O thou soul at peace, return thou unto thy Lord. These are the Gardens of Eden, enter them and live forever...
The Mughals were followers of the Islamic faith. The promise of Allah, as written in the Koran, is inscribed in marble on the portal of the main entrance to the Taj Mahal. Symbolic of the gateway through which Mohammed entered Paradise, it is a place of transition between the world of the senses and realm of the spirit.
Images of Paradise were widespread in both literature and art in the Mughal period, and each part of the Taj complex seems to correspond allegorically to a cosmological model of the gardens of Paradise on the Day of Resurrection: the mausoleum stands like the throne of judgment at the far end of the grounds (rather than the traditional placement in the center of a four-part garden); the forty-two acres of grounds are divided by four channels of water representing the four rivers of Paradise described in the Koran; and red sandstone walls topped with gazebos, galleries and towers mark the boundaries of Paradise.
"As you enter the gate, the Taj is framed within the doorway, and it looks small and very dainty," says art historian Shobita Punja. "But as you walk closer to it, its magnificence just takes over." Reflected in a long pool is the mausoleum in all its majesty. The dome floats two hundred and fifty feet into the sky, its simplicity and proportions perfect, subtle variations in the veined marble creating changes in color with every mood of the heavens. Four minarets frame the space like the setting of a jewel. From each one the call to worship would have reminded all within hearing to give Allah praise.
According to Islamic tradition, a woman who dies in childbirth is a martyr, and her memorial a place of pilgrimage. Two structures face the Taj from either side: a mosque on the west, and its mirror image, a rest house, on the east, perhaps built to provide symmetry and balance for the mosque and to shelter the faithful who would come to pay homage to Mumtaz Mahal.
"The sky forms a curtain to the Taj," adds Shobita. "It's the backdrop. At night, when the sky is black, this little marble jewel box stands glistening in the moonlight; in the early morning, when the sky is pink and orange, the white marble reflects those colors; and at sunset it has a completely different look. So the sky is as important as any other physical detail around the Taj. And the way it's set on that platform, standing up against the huge expanse of sky, it seems as though they were evoking a sort of heavenly curtain to play a part in the scheme of things."
From afar the Taj appears seamless, but moving closer reveals an intricate harmony of details. Inlaid calligraphy flows with all the freedom of a pen moving across paper.
Jewel-studded walls display exquisitely detailed flowers. "You've got inlay work of flowers about three inches high where they use as many as sixty to seventy pieces of precious gemstones to show the curve of a leaf or the turn of a petal. I mean it's so delicate!" says Shobita.
"The Taj, as an experience, is simply an extraordinary building," says art historian Milo Beach. "The proportion of the Taj, the workmanship of the Taj, the effect of the Taj in the landscape of the garden,
the effect of light playing over the surface of white marble... From every angle, the Taj is a building of extraordinary physical balance. Whether you know anything about India or about Indian architecture at all, it's a beautifully crafted building."
"All of this produces an effect which, for most people, is something they've never experienced before, something which is profoundly satisfying and stimulating. That's really what makes it a treasure. It's one of those few monuments that has a kind of communication with people that leads to an immediate understanding that this is something wonderful and perfect and persuasive and powerful. You may not know any of its antecedents, you may not know how it was built, but you can understand the building. You don't need to go and read about it to understand it."
Stately in size, pleasing in proportion, rich yet restrained in decoration, the Taj Mahal is said to be the most perfect building in the world. "The Taj is the synthesis of many religions, many architectural forms, many artistic traditions," says art historian Shobita Punja. "That's why it's so perfect. It's a symbol of perfect love and of great beauty."
"But the wear on the monument from the many thousands of people who visit every year is really taking its toll, and the marble is being affected by pollution as well. The Taj has many problems, and I think it's important to let people know that we need to preserve the Taj. "It's the symbol of India, a very precious symbol of our cultural heritage."