The stones that make the Taj

Show anyone a photo of the Taj Mahal complex, and chances are, they’ll immediately recognise it—and even be able to say that while the mausoleum (the ‘rauza’) is made of white marble, most of the subsidiary buildings are made of sandstone. The Jilau Khaana, for example, where visitors would dismount before entering through the Darwaaza-e-Rauza. Or the mosque and its mirror building, the Mehmaan Khaana.

A view of the mosque at the Taj Mahal

A view of the mosque at the Taj Mahal

Wrong on both counts. The rauza is not made of white marble, and the other buildings are not of sandstone. In fact, all the buildings in the complex are made of brick; the marble (‘sang-e-marmar’) and the sandstone (‘sang-e-Gwaliari’ is the name for grey or yellow; ‘sang-e-surkh’ is the name for the red) are only the cladding, which forms the attractive outer face of the buildings.
And that’s not all. Approximately forty different types of semi-precious and precious stones were used in the decoration of the buildings.

Accounts of the construction of the Taj Mahal complex refer to the sources from where material was procured. The most abundant—the white marble and the sandstone—came from close at hand: the red sandstone from Fatehpur Sikri and the white marble from Makrana (in Rajasthan).

The rauza at the Taj Mahal

The rauza at the Taj Mahal

The more rare stones were brought from some very far-flung areas: malachite from Russia, jade from Kashgar in China, turquoise from Tibet. From as far west as the Nile Valley came cat’s eyes (also known as ‘lahsunia’); from the east, in Burma, came yellow amber. Lapis-lazuli were brought from Afghanistan, rubies from Sri Lanka. Other stones—orange-red cornelian, jasper, grass-green chrysolite, and deep blue (or green) heliotrope—were also procured.

[Note: You can click the illustration below to see a larger version].

Sources of some stones for the Taj

Sources of some stones for the Taj

These stones were used in the pietra dura inlay (known in Hindustani as ‘parchinkari’) that decorates many of the buildings, most notably the mausoleum itself. To create a panel of parchinkari, a master artist would begin by drawing the pattern, in henna, on the surface of the marble. This pattern would then be carefully gouged out by the parchinkar, and the empty spaces thus created filled with very finely cut slices of the coloured stones. Variations in colour and pattern within the stone were used to create stunning effects of light and shade.

Parchinkari detail at the rauza, Taj Mahal

Parchinkari detail at the rauza, Taj Mahal

Engraved in Stone contains more fascinating information about how this parchinkari was done, so if you haven’t bought your copy yet, do so—there are some mouthwatering deals on at Flipkart, BookAdda, Landmark, etc! If you live outside India, you can order the Muzaffar Jang series on Amazon, Abebooks, and Infibeam, among others.

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2 thoughts on “The stones that make the Taj

  1. Hello Madhu,
    Fascinating stuff! My visit at the Taj in 2010 (http://www.letstalkaboutbollywood.com/article-la-couronne-et-les-singes-55161285.html) was made so beautifully glowing thanks to the light falling on those gracefully polished stones, that even if their beauty was seen as only transient (or perhaps because it was so), I came back with a feeling of something like Eternity.
    Do you know if some of those precious stones were vandalized? Because it’s difficult to protect gems on such a large building for a very long time, as a rule…

  2. Thank you for commenting, Yves! Only the other day I was telling a friend – who was visiting India for the first time, and was about to leave for a day trip to Agra – that the Taj Mahal looks more beautiful seen up close rather than in mere photographs. Part of the reason, I think, is that to actually see the finesse with which though stones are carved and inlaid is quite something.

    To answer your question: yes, the stones were vandalised, sadly. In fact, historic records show that the vandalisation began within the 17th century itself. Now I guess the situation might be a little better, but I’m not sure.

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