The Romance and the Reality
A planning team envisions a cultural heritage district around
the Taj Mahal, and researchers discover scientific evidence of a
long-lost Moonlight Garden.
By Vincent Bellafiore, FASLA, Terence G. Harkness,
FASLA, Amita Sinha, and James L. Wescoat Jr., ASLA
For more than 350 years, the Taj Mahal has inspired the most extravagant
of romantic notions—and pressing challenges—associated
with a historic landscape. This “elegy in marble,” this
“dream,” this “tear on the face of eternity”
rises on the south bank of the Yamuna River in the fortified city
of Agra, which once was the center of the Mughal Empire and is now
a struggling manufacturing and tourist center two-and-a-half hours
by express train south of New Delhi. The fifth Mughal emperor, Shah
Jahan, envisioned the Taj Mahal (“Crown Palace”) as
the tomb for his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal, a Muslim Persian princess
who bore him 14 heirs. On her deathbed, according to legend, she
extracted the promise to build a splendid mausoleum in her honor,
and the emperor obliged. Some say he intended the tomb for himself.
In any event he was buried beside her after living the last years
of his life under house arrest in Agra Fort. Shah Jahan employed
a Persian architect and assembled 20,000 craftsmen and laborers
who worked for 12 years to complete the Taj in 1643.
On opposing banks of
the Yamuna River are the Taj Mahal and a remnant of the Mahtab
Bagh (Moonlight Garden).
Photo courtesy the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian
Institution, Washington, DC, Photographer Neil Greentree
Almost 200 feet high, the Taj rests on a square marble terrace,
which in turn rests on a rectangular base of red sandstone. Immediately
to the south is a formal garden in four quadrants; a gatehouse on
the south edge of the garden frames the famous view that has inspired
exposure of tons of Kodachrome. The gatehouse is the centerpiece
of a broad forecourt with numerous rooms for tomb attendants and
two small, elevated, royal tomb gardens. Just west of the long,
walled Taj Mahal complex, an aqueduct and waterworks—now in
ruins—drew water from the Yamuna to fill the channels, supply
the fountains, and irrigate the gardens; to the south of all this
spreads a former bazaar, also in four quadrants, known as Taj Ganj.
Today the Taj Ganj sustains a thriving tourist trade.
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