, and the work was carried out under the supervision of Abd al –Karim , he could come to the work place everyday and see if everything was allright.

A simulated photo showing the construction of Taj

  A ramp was built to carry all the marble and stones to the tomb, it was 10 mile long, and its gradual inclination reached the foot of the tomb. Carts pulled by dozens of oxen and elephants would carry the material up the tomb. The supervisors shouted the orders to the workers and all this went as the mammoth project carried on. Then it would be carried up wherever is necessary by a system of pulley. There was one good reason to build the tomb near the Yamuna, and that was the use of river way transport. Boats also carried loads of material and dumped into the shores to be then shifted by labourers.

  According to the plan the construction would start with bricks and once the framework was built then it would faced by marble from all sides giving the impression that perhaps only marble was used for the construction of the Taj. So as soon as the brick work was ready marble facing was given. The marble for Taj came all the way from the mines of Makrana, Rajasthan. Shah Jahan had given explicit orders to Jai Singh the grandson of Raja Man Singh to find all the marble artists in Rajasthan and send them packing to Agra.  It is simply jaw dropping to learn about the enormous quantity of marble used to build the Taj.

  Slowly and steadily as the first and second story was finished the most important and elegant part, the dome was to be constructed. The speciality of the onion shaped dome is that the whole weight transfer is very even. There are two domes  as you can see in the diagram below, one outside and another inside which is visible from central chamber. The reason for the second dome is to mask the effect of the bigger dome and to give a pleasing visual when looked towards the ceiling from inside.

Description of Taj Mahal
The main Iwan

  Ahmed Lahori says the slabs of the sandstone were “so smoothly cut and joined by expert craftsmanship that even close inspection fails to reveal any cracks between them…”  The Iwans are  typical in Islamic architecture, is kind of an opening on the outer side, which may be used for more than one reason. It may be used for prayer or as a sitting place and is found in both secular and religious buildings. The Iwans make use of arches as you can see and that plays a big part as far as the weight transfer aspect goes. The arches in the Iwan transfer the weight through its length and finally up to the foundation. You may see below that all the forces are combined to form a central force which is then transmitted below.  The number of Iwans varies from building to building but generally it comes in the multiple of two.

A masonry arch
1. Keystone 2. Voussoir 3. Extrados 4. Impost 5. Intrados 6. Rise 7. Clear span 8. Abutment

After the tomb was constructed the other parts like the entrance, mosque and the guest house was completed.  Probably the time taken to build the tomb took less time than completing the rest. Whatever might be the case it took 22 years to complete and approximately more than 20000 laborers to complete this mammoth project by 1650.  There are so many legends about the Taj one is about the dismantling the scaffolding around it.  The myth goes that once when the Taj was completed, it was necessary to pull down the scaffolding but it was so huge that it would take many more years and many labors to bring it down.  To bring an end to this, the emperor declared that anyone who dismantles the scaffolding the bricks obtained from it will be his. Thus all the population of Agra volunteered to pull down the scaffolding and claimed the bricks from it.

   Such and many more myths and legends shroud around the Taj, some crackpot and self styled historian also claim that the Taj was never built by Shah Jahan, and it is not “Taj Mahal” but “Tejo Mahalaya” a Hindu temple. But those are just rubbish and one should never believe in it.

Upon my grave when I shall die,

No lamps shall burn nor jasmine lie

No candle, with unsteady flame

Serve as a reminder of my fame

No bulbul chanting overhead,

Shall tell the world that I am dead.

-Sylvia Crowe and Sheila Haywood,

The Gardens of Mughal India.

Photo Courtesy- CC Wikipedia

Sumit Soren is the founder of Livelystories. Basically an Agricultural Engineer, Sumit has interest in varied topics. He regularly writes on tribal history, internet and science related topics.

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