Taj Mahal Architect

The Taj Mahal building a love story

Who was the architect of the Taj Mahal? One of the world's most iconic sites, even casual students of architecture and history know the story behind one of the world's most beautiful tombs. Commissioned in 1631 by emperor Shahabuddin Muhammad Shah Jahan, the building was meant to invoke Persian architecture in a tribute to his late wife, a native of that country. But while Shah Jahan was clearly an imaginative romantic, he was no professional architect. And the Taj Mahal was no small project. This nearly 400 year old construction marvel took teams of designers, a price tag of $827,000,000 in today's American dollars, and fifteen years to bring to fruition. So who was actually behind bringing the Taj Mahal to life?

Hands On Leadership

In addition to a successful thirty year reign as the ruler of India's Mughal Empire, Shah Jehan was noted by his contemporaries as a sovereign with an eye for architecture. During his reign, a building style known as "Mughal Architecture" reached its height, and Shah Jehan was the driving force behind a number of stunning and now historic building sites, such as the Red Fort, and the Shalimar Gardens. All of these sites featured "trademarks" of Mughal architecture, including bulbous domes and minarets. And unlike some rulers, Shah Jehan wasn't just a money man. While he himself had no architectural training, he was very involved in the details of his building projects, contributing to ideas, asking informed questions, and keeping a close eye on the progress of projects.

Selecting A Dream Team

"Taj Mahal" invokes images of its iconic central tomb, but the Taj Mahal is actually multiple buildings and formal gardens on forty two acres that were designed and constructed over many years by a group of people. More than twenty thousand artisans would ultimately work on this project, overseen by an official board of architects, comprised of thirty-seven specialists in their fields. At that time, architecture as a profession lacked the respect that it does today, and it wouldn't have required the formal, academic based training that it now does. However, the members of this advisory architectural "dream team" were considered to be at the top of their respective fields, and some of them had international reputations. Some of these Taj Mahal project heavy hitters included:

  • Ismail Afandi, also known as Ismail Khah. He made his reputation as a palace dome designer in Turkey.
  • Qazim Khan, a local goldsmith who oversaw the placing of gold at the top of the Taj Mahal's crown.
  • Chiranji Lal was a Delhi gem expert who was imported to oversee the installation of mosaics.
  • Master calligrapher Amanat Khan literally gave his signature of approval to the finished product, and it can still be seen on the Taj's main entrance gate.

All architects know that big, ambitious construction projects can't happen without lots of masonry and supervision. Historic Taj Mahal records indicate that Mohammed Hanif, Multan, and Quandhar were brought in from Delhi to oversee masonry work. Meanwhile, Mukrimat Khan and Mir Abdul Karim were recruited from Shiraz to supervise and administer the project.

The Leader Of The Pack 

Some historians have credited Shah Jahan himself as being the true architect of the Taj Mahal. Their "proof" is his intense personal interest in this project, plus his self-education and expertise in architecture. However, although he influenced a change in building materials from red sandstone to white marble, there is no evidence that Shah Jehan actually produced true architectural renderings and plans. He did have several "pet" architects who were part of his royal court, and over the years, various individuals either claimed or were given credit for being the chief architect of the Taj Mahal. 

But a manuscript from the 1600s claims that the Taj Mahal's chief architect was a man named Ustad Ahmad. Also known as Isa Khan, or Ustad Ahmad Lahouri, Ahmad was a "plan drawer" (as architects were known then) in the Shah Jehan court, and had already worked for him on the Red Fort at Delhi project, laying its foundations.

Very little is known about Ustad Ahmad. He appears to have already been an established architect in Persia when he joined the Shah Jehan court in Lahore. However, it should be noted that the only existing document claiming that he was the Taj Mahal's chief architect was written by his own son. Controversy over the chief architect's true identity persists to this day, with other contenders for the title including other Persians, and even European architects. 

East Versus West

In addition to controversy over who the architect of the Taj Mahal plans was, for many years, there was arguing over what part of the world inspired its iconic design. By the turn of the mid 19th century, Great Britain controlled much of the sub-continent, and campaigns were underway to "Englishize" India. While the Taj Mahal was duly noted as a architectural treasure, British scholars downplayed Shah Jehan and Ustad Ahmad's contributions to its design, and argued that it had been heavily influenced by European classical architecture. In fact, one rumor put forth (and still clung to) by some Italian scholars is that an architect from Venice named Geronimo Veroneo deigned the Taj Mahal, and was murdered at Shah Jehan's instructions after the project was finished. While this makes for an intriguing story and Veroneo did live in the area at the time of the project, there is no concrete evidence that he was in any way involved with it. (On a similar note, the story that Shan Jehan had all Taj Mahal architects murdered after its completion is most likely just a story).

Examination of the architectural details show strong Persian, Indian, and Turkish influences, but with the exception of the white marble central tomb, nothing that could be considered "European". And while "Oriental" architecture would eventually make its influence known in Europe, European architects in the 17th century weren't working with Eastern architectural designs at that time. It is known that European laborers were among the twenty thousand workers employed on it over the years, but they would have made no architectural contributions to it.

Probably the greatest European architectural influence on the Taj Mahal occurred in the mid 19th century. A major restoration of it was undertaken following years of vandalism, and its gardens were reconfigured to more resemble English formal ones, an appearance that they still retain today. 

So who was the Taj Mahal architect? 

It's not surprising that a secretive government project would generate rumors and controversy, and the Taj Mahal has had plenty of both over the centuries. Many of them center around its primary architect. But given the size of and length of time of the project, it's probable that a number of architects, both professional and amateur, contributed to its ultimate design. If formal credit is to be given, it must certainly go to its patron, Shah Jehan, and the Persian architect Ustad Ahmad, who turned a dream into a real life wonder.