Mumtaz Mahal: The Woman Who Inspired The Taj Mahal
The Taj Mahal in 2019. Source: (Photo by Diego Cupolo/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
If you were asked "What is the most popular tourist attraction in India?" you would most likely say that it is the Taj Mahal in Agra in the state of Uttar Pradesh. You would be absolutely right: According to Indian government sources, this historic, UNESCO-designated world heritage site sees between 7 and 8 million people per year. Aside from its awe-inspiring, graceful beauty, much of the Taj Mahal's allure is its compelling backstory of love and death in the form of the marriage between Emperor Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal. Why was the Taj Mahal built?
In the early 16th century, the Turkic warlord Babur invaded India, and after a battle in 1526, he established the Mughal (or Moghul) Empire. The Mughal Dynasty controlled most of the Indian subcontinent until it slowly declined, with the last remnants being incorporated into the British Empire in the mid--19th century. Babur himself claimed a fine conquering pedigree, being a direct descendant of the warlord Timur and claiming relations to the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan. ("Mughal" is the Persian word for "Mongol.")
Babur's great-great-grandson was the handsome and dashing Shahab-ud-din Muhammad Khurram, who was born on January 5, 1592. After some intrigues worthy of a Game of Thrones or two, he became the Mughal Emperor on January 19, 1628, under the name Shah Jahan, meaning "Emperor of the World." It is by that name that he is best known to history. As a ruler, Shah Jahan sought to expand the Mughal Empire with costly wars that, by the end of his reign, nearly bankrupted the empire, yet he was also tolerant for the age, preaching equality between Muslims and Hindus.
Shah Jahan was also a proponent of the arts and architecture and had a strong sense of the aesthetic. He set the tone for his reign by ordering the construction of the famous jeweled Peacock Throne of the Mughal emperors as well as the most famous examples of Mughal white marble-style buildings. During his reign, he also constructed a new capital, Shahjahanabad, which would later be known as Delhi.
Shah Jahan had three wives, but the one he loved most was the second, Arjumand Banu Begum, whom he married in 1612. She would best be known by the title Mumtaz Mahal, "the exalted one of the palace," a title conferred upon her by Shah Jahan. As one chronicler wrote, "his whole delight was centered in his illustrious lady to such an extent that he did not feel toward the others one-thousandth part of the affection he did for her."
While there is only limited information on Mumtaz Mahal, by most accounts, she was educated, cultured, and beautiful. She was fluent in both Arabic and Persian and an accomplished poet. She was charismatic as well as modest, friendly, and direct.
Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan had 14 children, seven of whom reached adulthood, and Mumtaz died giving birth to the last on June 17, 1631. Upon the death of his beloved wife, Shah Jahan was devastated. He hid from the public eye for an entire week. When he did emerge, he appeared dour and disheveled, refusing to don his fine linens or enjoy the arts and culture that he once did. It was said that his eyesight deteriorated from his constant weeping to the point that he needed glasses, and his beard, which had previously only sported a few white hairs, had become fully one-third white.
Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal had an almost monogamous relationship, but after her death, the emperor gave himself up to what one source described as "venery." He took concubines, had affairs with the wives of his nobles, and in one instance, held an eight-day fair for women he desired. Despite this behavior, it is apparent Shah Jahan's true love was Mumtaz Mahal. In 1632, he ordered the construction of what he considered the only fitting tomb for her: the Taj Mahal.
Among Mughal sources, the Taj Mahal was called the "illumined tomb" or simply rauza ("tomb"), only called "Taj Mahal" by foreign visitors. Taj Mahal means "place of the crown," and while it may seem that the site was named after Mumtaz Mahal, this may have just been coincidental. There are other theories as to the origin of the name.
The Taj Mahal is a complex centered on the iconic mausoleum. Courtyards and gateways abound at the site, which overlooks the Jumna River, while the interior is filled with delicate Mughal artistry and beautiful Islamic calligraphy. The tomb itself is 243.5 feet high and required a ramp 2.5 miles long to build. It took over 20 years and 20,000 laborers to complete.
Since she died in childbirth, Mumtaz Mahal was considered a martyr in the Muslim tradition, and the Taj Mahal is her shrine. As such, Islamic allegory abounds throughout the Taj Mahal. The entire complex is meant to represent paradise complete with four water channels that represent the four Rivers of Paradise. On one side of the Taj Mahal is a mosque, and on the other, a hospice for visiting pilgrims.
Shah Jahan commemorated Mumtaz Mahal yearly at the Taj until his death in 1666. There is a historic rumor that Shah Jahan planned to build another Taj for himself across the river in black marble to mirror his wife's tomb. However, this is apocryphal, though it would have been quite a feat if it was done.
The last years of Shah Jahan's life were unhappy. After falling ill in 1658, one of his sons seized the throne, beheading two brothers and imprisoning his father. Shah Jahan recovered, but he spent the rest of his days under house arrest from a vantage point where he could see the Taj Mahal. After his death, he, too, was entombed in the Taj next to his wife. It is evident that Shah Jahan never intended to be interred there since, while his wife has the central place in the mausoleum, his sarcophagus is set to the side. These sarcophagi, curiously enough, are false. In reality, the pair is buried on a lower level.
By the 19th century, the Taj Mahal had fallen into much disrepair. It had been vandalized by the occupying British, who chiseled precious stones and items out of the structure. However, in the late 19th century, the British viceroy ordered a full restoration, which was completed by 1908. Today, the Indian government controls the site and has enforced strict pollution standards in the area for preservation purposes. In the early 21st century, the Taj Mahal was named one of the new Seven Wonders of the World in a campaign of over 100 million votes.