Variously described as the ‘grandest monument of love’ and ‘a tear on the face of eternity’, the Taj Mahal is undoubtedly one of the most emblematic and iconic visual representations of India. This World Heritage Site, which is regarded as the finest specimen of Indo-Islamic architecture, is also one of the most visited tourist destinations in the country.
In the last few decades, the monument has become a site of political contestation and debate. And, particularly in the last few months, it has become a battleground for divisive politics, branded as a ‘blot’ on Indian culture by a representative of the political party that rules the state of Uttar Pradesh where the monument is located. In more than 350 years of the ups and downs of history that the Taj has been witness to, this is a first.
Until now, i.e., from the time of the construction of the Taj (built between 1631-1648), there have been attempts galore to lay claim to the aura of aesthetic and architectural heights that the monument commands. For the first time now we are witnessing efforts to repudiate that idea and brand the monument as a stigma.
Shah Jahan, Taj and the West
From the time the Taj was unveiled before the world, there were all manner of efforts to appropriate the accomplishment it exemplified. One of the first salvoes came from the West. Foreign travelers to India suggested that such a grand architectural marvel could not have been accomplished without the involvement of a western/foreign architect. Sebastian Manrique, who visited Agra in 1640-1641, gave credit to the Italian jeweller and designer Geronimo Veroneo, while William Sleeman, who visited India in 1810,was partial towards the Frenchman, Austin de Bordeaux.
This trend continued well into the 19th century and modern times as well. Scholars like W. E. Begley and Z. A. Desai point out that the 19th century manuscript, Tarikh-i Taj Mahal, regards Isa Muhammad Effendi of Turkey as the architect of the monument. Some modern historians also ascribe to this theory of ‘European involvement’ in some form or other.
Chroniclers of the Mughal period, on the other hand, credit the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan with the design of the complex. Based on a reading of Mughal sources, most historians of that period, as well as now, suggest that Shah Jahan (regnal years 1628-1658) himself designed the concept plan, which was executed to the last detail by a collective of architects including Ahmad Lahori, Mir Abdul Karim, Ustad Hamid and Maulana Murshid of Shiraz. This happens to be the most commonly-accepted academic view today.
Some modern scholars have added a new layer of complexity to the history of the monument by arguing that Shah Jahan built the mausoleum not just as a commemoration of the memory of his wife, Mumtaz Mahal but also as a reflection of his power and glory. D. Brandenburg argues that the placement of the char bagh (four-fold garden) at the head of the mausoleum was part of a particular cosmological diagram where the Taj represented the ‘Throne of God’. In a similar vein, Begley propounds that the mausoleum was meant to exemplify the perfection and authority of Mughal leadership. He saw the ‘Garden of Paradise’ as setting the location of the ‘Throne of God’ on Judgement Day.
British rule, Lord Curzon and the politicisation of the Taj
After Shah Jahan’s death, the Taj gradually faded from Mughal history. Scattered evidence points to some repairs under the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb and to the fact that it was raided by many, including the Sayyid Brothers in 1719, the Jats in 1761 and the British and others during the 1857 Rebellion. The Sayyid Brothers are supposed to have taken away imperial treasures, among them a pearl chadar (sheet) which originally covered the cenotaph of Mumtaz Mahal, while the Jats are believed to have taken away the doors. In various raids before and during the 1857 Rebellion, the Taj was also robbed of many precious and semi-precious stones that once adorned the surface.
The monument regained prominence once again during the colonial period. The East Indian Company gained control of north India towards the last quarter of the 18th century. In 1803, Lord Lake took control of Agra after the Second Maratha War. With the British gaining political ascendancy, Western travellers, artists and officials started visiting theTaj. The monument sometimes functioned as a guesthouse for visitors or served to entertain ‘British ladies and gentlemen’. While important guests would occupy the Mihmankhana (guest house) on one side of the Taj, or tents pitched in the gardens, the soldiers or attendants would stay in the Jilaukhana (forecourt). Gradually, the Taj started featuring in ’Company drawings’ or ‘Company paintings’ and in Orientalist depictions of India.
With the British also came the idea of repair, restoration and conservation – efforts which became more systematic after the formation of the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) in 1860-1861. However, the formal monumentalisation of the Taj, as Hilal Ahmed, a scholar who has worked on the politics of monuments, points out, began in the early 20th century, particularly under Lord Curzon. Unlike his predecessors, who were obsessed with the mausoleum, Curzon focused on the entire complex including the gardens and the outer courts.
A massive restoration project was undertaken, which Ahmed underscores, tried to:
Accommodate Indian feelings and perceptions – permissions were granted to the local community to use the mosque and tomb space for religious/ceremonial purposes; a particular kind of ‘Mughal’ dress [white suitswith a green scarf and a badge] was given to the attendants of the ASI at the Taj; and a decorated lamp [Saracenic style Mamluk lamp procured from Egypt] was installed inside the main chamber of the tomb in order to show the intrinsic link between [the] Mughal past and the British present.
Curzon’s correspondence and speeches, Ahmed argues, seem to suggest that the Taj was symbolically employed to show a historical continuityunder British rule. The monument was also invoked “to demonstrate the achievements of his administration in India.”
Nation-building, business and popular culture
This colonial politicisation of the Taj, Ahmed says, was opposed by nationalist leaders, particularly Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India’s first prime minister. For him, Indo-Islamic sites, especially the Taj Mahal, were “a symbol of India’s composite culture” and he “worked hard to translate this interpretation of India’s past into a serious policy discourse.” Accordingly, the Taj Mahal was “declared a monument of national importance” and “publicised as an official symbol of India’s contribution to world heritage.” Ahmed argues that this “official portrayal of the Taj purely as a ‘heritage site’ and/or a symbol of ‘eternal love’ got established as the most reliable and uncontested meaning of this building in later years.”
The influence of the Taj Mahal went beyond the official discourse. As art historian Ebba Koch points out, it has been used as a metaphor for excellence and deployed in advertisements to sell products least connected to its reality of being a tomb – from jewellery, teabags, Scotch whisky and liqueur to beer. Whether it is the Tata Group of hotels in Delhi and Mumbai or Trump’s Taj Mahal (his casino resort in Atlantic City, New Jersey which closed in 2016), in taking the name of the monument they were basking in the glory of the monument as a symbol of grandeur. Numerous restaurants across the world append Taj to their names to showcase their association with India. Besides, models of the Taj Mahal comprise among the most popular souvenirs of India alongside marble plates, boxes and table tops carrying the monument’s characteristic peitradura design (inlaying of marble with precious and semi-precious stones).
Koch also draws attention to instances of the world of music being influenced by the Taj – the rock-blues singer from Massachusetts, Henry Saint Clair Fredericks, adopted ‘Taj Mahal’ as his stage name. ‘Inside the Taj Mahal’, Paul Horn’s flute session recorded in 1968, became very popular as a work of new age music and sold more than a million copies. In 1997, Greek singer Yanni staged a concert within the Taj premises despite strong opposition from the heritage enthusiasts. It received worldwide attention.
The monument is a staple presence in Bollywood films and songs, popular histories and tour guides’ narratives. Almost every tourist guide narrates with relish the story of how the architects and workers who built the Taj were killed (other versions say Shah Jahan chopped off their thumbs or had their eyes pulled out or had them thrown into the dungeons of Agra Fort) so that they could not replicate the Taj. Some say he signed a contract with them that they would not build another structure of its kind. Another very popular story, first floated by Jean Baptiste Tavernier during his visit to Agra in 1665, deals with Shah Jahan’s project of a ‘Black Taj’to be built on the other side of the Yamuna in Mahtab Bagh, but his sons opposed the plan and Aurangzeb finally abandoned it. None of these tales are backed by credible historical evidence but, over a period of time, they have become an integral part of the popular history and atmospherics of the site.
Communities, parties and governments
In straight contrast to the ubiquitous presence of the Taj as an enduring popular icon, is the manner in which the monument has been sought to be projected in the public domain through the tomb-temple conflict. This conflict derives much of its intellectual substance from P. N. Oak’s thesis. Founder of the Institute for Rewriting Indian History in 1964, he floated the theory that the Taj Mahal was originally a Shiva temple. His book Taj Mahal: The True Story claimed that the monument’s current name was a corrupt form of the Sanskrit term Tejo Mahalaya.
This idea caught on with some right-wing politicians who claimed it was a Hindu temple; some asserted that Shah Jahan purchased a part of temple’s land from Raja Jai Singh. The controversy gained a lot of ground in Uttar Pradesh (UP) where the Taj is located. In June 2005, the Uttar Pradesh Sunni Waqf Board declared that the monument was a waqf (endowment) property and demanded that it should be given back to the board for protection, conservation and management.
Such contestations have become chronic in recent times. In June 2014, the then minister for Urban Development and Minority Affairs in UP, which had a Samajwadi Party government, demanded that the monument should be handed over to the Sunni Waqf Board since it was a mausoleum of two Muslims – Mughal emperor Shah Jahan and his wife. In April 2015, a law suit was filed by six lawyers in the Agra Civil Court claiming Taj was a Shiva temple called Tejo Mahalaya. This claim was contested both by the Union culture ministry and the ASI. The former clarified in the Lok Sabha (in November 2015) that there was no evidence to suggest that Taj Mahal was a Hindu temple of Shiva, while the latter, in a written reply to the court in August 2017, categorically stated that the monument was a tomb and not a temple.
Recent months have witnessed a slew of pronouncements and claims that are disturbing for the manner in which they seek to repudiate the very idea of the Taj. In June 2017, the chief minister of the newly-elected Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in UP created a controversy by stating, “Earlier when foreign dignitaries visited the country they were gifted replicas of Agra’s Taj Mahal or some minar with which Indian culture has nothing in common.”
Earlier this month, the Taj was taken off the state government’s booklet promoting tourist destinations in UP. Further, BJP legislator from UP, Sangeet Som, claimed that the Taj was built by ‘traitors’ and was a ‘blot on Indian culture’, while Haryana Minister Anil Vij described the monument as a ‘beautiful graveyard’.
The uproar over these comments forced both the UP and Central government to get into damage control mode. The UP chief minister hailed the Taj Mahal as the ‘pride of India’ saying that the “sweat and blood of Indian labourers” had gone into its making. The prime minister of India also made a statement that the Taj was a part of India’s cultural heritage and Indians were proud of it.
Meanwhile, in Kerala, which is ruled by the Left front, Kerala Tourism’s official handle recently tweeted: ‘God’s own country salutes the Taj Mahal for inspiring millions to discover India’. It does not seem likely that the arguments and counter-arguments will end anytime soon.
However, the Taj has a historical resilience which has enabled it to transcend individuals, dynasties, communities and perhaps even the nation. While India debates the place of the Taj Mahal in the country’s cultural heritage and history, it is being embraced wholeheartedly by the global community. Replicas of the monument have been made in places such as China, Bangladesh, Malayasia, United Arab Emirates and even New Jersey. Moreover, the Taj has already made its way into the official list of the ‘New Seven Wonders of the World’, on the strength of more than 100 million votes, as an exemplar of global heritage throughout history. In a world going through intense churn, what better way to deal with prejudice and rancour than with a monumental ode to love.
Shashank Shekhar Sinha has taught history in undergraduate colleges at the University of Delhi. He does independent research on tribes, gender, violence, culture and heritage.