Taj was a symbol of imperial power

The Taj Mahal was more than a monument of conjugal love built by Shah Jahan in memory of his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal; it was as much a statement of imperial power and glory, says Ebba Koch, the author of “The Complete Taj Mahal and The Riverfront Gardens of Agra” (published by Thames and Hudson).

In this interview with Manish Chand, Koch, a historian of the Mughal architecture and architectural adviser to the Taj Mahal Conservation Collaborative since 2001, speaks about her life-long affair with the Taj Mahal, the ideology and aesthetics that inspired Shah Jahan, the 17th century Mughal emperor, to essay this ”poetry in stone” to immortalize his love for his wife.

In the process, the Austrian author, a professor of art history at the University of Vienna who became the first Western scholar since independence who was permitted to take measurements of the Taj complex, demolishes some of fond myths clustered around one of the world’s most fabled monuments.

In her book, containing new photographs and elegant drawings by the Indian architect Richard A. Barraud, Koch, provides the first detailed documentation ever published on every building in this sprawling complex.

“What the emperor wanted was an image on earth of the home of Mumtaz Mahal in paradise. It was a platonic concept of sorts,” says Koch in this interview.

Excerpts from the interview:

Q) The Taj Mahal has inspired many books and poems. What motivated you to write yet any other book on this much-written about monument.

A) I saw The Taj on my first trip to India over thirty years ago. I was enormously fascinated by careful geometric plan of the Taj combined with facings on the buildings. During Shah Jahan’s period, we get detailed architectural descriptions of buildings. We don’t have to rely on the guesswork.

Early Mughal emperors like Babur and Jahangir loved descriptions of birds and animals. Shah Jahan was deeply involved with his buildings. During his period, we get a complete picture of the buildings. It’s an enormously rewarding study. By his time, the Mughal empire had become centralised. Everything was very systematic. There were specific buildings for specific purpose. Some of the techniques and style were borrowed from ancient Sanskrit shahstras.

Q) Was there any specific reason for the choice of white marble for The Taj?

A) The Mughals related themselves to the Indian society. That’s why white marble was chosen. The choice of building material and colour symbolised class and one’s place in the social hierarchy. In those days, Brahmins would choose white marble whereas Kshatriyas would prefer red sandstone. During Shah Jahan’s time, the buildings expressed themselves in a clear and aesthetically successful manner. White recommended itself for many reasons. Moreover, the white is a symbol of holiness and denotes the top strata of the hierarchy.

Q) What’s your understanding of the aesthetics that shaped the building of the Taj?

A) The patterns on vases in the Taj were clearly inspired by the Flemish vases. The Mughals didn’t borrow ideas; they adapted them to suit their own needs and tastes. For example, they adapted the European concept of flowers on vases. It’s about taking ideas to make them richer. In The Taj, there are elements of European, Indian and Central Asian elements. This amalgamation enables everyone to relate to the building.

Q) The Taj is popularly considered as a monument of conjugal love. But from what you say, it appears more than that. Was there a larger ideological design behind the Taj Mahal as well?

A) Early sultanates in India expressed themselves in a regional context; the Mughals, on the other hand, would universalise themselves. The buildings showed a clear recognition of their desire for acceptance in the universal sense. The Mughals had integrationist, universalist outlook.

It was not only the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal but became a symbol of the power and glory of Shah Jahan. What the emperor wanted was an image of home of Mumtaz Mahal in paradise. It was a Platonic concept of sorts. He wanted to create a building for future generations to remember him and Mumtaz Mahal. Through his buildings, Shah Jahan wanted to create a grand imperial persona and portray himself as a great Muslim emperor.

Q) There are many myths about who built The Taj Mahal. Who actually built The Taj Mahal?

A) The architect of the Taj doesn’t figure in official histories. What we have is a bureaucrat who supervised the construction of the Taj. Mir Abdul Karim was the chief architect. Maybe be the ideas was to show the Taj Mahal as a collaborative effort between the emperor and the architect. Shah Jahan was in a figurative sense “the architect of the workshop of empire and religion.” In Renaissance, the identity of the artists and architects became strong. But with Shah Jahan, the emperor identified himself with the buildings. Buildings became testimonies of his rule.

Q) You have written extensively about Shah Jahan? What drew you towards this 17th century Mughal emperor? What insights did your research give into his life and times?

A) Shah Jahan wanted to be such an ideal and aloof emperor. When Mumtaz died, he allowed us to look into his heart and to let us know about the intensity of his grief. There are legends that his beard turned white overnight due to overpowering grief after Mumtaz breathed her last. An ideal emperor suddenly became majnu (obsessed, demented lover).

But having said that, I must say Shah Jahan is one of the lesser sympathetic figures. He is so difficult to know. I am fascinated by how he uses art and culture as symbols of ownership, his rule, his ideology and his concept of the state.

Q) The Taj has survived the ravages of time and still has a certain aura about it. Is there a threat to the integrity of this magnificent monument?

A) The Taj has survived surprisingly well. The greatest problem is how to handle pollution in Agra that is affecting the Taj. Yamuna is not a river, but it’s a nullah. If the Yamuna is not properly cleaned up and does not get enough water, the Taj will collapse and disintegrate due to fumes rising from the river. Everybody looks at the Taj, nobody looks at Yamuna.

The Archaeological Survey of India is using chemical cleaning which may affect the complexion of the Taj in years to come. We don’t know the long-term impact of such a method. My recommendation is to avoid using substances as much as possible.

Author Profile

Manish Chand
Manish Chand is Founder-CEO and Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network (www.indiawrites.org) and India and World, a pioneering magazine focused on international affairs. He is CEO/Director of TGII Media Private Limited, an India-based media, publishing, research and consultancy company.