Recently I've been writing about diversity in art appreciation. We've looked at poetry, at historic vision, at city planning, sculpture, motion pictures--all in hopes of broadening if not our definition of art, at least our consciousness of it. It's easy enough to look at a child's drawing and call it art, or our own, or to hold up even a practical item of exquisite design and handmade execution and see it as art. What we don't recognize as often I think is that art which is so big, so overwhelming, so powerful we somehow think of it as an entity unto itself, rather than just another manifestation of art in the larger scheme of human creative endeavor. Today, for instance, I want to talk about what has been called by many as the most beautiful work of art of its kind in the world--the most beautiful building in the world.
It's old, but not as old as we might think. It was begun in 1632 on the Jumna River in North-central India, near the small town of Agra (once the capital of India). Located a 128 miles down river from India's present day capital, New Delhi; and twenty-two years under construction, when completed in all its breathtaking, marbleized beauty, it became the final resting place for Mumtaz Mahal, the beloved wife of the Shah, Jahan. Today we know it as the Taj Mahal. We often think of it as a gleaming white, onion-domed temple-like structure of Indian architecture, but in fact, it's actually a mottled light gray of quite eclectic architectural origins. Though India is the home of several different architectural styles, the Taj Mahal, with it's four cylindrical minarets, not unlike the campaniles of Christian churches; borrows from western Islamic and Byzantine influences as much as those of India. The romantic monument to a husband's love of his wife would not seem out of place anywhere on the Asian subcontinent from the Bosporus to the South China Sea.
Mumtaz Mahal was more than just the wife of the Shah and the mother of fourteen of his children (she died giving birth to their fourteenth child). Though she lived in the harem with numerous other wives and concubines, she was his FIRST wife, and as much her husband's advisor on important state matters as his wife, lover, and mother of his heirs. He even entrusted her with the all-important state seal. Her unexpected death devastated him and all of India. Legend has it she requested of the Shah, on her death bed, that he build for her a monument of such perfect proportions and purity that no one could ever look upon it without sensing their love for one another.
No one has ever questioned either the Shah's romantic motives or the success of his endeavor. Original plans, upon completion of the Taj Mahal, called for an identical structure on the opposite bank of the river made of black marble to be used as a tomb for the Shah. The Shah himself died in 1666, imprisoned in the infamous Red Fort just across the river, but able to view from his cell the exquisite mausoleum he'd built for the love of his wife. The "Black Taj", of course, was never built. More fittingly, Shah Jahan instead, is entombed next to the woman he loved, under his magnificent marble dome.