The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs

As regular visitors to Fragments will know, I’ve recently returned from a tour of 17th century India. Taking in the forts, mosques, temples and buildings of mogul Rajasthan brought new layers of meaning to my research into early modern England.  For example, every day goods such as cloves, pepper and nutmeg, and fabrics like silk and calico, were finding their way into the homes of Shakespeare’s London via the East India Company, which was founded in 1600 and given a royal charter by Elizabeth I.  That trade links between England and the Indian sub-continent had been established so early came as something of a surprise to me, and as I delved a little deeper, by way of a little bookshop in Jaipur, in which I spent embarrassingly large amounts of rupees, one name in particular came to the fore again and again. The 17th century mogul emperor Shah Jahan. I became quite fascinated by Shah Jahan, quizzing the Indian historians I met over Kingfisher beers late at night, and poring over accounts of his building works as well as his love life.  His name will no doubt be unfamiliar to many, but his achievements certainly will not. It was Shah Jahan who oversaw the construction of the Taj Mahal, one of the seven wonders of the world, and possibly the most beautiful building on earth.  I visited the Taj Mahal on Independence Day, which somehow lent the occasion a certain gravity.  I was both awe-inspired, and humbled, and the story behind this most famous of monuments is as enduring as the building itself.

Shah Jahan (1592-1666), became the fifth Mogul ruler of Rajasthan when he succeeded his father, Jahangir, in 1628. Born in Lahore, Prince Shihab-ud-din Muhammad Khurram came to the throne at the age of thirty-five. He was a clever and intelligent, and had already impressed many with his flair for building works, having enlarged the fort at Agra, home of the then royal court, at the age of 16. In 1607, he became engaged to Arjumand Banu Begum, the daughter of a Persian noble.  The legend goes that their eyes met in the marketplace and it was love at first sight. After the wedding, Khurram nicknamed his wife Jewel of the Palace, or Mumtaz Mahal.

Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan 

On Khurram’s accession to the throne, the court at Agra, which he preferred to that at Delhi, was greatly expanded. He built public and private audience halls, a residential hall known as the Court of the Grapes overlooking the river, and a congregational mosque known as the Pearl Mosque.   In 1638 Jahan moved the court from Agra to Delhi, forming a new city known as Shahjahanabad.  Its design was undertaken by Ahmed Lahwari, the chief architect of the Taj Mahal.  This walled city included water courses, homes for the nobility, mosques, gardens, and a fortified palace known as the Red Fort.

Red Fort at Delhi

During their marriage, Mumtaz and Shah Jahan were inseparable.  She was not his only wife; he married two other women during his reign, but his relationships with these wives was said to be nothing more than ceremonial. Mumtaz was the true love of his life. But while on campaign with her husband in 1631, she died giving birth to their fourteenth child.  Khurram was utterly grief-stricken. It is said he ordered his court into a period of mourning from which he emerged white-haired and broken.  Rumours abound that Mumtaz, on her deathbed, demanded that Khurram build her a lasting monument, a building unrivalled throughout the world, in order to demonstrate his love for her.  Whatever the truth, Shah Jahan began construction of a mausoleum for Mumtaz in 1632 on the banks of the river Yamuna in Agra.  ‘He intends it shall excel all other,’ wrote an East India employee travelling through Agra in the 1630s. ‘The building goes on with excessive labour and cost, prosecuted with extraordinary diligence, gold and silver [being] esteemed common metall and marble as ordinarie stone.’

The design of the Taj Mahal is purely Islamic.  It is said to represent the image of the Throne of God; the marble dome which sits over Mumtaz’s tomb is 35 metres high, and the four minarets set at each of the four corners are over 40 metres high.  Earlier buildings overseen by Shah Jahan were constructed from red sandstone, but the Taj Mahal was built entirely from white marble, inlaid with semi-precious stones.  As a Muslim tomb, pictorial representations were strictly forbidden, so in addition to the exquisite patterns laid into the marble, verses from the Koran decorate and adorn the building.   The Taj Mahal was completed in 1643 and was instantly considered a masterpiece.

In 1657, Khurram’s son, Aurangzeb, seized power and imprisoned his father in the fort at Agra with a small retinue.  Now in poor health, and under house arrest, Shah Jahan spent the remainder of his days in a small suite of rooms which overlooked the river and his monument to Mumtaz.

 Shah Jahan’s rooms at Agra Fort
View of the Taj Mahal from Agra Fort

It is said that Khurram planned to build a mirror monument to himself in black marble across the river from the Taj Mahal, but this claim has yet to be substantiated. He said of his wife’s tomb:

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.

On his deathbed in 1666, Shah Jahan reportedly kept his eyes fixed firmly on the Taj Mahal. After his death he was buried alongside his beloved Mumtaz in the dazzling building he had erected in her memory.

Sources for this post are largely confined to the many people I spoke to in India. However some biographical information and other details comes from John Keay’s authoratitive India: A History, Harper Collins, India (2004).
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  • December 3, 2010 - 2:36 pm | Permalink

    I too have become quite entranced by Shah Jahan’s life and work and it’s that which led me here: this piece if very well-written and informative, thanks.

  • August 28, 2010 - 9:39 pm | Permalink

    Beautiful story, beautifully written.

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