World Architecture Series
Taj Mahal

Mughal Architectural Design, Islamic Decoration.

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Taj Mahal, Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India
A superb example of Islamic art and
Mughal (Mogul) architecture.

Taj Mahal (1632-54)


Exterior Decoration
Interior Decoration
More Articles about Art in India

For the chronological evolution of cultures across Asia,
see: Chinese Art Timeline (18,000 BCE - present).

For a short guide to terms
see: Architecture Glossary.

Muslim Art
For more treasures, see:
Museums of Islamic Art.

Art of India
For more details, see:
India: Painting, Sculpture.


Along with the Angkor Wat Khmer Temple in Cambodia and the Kandariya Mahadeva Temple in Madhya Pradesh, the Taj Mahal in Agra, Uttar Pradesh, ranks among the most beautiful examples of religious art in the whole of Asia. A wonderful example of Mughal (Mogul) Islamic architecture, it is comparable to any of the great expressions of Gothic architecture or Renaissance architecture, to be seen in Europe. Situated on the south side of the River Yamuna, near Agra, it was built in the 17th century by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (1592-1666) as a mausoleum and memorial for his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died in childbirth while accompanying the Shah on a military campaign. Designed by a committee of the greatest architects of the day, chaired by the Persian designer Ustad Ahmad Lahauri (1580-1649) and including Abd ul-Karim Ma'mur Khan and Makramat Khan, the Taj Mahal (known originally as "rauza-i munawwara", or illustrious tomb) took 22 years to build and is acknowledged to be the jewel of Islamic art in India. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, and receives more than 3 million visitors a year. In a recent 100-million voter poll, it was voted one of the "New Seven Wonders of the World".

Note: Another site of world importance located in India, is the Auditorium Cave - home to the famous Bhimbetka petroglyphs which are believed by scholars to be the oldest art ever found.


In 1631, the grief-stricken Emperor Shah Jahan - the greatest of the Mughal builders who was responsible for the city of Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi), among and other structures - ordered the building of a tomb to commemorate his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, a Persian princess, who died giving birth to their 14th child, Gauhara Begum.

Construction began in 1632 and the entire site took roughly 22 years to complete, at an estimated cost of about 32 million Rupees (17th century value). The mausoleum itself was completed in 1648; the other buildings and garden were finished some five years later. Roughly 20,000 craftsmen and artisans worked on the project, including calligraphers from Syria and Persia, stone carvers from Bukhara, stone cutters from Baluchistan, mosaicists from southern India, to name but a few of the specialist craftsman employed. On completion, it is said that Shah Jahan ordered the amputation of the chief stone mason's right hand, to prevent the replication of the Taj Mahal's exquisite decoration.

For more about the sorts of skills used to complete the Taj Mahal, see also: Marble Sculpture and Chinese Jade Carving.

In addition, more than 1,000 elephants which were used to transport materials from all over Asia: jasper was brought from the Punjab; white marble from Makrana, Rajasthan; turquoise came from Tibet; Lapis lazuli from Afghanistan; jade and crystal from China; while sapphire was shipped from Sri Lanka and carnelian from Arabia.

Five years after the completion of the project, Shah Jahan was forced to abdicate by his son Abul Muzaffar Aurangzeb (1618-1707), who duly became the 6th Mughal Emperor. Upon Shah Jahan's death in 1666, Aurangzeb had him interred in the mausoleum next to his wife.

During the 18th century, following the invasion of Agra by the Jat rulers of Bharatpur, the Taj Mahal was vandalized and certain items were stolen. By 1850, several areas of the site had fallen into disrepair. At the end of the century, the British viceroy Lord Curzon commissioned a major restoration of the site, which took some 8 years to complete. It was during this restoration that the garden was redesigned with a British-style layout.


The Taj Mahal is renowned for its Mughal architecture, although its style combines elements from Persian, Ottoman Turkish and Indian architecture, and was inspired by certain Timurid and Mughal buildings, such as the Gur-e Amir (the tomb of Timur, Samarkand), Itmad-Ud-Daulah's Tomb ("Baby Taj", Agra), and the Jama Masjid in Delhi. (See also: Ancient Persian Art.) One major difference is that while previous Mughal buildings were mainly built out of red sandstone, Shah Jahan preferred to use white marble inlaid with semi-precious stones.

For a major European religious building completed during the 17th century, see: Saint Peter's Basilica (Rome) (1506-1626).

The central feature of the building complex is the royal tomb containing the cenotaphs of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, enclosed within a perforated marble screen. (Their actual graves lie in a subterranean chamber, directly underneath.) Constructed from a brick and rubble core, veneered with white marble secured by metal dowels, it stands on a square plinth and consists of a symmetrical building with an inner domed roof about 80 feet (24m) in height. This inner dome is surmounted by a spectacular onion-shaped outer dome, about 200 feet (61m) tall, which rests on a central drum surrounded by four octagonal towers, each supporting a small domed pavilion. The outer dome is crowned by a 56-foot high gilded brass finial, in a mixture of Persian and Hindustani styles.

The onion shape of the dome is emphasized by four smaller domed building (chattris) standing at its corners, which open through the roof of the tomb and provide additional light for the interior. A number of tall decorative spires (guldastas), complete with finials, extend upwards from the walls, giving extra emphasis to the height of the dome. mixes traditional Persian and Hindustani decorative elements.

The tomb complex is surrounded on three sides by red sandstone walls, with the river-facing side left open. Outside the walls there are several other mausoleums, built for Shah Jahan's other wives, as well as a red sandstone mosque and a symmetrical building, opposite, which serves as an outhouse. The main gateway (darwaza) into the complex is a large structure whose pishtaq arches are embellished with the same style of calligraphy that decorates the tomb, while its ceilings and walls feature similar geometric designs, to those found in the main buildings of the complex. The entire rectangular complex is overlooked at its corners by four minarets - each more than 130 feet (40m) in height - used by the muezzin to call the faithful to prayer.

Overall, the architecture expresses a beatiful sense of harmony and balance between the individual buildings, as well as a feeling of immense peace. The white marble used throughout the Taj Mahal reflects the changing light, allowing a subtle range of tones that lend the whole complex an ethereal tranquility.

Exterior Decoration

The surfaces of the Taj Mahal contain some of the finest decorative art known to Mughal architecture. Since Islam forbids anthropomorphic sculpture or painting, the decoration consists mainly of abstract art in the form of abstract forms or curvilinear vegetative motifs. These decorative elements, which incorporate a wide variety of media, including murals and mosaic art, as well as calligraphy and architectural features like the relief sculpture found in the spandrels and vaults, or the dados (decorative band) around the lower walls of the tomb. In these bands, the white marble of the mausoleum is inlaid with flower motifs as well as precious stones, amber, coral, jade and lapis lazuli. The Taj Mahal's exterior calligraphy - laid out using a flowery thuluth script - was created in jasper or black marble, set in white marble panels. Almost every outside surface contains some type of art, whether it is incised painting, calligraphic script, carved geometric-style reliefs, or pietra dura inlays. Additional patterns can be seen in the coloured stains applied to the mortared areas of the walls, and the geometric tessellation of contrasting tiles on floors and walkways.

Interior Decoration

The interior decoration of the octagon-shaped chamber of the mausoleum is particularly intricate, with nearly 30 different types of precious and semi-precious gemstones appearing in the chamber's stonework. The walls are ornamented throughout with floral and abstract patterns formed by dado bas-reliefs, intricate pietra dura inlays and complex calligraphic panels, all of which reflect in miniature the decorations seen on the outside.

The royal cenotaphs are enclosed by an intricately carved octagonal marble screen (jali), whose surfaces are inlaid in detail with semi-precious stones forming patterns of fruits, flowers and vines. Each casket is inlaid with precious and semiprecious gemstones, as well as a number of calligraphic inscriptions.


In contrast to most Mughal gardens (charbaghs), which are rectilinear in shape and usually feature a tomb in their centre, the 17-acre (980-foot square) Taj Mahal garden leads up to the tomb instead of surrounding it. According to the Archeological Survey of India, this may be because the Yamuna river itself was also incorporated into the design of the grounds. The principal axis of the garden runs north-south from the gate to the tomb. It is divided into four quarters by four intersecting canals, symbolizing the Four Rivers of Paradise, reinforced with fountains and lined with cypress trees. The four waterways meet at a raised, central lotus pond of white marble, whose surface reflects the image of the mausoleum. Each quarter of the garden is quartered further by avenues of trees and fountains re-landscaped during the 19th century in the formal English style.

More Articles about Art in India

Classical Indian Painting (Up to 1150 CE)
Ajanta, Panamalai, Sittanavasal, Tanjore, and Polotmaruva schools of painting plus late classical Buddhist art in Bengal and Sri Lanka.

Indian Sculpture (3300 BCE - 1850)
Indus Valley culture, Pillars of Ashoka, Gupta sculpture, Elephanta Caves, Pallava, Pandya, Pala, Chandela, Chola and Mughal (Mogul) schools of plastic art.

Post-Classical Indian Painting (14th-16th Century)
Vijayanagar, Gujarat Mewar and Malva schools, plus Hindu art in Orissa.

Mughal Painting (16th-19th Century)
Babur, Akbar, Jahangir painters, plus Mogul painting of the Deccan.

Rajput Painting (16th-19th Century)
Rajastan painters, plus the Upper Punjab schools.


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