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Taj Mahal, a love story in marble, is one of the wonders of the architectural world.

It was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as the final resting place for his beloved departed wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Not only is the Taj an architectural marvel with respect to its strict symmetry followed everywhere in the complex, but also one of the most beautiful building ever built. Its iridescent white marble changes color according to the sunlight and its parchinkari work, which depicts the flowers of heaven, is breathtaking.

Mughal Empire 1530 - 1707 A.D
Shah Jahan, by Payag, 1640 A.D.
Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal

The Mughal dynasty in India started with the invasion of Babur in 1526, a descendent of Timur (also known as Timurlane). The Mughals were originally Mongols and also related to Genghis Khan. The fifth king in the generation of Mughals was Shah Jahan. His full name was Shahanshah Shahab-ud-din Muhammad Shah Jahan I. He was born in 1592 and died in 1666 at the age of 74. He is considered to be one of the greatest Mughals. His reign has been called the Golden Age of the Mughals and one of the most prosperous ages of the Indian civilization.

He built the beautiful mausoleum ,the Taj Mahal for his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal, whose name means “the chosen one of the palace”. Her real name was Arjumand Banu Begum and she was the niece of Nur jahan (Wife of Jahangir, Shah Jahan’s father). This was a special name bestowed upon her by Shah Jahan after their marriage in 1612 AD. She stood by the emperor’s side not only as a wife but also as an advisor, a confidante and a friend for 19 years. None of the emperor’s consorts could rival his affection for her.

She bore him 14 children, out of which only 7 survived and she passed away giving birth to her fourteenth child in Burhanpur in 1631. Torn by her death, Shah Jahan immediately began construction of a mausoleum in Agra in 1632. It was to be unlike any monument the world had ever seen. The construction finally finished in 1653, taking a total of 21 odd years to complete a magnificent monument with a love story at its heart. There were 22000 artisans engaged in building the Taj which explains the sheer magnificence of the building.

Unlike the other buildings during the times of the Mughals in red sandstone, Shah Jahan decided to build this building with the finest grade of white marble. The marble was obtained from a quarry situated in Makrana, a small city in Rajasthan, a state of India. It is about 340 kms from Agra. But just plain white marble was not used in its construction, the marble was inlaid with precious and semi-precious stones like lapis lazuli, turquoise, jasper, chalcedony, coral, onyx, jade, amethyst, green beryl or emerald. These precious and semi-precious stones form a mosaic of flowers, leaves and geometrical patterns both outside and inside of the Taj.

This particular form of mosaic work is called parchinkari. It is an amalgamation of the Persian, Italian and the Indian artform of pietra dura. Pietra dura is an Italian artform which originated in Florence in the 16th century. It involves inlaying stone upon stone to create a mosaic work which looks like a painting. Hence the inlayed flowers in the Taj Mahal look like paintings.Mumtaz and Shah Jahan were both buried at the centre of the building with both their cenotaphs studded with semi-precious and precious stones. This symbol of love has withstood the test of time for more than 350 years on the banks of the river yamuna and it will serve as an eternal resting place for both Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan for centuries to come.

Parchinkari - The art of inlaying semi-precious stones in marble.

The art of Parchinkari had begun in India in the early 17th century with Shah Jahan being its patron and pioneer. This art is derived from an Italian artform known as pietra dura (hard stones) which originated in Florence in the 16th century. It involves shaping small pieces of semi-precious stones in the form leaves, flower petals etc. and fitting them together so that they look like one complete flower or animal or any other shape the artist intended it to look like.

Tomb of I'timād-ud-Daulah

The European travellers brought pietra dura works as presents for Shah Jahan. The Mughal emperor was impressed with the technique and immediately incorporated it in his architectural endeavours. He refined and perfected the technique over several years which came to be known as Parchinkari in India. The art became more intricate, symmetrical and distinct from pietra dura. The inlaid stone pieces were made smaller and precious stones were introduced in the masterpieces.

Agra Fort

The Taj Mahal is the shining example of the perfection to which parchinkari was taken during Shah Jahan’s rule.

Tomb of I'timād-ud-Daulah
Taj Mahal Pishtaq
Jali of the Cenotaphs in the Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal is the shining example of the perfection to which parchinkari was taken during Shah Jahan's rule. The most beautiful work is seen on the cenotaphs of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal in the interior tomb chamber, where the same flowers are repeated with exactly the same number of stones in each one. This beautiful and precious art has been passed down since the Mughal times through generations of parchinkars and is still alive in Agra after more than 350 years.

The method of inlay used currently in Agra has not changed very much from the times of the Mughals, but the patterns have evolved and have become more refined over the centuries. Here is a brief method of the inlay work done at our premises.

Step 1

The first step involves getting a high grade of marble. The marble can be white, black, pink or green. The marble is then cut according to the size of the article to be made. The marble used at Akbar International is the same type of Makrana marble that was used for the construction of the Taj Mahal.

White marble quarry
Step 2

Next in line are the semi-precious stones. The semiprecious stones used in the inlay work were brought from many different places during the time of Shah Jahan. Amber was brought from Myanmar, turquoise from Tibet, jade from Burma, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan etc. Here is the list of the most common ones that are used in the inlay.

Step 3

The stones are now taken and cut into thin slices. These small fragments are then shaped by using a hand operated machine called the hone. The hone allows for better control of the artist on the shape of the stone. The artist holds the tiny bit of stone in his left hand and brushes it against the hone to shape it. Each artist is responsible for a different motif. Some are responsible for making leaves, some for flowers and some for stems. The master artisan called the ustad (in Persian) is responsible for conjuring up the overall design. We at Akbar have the pleasure of working with a few such ustads.

Artists working on the Hone,
shaping the semi-precious stones
Step 4

While the stones are being shaped, the marble is smeared with color which is either powdered ochre or heena. Heena is the traditional paste made of plant by the same name. It gives a deep orange to rust color after application on hands. This heena is used for decorating the hands of the brides during Indian weddings. It is a symbol of luck, joy and beauty.

Step 5

The marble is now chiselled to make space for the stones to be set. This way the chiselled spots are easily highlighted against the orange background of the heena making it easier for the artist to work. The chiselling work is done using two chisels, one pointed and one flat. The tools are made of iron but the tips are made of tempered steel. For tempering the steel a process of heating and reheating the steel to upto 650 degree celcius is used.

Artist chiselling out the marble
Step 6

Now the stones are ready, the chiselling is done, the only thing left is setting the stones. They are set one piece at a time into the carved out space using a special glue. After the glue dries and the stones set, the finished piece is scrubbed gently with sandpaper to even out any rough edges. The henna is washed off to reveal the dazzling white purity of the stone.

Chisels, glue and pieces of
semi-precious stones
Step 7

After the final polish for a high finish protective shine, a piece of the history is ready.

Finished Table Top

The skill of the inlay craftsmen of Agra is simply amazing. They can create a flower with 32 pieces within a small diameter of 0.25cm. Flowers with petals having veins and serrated edges may have as many as 164 pieces each.

Tourists getting hands-on experience at Parchinkari

One of the most celebrated Indian Poet, Rabindranath Tagore describes the Taj Mahal as rising above the banks of the river “like a solitary tear suspended on the cheek of time.” And here at Akbar International you can own a part of that history and the tear.

Tourists admiring the macaws in the wall panel

Our dedicated team of artisans

Tourists during the marble art demonstration