The (Romantic) Icon: Taj Mahal

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Sorrow was never so beautiful.

India‘s Taj Mahal, fashioned from marble and heartbreak, was built by Mogul emperor Shah Jahan as a tomb for his beloved consort, Empress Mumtaz Mahal, who died in childbirth. The bejeweled Taj, completed circa 1647 and located in the city of Agra, is considered the most ravishing example of Mogul architecture.

The mausoleum has survived invading Jats and colonial Brits, who pried out the lapis during India’s 1857 rebellion. They later restored the building and erected a scaffold to protect it from Axis bombing raids in WWII. The Taj now faces its deadliest enemy: environmental degradation, as the sinking water table of the Yamuna River speeds the decay of the wood base supporting the structure, threatening it with collapse.

By the numbers: The bejeweled Taj Mahal took 22 years to complete and had a crew of 20,000 workers and 1,000 elephants.

Dome view: The nearly 200-foot-tall dome is actually a dome within a dome. The bulbous outer shell is much larger than the interior one. If the exterior dome were visible from the inside, the Taj’s symmetry would be spoiled.

Grief or belief? Recent theories claim the Taj was designed not to express love but as a map to the Judgment Day interpreted by the Sufis, a mystical sect of Islam.

Family feud: Shortly after the Taj was finished, Shah Jahan was overthrown and imprisoned by his son, who later did his filial duty and buried his father next to Mumtaz.

Resting in peace: The ornate sarcophagus that visitors see is empty. Shah Jahan’s and his empress’s real graves are in the tomb’s lower level, hidden from tourists. Marks on the floor indicate the tombs’ locations below.

Night light: The Taj can be visited after dark on the night of a full moon, and two days before or after it. The mausoleum is closed on Fridays and during Ramadan.

Freeway of love: Tourists’ travel time from New Delhi to the industrial city of Agra was halved to about two hours in August 2012 with the opening of the six-lane Yamuna Expressway.

Flower power: The tip of the Taj is designed to look like a lotus.

Going green: The trimmed lawns surrounding the building reflect an English tradition, not an Indian one. Before the British raj, the Taj’s gardens boasted forests of banana, apple, and orange trees.

Dreamy description: India’s poet Rabindranath Tagore called the Taj “a teardrop on the cheeks of time.”

This piece, written by Andrew Nelson, appeared in the December/January issue of National Geographic Traveler. There’s a lot that’s not online: Subscribe today to get the print edition for just $10 a year.