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A Marble Fairy Tale

In the morning sun it gleams with a snowy effervescence that exudes serene power. By the afternoon light, the marble glows, sending out golden rays as if it were a second sun. Centuries of royal authority radiate from the column minarets and chamfered, octagonal body. At dusk, as the shadows lengthen, and the courtyard begins to cool, the marble blushes with coy pride, showing off rosy tints and coral hues. This is when the Taj Mahal becomes seductively romantic, transcending from stone to a lyrical poem.


The Long Road to Taj Mahal

I had long dreamed of seeing this marble ballad, and when I finally got the chance, the sheer size of the memorial dumbfounded me. It seemed to marry delicacy and strength in equal parts, kindling both wonder and deep sadness. This astounding tomb complex inspired me to philosophize on the power of true love and an emperor’s visionary ability to create the ethereal out of architecture. Clearly, emperor Shah Jahan held a deep passion for his wife. But, how was the Taj Mahal’s designer inspired to build a monument to his beloved that eclipsed its architectural skeleton to become a symbol of devotion? To find the answer to this question, I headed back into old Delhi, capital of the Mughal empire.

Delhi is extremely crowded and noisy, but once it was an elaborate capital where Persian tombs and courtyards watched over symmetric reflecting pools and sunken gardens. The Mughals conquered this part of India and brought to it their ideas of art, architecture, and design. Amid the crowded streets full of crisscrossing electrical wires and hurrying rickshaws, there are hidden mausoleums dedicated to the emperors, queens, and courtiers that ruled India through the seventeenth century. As I discovered these sepulchers, I found that they held distinct echoes of the Taj Mahal in their curves, their layouts, and their quiet fortitude.


Isa Khan Tomb

The First Step to Beauty

Take for instance the Isa Khan tomb, an octagonal mausoleum inside the Humayun Palace complex I stumbled across. Decayed and peeling, its arcaded terrace and still flourishing garden reminded me of the Taj Mahal in many ways. Here were the same porticoed corners Shah Jahan had carefully placed around his wife’s tomb entrance to give it extra flourish. The same receding pool was used to reflect the beauty of his masterpiece day and night. Despite its simpler design, I saw the skeletal potential which sparked Shah Jahan’s blueprint for the Taj Mahal.


Humayun’s Tomb

A Sophomore Siren Call

Humayun’s tomb, which is inside the same complex as Isa Khan’s, is a red brick enormity that does not gleam the way the Taj does. But, in its symmetric array of arcaded windows and multiple windowed palace, it exudes an equal grandeur to that of the Taj. Its stunning entranceway and network of buildings have the same structural layout I wandered through in the Taj complex. This is where Shah Jahan got his grand design and his idea of turning a grave into a dignified palace.


Itmad-ud-Daulah “Baby Taj”

Miniature Jewel Box

Even near Taj Mahal itself I uncovered a small gem: the Itmad-ud-Daulah memorial. It’s a “mini-Taj,” right down to its intricate filigreed walls and semiprecious stone encrusted decorations. An aunt of Shah Jahan built this wedding cake-like edifice, and its extravagant decorations must have inspired the emperor when he was searching for design ideas. Only he took the idea to a more sublime level, toning down the extravagance but heightening the symbolic language of his creation.

While seeing the glorious beauty of the Taj Mahal was a dream come true, it was discovering the brick and mortar inspirations behind Shah Jahan’s epic love cenotaph that truly brought the memorial to life for me. Having seen what the emperor’s predecessors had done, I was able to admire his work even more. In order to develop one of the most extraordinary architectural landmarks in the world, Shah Jahan had successfully walked on the shoulders of his talented ancestors, borrowing a corbel here and a scrolled ceiling there, until he built something surpassing architecture.


Mughal architecture ushered in an unprecedented new style to the world, influencing designs as diverse as the Regency era Brighton Royal Pavilion in England to the modern flair of Delhi’s Lotus Temple. Its penultimate outcome, the Taj Mahal, has transformed architectural design and birthed countless devotees.

Learn more about pre-Mughal architecture and culture in Bespoke Traveler’s book, Treasures of Northern India.

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