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Perhaps India’s most iconic structure and one of the biggest monuments from the Mogul Empire, the Taj Mahal sits in the North of the country. It was built as a mausoleum for the great Mogul emperor Shah Jahan’s favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. She remained close to the emperor throughout his reign, closely advising him.
Historians claim that a real, “European romance” sparked between them that went beyond the traditional arranged marriage of the time.
The Taj’s construction began in 1632 and within a few years its outer shell was completed.
It would go on to be decorated in pristine white marble and fine hand-crafted and carved Islamic and European art.
It is perhaps hard to imagine how or why European art techniques like Pietra dura – which first appeared in Rome in the 16th century – found their way to the heart of the Taj Mahal.
Yet, as National Geographic’s documentary ‘Secrets of the Taj Mahal’ revealed, Shah Jahan used the Taj as a cross point between two worlds: East and West, forging relationships with his European and Far Eastern counterparts.
As the documentary explained: “The Moguls brought Islam to the sub-continent, but they didn’t interpret the Koran rigidly.
“For a long time in India, Islam was linked to policies of tolerance and openness.
“Under Shah Jahan, that tolerance and openness reaches far beyond India’s borders.
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“The Great Mogul decrees that visitors from the outside world will be made welcome in his empire.
“He knows there is much to gain from the exchange.
“So, travellers from East and West are regularly seen at Shah Jahan’s court.”
We know Europeans regularly frequented the court as art from the time depicts unusual looking light-skinned men wearing felt, beaver, and feathered hats.
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It was these people who would bring back riches from India – foreign fabrics and distant spices; taking with them to India Western ideas, thought from the Enlightenment, politics, and strange silver coins.
“Europeans can easily be spotted by their exotic headgear,” the documentary explained.
“Both sides benefit from this trans-continental contact.
“The Europeans are drawn by the precious fabrics, spices and gemstones.
“European merchants pay with silver, and bring new ideas to the Mogul Empire.
“The Taj Mahal itself demonstrates the links between India and Europe.
“Sumptuous stone flowers adorn the green marble lattice work and cover the entire interior of the Taj Mahal – techniques and motifs coming from distant Europe.”
So influential was the Italian technique of Pietre dura that the subcontinent fully embraced the decorative art, with palaces and ancient structures across northern India and further afield having embraced the style.
The way in which the Taj was constructed was also pioneering for its age.
It sits on the banks of the Yamuna river – with water a notoriously hard element to build on and around.
In order to bypass the problem of landslides, the Mogul engineers dug deep wells below the water table.
They filled these newly dug wells with rocks and mortar, then cementing a base into the ground, on top of which the engineers stacked stone columns.
These columns were then linked together by giant arches.
The result was a solid mountain of stone to support the foundation slab of what would become the Taj Mahal.
An ingenious move, it ensured the Taj would be protected by the vicious currents of the river forever.
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