Lowly Taj labourers leave mark in marble

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 July, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 July, 2004, 12:00am

Some of the 20,000 nameless labourers who built the Taj Mahal 350 years ago - although only cogs in a gigantic wheel - must have had an inkling of its later glory as the greatest monument to love ever built. Archaeologists have discovered their names, furtively etched in the white marble.

A team of experts from the Archaeological Survey of India recently stumbled upon the names of more than 670 masons and labourers on the northern side of the Taj Mahal while carrying out routine documentation of the mausoleum.

Most of the names are in Arabic and Persian. The team also found symbols such as the swastika, geometrical patterns and flowers on the sandstones facing the boundary wall near the Yamuna River.

'My hunch is that the symbols were etched by masons who were illiterate and used the symbols as a mark of their identity,' said superintending archaeologist D. Dayalan. 'Of the names, some were repeated in several places, indicating that they might have been senior, perhaps calligraphers or designers.'

The etched names are meticulously divided into sections; dome-makers, calligraphers and inlay artists. Now the team is examining other sections of the boundary wall in case there are more names.

'Some of the senior men who worked on the Taj are known, such as the calligrapher Amanat Khan al-Shirazi and the head of the dome-making team, Ismail Khan Afridi from Turkey. But what we're interested in are the unknown masons who have never been recognised for their work,' Mr Dayalan said.

Mughal emperor Shah Jehan wanted to build a monument to his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died in childbirth after bearing him 14 children. The construction of the Taj began in 1631, taking 20,000 workers 17 years to complete.

Material was brought in from all over India and neighbouring countries and carried to the site by 1,000 elephants.

The team is now trying to compile a complete list and decipher the symbols: 'We've always known the names of the core creative team on the Taj Mahal but it's fantastic to find the names of ordinary, faceless men who, in their own small way, wanted to leave their mark on posterity by etching their names into the mausoleum,' Mr Dayalan said.