In June 1631, in central India, a 38-year-old woman died in childbirth. Accompanying her husband on yet another war campaign, in military camp conditions in a region with temperatures reaching almost 40°C, she endured a thirty-hour labour with her fourteenth child in 19 years. As she died (the child survived), so the story goes, she requested from her husband a mausoleum to be built in her memory. The woman was Mumtaz Mahal, her husband the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, and the mausoleum, completed 22 years later, is now one of the most famous buildings in the world - the Taj Mahal.
As far as romantic tragedies go, the story of the Taj Mahal is surely one of the greats. Prince Shihab-ud-din Muhammad Khurram was born in 1592 into one of the most powerful ruling dynasties on earth. His grandfather was the legendary third Mughal Emperor, Akbar (literally, "The Great") and his father the to-be fourth Mughal Emperor, Jahangir (literally, "Light of the Earth"). The Mughal Empire was a ruling empire that, at its peak in the late 17th Century, ruled over most of the Indian Subcontinent and was one of the most powerful in the world. Indeed, it gave to the English language the word "mogul", meaning an important, powerful, or influential person. Aged 20, and after a five-year engagement, Prince Khurran was married to Arjumand Banu Begam, just a year his junior, the daughter of a prominent court noble and later to be given the title Mumtaz Mahal, "the Jewel of the Palace".
Although Mumtaz was the second of Prince Khurram's three wives, the other two were only ever political alliances and from the very beginning there was no doubt where Khurram's affections lay. He was inseparable from his wife, which sounds sweet in today's world, but in the 17th Century Mughal world of harems and polygamy was regarded as actively unusual, and his affections even as a sign of weakness. Did Khurram give a damn? Absolutely not, and he and his wife are officially chronicled as having lots of "rollicking sex" (my words), with the first of their fourteen children appearing not much over nine months after the wedding.
Prince Khurram only became the fifth Mughal Emperor in 1627, aged 35, after a stream of military successes and some deft murdering of his political rivals (nice guys didn't come first back then). He was renamed Shahanshah Shahab-ud-din Muhammad Shah Jahan I, or simply Shah Jahan - "Ruler of the World". Mumtaz Mahal had been by his side throughout many military campaigns - a highly irregular thing for a prince or emperor's wife, who would usually spend her days in the scented prison of the harem.
As emperor and empress, they only enjoyed five years together before Mumtaz's untimely death. Shah Jahan was plunged into a deep grief that he arguably never recovered from, for two years shunning all the perfume, jewellery and music usually enjoyed by emperors, and his beard turning white. And for the next 20 years, he set about building her the perfect resting place.
The end product, save for some later tweaks (the gardens, notably, are wholly different from the originals, and a lot of embedded gems have been stolen over the centuries) is what we see now as the Taj Mahal. The product of about 20,000 labourers (not slaves, I should note) working to create a brick-and-sandstone core and marble-faced monument 65 metres in height, working with basic hand tools before handing it over to the craftsmen to intricately carve the fine details. The massive bulbous dome, the focus point of the Taj Mahal is estimated to weigh 12,000 tons - that's heavier than the Eiffel Tower. The total cost, according to Shah Jahan's official historian, was 5 million rupees, but this is likely for labour alone, and including the materials might have cost up to 40 million rupees, which is something in the region of £1 billion today. Did it bankrupt the empire? Not even close in a time when the annual revenue was 100 million rupees, with much of that being ploughed into wars and fortifications. The Mughal Empire experienced a flourishing of the arts, bringing a magnificence to Shah Jahan's reign, with the Taj Mahal just the crowning glory among many artistic and architectural gems.
So how does this romantic tragedy end? With Shah Jahan finding new love, remembering always his true love with a tear in his eye, but knowing that life must go on and seeing his empire flourish, his family gathering around him and watching a Hollywood (or Bollywood, I'll allow you) sunset into the twilight of his 30-year reign?
Upon his beloved wife's death, Shah Jahan never married again, but flung himself into a world of orgies, with concubines, dancing girl, court officials' wives, or whatever he could get his hands on. Including, according to scurrilous rumour, his favourite daughter, who much resembled Mumtaz - but this is dirty rumour-mongering without anything approaching evidence. However, his penchant for aphrodisiacs was well-noted, and it seems an easy analysis to reckon that in the absence of love, Shah Jahan opted for tons and tons of groupie sex. Curiously, he fathered no more children.
It got worse for him. Later in his reign, one of his four surviving sons, Aurangazeb, opted for a puritan, hard-line form of Islam and decided in that curious way that puritans do that anything fun or pretty must be bad. The succession of power between Mughal emperors was never smooth, and upon Shah Jahan getting sick in his late 60s, Aurangazeb locked up his father in the Red Fort of Agra, then killing or driving to their deaths his three brothers. Although Shah Jahan recovered from illness, he was deposed as emperor, and he was effectively a prisoner in the fort, albeit one who was allowed to continue his drug-taking concubine orgies. Aurangazeb spent the next 50 years running the empire into the ground. In our Hollywood romance, Shah Jahan is pictured seeing out the end of his days, sitting in a tower of the fort, gazing upon the Taj Mahal, in close proximity, dreaming of happier times with his beloved late wife. In reality, it has been suggested that Shah Jahan eventually died in his 70s from an illness brought upon by excessive use of aphrodisiacs. Our romantic tragedy is maybe more of a pensioner-porno.
It seems to me that despite the messed-up world of being a 17th Century Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal really did find love, against the odds, and however much he became a pervy old man in the 30 years after her death, the sincerity of that love and his motives for the mausoleum he built for her - and was later himself buried - cannot be doubted. And this is the legacy that lives on - a magnificent, beautiful monument that is a symbol of love and an icon of India.
I will be visiting the Taj Mahal in January, and will give a fuller account of its history and my own impressions then. I will also be joined there by my girlfriend, who will surely be destined to play the role of gooseberry as romance blossoms between myself and Burness.
Reviewed 9th February 2012.
Reviewed 9th February 2012.