The people from all around the world are fascinated with the Taj Mahal in Agra. But how many people do know its inner secrets, the reasons due to which it is one of the seven wonders of the world? The Taj Mahal is the world in its self. Its design, structural qualities, the aesthetical value were far ahead of its time and in fact is still a mystery to most people. However, we as architects have decoded a number of secrets which until now were hidden from public gaze. Let us talk in detail in regards to the many designs and structural qualities of the Taj Mahal undiscovered until now.
An Introduction to the Taj Mahal
The Taj Mahal was built by the great Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his wife Mumtaz Mahal in the year 1653. It is believed to be one of the most expensive buildings to have ever been built. The total cost of construction for the project is estimated to be at least 1 billion dollars in today’s money.
Widely considered to be one of the greatest monuments to be built, many myths have shrouded the Taj Mahal. Travelers from far and wide have visited the monument over the centuries. The sheer beauty of the monument is such that each person takes back his/her version of the Taj. This has lead to a number of myths over the centuries. Some of them are as follows-
It is said that the upper dome of the Taj houses a vast treasure of precious metals, stones, artifacts of immense intrinsic value, etc.
The Taj was to be destroyed by Lord William Bentinck (governor-general of India in the 1830s). He planned to auction the marble after the demolition of the monument. Though according to his biography, the myth originated from the as the governor had held a fundraising event from auctioning discarded marble at the Agra fort.
A Black Replica of the Taj-
Another popular myth in regards to the Taj Mahal is that a black replica was to be built across the Yamuna. This myth probably has some truth attached to it as there are remains of a black monument across the river.
Mutilation of Workers-
One of the most popular myths about the Taj Mahal is that the hands of the 20,000 workers who built the Taj were cut off. This was done so that no other such monument could ever be built. There is no concrete evidence which proves this rather far fetched myth. It only seems to add to the mystery of the Taj.
Another rather vague myth is that the Taj Mahal was built by aliens. For a number of centuries and to an extent even till today, most people can’t figure out how this magnificent monument was built. The non-existence of the modern machinery makes it look almost impossible. This lead to the myth that the Taj Mahal was built by aliens.
Other myths about the Taj Mahal include that it was designed by the Italian Geronimo Vereneo, Frenchman- Austin of Bordeaux and that it was built by a Hindu king called Parmar Dev.
Now that we have cleared the deck, let us discuss how the Taj was constructed and has been standing tall for centuries.
The structural system of the Taj is unknown to most. Today, we shall uncover the inner workings of the Taj Mahal, previously known only to a couple of architects and the reasons behind its success.
The Taj Mahal, Agra stands on a site which referred to as an architect’s and an engineer’s worst nightmare. The site is situated on the flood plains of the river Yamuna. Water can be one of the worst enemies of any foundation, and the area is inundated with it. Add to it the loose soil type (alluvial soil with high silt content), and the site becomes a structural nightmare. So now the question remains that how is the successfully managing these conditions for centuries? The answer lies in the intelligent solutions adopted by the architects of the Taj Mahal (Ustad Ahmad Lahauri).
To most peoples surprise, the foundation of the Taj Mahal is built of wood. Well no, wood does not rot when placed in water. In fact, wood immersed in water survives almost indefinitely. Thus, the whole foundation of the enormous structure is dependent upon the simple fact that the area shall remain inundated with water throughout the year. Recently, however, the water level of the Yamuna fell, leading to much chaos. As, if the water vanished the wood would begin to rot, leading to structural failure. Thus, the Government of India spent massive amounts of money in breathing life back into the river.
Continuing, the engineers for the project had to face another problem.
Even if the one was to build a wooden foundation, how was the pressure from water to be taken care of?
Water on the flood plains of a river moves around on the surface as well as underground. This leads to water pressure (osmosis) on the foundation of the building situated near a river.
The Taj Mahal solves this problem by providing holes on the horizontal surfaces (walls). But what happens to the compacted earth within the foundation? If water is allowed to flow through the foundation, the earth too will flow with it causing settlement of the Taj leading to structural failure. Another clever solution was engineered to solve this problem.
Fan like structures dot the foundation of the Taj Mahal. The aim of these wooden fans is to keep the earth in place. When the water flows through the foundation of the Taj Mahal, the fans rotate to let the water pass, but hold on the earth. Thus, ensuring the stability of the structure.
Even though these solutions might seem far-fetched, the foundation of the Taj Mahal in Agra is a testament to the creativity and professional soundness of the architects and engineers of the Taj Mahal.
Let us now understand other parts of the structure of the Taj Mahal in Agra.
The minarets though seemingly built for aesthetic purpose play a huge structural role in Taj Mahal structure. Think of the Taj Mahal as a piece of paper with a stone lying in the middle of it. The sheet being the impressive plinth of the building and the stone representing the weight of the Taj Mahal.
What is going to be the likely outcome?
The paper is going to sag in between. The most logical thing that anybody would do to support the weight is to attach pins to the four corner of the paper. That is exactly what the minarets are. Structurally they act like four pins which discourage the building from settling in the relatively loose soil of the region.
Another feature which is missed by most is the tilt of the minarets. The minarets tilt away from the Taj rather than towards to it. This ensures that in the case of structural failure, the main building is not damaged rather the minarets fall away from the building.
Thus, as compared to popular belief the minarets have immense structural importance also adding to the aesthetic value of the entire building.
Use of the Plinth-
The plinth of the Taj Mahal acts as a base which reduces settlement of the massive building. Think of the plinth as a strong base which uniformly transfers the load of the building to the ground, reducing settlement and uneven loading of the monument. The sheer size of the plinth is proportional to the weight of the structure. It also adds to the building an essential base in framing the perfect view aesthetically.
The onion-shaped dome of the Taj Mahal is perhaps the most well-known feature of the Taj Mahal. The shape is peculiar to the Mughal style of architecture. The silhouette of the dome is good enough to identify the Taj amongst other similar buildings.
Structurally, the dome helps span the largest chambers of the Taj. To use any other method of spanning such a huge span would have been impossible with the type of tools and materials available at that point of time. The dome uses extensive vaulting systems to help support the massive load and handle the long span. The dome is placed on a cylinder which hides behind the smaller domes, parapet and the spires. The Mughals display their mastery over creating the perfect dome as compared to the earlier examples of crude dome construction during the Sultanate period in Delhi.
The following are some of the most distinct features of the Taj Mahal. We shall now discuss the peculiarities of the Taj which makes it famous all over the world.
The Taj Mahal incorporates the use of kinesthetics in its design. Kinesthetics is the art of designing spaces according to moving bodies (people). The Taj provides a different view at each step of the journey to the visitor. When one enters, the Taj is made to look distant like a dream. Just after one enters the complex, the axis is made to change by designing the pathways on either side of the central axis of the monument. The visitor now has a different perspective of the monument until he/she reaches the central part of the garden area home to the elevated marble water fountain. The building seems to emerge from the ashes as one approaches it. Finally, when the visitor reaches the Taj, the minarets and the buildings fade away to give way for the massive plinth of the building creating a totally different view of the building. Thus, the architects of the Taj engineered to perfection the art of kinesthetics for the Taj.
Another interesting feature of the Taj is the intricate decoration of the interiors of the building. Inlay work of semi-precious and precious stones into the wall panels make the building seem right out of a fairytale book. Pietra Dura originated from the Rome and reached its maturity in Florence. The designers integrated the extensive decorative floral patterns flawlessly with the all white interiors of the monument.
The extensive decoration of a mausoleum is forbidden in Islam. Thus, the coffers of the Emperor and the Empress are located in a relatively plain underground vault.
Symmetry (in Plan and Elevation) –
One of the most striking features of the Taj Mahal is the remarkable symmetry of the building. Most people cannot even imagine how such accuracy and precision could be executed so flawlessly without any modern machinery and software. The simple answer to this rather common question is that the Mughals were masters at their job and were well ahead of their time. A part of the credit also goes to the rulers who patronized such vast projects and allowing the craftsmen and architects alike to hone their skills.
The Taj Mahal is exactly symmetrical in plan and elevation. Most people will agree that the Taj Mahal is symmetrical in elevation, but how is it symmetrical in plan? Originally, as per the story goes there was to be a garden (Mehtab Garden) on the opposite of the Yamuna river. Thus, the Taj Mahal was to be located in the center of the entire site, making it symmetrical in plan. Currently, the garden on the other side of the Taj (Mehtab Bagh) is being developed to its full potential to realize the planning of the erstwhile Mughals.
In Hindi, char bagh translates into four (Char) gardens (bagh). The gardens are meant to imitate Paradise or Jannat. According to the Mughals, paradise was picturized as a green place with four gardens, abundant food complete with rivers of milk, honey and so on and henceforth. A key point to note is that the Mughals came from relatively barren lands, wherein the luxury of having lush gardens was a far cry from reality.
Thus, the char bagh gardens of the Taj Mahal, are divided into four gardens divided by pathways and water channels depicting the four rivers of Jannat. The trees in the garden are small and are well manicured. The trees are kept like so that the main focus of the visitor remains on te buildings rather than the landscape.
The garden of the Taj Mahal also boasts of a large central marble fountain. The entire system of fountains and channels installed in the Taj Mahal function by way of gravity.
Note- The gardens present at the Taj Mahal were modified by the British and were made more formal than they originally were.
Ever wonder why the Taj Mahal is so white? The answer to that question is Makrana marble. The Taj Mahal has been constructed with the best quality of Makrana marble. Makrana is a place in the Indian state of Rajasthan which produces some of the finest stone in the world. The quality of the stone available at that time was exquisite, and the master artisans polished the stone to perfection. This has made the Taj Mahal look so brilliantly white over the centuries. However, the recent development of industries around the Taj Mahal has caused the marble to deteriorate. This has made the government set up a protective zone around the Taj to help preserve the glory of the Taj Mahal as a national monument.
The Taj Mahal is one of the most photographed locations in the world. Did you ever wonder why? The answer is staring at us in the face. The architects of the Taj framed the views. Entrances, exits, and spaces were designed in a manner which framed the Taj Mahal as seen in the images above. Rather than it being a coincidence, it was deliberately designed that way, thus, adding to the aesthetics of the building even more.
Hierarchy of Spaces-
A clear hierarchy of spaces has set in the design of the Taj Mahal. The spaces transition from public to semi-private to private. Thus, the visitor enters into the Taj Mahal enclosure via the main entrance way (from the public to semi-public), moves through the gardens to arrive at the plinth. A flight of stairs helps the visitor transition onto the plinth and into the interior of the building (semi-private). The original transition was to be into the main underground vault wherein the coffers of the emperor and empress are located (it is the most private space in the entire complex). Thus, it is quite evident that the Mughals built into the Taj Mahal complex to have a clear hierarchy of spaces.
Religious Carvings and Calligraphy-
The Taj is also famous for its many carvings. The carvings and calligraphy have been sculpted on the entrance ways, interiors, dome, etc. Master craftsmen such as Amanat Khan perfected the art of calligraphy and inscribed beautiful sayings such as “O Soul, thou art at rest. Return to the Lord at peace with Him, and He at peace with you.” into the entranceways.
The exquisite and intricate calligraphy and carvings add to the flavor of the monument even more. The engravings are mostly Islamic (verses from the Holy Quran) and are meant to spread the message of the prophet.
Use of Passive Cooling Techniques-
The Taj Mahal uses a number of passive cooling techniques to keep the interiors light and airy. Some of the passive cooling techniques used are jaalis (perforated wall panels which help in cooling the interiors), walls with high thermal mass, cross ventilation, the use of green spaces around the built form, etc. All these features help the building become cooler especially in the summer months.
One has to keep in mind that though these features have been incorporated into the design of the building, an emphasis has not been laid to incorporate more passive cooling features due to its function as a mausoleum.
Use of a Double Dome-
The Taj Mahal incorporates in its design a double dome (as seen in the image above). The double dome is supposed to make the interiors of the building more comfortable and proportionate. Most people who have been to the Taj are perplexed by this rather common question of why does the dome look taller from outside and relatively shorter from the inside. The answer is due to the double dome.
Thus, it is safe to say that the Taj, Mahal is one of the greatest buildings to have ever been built. The monument is a testament to the architectural, engineering and artistic know-how and skill of the Mughals. The Taj Mahal, thus, justifies its status of being one of the seven wonders of the world and a bit more.
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