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They have the power to impress


A Teardrop on the Cheek of Time' is a book on a special building, the Taj Mahal. The title is inspired by Rabindranath Tagore, who had described the Taj as `a teardrop on the cheek of eternity'.

The authors, Diana and Michael Preston, compare the spousal devotion of the Moghul emperor Shah Jahan to that of Edward I of England. The latter, who lost his wife Eleanor while she was accompanying him on a royal progress, `marked the place where the funeral cortege stopped each night of its 200-mile journey back to Westminster Abbey by erecting an ornate stone cross,': he must have spent some 19 million in today's money, estimate the authors. Most of these crosses have disappeared, informs a footnote; "but the one at Charing Cross was reconstructed and is the point used for calculating distances from London."

Story of Taj

The story of Taj, according to the Prestons, `has the cadences of Greek tragedy, the carnage of a Jacobean revenge play and the ripe emotion of grand opera'. The dust jacket invites readers to the `exquisite and extravagant memorial... a gleaming mausoleum of flawless symmetry... built from milk-white marble and rose sandstone, and studded with a fortune in precious jewels'.

Do you know what attracts kings and emperors to constructing structures of epic proportions? Because they are aware that buildings have the power to impress and overawe the public.

In a discussion of the `long tradition of tomb building', the authors mention `the over 160-foot-high octagonal tomb surmounted by an egg-shaped dome and ringed by eight minarets the Mongol Prince Uljaytu had built for himself in his imperial capital of Sultaniya in Persia in the early fourteenth century'; as also, the `vast tomb complex for the Ayatollah Khomeini... being built just outside Tehran', using `only utilitarian materials'.

By the time Shah Jahan wanted to build the tomb for Mumtaz, a technical limitation that had been overcome was about placing `a dome on a building whose interior size exceeded that of the dome itself'. As early as the third century AD, builders of the Persian Sassanid dynasty had solved the problem by using squinch - `a simple arch across the angle of two walls' - as support for the dome. "This turned a square into an octagon. If required, further small arches could be added across the corners of the octagon, thus producing a sixteen-sided structure almost approximating the circle of the dome."

Glossary of Medieval Art and Architecture on www.pitt.edu defines squinch as "an arch, or a system of concentrically wider and gradually projecting arches, placed at the corners of a square base to act as the transition to a circular dome placed on the base."

"Designs of squinch and pendentive developed rapidly as builders experimented with construction techniques and artistic possibilities and learned how to place a dome on buildings of any shape and size.

The techniques spread westwards as well as the east, to be realised in St Sophia in Constantinople, Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence and St Peter's in Rome... " A travel through time and geography, architecture and love.

D. MURALI

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