Jason Pettus's Reviews > Taj Mahal: Passion and Genius at the Heart of the Moghul Empire

Taj Mahal by Diana Preston
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's review
Feb 26, 2009

really liked it

(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com:]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted here illegally.)

Regular readers know that later this fall, I'm going to be studying the ultra-complex history of India for the first time in my life, and that I'm slowly easing myself into it this year whenever I have an excuse; for example, last November during the terrible attacks in Mumbai, I became curious as to whether the historic Taj Mahal hotel there had anything to do with the actual Taj Mahal, which prompted my dad of all people to loan me Diana and Michael Preston's recent overview on the subject, Taj Mahal: Passion and Genius at the Heart of the Moghul Empire. And it turned out to be a great medium-sized guide, although I don't have too terribly much to actually say about it, because there's nothing especially unusual about it; it's simply a well-researched, well-written account of the late Moghul Empire, the collection of central-Asian war-obsessed royals (descendants of Ghengis Khan, actually) who ruled most of the subcontinent now known as India and Pakistan during roughly the same period as the European Renaissance (AD 1400 to 1700, that is).

In fact, for Westerners who don't know, there were a whole series of uncanny similarities between various Eastern and Western societies in those years, despite the almost complete lack of communication between these far-scattered empires and nation-states; for example, like Italy during the Renaissance, Moghul India saw an explosive growth in the arts, culture and sensuality in those years, with just a ridiculous percentage of the empire's annual revenue (maybe as much as 30 percent by some estimates) devoted to the building of glittering new architectural masterpieces, simply for the sake of "classying up the joint." It was within such an environment, then, that Moghul leader Shah Jahan (second-to-last emperor before their downfall) unexpectedly fell into a deeply empathetic love with his arranged wife Mumtaz Mahal, even more unusual at the time because of Moghul emperors actually having something like 50 or 60 wives, nearly all of them political appointees chosen in order to broker truces among the dozens of regional tribal leaders (or rajas) still left in India, and that emperors weren't ever expected to actually "click" with any of these wives in a serious way.

Shah Jahan did, though, even to the extent of seeking regular political advice from Mahal, an almost unheard-of thing back then; and so when she died unexpectedly in 1631, the man ended up really falling apart, deciding to spend what some think might've been up to half of the empire's entire extra fortune on her mausoleum, the "Taj Mahal" that we now acknowledge as one of the greatest edifices in human history. It was this folly, and Shah Jahan's descent into alcoholic madness afterwards, that made serious cracks first appear in the once unstoppable Moghul Empire; it was his cavalier, competitive attitude towards his children, then, that made them erupt into a bloody Shakespearean civil war after Shah Jahan's death, which then split the empire into a series of constantly fighting resource-poor territories, ripe for conquest by first the French in the 1700s and then the British in the 1800s, leading us to the Victorian "Raj" period that for most of us Westerners is our first introduction to the subject of Indian history.

What the Prestons present us in this book, then, is a look not only at the building of the tomb itself, but the 50 years that led up to it and the 50 years after, a tightly-knit century-long dysfunctional-family saga that could roughly be compared in the West to, say, a general history of Great Britain's Georgian Era or Tudor Period; and like all good general histories, the Prestons tell us this story not just by examining the history and politics and war campaigns of the time, but the artistic and cultural trends, the clothes they wore and food they ate, the strata of social classes that existed in this literal hothouse environment, even a detailed look at how such infamous details as the royal harem worked. (In fact, this turns out to be one of the most fascinating digressions of the entire book -- turns out that the several hundred women making up the emperor's wives and their servants all lived in this big complex together on the royal grounds [which is what's actually called the 'harem,' not the group of women themselves:], hardly ever allowed outside and with no males besides the emperor allowed in [and with a whole series of secret passages for him too, so that he could magically appear in various bedchambers like a god would:], with an entire all-female staff down to the soldiers and guards themselves, and with this insanely elaborate matriarchal socio-political system existing just within the walls of the harem complex itself, for smooth daily life among all these essentially pampered sex slaves. Fascinating, I tell you.)

Make no mistake, this is nothing but a well-done overview, one of those mainstream-friendly projects they're always talking about on NPR, the literary equivalent of those cable documentaries you always catch yourself watching on Sunday afternoons; but I happen to love such projects, and don't need them to be anything more than this for me to find them highly satisfying. For all those interested in learning more about the Taj Mahal itself, as well as the last great days of the once all-powerful empire that produced it, this brisk and dryly entertaining guide comes highly recommended.

Out of 10: 8.7
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