On this date in 1631 Mumtaz Mahal, second and favorite wife of Shah Jahan, died in Burhanpur, Deccan (present-day Madhya Pradesh) giving birth to her fourteenth child, a daughter named Gauhara Begum, prompting Shah Jahan to commission the Taj Mahal as a mausoleum for her (and later as his also). I’ve never been there and probably never will, although you never know. India is not high on my agenda. Nonetheless I do want to pay tribute here to a famous symbol of undying love, which might inspire me to visit one day (perhaps when I leave Myanmar). In my experience, actually visiting famous monuments that are well known from stock images can alter your perspective markedly. Machu Picchu and Easter island were certainly that way for me.
Mumtaz Mahal was born Arjumand Banu Begum in Agra to a family of Persian nobility. She was the daughter of Abdul Hasan Asaf Khan, a wealthy Persian noble who held high office in the empire, and the niece of Nur Jahan, the wife of Emperor Jahangir and the power behind the emperor. She was married at the age of 19 on 30 April 1612 to Prince Khurram, later known by his regnal name, Shah Jahan, who conferred upon her the title “Mumtaz Mahal”. Although betrothed to Shah Jahan since 1607, she ultimately became his second wife in 1612. Mumtaz bore her husband fourteen children, including Jahanara Begum (Shah Jahan’s favorite daughter), and the Crown prince Dara Shikoh, the heir-apparent, anointed by his father, who temporarily succeeded him, until deposed by Mumtaz Mahal’s sixth child, Aurangzeb, who ultimately succeeded his father as the sixth Mughal emperor.
The Taj Mahal tomb is the centerpiece of a 17-hectare (42-acre) complex, which includes a mosque and a guest house, and is set in formal gardens bounded on three sides by a crenellated wall. Construction of the mausoleum was essentially completed in 1643 but work continued on other phases of the project for another 10 years. The Taj Mahal complex in its entirety is believed to have cost approximately 52.8 billion rupees (US$827 million) in modern currency. The construction project employed around 20,000 artisans under the guidance of a board of architects led by the court architect to the emperor, Ustad Ahmad Lahauri.
The Taj Mahal incorporates and expands on design traditions of Persian and earlier Mughal architecture. Specific inspiration came from successful Timurid and Mughal buildings including the Gur-e Amir (the tomb of Timur, progenitor of the Mughal dynasty, in Samarkand), Humayun’s Tomb, Itmad-Ud-Daulah’s Tomb (sometimes called the Baby Taj), and Shah Jahan’s own Jama Masjid in Delhi. While earlier Mughal buildings were primarily constructed of red sandstone, Shah Jahan promoted the use of white marble inlaid with semi-precious stones.
The tomb is the central focus of the entire complex of the Taj Mahal. It is a large, white marble structure standing on a square plinth and consists of a symmetrical building with an iwan (an arch-shaped doorway) topped by a large dome and finial. Like most Mughal tombs, the basic elements are Persian in origin.
The base structure is a large multi-chambered cube with chamfered corners forming an unequal eight-sided structure that is approximately 55 meters (180 ft) on each of the four long sides. Each side of the iwan is framed with a huge pishtaq or vaulted archway with two similarly shaped arched balconies stacked on either side. This motif of stacked pishtaqs is replicated on the chamfered corner areas, making the design completely symmetrical on all sides of the building. Four minarets frame the tomb, one at each corner of the plinth facing the chamfered corners. The main chamber houses the false sarcophagi of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan; the actual graves are at a lower level.
The most spectacular feature is the marble dome that surmounts the tomb. The dome is nearly 35 metres (115 ft) high which is close in measurement to the length of the base, and accentuated by the cylindrical “drum” it sits on which is approximately 7 metres (23 ft) high. Because of its shape, the dome is often called an onion dome or amrud (guava dome). The top is decorated with a lotus design which also serves to accentuate its height. The shape of the dome is emphasized by four smaller domed chattris (kiosks) placed at its corners, which replicate the onion shape of the main dome. The dome is slightly asymmetrical. Their columned bases open through the roof of the tomb and provide light to the interior. Tall decorative spires (guldastas) extend from edges of base walls, and provide visual emphasis to the height of the dome. The lotus motif is repeated on both the chattris and guldastas. The dome and chattris are topped by a gilded finial which mixes traditional Persian and Hindustani decorative elements.
The minarets, which are each more than 40 meters (130 ft) tall, display the designer’s penchant for symmetry. They were designed as working minarets—a traditional element of mosques, used by the muezzin to call the Islamic faithful to prayer. Each minaret is effectively divided into three equal parts by two working balconies that ring the tower. At the top of the tower is a final balcony surmounted by a chattri that mirrors the design of those on the tomb. The chattris all share the same decorative elements of a lotus design topped by a gilded finial. The minarets were constructed slightly outside of the plinth so that in the event of collapse, a typical occurrence with many tall constructions of the period, the material from the towers would tend to fall away from the tomb.
The exterior decorations of the Taj Mahal are among the finest in Mughal architecture. As the surface area changes, the decorations are refined proportionally. The decorative elements were created by applying paint, stucco, stone inlays or carvings. In line with the Islamic prohibition against the use of anthropomorphic forms, the decorative elements can be grouped into either calligraphy, abstract forms or vegetative motifs. Throughout the complex are passages from the Qur’an that comprise some of the decorative elements. The calligraphy on the Great Gate reads “O Soul, thou art at rest. Return to the Lord at peace with Him, and He at peace with you.” The calligraphy was created in 1609 by a calligrapher named Abdul Haq. Shah Jahan conferred the title of “Amanat Khan” upon him as a reward for his “dazzling virtuosity”. Near the lines from the Qur’an at the base of the interior dome is the inscription, “Written by the insignificant being, Amanat Khan Shirazi.” Much of the calligraphy is composed of florid thuluth script made of jasper or black marble inlaid in white marble panels. Higher panels are written in slightly larger script to reduce the skewing effect when viewed from below. The calligraphy found on the marble cenotaphs in the tomb is particularly detailed and delicate.
Biriyanis are well known in the Deccan region. They represent a blend of the cooking of medieval Persia and the Mughal empire. Kachchi (raw) biryani is prepared with meat marinated with spices and then soaked in yoghurt before cooking. The gosht (meat) is sandwiched between layers of fragrant long-grained basmati rice, and cooked by steaming over coals, after sealing the handi (vessel) with slack dough. This is a challenging process because it requires meticulous attention to time and temperature to avoid over- or under-cooking the meat that is acquired only by long experience. My skills are so-so in this regard. I can’t honestly recommend this recipe if you do not have the necessary experience with slow cooking rice – blind. The list of ingredients is lengthy and many are difficult to obtain in the West. In general home cooks in India these days do not bother cooking biriyanis from scratch in this way, nor do most Indian restaurants. It’s way too much trouble, even though the results are superb. Normally Indian cooks use prepared powders and pastes.
Kachche gosht ki biryani
750 gm lamb, mutton, or goat cut into 2”pieces
1½ cups basmati rice, rinsed and soaked in cold water and drained
2 tbsp raw papaya paste
vegetable oil (for frying)
4 onions, peeled and sliced
1½ cups plain yoghurt
½ tsp turmeric powder
1 green chile, sliced thin
1½ tsp red chile powder
1½ tbsp ginger paste
1 tbsp garlic paste
2 tsp rosewater
½ cup fresh mint leaves, chopped
½ cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1 tbsp garam masala powder
3 green cardamom pods
1” stick cinnamon
3 whole cloves
1 black cardamom pod
8 black peppercorns
1 tsp kewra water
3 tbsp pure ghee
½ tsp powdered caraway seed
2 -3 strands saffron
2 tbsp whole milk
2” fresh ginger cut into thin strips
wheat flour slack dough (to seal)
Place the mutton pieces in a deep bowl, add the papaya paste and mix well so that all the mutton pieces are covered with the paste. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours.
Heat some vegetable oil in a deep heavy-bottomed pot. Add the onions and deep-fry until well browned. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain in one layer on wire racks.
Remove the mutton from the refrigerator and uncover. Add the yoghurt, green chile, salt to taste, turmeric powder, red chile powder, ginger paste, garlic paste, half the fried onions, half the fresh mint, half the fresh coriander, and garam masala powder and mix well. Cover the bowl again with cling film and keep it in the refrigerator to marinate for at least 30 minutes.
Half cook the rice in plenty of water. Sprinkle the green cardamoms, cinnamon, cloves, black cardamom, peppercorns, half the kewra water, rose water, two tablespoons of ghee, and caraway seeds over the rice and mix well.
Warm the milk slightly and steep the saffron in it. Take a non-stick deep pan with a cover and spread the marinated mutton over the bottom, then top it with the rice. Sprinkle over the top the remaining fried onions, remaining kewra water, fresh mint, fresh coriander, saffron milk, milk, remaining ghee, remaining rose petals and ginger strips. Cover the pan with a lid and seal tightly with the wheat flour dough.
Place the pan over low heat and cook for about 60 minutes.
Let the pot stand for fifteen minutes before opening the lid. Serve hot with A biryani is usually served with Dahi chutney (yogurt, mint, and onion), baghara baingan (roasted Eggplant), a salad of onion, carrot, cucumber, and lemon wedges, and chapatis or roti.