Long long ago, in a land called Hindustan, reigned a dynasty of Kings as cultured as they were courageous… It isn’t that they were without fault – they could be cruel and cunning warriors – but they were also men of exceptionally good taste, and blessed with the bountiful means to express their vision, they built a splendid empire of beauty, knowledge and grace beyond any known before.
Now there was one among them, known as “King of the World,” whose heart’s passion burned like fire, and who built a monument for the sake of love that would capture the imagination of the world…
At the age of fifteen, the prince who would be called King of the World met a refined and highborn young girl at a bazaar within the walls of the royal palace in Agra. Court poets celebrated the girl’s extraordinary beauty. “The moon,” they said, “hid its face in shame before her.” For both, it was love at first sight. Five years would pass before the auspicious day chosen for their wedding, and from that moment, they became inseparable companions.
Prince Khurram was the fifth son of the Emperor Jahangir, who ruled in the country now known as India in the sixteenth century. Although the prince was not the eldest son, he soon became the favorite.
“Gradually as his years increased, so did his excellence,” wrote Jahangir. “In art, in reason, in battle, there is no comparison between him and my other children.” At his father’s command, Prince Khurram led many military campaigns to consolidate the empire, and in honor of his numerous victories, Jahangir granted him the title “Shah Jahan”, “King of the World”, a tribute never before paid to an as yet uncrowned Mughal king.
But when Jahangir’s health failed, his sons rivaled for succession to the throne. Ultimately, after years of battle and the deaths of his brothers under suspicious circumstances, Shah Jahan was victorious. In 1628, the King of the World ascended the throne in a ceremony of unrivaled splendor. Beside him stood his queen, his comrade and confidante. He titled her “Mumtaz Mahal”, “Chosen One of the Palace”, and commissioned for her a luxurious royal residence of glistening white marble. In turn, she gave him tender devotion, wise counsel and children – many children – to insure the continuance of the magnificent Mughal dynasty.
The reign of Shah Jahan marked the long summer of Mughal rule, a peaceful era of prosperity and stability. It was also an age of outrageous opulence, and a time when some of the world’s largest and most precious gems were being mined from India’s soil. According to author and art historian Milo Beach, “Jewels were the main basis of wealth, and there were literally trunks of jewels in the imperial treasury, trunks of emeralds, sapphires, rubies and diamonds. Shah Jahan inherited it all. He had immense wealth and tremendous power and palaces all over the country.” The splendor of his court outshone those of his father and grandfather. Inscribed in gold on the arches of his throne were the words, “If there be paradise on earth, it is here.”
But in this world, there is an ancient tradition: sweet pleasure is not without bitterness…
In 1631, in the fourth year of his reign, Shah Jahan set out for Burhanpur with his armies to subdue a rebellion. Even though Mumtaz Mahal was in the ninth month of a pregnancy, she accompanied him as she had done many times before. On a warm evening of April in 1631, the queen gave birth to their fourteenth child, but soon afterwards suffered complications and took a turn for the worse. According to legend, with her dying breath, she secured a promise from her husband on the strength of their love: to build for her a mausoleum more beautiful than any the world had ever seen before.
The King cried out with grief, like an ocean raging with storm… He put aside his royal robes and for the whole week afterward, His Majesty did not appear in public, nor transact any affairs of state… From constant weeping he was forced to use spectacles, and his hair turned gray…
Shah Jahan grieved for two years. By official opinion, he never again showed enthusiasm for administering the realm. His only solace would be found in the world of art and architecture, and an obsession with perfection that would last his lifetime. Six months after the death of his wife, he laid the foundation for her memorial across the Jamuna River near his palace in Agra… the jewel of India, the far-famed Taj Mahal.
Pearly pink at dawn and opalescent by moonlight, Mumtaz Mahal’s tomb is so delicately ethereal that it threatens to disappear during Agra’s white-heat afternoons. In the center of the mausoleum lie the remains of the Empress. Subdued light filters through the delicate screens surrounding her cenotaph and mullahs chant verses from the Koran. It is here that Shah Jahan came with his children to honor the memory of his beloved wife. Here, at last, he found solace.
But Shah Jahan’s tranquility was suddenly shattered when his son Aurangzeb assailed the throne. Just as Shah Jahan had conspired against his brothers for Jahangir’s empire, so did his own son plot against him. In 1658, Aurangzeb declared himself emperor and imprisoned his father in a tower of the Red Fort in Agra. For Shah Jahan, King of the World, who once commanded the unbounded wealth of an empire, his only consolation would be a view across the Jamuna River to his vision of Paradise.
Shah Jahan created his vision of the world, not as it is, but rather as it should be – harmonious, graceful and pure. Inspired by love and shaped to perfection, the Taj Mahal immortalizes one man’s love for his wife and the splendor of an era.
Let the splendor of the diamond, pearl and ruby vanish like the magic shimmer of the rainbow. Only let this one teardrop, the Taj Mahal, glisten spotlessly bright on the cheek of time…