Taj Mahal Exterior View Marble Mausoleum At Sunrise Mughal Architecture Agra India

The Monumental Architecture of India’s Golden Triangle

Jaipur Hawa Mahal Palace Of The Winds Iconic Pink Palace Facade Rajasthan Architecture

Delhi: Qtub Minar, Humayun’s Tomb, Jama Masjid, Lotus Temple, Lodhi Gardens

Agra: Taj Mahal, Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah (“Baby Taj”), Akbar’s Tomb, Agra Fort

Between Agra & Jaipur: Fatehpur Sikri, Chand Baori

Agra Fort White Marble Courtyard With Chhatri Dome And Woman Wearing Pink Sari
Agra Fort
Delhi Isa Khan Niazi Tomb Exterior Octagonal With Blue Tiles On Canopied Domes Surrounded By Park Humayun Tomb Complex
The mausoleum of Isa Khan, in the complex of Humayun’s Tomb

Cloisters Qutub Minor Complex Quwwat ul-Islam Mosque Hindu And Jain Columns And Circular Ceiling Delhi India
Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque Qutub Minor Complex Delhi Cloisters With Columns Hindu Carvings
Humayan Tomb Delhi Exterior Corner View Red Sandstone White Geometric Inlay And Dome Delhi India Mughal Architecture

All the hallmarks of Mughal architecture came together for the first time in Humayun’s Tomb. Compared to the smaller tombs nearby built at roughly the same time, the second emperor’s mausoleum demonstrates a cohesive new style. First and foremost, the setting: not just any garden, but the charbagh (Paradise Garden) promoted so passionately by Humayun’s father Babur. Originally developed in Persia, the charbagh uses a pair of intersecting waterways to evoke the rivers of Paradise, and the symbolism resonated deeply with Muslims. Here the tomb sits right over the crossing, in a double-height space lit by screens in the direction of Mecca. The actual grave lies in a chamber directly below the cenotaph, since Islam forbids elaborate ornamentation on burials. 

Humayun Tomb Interior White Dome With Delicate Red Lines Mughal Architecture Delhi India

Having visited the much-better-preserved fort in Agra, we bypassed its counterpart in Delhi and headed directly for the Jama Masjid

Rounding out the Golden Triangle’s architectural fusion of faiths is the immensely popular Bahá’í House of Worship, a.k.a. the Lotus Temple. Iranian architect Fariborz Sahba spent nearly a decade touring India and studying its architecture in preparation for designing the structure. He found inspiration in the highly-symbolic lotus, here rendered in three monumental sets of white marble petals. Shallow pools around the structure mimic the flower’s leaves and create a sense that it floats. They also create cooling ventilation inside, a trick often found in pre-modern Indian architecture.

Delhi Lotus Temple Modern Architecture Marble Exterior Petal Shaped Building Reflected In Pool
Above, the mosque adjacent to the Bara Gumbad pictured below.
Bara Gumbad Big Dome Exterior Lodhi Gardens Women In Saris Walking Up Steps To Pre Mughal Monument Delhi India
Taj Mahal Mosque Next To Mausoleum Red Sandstone White Domes Sunrise Foggy Sky Mughal Architecture
The mosque facing the Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan’s mausoleum for his favorite wife Mumtaz, is generally considered the apogee of Mughal architecture. Elegant lines and perfect proportions keep the extravagant materials from feeling excessive or gaudy. Up close, details emerge: complex inlays of richly-colored stone, or delicate floral shapes carved into sparkling white marble. The only inharmonious note for us was the addition of the Shah’s larger sarcophagus next to that of his wife, disrupting the symmetry.

Taj Mahal Early Morning People Looking At Mausoleum And Minarets In Distance Mughal Architecture Agra India

Much of the building’s impact comes from the overall site layout. At first, the gardens appear to follow a traditional four-part plan, with monumental gateways and a mosque surrounding the mausoleum. Beyond the tomb, however, a large river interrupts the gardens, echoing the ending of Mumtaz’s life. Even more remarkably, a second configuration can be seen from above: the river itself serves as the cross-axis of the charbagh layout. A second set of gardens on the other shore mirrors the ones in front of the Taj Mahal to complete the symmetry. On clear days the Mehtab Bagh, or Moonlight Gardens, provide a prime viewpoint of the true “front” of the mausoleum.

Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah (“Baby Taj”)

Agra Tomb Of I'timād-ud-Daulah Baby Taj Mausoleum Exterior White Marble And Semi Precious Stone Inlay Decoration Mughal Architecture

Akbar’s Tomb (Sikandra) 

Akbar Tomb Sikandra Agra Entry Gateway Four Minarets Red Sandstone With Marble Inlay Elaborate Patterns Mughal Architecture
Akbar Tomb In Agra Sikandra Interior Domed Ceiling With Inlaid Floral Blue And Gold Patterns Mughal Architecture India

Agra Fort

Agra Fort Exterior Red Sandstone With White Patterns And Domed Chhatri Mughal Architecture India

Agra Fort is mostly the product of the two greatest builders of the Mughal Empire: Akbar and Shah Jahan. Delhi Sultan Sikhander Lodhi had shifted his capital from Delhi to Agra but didn’t have time to adapt its existing fort before being conquered by the Mughals.

Agra Fort Detail Of Red Sandstone Brackets With Carvings Mughal Architecture
Agra Fort White Marble With Intricate Inlays Interior Shah Burj Pavilion By Shah Jahan For Mumtaz Mughal Architecture
Fatehpur Sikri Diwan-i-Khas Hall Of Private Audience For Akbar Elaborate Sandstone Carvings On Pillars Mughal Architecture

Fatehpur Sikri means City of Victory, but City of Mystery might be more accurate. Scholars continue to debate why Akbar decided to build this new capital 35 km outside of Agra – and why he abandoned it after just 14 years. Many of the buildings can’t be easily identified, but one space is so unique it could never be mistaken for anything else. Akbar’s Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audience) models the cosmos, with the emperor at the top of a pillar with myriad brackets. Outside, he enjoyed having courtesans and occasionally vassals serve as playing pieces on a giant pachisi board.

Chand Baori Stepwell Mughal Palace Built Into Side Of Well Abhaneri Village Rajasthan Architecture India
Chand Baori Stepwell Abhaneri Rajasthan India View Into Giant Well With Steep Steps Lining Sides
Jaipur City Palace Interior Courtyard Pink Painted Walls Man Walking

The opulent City Palace features a photogenic open-air pavilion as well as the celebrated Pritam Niwas Chowk, a courtyard with four elaborate gateways representing Hindu deities and the four seasons. Nearby the UNESCO-listed Jantar Mantar Observatory completes the trio of major sites in the Old City.

Amer Fort Geometric Garden With Fountain And Shrubs Outside Palace Of Mirrors Jaipur Rajasthan

In Delhi, we discovered an efficient metro system complete with helpful staff. Unfortunately Agra and Jaipur don’t offer anything comparable, so we opted to hire a car and driver instead of negotiating multiple tuk-tuk rides. One of our best decisions was to find an experienced travel company in India. TGS Tours provided our excellent driver as well as assistance with our itinerary and hotel bookings. The trip could not have gone more smoothly, and the price was less than most packaged tours. (Please note that this is not a sponsored endorsement.)

William Dalrymple’s classic City of Djinns weaves wry observations of contemporary life with a primer on both ancient and modern history in India. 

For more on India, see our posts on Agra, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaipur, and the architecture of Rajasthan.