India mystery solved: Taj Mahal built on ‘rare ground’ that revolutionised engineering

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The Taj Mahal is India’s most iconic superstructure: a mausoleum of the great Mogul Emperor, Shah Jahan’s, favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Her tomb is the centrepiece of an impressive 17-hectare complex, which includes a mosque and a guest house. Although some sects of Islam do not condone the direct worship of saints as other religions do, the building has become a great pilgrimage site for Muslims the world over.

For historians and engineers alike, the Taj’s mammoth infrastructure has stunned for millennia.

Its construction began in 1632, in the Mogul capital of Agra, modern day northern India, and within a few years the shell of the Taj was complete.

Its location, on the banks of the Yamuna river, proved a particular challenge – as even today, engineers struggle to build on or near rivers for fear of a structure sinking into the ground.

The Taj’s construction secrets were laid bare during National Geographic’s ‘Secrets of the Taj Mahal’.

Here, Iranian-German architect, Hadi Teherani, explained: “Close to water, you rarely find ground solid enough to build on.

“You have to dig down until you hit hard, dry earth.

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“They (the engineers) came up with a brilliant solution to this problem, one that is still used today, in a slightly different form.

“They decided to build a well foundation – that was a revolutionary idea for those times.”

The great Mogul engineers dug deep wells below the water table – the underground boundary between the soil surface and the area where water saturates saves between sediments and cracks in rock.

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They filled these newly dug wells with rocks and mortar.

A base was then cemented into the ground, on top of which the engineers stacked stone columns.

These columns were then linked together by giant arches.

The result was a solid mountain of stone to support the foundation slab of what would become the Taj Mahal.

It was an ingenious move: not only did the structure encapsulate the beauty of its surroundings, it enabled the Taj to be protected from the currents of the river forever.

The Moguls, or Mughals, originally came from Central Asia, and ruled most of what is modern day India and Pakistan in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Its empire consolidated Islam in South Asia, spreading Muslim art and culture throughout a region that was previously predominately Hindu.

The Archaeological Survey of India, the custodian of the country’s monuments, describes the Taj Mahal as “the pinnacle of Mughal architecture”.

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