Building the World

Taj Mahal, India

The Taj Mahal, by M&G Therin-Weise, from UNESCO at

Think of Indian cuisine and a blend of spices may come to mind. Was the same appreciation for diversity present in the political, social, and spiritual culture in the time of the Taj Mahal? Artisans numbering 20,000, hailing from surrounding countries, placed jewels from India, China, and Afghanistan. Today, could the people of different skills and faiths in the region take inspiration from the Taj?


The man who built the Taj Mahal as a monument to love didn’t even own the land. Although Shah Jahan was the king, emperor, royal ruler whose title was his Exalted Majesty (Hazrat-I-A’Ia), he had to acquire the land from a local. The Royal Farman (contract) states that Raja Jai Singh will donate the land to the king for the location of the mausoleum of the Queen, and in exchange His Majesty will transfer ownership of four mansions:

Shah Jahan, from The Telegraph at

Haveli of Raja Bhagwandas
Haveli of Madho Singh
Haveli of Rupsi Gairagi, in the locality of Atga Khan Bazar
Haveli of Chan Singh, son of Suraj Singh, in the aforementioned locality.

Haveli is linguistically the ancient relative of our contemporary word, “hovel.” Of course, this in no way implies the King gave Raja Jai Singh some broken down, dilapidated shacks. Rather, this similarity of words with divergent meanings is what is called in linguistics “pejoration.” It’s the same with our word, “silly,” which comes from the German, “selig” or spiritually blessed.


Jai Singh’s land was needed because a river runs through it — the Yamuna River.

Why was a river needed? The builders of the Taj Mahal needed land with a river because the very size of the massive mausoleum, all crafted of marble,would require a force to support its heavy structure. This force was the Yamuna River, functioning like the keel of a boat.

But now, the Taj may join the Tower of Pisa as a noted leaning monument. During a festival celebrating the 350th anniversary of the monument in 2004, officials noted that one of the four minarets was leaning. The cause? According to Ram Nath, former head of history at Rajasthan University: “Originally the pressure of the river flowing by the Taj kept the building erect. But over the years, the Yamuna has dried up and the building has no support.” (“Taj Mahal May Sink Unless Preventative Steps Taken,” New Zealand Herald, October 22, 2004,


The very word “paradise” means garden. “Para” means around, just as in “parameter.” Gardens often surround a dwelling, making it into a special abode encircled by beauty and refreshment.

In the lands of the desert, gardens often include pools and fountains. Such enclosures are deeply refreshing to those who have ridden through sands. In fact, in many of the desert cultures, such as the ancient dwellers of Babylon, gardens with water features were treasured. Just like an oasis in the desert, a garden with water cools the soul.

Gardens therefore must surround the place of rest of a queen so beloved as Mumtaz Mahal. In fact, in the original documents, design of the mausoleum as, a “Paradise-like” tomb is specified.

Plan for the Taj Mahal gardens, from Cornell University at

Like Persian gardeners, the landscapers of the Taj endeavored to depict heaven. There were traditional formulas. For example, in Islam, the number 4 is holy. The gardens were therefore laid out in a quadrate design. There are two marble canals leading to the mausoleum and fountains bubble within these streams; these canals cross in the center of the garden, dividing it into four sections that are again divided into sixteen flowerbeds. Among the plantings are trees of cypress, symbolizing death.


In addition to helping to hold up the building, the Yamuna River waters the gardens of the Taj Mahal. A series of purs (manual systems of drawing water using a rope and bucket pulled by draft animals) originally brought the water into a broad channel leading to a giant storage tank. This tank was raised high by means of a second series of purs, again using bullocks for labor. Everything is still preserved except for the ramp used by the bullocks.

An overhead channel, set on arches, carried water to yet another storage tank even bigger than the first, then to three supply tanks, the last one having pipe mouths in the eastern wall. The pipes run below, travel underground and into the Taj garden. One pipeline runs to the Mosque to supply the fountains, another to the lotus pond and canal.

In an ever-normal water pressure system, fountain pipes were not connected with the copper pipes, because this approach would have resulted in slowing volume and pressure. Rather, a copper pot sits under each fountain pipe. Water fills the pot first and only then rises to the fountain. The pressure in the pot is uniform at all times, so the water in the fountains is likewise steady.

There is even a water distribution system that flows through the canals for watering flowers, and then smaller tributaries reach all the way out to the tall trees, dripping slowly to nourish their deep roots.


When the Moghuls took control of India in 1526, they introduced new ideas. Some historians consider Akbar (1543-1605) to be one of the most influential rulers because of his efforts to promote appreciation of both Muslim and Hindu cultures. Akbar hosted debates in his court where Hindu and Muslim leaders exchanged ideas; the ruler also included non-Muslims in his strategic advisory team. In 1581, he proposed a new “Divine Faith” which he hoped would bring a peaceful union among the different religions, and while it was never adopted officially, it had wide-ranging influence.

Shah Jahan, Akbar’s grandson, would continue the tradition of appreciating diversity. The ruler invited the best in the world to work on the Taj. It took 20,000 people to build the Taj Mahal. There was a leadership cadre of 37 who headed sections of carvers, in-layers, and calligraphers. Both local laborers and distinguished visiting experts contributed. When a great dome designer was needed, the Turkish architect, Israil Khan was hired. For mosaics in fanciful shapes of vines and flowers, Chinranjilal from Delhi was engaged. Calligraphy, so central to Muslim art, was done by Amanat Khan from the city of Shiraz, and confirmed by his own signature on the Taj’s gateway. Building materials were also from around the world:

Diamonds – India
Rubies  – India
Jade – China
Turquoise – Tibet
Amber – Burma/Myanmar
Lapis Lazuli – Afghanistan

There are 43 different kinds of jewels in the building. Between the materials procured and the workers who were called together to build it, the Taj Mahal was a true multinational project.

But if calligrapher Amanat Khan had only convinced the architect of the Taj to similarly sign his (or her – Muslim women of the era worked for pay, were educated like men) name, the mystery of who designed the Taj would be solved. Some claim Geronimo Veroneo of Italy, others believe it was Austin de Bordeaux, a silversmith from France, but the architect was perhaps someone local who knew the river.


Mumtaz Mahal, 17th or 18th century Mughal painting.

Smitten as a 15-year-old royal when he first spotted and flirted with his future wife when their glance met in the town bazaar, Shah Jahan remained deeply in love. When he became head of state in 1628, the king renamed his wife Mumtaz Mahal, meaning, “Chosen One of the Palace.” He promised to build her a splendid white residence; little did he know he would too soon build a white marble mausoleum instead.

So devoted were the royal couple that Mumtaz accompanied her husband into battle in 1631, even though she was nine months’-pregnant with their 14th child. She died giving birth on the battlefield. The king cried constantly for a week, damaging his eyes to the extent that he had to wear glasses ever after. From the shock of the loss of his beloved, Shah Jahan’s hair turned grey the first week following Mumtaz’s death. His only comfort was planning the Taj Mahal. He is now interred with her in what is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful buildings in the world – certainly the most romantic.

Document of Authorization

Below is a series of translations regarding the land agreement made for the acquisition of what became the Taj Mahal’s grounds:

Sunday, the 28th of the month of Dai, Ilahi year 6, corresponding to the 14th of Rajab, year 1043…The ever-obyed farman, as effulgent as the sun and exalted as the sky, was issued:

The mansions, together with their dependencies, belonging to the august crown estate, in exchange for the mansion belonging to Raja Jai Singh, which that Pillar of the State, for the sake of the Illumined Tomb, willingly and voluntarily donated as a gift, have hereby been granted to us by the said Raja and settled on him in full ownership.

List of properties:
Four properties have been granted to the Raja:

Haveli of Raja Bhagwandas
Haveli of Madho Singh
Haveli of Rupsi Gairagi, in the locality of Atga Khan Bazar
Haveli of Chan Singh, son of Suraj Singh, in the aforementioned locality.

– From W.E. Begley and Z.A. Desai, comp. and trans., Taj Mahal: The Illumined Tomb: An Anthology of Seventeenth-Century Mughal and European Documentary Sources, Sponsored by Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1989.

VOICES OF THE FUTURE: Discussion and Implications

Art of the Deal: We’ve all seen photographs of the Taj Mahal but how many of us have read the real estate contract? The Taj Mahal required a public/private land-swap real estate deal, with a contract whose signers “the endorsement in the handwriting of Jumlar al-Mulki Madar al-Mahami,” “the endorsement in the handwriting of…Mir Jumla,” “the endorsement in the handwriting of…Makramat Khan,” and the entry of the agreement in the news register – are the medieval Indian equivalents of a lawyer, a notary public, and registrar of deeds. What does the contract reveal about the advantages of public registry? In an era where rulers might have taken land by force, what does the Taj contract reveal about the evolution of private property?

Diversity: The Moghuls came to India in 1526, finding the original inhabitants of the region already advanced in religion and spirituality. Historians tell of Akbar (1543-1605) who hosted debates in his court where Hindu and Muslim leaders exchanged ideas, resulting in a broadening of the culture. Akbar also included non-Muslims in his strategic advisory team, and dropped a hated tax that penalized Hindus. In 1581, Akbar proposed a new “Divine Faith,” which he hoped would bring a peaceful union among the different religions. While it was never adopted officially, it had wide-ranging influence, and may be considered one of the examples of diversity and unity. Might today’s diverging faiths emulate this approach?


To read the complete chapter, members of the University of Massachusetts Boston may access the e-book through Healey Library Catalog and  ABC-CLIO here.  Alternatively the volumes can be accessed at WorldCat, or at Amazon for purchase. Further resources are available onsite at the University of Massachusetts Boston, Healey Library, including some of the following: 

Building the World Collection Finding Aid

(*indicates printed in notebook series)

Photo, “The Taj – Agra,” Consulate General of India, New York, NY, Photo F-2408

“Royal Farman to Raja Jai Singh, Dated 2 Jumada II 1043, Sixth Regional Year,” with author’s notes.

“Body of Mumtaz Mahal Taken to Akbarabad for Burial, and Return of Price Shah Shuja’ and others to Burhanpur,” Mughal Histories. Excerpt.

“Royal Farman to Raja Jai Singh, dated 28 Shariwar, Fifth Regional Year,” Bikaner, Rajasthan State Archives, S.N.27 (old 38).

“Royal Farman to Raja Jai Singh, dated 15 Bahman, Fifth Regional Year.”

“Copy of Royal Farman to Raja Jai Singh, dated 26 Jumada II 1043, Sixth Regional Year.” Jaipur, City Palace, Kapad Dwara Collection, K.D. No 176/R. See: Descriptive List of Documents in the Kapad Dwara Collection, Jaipur, National Register of Private Records, No. 1, Part I (Delhi, National Archives of India, 1971; G.N. Bahura and Chandramani Singh, Catalogue of Historical Documents in Kapad Dwara, Jaipur (Jaipur, Jaigarh Public Charitable Trust, 1988.)

“Transcript of Waqf Document for Wazir Khan’s Mosque at Lahore, dated 1 Ramazan 1051,” Text published in Lahore, Its History, Architectural Remains and Antiquities (Lahore, 1956, pages 218-21. This edition was reprint of 1892 edition.) Note. This is not the Taj. Wazir Khan was a trusted noble in Shah Jahan’s court and was appointed to escort the body of Mumtaz Mahal to Agra. He was the governor of Panjab, Lahore. This document is the deed of endowment (waqf) for the Lahore Mosque. While the deed of endowment for the Taj is yet to be found and may be lost to history, this waqf would be rather similar and is contemporaneous, as it went into effect just as the Taj was nearing completion.

Taj Mahal, The Illumined Tomb: An Anthology of Seventeenth-Century Mughal and European Documentary Sources. Compiled and Translated by W. E. Begley and Z.A. Desai, The Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Seattle: University of Washington Press. Excerpts.

“Agra,” The Encyclopaedia Brittanica: A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, Literature and General Information. Eleventh Edition, 1910, p. 382.

“Indian Architecture,” The Encyclopaedia Brittanica: A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, Literature and General Information. Eleventh Edition, 1910, p. 432-4.

The Seventy Wonders of the Ancient World. Christopher Scarre, editor. London: Thames&Hudson, 1999. Excerpt.

“The Plan of the Taj Mahal,” excerpt from a book, source not identified. This reference gives dimensions of the land and buildings


“Taj Mahal – Building Details,” Chief builders and materials used. http:/

“Paradise,” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000. Word history from old Iranian Avestan pairida eza – a wall enclosing a garden: pariri – “around” and daeza – “wall.”

“Society and Culture in the Mughal Empire,”

*“The Taj Gardens and th Ingenious Water Devices – Bageecha,”

*“Taj Mahal,”

*“Taj Mahal, Commentary”

“Taj Mahal lesson plans for teachers and related materials,”

Creative Commons License

Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.

Skip to toolbar