With its famous silhouette and captivating love story, the Taj Mahal is an undeniable architectural phenomenon. It was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to serve as the final resting place for his favorite wife, Arjumand Banu Begum (d 1631); the name Taj Mahal (“Crown Palace”) was taken from her title, Mumtaz-I Mahal (“Chosen of the Palace”). But what is not a well-known fact is that Shah Jahan only had a few years to visit the Taj Mahal after its completion in 1648. Within the next decade, Shah Jahan’s son would take over the throne and have his father put under house arrest in Agra’s Red Fort, a walled, city-like palace separated from the mausoleum by a river, which offered only a distant view of the dome and minarets through the mist.
By situating the Taj Mahal along the Yamuna River, Shah Jahan was aware that it would be viewed from multiple angles and must be impressive regardless of where the viewer stood. To achieve this goal, all four sides of the Taj Mahal were built identically and surrounded by open space so that nothing would interrupt the view of the building. It sits on the northern side of a chār-bāgh “paradise” garden, a walled garden divided into four parts by water channels representing the four rivers of the Garden of Eden. Directly across the garden from the Taj Mahal is a monumental gateway, while a mosque on the west side is mirrored by an identical building that acted as an assembly hall on the east side. The īwāns, or recessed arches, are flanked by pietra dure, inlaid mosaics made with semi-precious stones, such as lapis lazuli, jade, and onyx, in the form of calligraphy and floral motifs. The walls include more inlaid stones in geometric patterns, as well as relief carvings of flowers and plants. Even though these details are invisible from such a distance such as the Red Fort, they add to the overall symmetry of the building, creating a monument that is as stunning close up as it is from afar.