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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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