Is the Taj Mahal a symbol of love?


Katie Lambert: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sarah Dowdey: And I'm Sarah Dowdey.

Katie Lambert: And since Valentine's Day is coming up, we decided we'd like to do a romantic type of episode, so we settled on the idea of the building of the Taj Mahal, which has always been considered a great love story, but is it is our question to you.

Sarah Dowdey: We're going to try to find that out today. So the Taj Mahal was built by Shah Jahan and he was a 17th century Mughal emperor, and the Mughal Empire included most of South Asia. It's really a huge holding. He's the fifth ruler in his dynasty, which lasts about 200 years, until the Persian invasion in 1739. His title means "emperor of the world" or "king of the world," so he's a pretty big deal, I'd say.

Katie Lambert: He was born Prince Khurram and was descended from Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, and Akbar the Great. His father was named Jahangir, and we'd like to preface this by saying a lot of these words are a bit difficult for us to pronounce, so you're welcome to see our blog roundup on Friday at blogs.HowStuffWorks.com.

Sarah Dowdey: You'll see them all spelled out there.

Katie Lambert: So they'll actually make sense, as opposed to when I mangle them. He was the favorite of his father's sons growing up, even though he wasn't the oldest. He commanded his father's army for many years and was very successful, and that's how he got the title of Shah Jahan, which was pretty amazing for someone who wasn't even crowned to be called King of the World.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, definitely. But then his father gets sick, and the sons begin to fight with each other because there's not this clear, definitive line of succession, and he's got this real evil, fairytale-like stepmother, Nur Jahan, who her name means "light of the world." And she switches her allegiances to a younger brother, one who she marries off to her daughter from another marriage, and she's planning on ruling herself almost, using him as a puppet.

Katie Lambert: So Shah Jahan rebelled, and he led an army against his father and stepmother. It didn't work, but when his father died in 1627, Shah Jahan came back to Agra. His only older brother that was left had died of drink, and he had his other rivals, like his younger brothers, executed, so it's a nice family story for you. He spared Nur Jahan, but sent her to Lahore, but while Nur Jahan may have been an evil stepmother, she was also part of Shah Jahan's love story.

Sarah Dowdey: She definitely was, and that begins when Shah Jahan is 15 years old. He meets this beautiful girl, Arjumand Banu, and its love at first sight for both of them. The marriage isn't arranged until five years later, but it's actually set up by evil stepmother Nur Jahan, who is a relative of the girl's.

Katie Lambert: And she was given the name Mumtaz Mahal, which means "exalted of the palace," and she was only one of his wives. He did have a few, but she was his favorite. She came with him on all of his military campaigns. They were completely devoted to one another, and had several children together.

Sarah Dowdey: Sadly in their 19th year of marriage, Mumtaz Mahal comes with her husband on yet another campaign, and she's in her ninth month of pregnancy at the time. She dies from complications of childbirth having their 14th child - 14 kids in 19 years.

Katie Lambert: That's crazy.

Sarah Dowdey: Seven of their kids lived to adulthood, and this baby is one of them.

Katie Lambert: So after she died, according to legend, Shah Jahan's beard turned gray and he never again took pleasure in anything in life. But another part of the story goes that when she was dying, Mumtaz Mahal asked for the most beautiful mausoleum that had ever been built, and Shah Jahan complied and gave us the Taj Mahal.

Sarah Dowdey: So I'm sure everybody's seen a picture of the brilliant Taj Mahal, but it's located in Agra, in Uttar Pradesh, and our words can't do it justice. If you haven't seen a picture, go find one immediately.

Katie Lambert: And what you've probably seen is the mausoleum itself, the gian t, white marble building that's topped by a dome with four minarets around it, and it really is gorgeous. It seems to change colors during the day. It reflects different shades depending on the sun and the moon, and the ornamental pool in front of it reflects the Taj Mahal.

Sarah Dowdey: But there's also a mosque in its Jawab, which mirrors the mosque. They're made of this reddish sandstone, and there's a garden and a gateway. I like this detail about the minarets. They're angled slightly outward so that in case of an earthquake, they won't fall in and crush the tomb, so clever architecture there.

Katie Lambert: And it's a mix of Indian, Persian, and Islamic architectural styles. Construction started in 1632, but it took 22 years for 20,000 laborers to finish it, including architects, calligraphers, and stonecutters from all over.

Sarah Dowdey: And they bring in the marble from 100 miles away, and semi-precious and precious stones mined from all around the region. One signature of the Taj Mahal is the pietra dura, and you make what looks like a painting from colored stones inlayed in another material, and they're all these amazing stones - jade, lapis, amethyst, and for the Taj Mahal, you'll see lots of geometric designs and also flowers done in this style.

Katie Lambert: There's also a lot of lapidary, which is when you carve or cut designs out of the actual stones. Lots of flowers carved out of marble - irises, daffodils, lilies, poppies, tulips - it's really beautiful.

Sarah Dowdey: And there are also verses from the Koran on columns and calligraphy in this black onyx script and another testament to the craftsmanship here, the letters actually increase with height so that they look uniform when they are standing below them.

Katie Lambert: The court poets wrote some beautiful stuff about the Taj Mahal, but one verse that I liked was, "They set stone flowers in the marble, that by their color, if not their perfume, surpass real flowers." And if you see the pictures, they really do.Part of the legend of this whole building of the Taj Mahal is that Shah Jahan had the craftsmen's hands chopped off so that they'd never be able to make anything like this ever again, but considering that another part of this story is that he'd supposedly planned to build a matching Taj Jahan for himself, across the Yamuna River, that would be connected by a bridge to the Taj Mahal is probably not true because that wouldn't make any sense.

Sarah Dowdey: No, you wouldn't want to kill all your highly skilled craftsmen before you got your own mausoleum on the ground.

Katie Lambert: And you'd better believe that it was incredibly expensive to make anything this lavish and gorgeous, as much money as he had, and it said that Shah Jahan may have had the best jewel collection that ever existed. It wasn't quite enough. Shah Jahan, at the same time, was carrying on a lot of very expensive wars, and he was constructing a new capitol, Shahjahanabad, which is now Delhi.

Sarah Dowdey: And he has to raise taxes to pay for it, consequently, which nobody ever likes that. And on top of it all, he has to deal with his son, Aurangzeb, who - it must run in the family - is rebelling against his father.

Katie Lambert: In 1658, Shah Jahan's rule is over. His son has won this battle, and beheaded his brothers, and he sent his father to prison in the Red Fort in Agra, and somewhat poetically, from there Shah Jahan could see the Taj Mahal. He was buried with Mumtaz Mahal, and you can tell that he didn't plan to be there because this part doesn't look like anything else.

Sarah Dowdey: And some people think he was honoring his father by putting him in this amazing mausoleum, but other folks think that he was actually spiting his father because symmetry is reserved for God and Islam, so it might have bothered his son that the Taj Mahal was just so perfect. Everything is so symmetrical, and he tries to mess him up by putting the tomb in and throwing everything off-center.

Katie Lambert: It's the only asymmetrical element in there, pretty much.

Sarah Dowdey: If you were really OCD, it would probably drive you crazy looking at this tomb chamber.

Katie Lambert: We're fortunate that the Taj Mahal became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 because for a while there, it didn't look so great.

Sarah Dowdey: No. By the mid-19th century, the Taj Mahal was abandoned and in this terrible state of disrepair and some of the British colonialists were actually looting stuf f from the Taj Mahal, the precious stones, the semi-precious stones. There's potentially a myth that the first British Governor-General of India actually planned to dismantle the Taj and sell off the marble, which would be terrible.

Katie Lambert: Didn't people do that with the Coliseum and different ancient -

Sarah Dowdey: Well, the pyramids. All the limestone has been plundered except the very tip. But eventually, it becomes a pleasure resort for the British, and Lord Curzon is especially notable for helping preserve it and launching a major conservation effort.By the mid-1990s, they were having problems with the environmental affects of the air on the stone, and so the Indian government launched this multi-million dollar restoration effort, which is still going on, to scrub the exterior, restore the red sandstone main gates, and replace the semi-precious inlays. In the long term, they might even try to recreate the original gardens.

Katie Lambert: The Taj Mahal gets 2.2 million visitors a year, and a lot of them are honeymooners. Princess Diana and Prince Charles were supposed to celebrate their 10-year anniversary there, but she ended up going by herself and sitting on this bench that now people love to pose by. So that brings us back to our question - Is the Taj Mahal a monument to love? And opinions on this are a little mixed.According to an article I read by Shane Tasker, Gandhi thought it was a monument to oppression. V.S. Naipaul said it was a building without a function, and there's one historical revisionist, P.N. Oak, who's tried to say that the Taj Mahal was built by a Hindu king and not by Shah Jahan, who was a Muslim, and he says it was a Hindu temple to Shiva, but we're going to go ahead and say that's a crackpot theory.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. Aldous Huxley even - he did not think much of the Taj Mahal at all. He said that, "Marble, I perceive, covers a multitude of sins," so that's a real cut down for this temple, I'd say.

Katie Lambert: But we're going to go with a quote we keep finding in our research from the poet Rabindranath Tagore, who said, "Let the splendor of the diamond, pearl, and ruby vanish like the magic shimmer of the rainbow. Only let this one teardrop, the Taj Mahal, glisten spotlessly bright on the cheek of time."

Sarah Dowdey: So I think Katie and I are putting our votes in the camp that the Taj Mahal is a symbol of love.

Katie Lambert: We are in the love story camp, yes. And that brings us to listener mail.

Sarah Dowdey: Our first email is from Tori, and Tori, I hope that I'm pronouncing your name right, but she wrote, "I'm a podcast subscriber on iTunes and I have to thank you for the podcast about the opium wars. I'm a college student, and my final in East Asian history included an essay about the opium wars. Your descriptions matched our notes so closely that I was able to listen a few times and write my essay thoroughly. I received the best grade in the class thanks to you. You have a listener for life." So this is obviously an awesome email, and we're glad that we were able to help you out.

Katie Lambert: And we got another email from Dave in St. Louis about Traveller and Little Sorrel from our podcast on history's greatest battle horses. He says, "Just in case fellow listeners wanted to pay their respects to both of these famous Confederate mounts, it can be done in one trip. It turns out that in order to get to VMI, you have to pass through Washington and Lee's campus. In fact, you even pass right by Lee Chapel, so even in death; Little Sorrel is not more than a short mile away from Traveller."So thanks to Dave for that one! And going back to our Valentine's Day theme, if you would like to read more about how love works, go to our homepage at www.HowStuffWorks.com, and if you'd like to follow us on Twitter, we're at missedinhistory.