Tantalizing Trivia About The Woman Who Inspired The Taj Mahal

If you’re a history buff, the Taj Mahal most likely is one of the world’s fascinating treasures to you. However, the woman who inspired the brilliant work of art that still haunts us with its beauty and magnificence may be a mystery that casual observers never thought of.

From her breathtaking beauty to the amazing love story she experienced, there are still many facts being uncovered about the Taj Mahal and its inspiration, a member of the Persian nobility by the name of Mumtaz Mahal.

Was the Taj Mahal’s Construction Really Inspired By A Love Story?

17th-Century Indian Painting of Imaginary Durbar of Shah Jahan
Barney Burstein/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
Barney Burstein/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Legend has it that the Taj Mahal was built because Prince Khurram was so taken with the beauty of Mumtaz Mahal that he fell deeply in love the second he set his eyes upon her. There are, of course, gaps in this story, as these events occurred back in the 1500s. One author, Aysha Taryam, said the following of the supposed love story that brought the Taj Mahal into existence:

"The world believes it was built by love but reading Shah Jahan’s own words on the Taj, one could say it was grief that built the Taj Mahal and it was sorrow that saw it through sixteen years till completion."

It Was Mahal’s Death That Inspired Prince Khurram To Have The Taj Mahal Built

Agra, Tombs of Mumtaz-I-Mahal & Shahjehan in the Taj'
The Print Collector/Getty Images
The Print Collector/Getty Images

As was the custom in those days, especially for those of the ruling nobility class, Prince Khurram had multiple wives. Mumtaz Mahal was his third wife, but it is believed that he treasured her over the others.

Mumtaz Mahal was born with a different name, Arjumand Banu Begum, and Prince Khurram was born Shah Jahan, a name historians often still use to refer to him by. The name Mumtaz Mahal allegedly meant "The Chosen One," or "Jewel of the Palace." She certainly had her share of influence through the years, and by all accounts, these monikers fit her position.

Mumtaz Mahal Lived To Be 37

Taj Mahal, India's monument of eternal love is in Agra, India.
Pallava Bagla/Corbis via Getty Images
Pallava Bagla/Corbis via Getty Images

Mumtaz Mahal and Prince Khurram had 14 children together. However, only seven of them survived, and sadly, Mahal died of complications during childbirth with her last daughter. The daughter lived a long life, though, dying at the age of 74 or 75 from natural causes. That was quite an advanced age in those days.

It is questionable as to whether it was love that caused Prince Khurram to have the Taj Mahal built in his dear wife’s honor. However, his obvious and unbearable grief at her passing seems to be the real reason this particular Wonder of the World exists.

Superstitious Wedding Plans

Indian Emperor Shah Jahan (1592 - 1666) with his wife Mumtaz Mahal
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When it came to planning the wedding between Mumtaz Mahal and Prince Khurram, no stone was left unturned. Astrologers from the royal court chose the date in alignment with the stars, to make sure that Mahal, then just 14 years old, and Prince Khurram, just 15 years old, lived happily ever after.

The marriage was, by all accounts, a happy one, and Prince Khurram doted on his new bride. She was his third wife, but clearly the one he loved the most. Perhaps that it is why his tomb rests opposite hers in the Taj Mahal.

It Took More Than Two Decades to Finish the Taj Mahal

Gateway to the Taj Mahal, Agra
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

Prince Khurram was in such as state of great shock and grief when Mumtaz Mahal died that he stayed in a state of mourning for two years. During that time, he contacted the finest artisans around the world so he could have a monument honoring his dearly departed wife built.

The structure was so grand, and so full of detail, that it took a painstaking amount of time for Prince Khurram to pick who would work on the structure. Without the help of the modern building equipment that we enjoy today, the building of the Taj Mahal took roughly two decades.

Keeping It All In The Family

The meeting of Shah Jahan and Jahangir attended by nobles at court in Lahore
Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Mumtaz Mahal was not the only member of her family to be treasured in Prince Khurram’s world. While she did not rise to the level of having a monument built to her after her death, Mumtaz Mahal’s aunt, Nur Jahan, was the 20th wife of Prince Khurram’s uncle Jahangir. And just as Mumtaz Mahal was the favorite wife of Prince Khurram, Nur Jahan was Jahangir’s favorite as well.

While this may seem strange in our modern times, the best way to build power in the world where nobility and bloodlines count is to keep things closed and insular. This family was like the dynasties of today.

Prince Khurram Also Took Ruling Advice From Mumtaz Mahal

Friday prayers, Jama Masjid, Delhi, India
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

While much is said about Mumtaz Mahal’s beauty, many people do not know that she actually had quite a hand in the way her husband ruled his empire. Mahal advised her husband not to rule with an iron fist, for she was more interested in justice than she was in power.

Loving Mumtaz Mahal as Prince Khurram did, the advice was taken. Her great beauty was a point of pride for both her husband, her own family, and her subjects, but her penchant for grace and compassion, as well as her genuine smarts, were just as important. To that end, her husband allowed her to play a role in his leadership.

Prince Khurram Was Not Always As Compassionate As His Wife

A leaf from the Shah Jahan Album showing Shah Jahan on horseback.
Francis G. Mayer/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
Francis G. Mayer/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

In this particular empire, royal ascension to the throne was not automatically granted to the first-born son. That likely had to do with the fact that the men of nobility took multiple wives at the time, though we cannot be sure of this. In the case of Prince Khurram and Mumtaz Mahal, Nur Jahan took steps to assure that her son-in-law would become the next leader of the empire.

Nur Jahan’s actions would go on to have grave consequences, though. Prince Khurram had all of his stepbrothers executed to keep them from rising to power.

There’s a Reason the Graves In The Tomb Are So Plain

tombs
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

The Taj Mahal is an elaborate, dazzling structure. Almost every square inch seems to be adorned with the best architectural craftsmanship money can buy and then some. So, why are Mumtaz Mahal and Prince Khurram’s graves so plain? There is a very good reason for that.

In the Muslim faith at the time, a gravesite that was too opulent was seen as an act of vanity, which defies God on a most deliberate level. Therefore, in order to rest in peace, Mumtaz Mahal and Prince Khurram’s graves had to be fitting for their place in society but not opulent enough to disrespect their faith.

Keeping The Seal To The Empire Likely Led Directly To Mumtaz Mahal’s Engagement to Prince Khurram

LE TAJ MAHAL A AGRA
Bruno PEROUSSE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Bruno PEROUSSE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

At a very young age, Mumtaz Mahal, at the time still living under her birth name, was given the empire’s highest honor: keeping the seal of the empire of Mehr Uzaz. While Mahal’s grandfather wielded a great deal of power and influence in the empire at the time, that is not to say that Mumtaz Mahal was not up to the task.

She spoke both Persian and Arabic, and had the support of people far and wide. When the would-be Prince fell in love, the complications of nobility were not present, paving the way for their much-anticipated and legendary marriage. However, without those noble roots, it is likely the beauty we know as the Taj Mahal would never have been built.

The Taj Mahal Was Not Always Mumtaz Mahal’s Grave

Taj Mahal, Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India, late 19th or early 20th century.
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

When she passed away, leaving her husband eternally devastated, Mumtaz Mahal was buried in a garden. The name of the place of rest was Zainabad. However, about six months after his beloved left him to mourn on earth, Prince Khurram ordered the remains exhumed. They were returned to Mumtaz’s home and would remain there as construction on the Taj Mahal started in Agra.

It could be speculated that Prince Khurram wanted the love of his life closer to him, but no one knows for sure. What is known is that he was truly devastated by her death, and did all he could to honor her.

Deathbed Requests

mahal death bed
Bruno PEROUSSE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Bruno PEROUSSE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

It is alleged that as she was dying, Mumtaz Mahal requested a few things of her husband — four, to be exact. She wanted him to leave something that showed the world their love. We definitely got that in the building of the Taj Mahal, though one would imagine that Mahal was not thinking of such a Herculean task when she made this request.

She also wanted her husband to marry again, because she cared for his happiness. She wanted him to nurture their children with kindness, and to visit her grave each year on the date of her passing.

Ousted From Power

The reception of Jan Joshua Ketelaer, ambassador of the Netherlands East India Company, given by Shah Jahan in the gardens
Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

As was custom in those days, when Prince Khurram became deathly sick in 1657, his sons sought to take power from one another, believing their father would soon die. They grappled with one another for a shot at the throne, with third son Aurangzeb Bakhsh championing more traditional values and firstborn Dara Shikoh vowing to modernize things.

In the end, the two got into a horrific physical fight. This fight is now called the Battle of Samugarh and was a focal point in Indian history. Many historians believe the nation was changed forever afterward.

The Asymmetrical Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal mausoleum
Bettmann Contributor / Getty Images
Bettmann Contributor / Getty Images

One of the most fascinating things about the Taj Mahal is its perfect symmetry. However, many people do not know that while Mumtaz Mahal’s tomb is dead center, her husband’s is not. The building was designed to hold just one tomb – Prince Khurram’s beloved Mumtaz Mahal.

The prince himself was later placed there, as people believed that he wanted to be closed to the love of his life in death just as they were in life. But the tomb that holds Prince Khurram is actually left of center, thus disrupting the building’s otherwise perfect symmetry.

Mutaz Mahal Was Prince Khurram’s Only True Love

The Taj Mahal, tomb of Mumtaz Mahal.
Wojtek BUSS /Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Wojtek BUSS /Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Prince Khurram had many wives, but Mumtaz Mahal was his only true love. Prior to his marriage to her, he had married two other women, bearing a child with each. However, he was never truly in love with them. It is also rumored that the prince married again after Mumtaz Mahal died, but love was not the reason. These were purely political marriages, as was common in that era (and is arguably still so today).

This is what makes the fact that the Taj Mahal existed at all so fascinating. None of Prince Khurram’s other wives ever would have been given such special treatment. Further, most marriages, especially among people of nobility, were arranged back then.

Imprisoned By His Own Son

fortress ruins rise over the Yamuna River near the Taj Mahal
Diego Cupolo/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Diego Cupolo/NurPhoto via Getty Images

After the Battle of Samugarh, Prince Khurram no longer ruled. His son Aurangzeb actually put him in a prison to assure that the surprise recovery of his father would not threaten his ruling power as Emperor. It is even rumored that Aurangzeb put his own sister in prison with their father as well for good measure.

These days we can hardly imagine anything so barbaric. However, in the 1600s, bloody battles were how those seeking power settled their scores. Sadly, we can be assured that while he was in prison, Prince Khurram was not able to keep his promise to visit his late love’s tomb.

Eternal Preservation

Agra, India: Couple seated at the Central Fountain of the Taj Mahal.
Bettmann / Contributor
Bettmann / Contributor

Even in those days, the builders of the Taj Mahal knew there could come a time when the structure was no longer structurally sound. That created a problem for them, because of the fact that it was the final resting place of their Emperor’s beloved wife. So, they came up with a solution.

The builders specifically designed it so that any heavy rubble would tumble around the tomb instead of on top of it in case of a collapse. This is just one more extraordinary fact about the Taj Mahal.

The Prince Has Another Architectural Claim To Fame

Peacock throne
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

It seems that the prince had quite a penchant for architecture. Aside from having the Taj Mahal built in honor of Mumtaz Mahal, Prince Khurram also built an extravagant peacock throne, depicted here in a painting. It allegedly was a seven-year architectural undertaking, and cost more than the Taj Mahal.

The exorbitant price comes from the solid silver on the steps, and the jewels strewn throughout the structure. Some elements are even said to have been plated in solid gold. Emeralds, diamonds, and rubies were encrusted into the peacocks on either side of the throne, and throughout the throne itself.

Pictures Of Mumtaz Mahal Are Likely Not Even Her

Circa 1640, Mogul Emperor Shah Jahan (1592 - 1666) and his wife Mumtaz Mahal in a split picture
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the Muslim world, especially in the days when Prince Khurram and Mumtaz Mahal were alive, women had to follow the “law of the veil.” This means that their faces and the rest of their bodies were hidden from view underneath approved garments only. Therefore the paintings that are allegedly of this woman may not have even been her.

After all, as a member of the ruling class, she would have been treated with the utmost respect, and it would have been profoundly disrespectful to paint a woman in such a position for public or historical consumption. This is quite ironic, seeing that Mumtaz’s beauty is spoken of so openly in stories of her love with the prince.

The Taj Mahal Is A Gift Of Love To The World

As the sun sets on 14 May 2019, a tourist couple walk in gardens near the Taj Mahal
Diego Cupolo/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Diego Cupolo/NurPhoto via Getty Images

When piecing together history from so long ago, often we have to fill in the blanks of uncertainty ourselves. However, there is no doubt, given the origins of the Taj Mahal, that this is a work of not just extraordinary art and architecture, but one of love, grief, and human pain.

We have this beautiful structure to study and admire because one man cared for his wife so much that he wanted to, in the grandest of fashions, make sure that his love, as well as his grief, were on display for all to see for centuries to come.