I wonder why we don’t consult astrologists more often. It definitely worked for Prince Khurram, who was to succeed his father as emperor of the Indian Mughal Empire. When the beautiful Arjumand Banu, a daughter from a family of Persian nobility, was betrothed to him in 1607, the court astrologers suggested May 10th, 1612 as their most suitable wedding date. If married on that date, the astrologers claimed, their marriage would be a very happy one. Prince Khurram and Arjumand Banu waited 5 years and their marriage proved to be a match made in heaven.
Right from the start, both shared a very deep love for each other, and while Khurram did have other wives beside Arjumand, they were mere obligations to him. In fact, Arjumand asked him not to have any children with his other wives, a request he complied with. Khurram was very taken with his bride, so much so that he gave her the title “Mumtaz Mahal”, the Chosen One of the Palace.
Agra, a city in northern India’s Uttar Pradesh state, is home to the iconic Taj Mahal, a mausoleum built for the Mughal ruler Shah Jahan’s wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died in childbirth in 1631. Set behind a reflecting pool inside a courtyard defined by 4 minarets, the imposing main building features a massive dome and intricately carved white marble inlaid with precious stones.
In those days, succession to the throne was not a matter of birthright, it was a matter of fighting your way to the top, consolidating power and eliminating your competition. Already at a young age, Khurram’s bravery and success in the battle field earned him the name Shah Jahan, King of the World. In 1626, when Jahan was 34, the prince rebelled against his own father, Emperor Jahangir. Unfortunately, his attempt to remove his dad from power was crushed and he was placed under house arrest. In the end it didn’t really matter because one year later his father died and Shah Jahan was crowned fifth Mughal Emperor.
While Emperor Jahangir was a liberal Muslim, his son Jahan was more strict and conservative in his religious views. Orthodox and pious, Jahan imposed Sharia Law and began to demolish Hindu temples shortly after taking over as Emperor. He also hated Christians and did not allow any churches to be built during his reign. Islamic festivals were celebrated with great pomp as the Mughal Empire was ushered into a time of unprecedented wealth and power.
It appears that Shah Jahan was always busy crushing rebellions in far flung regions of his empire and annexing new territory for the Mughal kingdom. Wherever he went during his early years in power, Mumtaz was always by his side. Court scribes and historians go to unheard length to describe the erotic and intimate relationship the two enjoyed. Mumtaz was not only his greatest love but also his confidante and advisor. As the wife of the Emperor, she wielded enormous power. Mumtaz was entrusted with the Imperial Seal, which allowed her to review official documents in their final draft. How Mumtaz managed to carry to term 14 pregnancies and travel with her husband so extensively during their 19 years of marriage, is beyond my comprehension. As it was typical of that time, only 7 of the 14 children lived long enough to reach adulthood.
In 1631, the marital bliss came to a tragic end. Shortly after giving birth to their 14th child, Mumtaz died from severe post-partum haemorrhaging. Mumtaz was 38 years old. Devastated and grief-stricken, Jahal went into secluded mourning for one year. He was inconsolable. When he re-surfaced, his hair had turned white, his back was bent and his face worn. Jahal’s 17-year old daughter Jahanara cared for her dad during his time of grieving.
To remember his wife and honour her in death, Jahal did not wait long before he started planning a mortuary temple. Being passionate about the arts and architecture, he took great care in selecting the best designers and architects. The Taj Mahal was to become the structural masterpiece of the Mughal Empire, a temple inspired by the devotion Jahal and Mumtaz shared for each other and a monument of love. But Jahal also thought of the Taj Mahal as a place where people would find solace and comfort. In his own words he described the Taj as follows:
“Should guilty seek asylum here,
Like one pardoned, he becomes free from sin.
Should a sinner make his way to this mansion,
All his past sins are to be washed away.
The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs;
And the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes.
In this world this edifice has been made;
To display thereby the creator’s glory.”
Combining elements of Persian and Indian architecture, the outside of the Taj was to be made of white marble inlaid with black marble and semi-precious stones. It took 20,000 workers and craftsmen 16 years to build the Taj Mahal on the northern banks of the Yamuna River in Agra. The construction of the surrounding buildings and the garden took an additional 5 years.
The most striking feature of the Taj Mahal is its almost perfect symmetry. Being exactly as wide as it is tall, the Taj Mahal has a square floor plan and an unequal octagon shape. To reinforce symmetry, 4 minarets, each 40 m (130 ft) in height, were placed on each corner of the complex. They were designed as working minarets from which the muezzins perform the calls to prayer. In a very clever move, the minarets were built to slightly lean away from the building. In case of an earth quake, the minarets would fall away from the Taj. As part of the decorative elements inside and outside the Taj structure, passages of the Qur’an were inlaid in the marble. The calligraphy near the top of the central archway is 25% larger in print than the calligraphy at the lower elevations. The skewed writing was done to compensate for the greater viewing distance.
The main chamber of the building holds the two false sarcophagi of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan. The actual graves, however, are located beneath in an underground crypt. Muslim tradition forbids the ornate decoration of graves and tombs. As a result, the crypt holding both coffins is quite plain. Mumtaz’s grave is engraved with the 99 names of Allah, while Jahal’s reads: “He traveled from this world to the banquet hall of Eternity on the night of the twenty-sixth of the month of Rajab, in the year 1076 Hijri.”
Getting back to my story: Jahal reigned the Mughal Empire for another 27 years after Mumtaz’s death. Under his rule, the Empire became extremely powerful and rich. At one time Jahal commanded an army of 911,400 infantry, musketeers and artillery men. He was a prolific builder, employing only the best architects, artisans and craftsmen. It is believed that, under Shah Jahal’s rule, the Mughal Empire had the highest gross domestic product of any country in the world.
In 1658, after a 30-year rule as the Mughal’s 5th Emperor, Jahal became ill. Dara Shikoh, Jahal’s eldest son, took over as regent, but when it looked like Dara was going to take over the throne on a permanent basis, his three brothers assembled their own armies and battled it out in Agra. Eventually, Aurangzeb, the third oldest son of Mumtaz and Jahal, came out on top. In a brazen move, Aurangzeb cut off the water supply to Fort Agra, the home of his family, forcing his dad to surrender. Despite his father’s improved health, Aurangzeb swiftly declared his dad unfit to rule, executed his brothers and took over as the Mughal’s 6th Emperor. Jahal was placed under house arrest by his own son at Fort Agra. While the surroundings were nice and Aurangzeb treated his father well, it must have been tough for Jahal to be stuck in prison. Still, from his window he had a beautiful view of his architectural masterpiece, the Taj Mahal, where the love of his life, Mumtaz Mahal, had been laid to rest. Jahal lived at Fort Agra under house arrest for 8 years. His eldest daughter, Jahanara, voluntarily joined him during his imprisonment and was by his side when Jahal, once again, turned ill and weakened. When sensing the end of his life, Jahal recited the Islamic Declaration of Faith from the Qur’an and died on February 1, 1666 at age 74. Emperor Shah Jahal was laid to rest beside his beloved wife in the Taj Mahal, and with that, a great love story found its end.