Sunday, October 29, 2006

No Architects Were Killed or Maimed in the Making of this Masterpiece



I did a long post about the Taj Mahal earlier today but Blogger went down and it got lost. This is the first time that ever happened to me. Anyhow, it's hard to get the energy to type the whole thing again. In a nutshell, I had heard from my kids, who had learned it in their Islamic history classes, that the guy who had the Taj Mahaj built, Shah Jahan, a Moghul emperor, killed the architect after the building was completed so that he could not make anything more beautiful afterwards.

This story always bothered me. It did not seem to match the rest of the story, which is about how much Shah Jahan loved his wife and how he had the Taj Mahal built as her mausoleum because of this love and his abiding grief over her death. I suppose it is possible that a person can be capable of both great love and great cruelty/inhumanity, but it still jarred with me.

After a bit of searching on the internet for information on the building, I found that there are a fair number of legends about the Taj Mahal that seem to be false.

* The Taj Mahal was actually a Hindu temple! (Propagated by some Hindu Indians who are sort of upset about Muslims getting any credit for anything good about India, apparently)
* There was going to be another black building built opposite to the white Taj Mahal! (No, apparently not; there's a preexisting garden in the spot they refer to and there seems to be no evidence that Shah Jahan wanted to do this.)
* An Italian goldsmith actually was the chief architect for the Taj Mahal! (This rumor was started by an Italian priest who apparently went to the trouble of finding a real Italian goldsmith who really did live in India at the time in question - but of course would not have been capable of doing this, since he was not an architect, and since there is absolutely no evidence he was involved at all.)
* Shah Jahan killed/blinded/cut the hands off of the architect(s) who built the Taj Mahal! (All apparently completely false.)

The real story is interesting enough: Shah Jahan did in fact build this mausoleum to house the remains of his late second wife who he had loved very much. His son deposed him shortly after the building was completed. The son had him buried next to his wife, the only detail in the entire shrine that is asymmetrical. The shrine is absolutely gorgeous and there's a fascinating site that allows you to navigate it and see various panoramic views of its interior and grounds (here).

Why did someone invent the story of the punishment of the architect(s)? I wonder who started that legend and how. Unfortunately, it appears to be a complete mystery. (Someone is very welcome, however, to come here and teach me something about it, much like the Air Force in Cyberspace discussion the other day, which was completely fascinating.)

27 comments:

Leila M. said...

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Abu Sahajj said...

Salaam sis,

Interesting story...

AbdulAleem said...

Great to see you blogging again Anna!

Prof Ebba Koch, probably *the* authority on Mughal art and architecture says that this a common folktale around other famous buildings and is not unique to the Taj Mahal. She discusses it in the chapter "Myths of the Taj" in her new book, The Complete Taj Mahal (Thames & Hudson, 2006), which I haven't yet seen.

AbdulAleem said...

Okay, now I've actually looked at Ebba Koch's very fine book at my favourite local bookshop.

The relevant chapter is actually "Everybody's Taj Mahal" and "Myths of the Taj" is a section heading. The full title of her book is, The Complete Taj Mahal and the Riverfront Gardens of Agra.

The myths (pp. 249-250) she mentions are:
1. A complementary "Black Taj" was also intended to be built.
2. The Taj Mahal was built by an European architect, the Venetian Geronimo Veroneo.
3. Contemporary Western scholars have created other extravagant theories—with a sexist tint, (a) Wayne Begley: Taj Mahal not just a tomb for Mumtaz but was meant to represent the Throne of God (b) Henri Stierlin: Given the inferior position of women in Islam, the Taj Mahal could not have been built for Mumtaz.
4. The Taj Mahal was a Hindu temple.
5. The folklore tales of the maiming/killing of the architects/artisans of the Taj Mahal propagated by tour guides and others. Koch, citing Stith Thompson's classic folklore compilation, gives the following motifs, versions of which are reported from various parts of Europe—Great Britain, Ireland, Russia—and Asia: "King kills architect after completion of great building, so that he may never again build one so great"; "Artisan who has built palace blinded so that he cannot build another like it"; "Masons who build mausoleum of princes lose their right hands so they may never construct so fine a building".

Anna in Portland (was Cairo) said...

Wow, I am 4 for 5. Not bad for slipshod internet research. Thanks Abdul Aleem :)

bin gregory said...

There was going to be another black building built opposite to the white Taj Mahal! (No, apparently not; there's a preexisting garden in the spot they refer to and there seems to be no evidence that Shah Jahan wanted to do this.)

The black Taj isn't confirmed, but a team of landscape architects recently uncovered evidence that the garden on the opposite bank was not preexisting but rather built at the same time as part of the same plan. See here.

sindbad said...

It also explains why V.S.Naipaul is upset with it.

Ankur said...

It was a fine article by you.but may i know how much you have researchd about the same.just by having a few internet hits of google you can't decide what actually happens.It must be read enough before writing anything like that which is contradicting to history as we have known it for past 350 years.

Thanks and regards:
Ankur saraswat
India (ankur.its@gmail.com)

Akash said...

Dear Ms,

Your article is nothing more than just written 'amaturedly'. What kind of research you have done, have you listened to the legends told by locals (muslims of India born and living there since generations)? As an Historian be ready that some organization who has more proofs than you may sue you ligally on the basis of hurting the imotions of thousands of muslims in India who beleive that all their forefathers who worked were killed by the 'fanatic' emporor..

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Unknown said...

It was not that building I which the architect was blinded..that was from the church in Moscow where Ivan the terrible blinded him so he could never build anything as beautiful