When his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, died in childbirth in 1631, Shah Jahan, who ruled at the height of the Mughal empire, decided to build what would become one of the eight wonders of the world: the Taj Mahal. The main domed mausoleum, minarets, gardens, pavilions, gateway and other buildings are together recognized as "one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world's heritage," according to UNESCO. It’s symmetry is one of the most appealing features, but there is another aspect that is only visible once a year.
Amelia Carolina Sparavigna, a physics professor at the Polytechnic University of Turin, in Italy, recently took the time to lay out the alignment of Taj Mahal's gardens with the path of the sun and its orientation with the cardinal directions. She told Live Science that while solar alignments are common in Mughal gardens, in "the case of Taj Mahal, these gardens, which are huge, are perfect." Her work is published in the journal Philica.
Owen Jarus for Live Science describes what you might see if you visit the palatial white marble complex when the alignment is most apparent:
If you arrived at the Taj Mahal in India before the sun rises on the day of the summer solstice (which usually occurs June 21), and walked up to the north-central portion of the garden where two pathways intersect with the waterway, and if you could step into that waterway and turn your gaze toward a pavilion to the northeast — you would see the sun rise directly over it. If you could stay in that spot, in the waterway, for the entire day, the sun would appear to move behind you and then set in alignment with another pavilion, to the northwest. The mausoleum and minarets of the Taj Mahal are located between those two pavilions, and the rising and setting sun would appear to frame them.
The alignment is apparent with an app called Sun Calc that use Google Earth satellite images to show sun movement at any given time and location. Sparavigna uses the app to show the alignments at the Taj Mahal and several other famous gardens. Mughal gardens are noted for symbolizing the Garden of Eden—they feature four canals running from the center to the four corners of the world.
While the alignment may have been noted before, high-tech satellites are giving us a chance to appreciate anew the work of architects and landscape artists of the past. Now we just have to preserve these sites of cultural heritage for the future to enjoy.