The Building of the Taj Mahal
by L. Adams Beck
In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful—the Smiting!
A day when the soul shall know what it has sent on or kept back.
A day when no soul shall control aught for another.
And the bidding belongs to God.
THE KORAN. I
Now the Shah-in-Shah, Shah Jahan, Emperor in India, loved his wife with a
great love. And of all the wives of the Mogul Emperors surely this Lady
Arjemand, Mumtaz-i-Mahal—-the Chosen of the Palace—was the
most worthy of love. In the tresses of her silk-soft hair his heart was
bound, and for none other had he so much as a passing thought since his
soul had been submerged in her sweetness. Of her he said, using the words
of the poet Faisi,—
"How shall I understand the magic of Love the Juggler? For he made thy
beauty enter at that small gate the pupil of my eye, And now—and now
my heart cannot contain it!"
But who should marvel? For those who have seen this Arjemand crowned with
the crown the Padishah set upon her sweet low brows, with the lamps of
great jewels lighting the dimples of her cheeks as they swung beside them,
have most surely seen perfection. He who sat upon the Peacock Throne,
where the outspread tail of massed gems is centred by that great ruby,
"The Eye of the Peacock, the Tribute of the World," valued it not so much
as one Jock of the dark and perfumed tresses that rolled to her feet. Less
to him the twelve throne columns set close with pearls than the little
pearls she showed in her sweet laughter. For if this lady was all beauty,
so too she was all goodness; and from the Shah-in-Shah to the poorest, all
hearts of the world knelt in adoration, before the Chosen of the Palace.
She was, indeed, an extraordinary beauty, in that she had the soul of a
child, and she alone remained unconscious of her power; and so she walked,
crowned and clothed with humility.
Cold, haughty, and silent was the Shah-in-Shah before she blessed his arms—flattered,
envied, but loved by none. But the gift this Lady brought with her was
love; and this, shining like the sun upon ice, melted his coldness, and he
became indeed the kingly centre of a kingly court May the Peace be upon
Now it was the dawn of a sorrowful day when the pains of the Lady Arjemand
came strong and terrible, and she travailed in agony. The hakims
(physicians) stroked their beards and reasoned one with another; the wise
women surrounded her, and remedies many and great were tried; and still
her anguish grew, and in the hall without sat the Shah-in-Shah upon his
divan, in anguish of spirit yet greater. The sweat ran on his brows, the
knotted veins were thick on his temples, and his eyes, sunk in their
caves, showed as those of a maddened man. He crouched on his cushions and
stared at the purdah that divided him from the Lady; and all day the
people came and went about him, and there was silence from the voice he
longed to hear; for she would not moan, lest the sound should slay the
Emperor. Her women besought her, fearing that her strong silence would
break her heart; but still she lay, her hands clenched in one another,
enduring; and the Emperor endured without. The Day of the Smiting!
So, as the time of the evening prayer drew nigh, a child was born, and the
Empress, having done with pain, began to sink slowly into that profound
sleep that is the shadow cast by the Last. May Allah the Upholder have
mercy on our weakness! And the women, white with fear and watching, looked
upon her, and whispered one to another, "It is the end."
And the aged mother of Abdul Mirza, standing at her head, said, "She heeds
not the cry of the child. She cannot stay." And the newly wed wife of Saif
Khan, standing at her feet, said, "The voice of the beloved husband is as
the Call of the Angel. Let the Padishah be summoned."
So, the evening prayer being over (but the Emperor had not prayed), the
wisest of the hakims, Kazim Sharif, went before him and spoke:—
"Inhallah! May the will of the Issuer of Decrees in all things be done!
Ascribe unto the Creator glory, bowing before his Throne."
And he remained silent; but the Padishah, haggard in his jewels, with his
face hidden, answered thickly, "The truth! For Allah has forgotten his
And Kazim Sharif, bowing at his feet and veiling his face with his hands,
"The voice of the child cannot reach her, and the Lady of Delight departs.
He who would speak with her must speak quickly."
Then the Emperor rose to his feet unsteadily, like a man drunk with the
forbidden juice; and when Kazim Sharif would have supported him, he flung
aside his hands, and he stumbled, a man wounded to death, as it were, to
the marble chamber where she lay.
In that white chamber it was dusk, and they had lit the little cressets so
that a very faint light fell upon her face. A slender fountain a little
cooled the hot, still air with its thin music and its sprinkled diamonds,
and outside, the summer lightnings were playing wide and blue on the
river; but so still was it that the dragging footsteps of the Emperor
raised the hair on the flesh of those who heard, So the women who should,
veiled themselves, and the others remained like pillars of stone.
Now, when those steps were heard, a faint colour rose in the cheek of the
Lady Arjemand; but she did not raise the heavy lashes, or move her hand.
And he came up beside her, and the Shadow of God, who should kneel to
none, knelt, and his head fell forward upon her breast; and in the hush
the women glided out like ghosts, leaving the husband with the wife
excepting only that her foster-nurse stood far off, with eyes averted.
So the minutes drifted by, falling audibly one by one into eternity, and
at the long last she slowly opened her eyes and, as from the depths of a
dream, beheld the Emperor; and in a voice faint as the fall of a rose-leaf
she said the one word, "Beloved!"
And he from between his clenched teeth, answered, "Speak, wife."
So she, who in all things had loved and served him,—she, Light of
all hearts, dispeller of all gloom,—gathered her dying breath for
consolation, and raised one hand slowly; and it fell across his, and so
Now, her beauty had been broken in the anguish like a rose in storm; but
it returned to her, doubtless that the Padishah might take comfort in its
memory; and she looked like a houri of Paradise who, kneeling beside the
Zemzem Well, beholds the Waters of Peace. Not Fatmeh herself, the daughter
of the Prophet of God, shone more sweetly. She repeated the word,
"Beloved"; and after a pause she whispered on with lips that scarcely
stirred, "King of the Age, this is the end."
But still he was like a dead man, nor lifted his face.
"Surely all things pass. And though I go, in your heart I abide, and
nothing can sever us. Take comfort."
But there was no answer.
"Nothing but Love's own hand can slay Love. Therefore, remember me, and I
And he answered from the darkness of her bosom, "The whole world shall
remember. But when shall I be united to thee? O Allah, how long wilt thou
leave me to waste in this separation?"
And she: "Beloved, what is time? We sleep and the night is gone. Now put
your arms about me, for I sink into rest. What words are needed between
us? Love is enough."
So, making not the Profession of Faith,—and what need, since all her
life was worship,—the Lady Arjemand turned into his arms like a
child. And the night deepened.
Morning, with its arrows of golden light that struck the river to
splendour! Morning, with its pure breath, its sunshine of joy, and the
koels fluting in the Palace gardens! Morning, divine and new from the hand
of the Maker! And in the innermost chamber of marble a white silence; and
the Lady, the Mirror of Goodness, lying in the Compassion of Allah, and a
broken man stretched on the ground beside her. For all flesh, from the
camel-driver to the Shah-in-Shah, is as one in the Day of the Smiting.
For weeks the Emperor lay before the door of death; and had it opened to
him, he had been blessed. So the months went by, and very slowly the
strength returned to him; but his eyes were withered and the bones stood
out in his cheeks. But he resumed his throne, and sat upon it kingly,
black-bearded, eagle-eyed, terribly apart in his grief and his royalty;
and so seated among his Usbegs, he declared his will.
"For this Lady (upon whom be peace), departed to the mercy of the Giver
and Taker, shall a tomb-palace be made, the Like of which is not found in
the four corners of the world. Send forth therefore for craftsmen like the
builders of the Temple of Solomon the Wise; for I will build."
So, taking counsel, they sent in haste into Agra for Ustad Isa, the
Master-Builder, a man of Shiraz; and he, being presented before the
Padishah, received his instructions in these words:—
"I will that all the world shall remember the Flower of the World, that
all hearts shall give thanks for her beauty, which was indeed the perfect
Mirror of the Creator. And since it is abhorrent of Islam that any image
be made in the likeness of anything that has life, make for me a
palace-tomb, gracious as she was gracious, lovely as she was lovely. Not
such as the tombs of the Kings and the Conquerors, but of a divine
sweetness. Make me a garden on the banks of Jumna, and build it there,
where, sitting in my Pavilion of Marble, I may see it rise."
And Ustad Isa, having heard, said, "Upon my head and eyes!" and went out
from the Presence.
So, musing upon the words of the Padishah, he went to his house in Agra,
and there pondered the matter long and deeply; and for a whole day and
night he refused all food and secluded himself from the society of all
men; for he said:—
"This is a weighty thing, for this Lady (upon whom be peace) must visibly
dwell in her tomb-palace on the shore of the river; and how shall I, who
have never seen her, imagine the grace that was in her, and restore it to
the world? Oh, had I but the memory of her face! Could I but see it as the
Shah-in-Shah sees it, remembering the past! Prophet of God, intercede for
me, that I may look through his eyes, if but for a moment!"
That night he slept, wearied and weakened with fasting; and whether it
were that the body guarded no longer the gates of the soul, I cannot say;
for, when the body ails, the soul soars free above its weakness. But a
strange marvel happened.
For, as it seemed to him, he awoke at the mid-noon of the night, and he
was sitting, not in his own house, but upon the roof of the royal palace,
looking down on the gliding Jumna, where the low moon slept in silver, and
the light was alone upon the water; and there were no boats, but sleep and
dream, hovering hand-in-hand, moved upon the air, and his heart was
dilated in the great silence.
Yet he knew well that he waked in some supernatural sphere: for his eyes
could see across the river as if the opposite shore lay at his feet; and
he could distinguish every leaf on every tree, and the flowers
moon-blanched and ghost-like. And there, in the blackest shade of the
pippala boughs, he beheld a faint light like a pearl; and looking with
unspeakable anxiety, he saw within the light, slowly growing, the figure
of a lady exceedingly glorious in majesty and crowned with a rayed crown
of mighty jewels of white and golden splendour. Her gold robe fell to her
feet, and—very strange to tell—her feet touched not the
ground, but hung a span's length above it, so that she floated in the air.
But the marvel of marvels was her face—not, indeed, for its beauty,
though that transcended all, but for its singular and compassionate
sweetness, wherewith she looked toward the Palace beyond the river as if
it held the heart of her heart, while death and its river lay between.
And Ustad Isa said:—"O dream, if this sweetness be but a dream, let
me never wake! Let me see forever this exquisite work of Allah the Maker,
before whom all the craftsmen are as children! For my knowledge is as
nothing, and I am ashamed in its presence."
And as he spoke, she turned those brimming eyes on him, and he saw her
slowly absorbed into the glory of the moonlight; but as she faded into
dream, he beheld, slowly rising, where her feet had hung in the blessed
air, a palace of whiteness, warm as ivory, cold as chastity, domes and
cupolas, slender minars, arches of marble fretted into sea-foam, screen
within screen of purest marble, to hide the sleeping beauty of a great
Queen—silence in the heart of it, and in every line a harmony beyond
all music. Grace was about it—the grace of a Queen who prays and
does not command; who, seated in her royalty yet inclines all hearts to
love. And he saw that its grace was her grace, and its soul her soul, and
that she gave it for the consolation of the Emperor.
And he fell on his face and worshipped the Master-Builder of the Universe,
saying,—"Praise cannot express thy Perfection. Thine Essence
confounds thought. Surely I am but the tool in the hand of the Builder."
And when he awoke, he was lying in his own secret chamber, but beside him
was a drawing such as the craftsmen make of the work they have imagined in
their hearts. And it was the Palace of the Tomb.
Henceforward, how should he waver? He was as a slave who obeys his master,
and with haste he summoned to Agra his Army of Beauty.
Then were assembled all the master craftsmen of India and of the outer
world. From Delhi, from Shiraz, even from Baghdad and Syria, they came.
Muhammad Hanif, the wise mason, came from Kandahar, Muhammad Sayyid from
Mooltan. Amanat Khan, and other great writers of the holy Koran, who
should make the scripts of the Book upon fine marble. Inlayers from
Kanauj, with fingers like those of the Spirits that bowed before Solomon
the King, who should make beautiful the pure stone with inlay of jewels,
as did their forefathers for the Rajah of Mewar; mighty dealers with
agate, cornelian, and lapis lazuli. Came also, from Bokhara, Ata Muhammad
and Shakri Muhammad, that they might carve the lilies of the field, very
glorious, about that Flower of the World. Men of India, men of Persia, men
of the outer lands, they came at the bidding of Ustad Isa, that the spirit
of his vision might be made manifest.
And a great council was held among these servants of beauty, so they made
a model in little of the glory that was to be, and laid it at the feet of
the Shah-in-Shah; and he allowed it, though not as yet fully discerning
their intent. And when it was approved, Ustad Isa called to him a man of
Kashmir; and the very hand of the Creator was upon this man, for he could
make gardens second only to the Gardens of Paradise, having been born by
that Dal Lake where are those roses of the earth, the Shalimar and the
Nishat Bagh; and to him said Ustad Isa,—
"Behold, Rain Lal Kashmiri, consider this design! Thus and thus shall a
white palace, exquisite in perfection, arise on the banks of Jumna. Here,
in little, in this model of sandalwood, see what shall be. Consider these
domes, rounded as the Bosom of Beauty, recalling the mystic fruit of the
lotus flower. Consider these four minars that stand about them like
Spirits about the Throne. And remembering that all this shall stand upon a
great dais of purest marble, and that the river shall be its mirror,
repeating to everlasting its loveliness, make me a garden that shall be
the throne room to this Queen."
And Ram Lal Kashmiri salaamed and said, "Obedience!" and went forth and
pondered night and day, journeying even over the snows of the Pir Panjal
to Kashmir, that he might bathe his eyes in beauty where she walks, naked
and divine, upon the earth, and he it was who imagined the black marble
and white that made the way of approach.
So grew the palace that should murmur, like a seashell, in the ear of the
world the secret of love.
Veiled had that loveliness been in the shadow of the palace; but now the
sun should rise upon it and turn its ivory to gold, should set upon it and
flush its snow with rose. The moon should lie upon it like the pearls upon
her bosom, the visible grace of her presence breathe about it, the music
of her voice hover in the birds and trees of the garden. Times there were
when Ustad Isa despaired lest even these mighty servants of beauty should
miss perfection. Yet it grew and grew, rising like the growth of a flower.
So on a certain day it stood completed, and beneath the small tomb in the
sanctuary, veiled with screens of wrought marble so fine that they might
lift in the breeze,—the veils of a Queen,—slept the Lady
Arjemand; and above her a narrow coffer of white marble, enriched in a
great script with the Ninety-Nine Wondrous Names of God. And the
Shah-in-Shah, now grey and worn, entered and, standing by her, cried in a
loud voice,—"I ascribe to the Unity, the only Creator, the
perfection of his handiwork made visible here by the hand of mortal man.
For the beauty that was secret in my Palace is here revealed; and the
Crowned Lady shall sit forever upon the banks of the Jumna River. It was
love that commanded this Tomb."
And the golden echo carried his voice up into the high dome, and it died
away in whispers of music.
But Ustad Isa standing far off in the throng (for what are craftsmen in
the presence of the mighty?), said softly in his beard, "It was Love also
that built, and therefore it shall endure."
Now it is told that, on a certain night in summer, when the moon is full,
a man who lingers by the straight water, where the cypresses stand over
their own image, may see a strange marvel—may see the Palace of the
Taj dissolve like a pearl, and so rise in a mist into the moonlight; and
in its place, on her dais of white marble, he shall see the Lady Arjemand,
Mumtaz-i-Mahal, the Chosen of the Palace, stand there in the white
perfection of beauty, smiling as one who hath attained unto the Peace. For
she is its soul.
And kneeling before the dais, he shall see Ustad Isa, who made this body
of her beauty; and his face is hidden in his hands.