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15 Facts You Might Not Know About the Taj Mahal

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The Taj Mahal is widely considered one of the most beautiful—and romantic—buildings in the world, but there are probably a few things you don't know about India's most ornate mausoleum.

1. THE TAJ MAHAL WAS BUILT TO HONOR THE FAVORITE WIFE OF AN EMPEROR. 

Like many of his predecessors, Shah Jahan married several wives over the course of his adult life. Although Shah Jahan spread his heart around, none of these ladies found quite the same favor as his third wife (but first love), Arjumand Banu Begum, more famously known as Mumtaz Mahal. Their union lasted 19 years and led to the birth of 14 children. Complications during the birth of the final child led to Mahal’s untimely passing at the age of 39. Shah Jahan was so stricken by the loss of his longtime companion that he decided to memorialize Mahal with a spectacular tomb. Construction on the Mahal and its surroundings began in 1632, one year after her death, and continued for just over two decades. 

2. THE ONLY PART OF THE MAUSOLEUM THAT IS NOT ORNATELY DECORATED IS THE ACTUAL GRAVE. 

Per Muslim law, graves cannot be adorned with elaborate decoration, which would be an inappropriate expression of vanity. This rule explains the comparatively drab design of the lower level of the palace where Shah Jahan laid his wife to rest. 

3. THE GRAVE SITE IS ALSO THE ONLY PART THAT IS NOT PERFECTLY SYMMETRICAL.

The Taj Mahal is any obsessive’s dream, with meticulous symmetry across its long and wide diameters. The sole exception to this otherwise uniform aesthetic scheme lies, again, in the gravesite. Mumtaz Mahal’s casket is located in the exact center of the palace crypt, but it is Shah Jahan’s grave—introduced to the mausoleum following his death in 1666—that rocks its artistic equilibrium with a west-of-center resting place. 

4. THE PALACE WAS DESIGNED SO THAT EVERYTHING WOULD FALL AWAY FROM THE TOMB IN THE EVENT OF A COLLAPSE. 

The placement of the Taj Mahal’s four minarets—the 130-foot-tall spires at the edge of the platform—was not an aesthetic choice but a strategic one. In the 17th century, it was hardly uncommon for massive architectural ventures to fall victim to their own weight. In order to protect the crypt of Mumtaz Mahal, chief architect Ustad Ahmad Lahauri tilted the towers slightly so that they would fall away from the rest of the Taj Mahal, preventing the grave from incurring any damages.

5. THIS KIND OF COLLAPSE REMAINS A VERY REAL CONCERN. 

The passing years have only heightened worries about the monument’s structural integrity. In the 20th century, surveyors began to notice signs of structural decay that originated with the neighboring Yamuna River’s gradual drying. Scientists have even observed that between the 1980s and today, one of the minarets has undergone a one-and-a-half-inch shift. More extreme assessments of the situation predict that the Taj Mahal will collapse entirely by 2016, but the Architectural Survey of India has dismissed such projections and promised that the iconic building will be secure for the foreseeable future. 

6. CONSTRUCTION DEMANDED A TREMENDOUS AMOUNT OF MANPOWER.

Architect Lahauri led a team of 20,000 artisans in the development of the Taj Mahal.

7. …AND A GOOD DEAL OF ELEPHANT-POWER, TOO.

About a thousand elephants handled the transport of heavy building materials during the two-decade construction project. 

8. THE TAJ MAHAL’S CALLIGRAPHER SIGNED HIS WORK WITH A SELF-DEPRECATING TITLE. 

Countless beautifully printed lines of Muslim scripture line the walls of the Taj Mahal, each of which was transcribed from the Quran under the supervision of head calligrapher Abd-al Haqq, known professionally as Amanat Khan Shirazi. Abd-al Haqq also received attribution for his calligraphy, an exceptionally rare opportunity for the era. Ever the humble gentleman, Abd-al Haqq inlaid his John Hancock with the humble, “Written by the insignificant being, Amanat Khan Shirazi” at the base of the interior dome.

9. THE PALACE GARDEN TRANSFORMED UNDER BRITISH IMPERIALISM.

Contemporary Muslim culture influenced the Taj Mahal’s remarkably bountiful original garden, which included both rich foliage and more than 60 elaborate flowerbeds. This landscaping held up until India became part of the British empire and colonial powers imparted their own horticultural ideologies onto the palace lawn. Under English control in the late 19th century, the Taj Mahal’s greenery adopted a subtler character more common to British gardens. 

10. THE TAJ MAHAL “HIDES” DURING TIMES OF WAR. 

The Taj Mahal’s status as an Indian icon has made it a vulnerable target in times of international hostility. During World War II and the collected wars waged between India and Pakistan throughout the 20th century, the Indian government and people have gone to great lengths to protect their valued landmark from attack. To this end, architects added extensive scaffolding that concealed the structure from airborne bombers. When the ruse was working, instead of seeing one of the wonders of the world, pilots would see what looked like a pile of bamboo. 

11. THERE MAY HAVE BEEN A PLAN FOR A SECOND, BLACK TAJ MAHAL. 

A 1665 voyage to the Indian state of Uttar Prudesh left French explorer Jean-Baptiste Tavernier with stories of a colorful encounter with Shah Jahan just one year before the ruler’s death. Tavernier’s supposed conversation gave rise to the legend that Shah Jahan had abandoned plans to build a second palace across the Yamuna River. This mausoleum was supposedly meant to house the crypt to Shah Jahan himself, and was envisioned as a black complement to the Taj Mahal’s white façade. 

12. TWO SCHOLARS HAVE QUESTIONED SHAH JAHAN’S INVOLVEMENT WITH THE TAJ MAHAL’S CREATION. 

While whether Shah Jahan ever really intended to build the black Taj Mahal remains an open question, most scholars agree that he was indeed responsible for the first one. Not everyone is on board with this conclusion, though. Among the chief detractors are writer P.N. Oak and sociologist Amarnath Mishra. In 2000, the Supreme Court of India rejected Oak’s proposal to give credit for the Taj Mahal’s construction to the 12th century Hindu king Raja Parmar Dev, whom he theorized developed the building as a Shiva temple called Tejo Mahalaya. Five years after Oak’s failed endeavor, Mishra approached the Allahabad High Court to raise a similar point in the name of the long deceased monarch. Mishra’s movement was similarly unsuccessful. However, earlier this year, the district court of Agra allowed a new lawsuit claiming this, so it seems as though this theory isn't going away anytime soon.

13. AUTOMOBILES HAVE TO STAY AWAY TO KEEP THINGS GLEAMING. 

Cars and buses are strictly prohibited from coming within 500 meters of the Taj Mahal. The rule was put into effect to prevent exhaust from gasoline-powered vehicles from further tarnishing the exterior of the building.

14. THERE IS ONE WALL IN THE TAJ MAHAL THAT VISITORS KEEP PUNCHING. 

As a centuries-old mausoleum with both cultural and religious significance, the Taj Mahal has attracted a bit of a supernatural reputation. Among the more popular legends is one that involves spurts of water rushing forth as a result of hitting a carving of the palace located in the riverside forecourt. More specifically, the myth provokes visitors to strike the image at the silhouette of the finial—the cross-like structure at the very top of the Taj Mahal. Farfetched as it is, groundskeepers find consistent evidence, in the form of superficial damage to the carving, that visitors slam their knuckles against the wall.

15. SHAH JAHAN WAS NOT PERMITTED TO ENTER THE TAJ MAHAL DURING THE FINAL YEARS OF HIS LIFE.

Nine years before Shah Jahan passed away, he fell gravely ill, which led to his sons fighting over succession. When Shah Jahan unexpectedly recovered, it was already too late. Two of his sons with Mumatz Mahal, Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb, had begun fighting. Shah Jahan sided with Dara, but Aurangzeb emerged victorious, killing Dara and imprisoning their father in Agra to undercut any attempts to return to power. Thus, Shah Jahan was barred from visiting the Taj Mahal for the remainder of his life and was only allowed to view his monument from the grounds of his neighboring residence.

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25 Wild Facts About Alaska
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Located 500 miles away from the nearest state, there’s likely a lot you haven’t heard about Alaska. Here are 25 facts about the last frontier.

1. Dog mushing is the official state sport.

2. The state flag was designed by a 13-year-old boy. After calling on students throughout the territory to submit their ideas, Alaska ultimately decided on Benny Benson’s scene of the Big Dipper and the North Star in 1927.

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3. Seventeen of the 20 highest peaks in the U.S. are located in Alaska.

4. Some of Alaska’s bizarre moose-specific legislation has included laws against pushing a moose from a plane, viewing a moose from a plane, and giving a moose beer.

5. Haines, Alaska is home to America’s first museum solely dedicated to hammers. Visitors to the Hammer Museum can view their fascinating collections of hammer sculptures, handle-making machinery, and spring-loaded meat tenderizers.

6. Balto is the famous sled dog that’s usually credited with delivering medicine to a remote Alaskan village, but some argue that Togo was the true hero. Before Balto completed the last 55 miles of the journey, Togo pulled the medicine through 200 miles of wind and snow. His stuffed and preserved body is on display at the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Museum in Wasilla, Alaska.

7. Alaska broke their record high when temperatures reached 100° F in 1915.

8. Their low of -80° F recorded in Alaska’s Endicott Mountains still holds the record for the nation's all-time low.

9. Alaska has more coastline than the other 49 states combined.

10. Because of their long summer days, Alaska is capable of producing some unusually oversized produce. Some notable specimens that have been harvested in recent years include a 35-pound broccoli, a 65-pound cantaloupe, and a 138-pound cabbage.

11. About 1700 miles south of the geographic North Pole lies the Fairbanks suburb of North Pole, Alaska. The town’s famous Santa Claus House gift shop is open year-round, and thousands of letters addressed to Santa are sent to the zip code each year. (A real-life Santa Claus was even elected to City Council.)

12. The Bering Strait that separates Alaska from Russia is around 55 miles wide at its narrowest point. Within it sit the Russian island of Big Diomede and the U.S. island of Little Diomede, which are just two and a half miles apart. So in theory, it would be possible for some Alaskans to see Russia from their houses.

13. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces bombed and invaded the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. The occupation lasted nearly a year.

14. Moose, caribou, and bear killed by cars in Alaska are considered property of the state [PDF]. When road kill is reported, the carcasses are butchered by volunteers and distributed as food to charity organizations.

15. America’s largest national forest is the Tongass. It’s about three times the size of the runner-up, which is also located in Alaska.

16. Each year, brave Alaskans compete to be crowned the king or queen of their throne in the Fur Rondy Festival outhouse races. Teams outfit the bottoms of their custom-built outhouses with skis and race each other down a two-lane track. In addition to the title of first place, prizes are awarded for the most colorful, best-engineered, and cleanest commodes.

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17. The Thing, John Carpenter’s 1982 horror classic set in Antarctica, was filmed in Alaska.

18. In Barrow, Alaska, the longest night lasts for 67 days. In the summer they make up for it with 82 days of uninterrupted sunlight.

19. If Manhattan had the same population density as Alaska, only 28 people would inhabit the island.

20. There are 107 men for every 100 women in Alaska, the highest male-to-female ratio in the United States.

21. Juneau is America’s only state capital that isn’t accessible by road.

22. In 1867, Russia agreed to sell Alaska to the United States for $7.2 million, which amounted to about two cents an acre.

23. Many hotels in Alaska offer Northern Lights wake-up calls upon request.

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24. The Aleuts, Inupiat, Yuit, Athabascans, Tlingit, and Haida make up the major native groups of Alaska. At more than 14 percent, Alaska has a more concentrated indigenous population than any other state.

25. For years, the small town of Talkeetna, Alaska hosted the annual Moose Dropping Festival. Varnished pieces of numbered moose droppings were dumped from a crane into a parking lot and participants whose corresponding droppings landed closest to the center of a target received cash prizes. The event eventually grew too dangerously large for the town of 850 to handle and was retired in 2009.

This story originally ran in 2015.

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
10 Shipwrecks You Can Visit
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UNESCO says that there are no fewer than 3 million shipwrecks lost beneath the waves, their locations just waiting to be discovered. But for tourism purposes, the most interesting shipwrecks are those we already know about—and can visit. These 10 shipwrecks have intriguing stories, and they’re all places where you can step foot, although in some cases a boat (and possibly scuba gear) may be necessary. Remember: Look, don’t touch, since removing artifacts can spoil the chance for valuable archeological research (and is often illegal).

1. BESSIE WHITE, FIRE ISLAND, NEW YORK

The half-buried shipwreck of the Bessie White on Fire Island, New York
Nick Normal, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The 200-foot schooner Bessie White wrecked off the shore of this barrier island while laden with coal in 1919 or 1922 (historians aren't sure of the exact date). The crew escaped, but the 3-year-old ship ran aground. In October 2012, Superstorm Sandy revealed the battered remnants of the ship's hull, which had been carried to a spot near Skunk Hollow in the Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness. The National Park Service sometimes leads hikes to the wreckage, whose location over time provides scientists with clues to how the landscape of Fire Island has changed.

2. MS WORLD DISCOVERER, SOLOMON ISLANDS

The shipwreck of World Discoverer in the Solomon Islands
Philjones828, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

A cruise ship built in 1974 that once carried passengers to polar regions, MS World Discoverer ran aground in the Solomon Islands in 2000. No lives were lost—all the passengers escaped via ferry after an uncharted rock pierced the ship's hull. Today the wreckage is still a tourist attraction in Roderick Bay in the Nggela Islands, listing heavily against the shore.

3. PETER IREDALE, WARRENTON, OREGON

The shipwreck of the Peter Iredale in Warrenton, Oregon
Robert Bradshaw, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.5

Now a haunting ruin along the Oregon coast, the Peter Iredale was once a four-masted steel barque sailing vessel owned by British shipping firm Iredale & Porter. In September 1906, the ship left Santa Cruz, Mexico, on its way to Portland, Oregon, where it was supposed to pick up wheat bound for the United Kingdom. But a heavy wind and strong current sent her on to the breakers and she ran aground at Clatsop Beach, with three of her masts snapping from the impact, according to the Oregon History Project. The wreckage became an immediate tourist attraction, and despite being buffeted by the wind and waves ever since, it remains so today. It’s now part of Fort Stevens State Park.

4. MV PANAGIOTIS, ZAKYNTHOS ISLAND, GREECE

Shipwreck of the MV Panagiotis on Navagio Beach, Greece
Maczopikczu, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

This shipwreck in the Ionian Islands gives its beach its nicknames: Navagio ("shipwreck") Beach and Smugglers Cove. Supposedly, the Panagiotis, which wrecked there in the early 1980s, was smuggling cigarettes and possibly worse. The rusting hulk of the boat is far from the only thing to see, however; the beach also attracts visitors for its clear turquoise waters and pristine pale sand. It’s also one of the most popular spots for BASE jumping in the world. The cove can be accessed only by boat.

5. SS MAHENO, FRASER ISLAND, AUSTRALIA

Shipwreck of SS Maheno on Fraser Island, Australia
Central Intelligence Agency, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Once an ocean liner that plied the Tasman Sea between New Zealand and Australia, the SS Maheno was also used as a hospital ship for the New Zealand navy during World War I. She was later sold to a Japanese ship-breaking company for scrap, but broke apart in a cyclone on the journey to Japan in 1935. Since washing ashore on Australia's Fraser Island, the ship has become a major tourist attraction, despite not being particularly safe.

6. SS OREGON, LONG ISLAND SOUND, NEW YORK

Once the fastest liner on the Atlantic, the SS Oregon sunk in 1886 just 18 miles off New York after hitting an unidentified schooner, often thought to be the Charles R. Morse. After an unsuccessful attempt to plug the hole in the hull with canvas, the captain ordered the ship abandoned, even though there were only enough lifeboats for half the ship's 852 passengers. (Fortunately, another ship arrived to save the passengers, and there were no casualties.) Today the wreck is a popular dive site in Long Island Sound. Although the ship's hull and decks have disintegrated over the years, the engine and boilers remain, among other remnants.

7. ULUBURUN, BODRUM, TURKEY

Granted, it's in a museum, but the Uluburun wreck, which sank off the coast of Turkey during the late Bronze Age, is one of the oldest ships ever found—it dates back 3,500 years. A local sponge diver found the wreck of the Uluburun off the southwestern coast of Turkey in the early 1980s. Archeologists then spent 11 years studying the ship, collecting 20 tons of artifacts, including the remains of fruits and nuts, pottery, jewelry, tools, and weapons. No one knows who built the ship or where it was headed, but judging by the amount of gold onboard, someone rich was involved. The remains of the ship and its cargo, as well as a life-sized replica, are kept at the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology.

8. MV CAPTAYANNIS, RIVER CLYDE, SCOTLAND

Shipwreck of the Captayannis in the River Clyde, Scotland
Stephen Thomas, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Once a Greek sugar-carrying ship, the MV Captayannis has become a de facto home for birds and other wildlife since sinking in Scotland's River Clyde in 1974 during a terrible storm. (The minor collision with a BP oil tanker also didn't help.) The shallow waters around the wreck make it relatively accessible, and the ship seems likely to stay where it is, since its precise ownership is something of a mystery.

9. LA FAMILLE EXPRESS, TURKS AND CAICOS ISLANDS

Shipwreck of the La Famille Express in the Turks and Caicos Islands
Matthew Straubmuller, Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Built in 1952 in Poland, La Famille Express served a large part of its life in the Soviet Navy (where it was known as Fort Shevchenko), before being sold and re-christened with its new name in 1999. It wrecked under mysterious circumstances around 2004. It now lies in just a few feet of water, an attractive landmark for boaters in the Turks and Caicos.

10. EDUARD BOHLEN, NAMIBIA

Shipwreck of the Eduard Bohlen in Namibia
Anagoria, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

This wreck is unusual for being buried entirely in the sand—it's now stranded about a quarter mile away from shore. A 2272-ton cargo ship that wrecked off Namibia's Skeleton Coast in 1909 in thick fog, the ship has since drifted so far from the water it's now completely land-locked.

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