Taj Mahal, by Giles Tillotson

Mysteries in the marble
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The Independent Culture

The Taj Mahal at Agra stands for India in the eyes of the world. Yet the Archaeological Survey of India, founded in 1861, which looks after the Taj, has never devoted a publication to its most famous site – not even a guidebook. Indeed, there was no architectural monograph until 2006, when Ebba Koch's excellent The Complete Taj Mahal appeared.

The art historian Giles Tillotson's Taj Mahal leans on Koch's research, as he is happy to acknowledge; however, his accessible and enjoyable style will engage a broader readership. Like every author in Profile's "Wonders of the World" series, Tillotson considers not only architectural history but also cultural heritage and resonance – picturesque 18th-century aquatints of the Taj, early 20th-century restorations by Lord Curzon, literary responses such as Rabindranath Tagore's poem ("a teardrop on the cheek of time"), and the famous photo of Princess Diana posing alone in front of the "monument to love" shortly before her marriage break-up. Tastefully omitted is the Trump Taj Mahal, a casino resort in New Jersey built by property mogul Donald Trump.

Why such surprising scholarly neglect of the Taj since its construction by Shah Jahan in 1631-43? One reason must be that the Mughal emperor recorded nothing of the process: no architectural plans or theory, unlike Charles II with the slightly later St Paul's Cathedral. Not even the names of the architects are securely known. Two men, Ustad Ahmad Lahauri and Mir Abdul Karim, together with administrator Makramat Khan, appear to have been most responsible, but neither is acknowledged as architect in Shah Jahan's Padshahnama, the official chronicle. Only Amanat Khan, the calligrapher who inscribed in white marble the suras from the Koran on eternal life in paradise, is identified, because he was allowed to sign his inscriptions.

Perhaps another reason is a widespread ambivalence towards the purpose of the Taj. It was, of course, a tomb commemorating Shah Jahan's most beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died aged 38. But orthodox Muslims – even Mughal emperors – were not permitted to build grand tombs, especially tombs closed to the sky. And if it is a tomb, why surround it with minarets, which belong with a mosque?

Moreover, how should non-Muslims identify with a tomb? Most of India's population are Hindus, who cremate their dead. The most extreme Hindu fundamentalists feel compelled to make the ludicrous claim that the Taj is really "Tejo-Mahalaya", an early Shiva temple clad with a later Islamic exterior. "No one, it seems, is willing to play by the rules," writes Tillotson. "The original builders overlooked inconvenient aspects of orthodoxy, and modern devotees overlook unwanted historical associations, both in order to shape the Taj according to their own desires."

One story has a Venetian jeweller, Geronimo Veroneo, as architect – an idea with obvious appeal to European imperialists. Veroneo's gravestone, dated 1640, is in the Catholic cemetery in Agra, but no major European traveller of the period mentions his role. It is true that the exquisite floral gemstone decoration of the Taj was inspired by Florentine pietra dura, probably via illustrations published in books.

Tillotson airs the many myths and legends with relish; then slays most of them with facts and reason, and a generous helping of illustrations. Only his last chapter disappoints, with its discussion of an Indian hit film about two con artists who sell the Taj to an unsuspecting American millionaire. India's sublime symbol deserves better than a ridiculous Bollywood ending.

Andrew Robinson's books on India include biographies of Satyajit Ray and Rabindranath Tagore