June 17, 1631 — Mumtaz Mahal, the beloved wife of an emperor, died on this day leaving her husband consumed with grief. So much so that he spent 22 years constructing an incredible monument on her burial ground – the magnificent Taj Mahal.
He was Shah Jahan who entered the world in 1592 at Lahore, then capital city of the Mughal Empire, as Prince Shihab-ud-din Muhammad Khurram.
He was the son of Jehangir, the fourth Mughal emperor of India and the grandson of Akbar the Great. The name Khurram, meaning "joyful", was given to the prince by Akbar.
He became an impressive military leader but also a renowned architect. Among the many titles that he received is one that seems today to be most appropriate: "The Builder of the Marvels”.
Shah Jahan’s life would change forever in 1607 when he was just fourteen years old. The annual Meena Bazaar was being held in the imperial city of Agra when the ladies of the palace, including Mughal princesses, would hold a mock market place and set up stalls to sell goods.
The Mughal princes and other royalty and noblemen would indulge in playful banter with the stallholders and perhaps buy a few articles.
According to legend, 14-year-old Shah Jahan was wandering through the bazaar when he spotted a girl selling silk and glass beads. It was love at first sight and the prince immediately went to his father and declared that he wanted to marry the girl.
She was Arjumand Banu Begum, a 15-year-old Muslim Persian princess. The couple began an intense relationship and were married five years later – the date chosen by court astrologers.
Shah Jahan’s father died in 1628 and the son then became Emperor. Immediately, the new ruler bestowed upon his wife the title of Mumtaz Mahal, roughly meaning the “Jewel of the Palace”.
Although Shah Jahan had other wives, his relationship with them, according to the official court chronicler Qazwini, "had nothing more than the status of marriage. The intimacy, deep affection, attention and favour which His Majesty had for the Cradle of Excellence (Mumtaz) exceeded by a thousand times what he felt for any other".
She was indeed his inseparable companion and even went with him on military campaigns.
Tragically, in 1631, complications set in while Mumtaz Mahal was giving birth to their 14th child, and she died. She was 38 years old.
Shah Jahan was so consumed with grief that he ordered the court into mourning for two years. Then he began the task of erecting the world's most beautiful monument in memory of his beloved.
Construction of the Taj Mahal over Mumtaz Mahal’s burial site at Agra took 22 years using the labour of about 20,000 men and cost Shah Jahan most of his royal treasury. The bill was estimated at the time to be about 32 million rupees, which today would be around 70 billion rupees (about U.S. $916 million).
Different types of marble were used and brought to the site from various regions and countries including Rajasthan, Punjab, China, Tibet, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and Arabia. More than 1,000 elephants were procured for the marble’s transportation.
As many as 28 varieties of semi-precious and precious stones were used to adorn the Taj with exquisite inlay work. And the colour of the monument appears to change at different times of the day.
Now a Unesco World Heritage site, the Taj Mahal counts among the Seven Wonders of the World, attracting up to four million visitors a year. English poet Edwin Arnold described it as "not a piece of architecture, as other buildings are, but the proud passion of an emperor's love wrought in living stones.”
When Shah Jahan died in 1666, aged 74, his body was placed in a tomb next to that of Mumtaz Mahal inside the monument. Apart from the Taj Mahal, other noble structures associated with his name include the Red Fort of Delhi, Jama Masjid of Delhi, Section of Agra Fort, the Wazir Khan Mosque and the Moti Masjid in Lahore, Pakistan.
* The Taj Mahal hit international headlines in 1992 when it was visited by Diana, Princess of Wales. She and her husband, Prince Charles, were on an official tour of India and it was expected that the royal couple would visit the beautiful monument together. But amid rumours swirling about the state of their marriage, Diana turned up alone. Charles was said to be “at a business meeting”.
With 30 to 40 photographers gathered, Diana sat on a bench (now known as Lady Di’s Chair) while her picture was taken in front of the Taj Mahal. The irony was lost on no-one as the image of a princess, alone at a glorious monument to love, was flashed around the world.
Later that year Diana and Charles officially separated.
Published: December 21, 2020