THE COMPOSITION OF BEAUTY
What would you build your beloved’s tomb of if all the world’s most precious materials were yours for the asking? Shah Jahan commissioned only the most decadent materials for the Taj Mahal. Of course, the most striking material is the white marble for which the Taj Mahal is renowned…but we’ll get to that later.
Materials were carted from all over India and Asia to the tomb site. Rumour has it that over a thousand elephants were used in the transportation of materials. Records show that oxen pulled massive bricks to Mumtaz’s final resting place. But what were these elephants, oxen, and sun-bronzed laborours transporting, fitting, cutting, mortaring, laying, and polishing?
Punjabi jasper. Chinese jade. Afghani lapis lazuli. Tibetan turquoise. Red sandstone. White marble. These precious materials are what the complex is composed of – besides all the stones and construction rubbish buried beneath the Taj Mahal to support the massive structure.
Most people are familiar with the sight of the Taj Mahal from the distance, the blazing, polished white of marble – but what about inside the mausoleum? What kinds of materials are to be found there?
REST IN PARADISE: THE ART OF THE TOMBS
Frames and archways in the mausoleum are decorated not only through carving, but through pietra dura, the stylized multi-colored inlays found both on the walls and decorating the tomb of Mumtaz and the Shah. Jasper, jade, and yellow marble were cut, pressed, and polished into the surfaces in floral patterns. Such an abundance of color and motifs bring the paradisiacal gardens inside the tomb. The gloom and sadness of a traditional mausoleum disappear with the vibrant reds, blues, and yellows of the tomb’s pietra dura.
WORSHIP IN THE TAJ MAHAL
In the Taj Mahal’s mosque, a different, more sombre colour is found: black. The outlines of 569 prayer rugs of black marble are rich reminders of the piety expected of Muslims – no matter the century. Of course, not every surface of the Taj Mahal is plated with translucent white marble, or gold gilding, or precious inlays. No, in some places, the gleaming white one finds is simply polished plaster!
RARE MATERIALS, RARE BEAUTY
Not all the materials can be understood by non-locals. The red sandstone is actually called Sang-i-Surkh, and the black marble of the mosque floor outlines is Sang-i-Musa. Semi-precious stones, such as Firoza, Moonga, Lahsania, Yashab, and Pitunia were used to encrust the surfaces, adding depth and richness to everything in sight. Marquetry, or finer details, boasted rare stones, such as Khattu and Maknatis. Again, these names may not be familiar to non-stoneworkers, but their rarity and luxury were celebrated in 17th century India.
STRENGTH IN TRADITION
However, the whole complex can’t be all luxury. Something needs to hold the constructions together! For this, local red bricks were manufactured for strength and stability. Using ingredients like belgiri water, jute, batashe, and molasses, combined with lime mortar, the bricks composing the central core of the Taj Mahal complex were ruddy and common enough to last for many years.