You can relive the history of the great Muslim Mogul Indian Empire by visiting its magnificent imperial palaces, grand red forts, and great mosques in the northern Indian cities of Delhi and Agra. But the best advice of travellers throughout the ages — and I couldn’t agree more — is that you should visit the Taj Mahal last. Its great beauty and profound, lasting effect on the soul are guaranteed to cast a shadow that dwarfs all the finest palaces, forts, mosques and monuments. In fact, no one has ever felt satisfied even with the most eloquent descriptions or most captivating pictures of the Taj. Trying to appreciate it in only one sensory dimension at a time is like trying to capture the beaming eyes of a person in love, using words and images, instead of the lover’s actual presence.
But novelists, historians and poets have tried, nevertheless. One has written:
"Not architecture! As all others are, But the proud passion of an Emperor’s love Wrought into living stone, which gleams and soars With body of beauty shrining soul and thought."
The Taj (which is Arabic for Crown) is the memorial expression of a grieving man’s love for his dead wife. But it is a gift of life as well, a soaring monument to remember her by, and which has asked all humanity ever since to remember them both.
Out of respect for Shah Jahan, the Muslim Emperor of India, and his beloved wife Queen Mumtaz Mahal, the Taj Mahal should not be described only as a tomb, mausoleum or sepulcher. Although these descriptions are all accurate, they are also restricted to thoughts of death, whereas the Taj was built to celebrate a beautiful life.
The Muslim name of the woman in this love story, a name given by her husband, means "the Exalted One — or the Crown — of the Palace."
And the message of love from a man whose own name meant "Emperor of the World" was this unparalleled building, the Taj Mahal. Over the years it has more than deserved its poetic description as "the most lovable monument ever erected."
Shah Jahan, who ruled from 1628-1658, was the grandson of Akbar the Great who unified most of India in a flourishing Empire. Although the Moguls ruled India for just over three centuries (from 1526 to 1857), they left a lasting legacy on the subcontinent. "They were the geniuses who unified India; they hypnotized her, they branded her, they left their legacy in a sequence of events which reflect their charisma," wrote American historian Waldemar Hansen in his excellent 1972 book, The Peacock Throne: The Drama of Mogul India.
Mumtaz Mahal, a great beauty who married Shah Jahan at age 19, could not know then that less than two decades later, her tragic death during childbirth would inspire her bereaved husband to build the greatest monument of modern times; indeed, a true architectural wonder of the world.
In keeping with Muslim tradition, Mumtaz Mahal was buried under a few feet of earth, where Shah Jahan himself laid her, at the centre of the Taj in the city of Agra. Later, his body would rest beside hers.
Queen Nur Jahan, the aunt of Mumtaz Mahal, was another outstanding Muslim woman. Nur Jahan was married to Emperor Jahangir (Mumtaz Mahal’s father-in- law) who ruled India from 1605 to 1627. Nur Jahan (whose name means the Light of the World) was also known as Nur Mahal (the Light of the Palace). She was one of the most remarkable Queens in history, for she came to rule practically all of India, and is one of only two Muslim Queens — the other was Shagrat-ul-Dor of Egypt — whose signature appears on official state documents.
The Mogul Empire in India began in 1526 with Babur, a descendant of both Ghengis Khan the Tartar, and Tamurlane, the Turk. The Empire ended with the British occupation in 1857.
It was Babur’s grandson, Akbar the Great, who made Agra (situated on the Jumna River) his capital and where he built his magnificent Red Fort of Agra, which took eight years to complete. Akbar also renamed Agra after himself, Akbarabad, when he moved his court there from Delhi.
A few years later, Akbar ordered the creation of another great city only 50 kms from Akbarabad — the magnificent Fatahpur Sikri, near the home of his spiritual teacher, Slim Cheshti. But it was at Agra (or Akbarabad) that Akbar the Great died and was buried. Today, his tomb still attracts visitors.
If Akbar the Great built himself a permanent place in world history, his grandson Shah Jahan made an even stronger imprint with the Taj Mahal.
American writer Patricia Kendall wrote about the Taj in her 1931 book, Come with Me to India: "It is the most beautiful building in the entire world – the most perfect creation of its kind that the mind and hand of man have ever achieved. I have never known of anyone who has been disappointed in this sublime structure, no matter how far he has journeyed. It is a reward for all the distances one may have traveled – a recompense for all one may have endured to reach it. It far exceeds all anticipations."
I fully agree.