Wah Taj!

Print edition : November 24, 2017

The Taj Mahal, a 2014 picture. Photo: R.V. MOORTHY

FIRST it was operation appropriation. With abstruse, contrived and convoluted reasoning, citing examples that varied from the ridiculous to the fantastical and were at times plain devious, P.N. Oak, a self-appointed historian on a quixotic mission of rewriting history, set out, in the late 1980s, to prove that the Taj Mahal was originally a Hindu temple palace. After the initial flurry of excitement that accompanies such misadventurous gambits, the bluff was called and history, science and reason prevailed. Or so it seemed. The claim resurfaced as recently as in August this year in a court of law in Agra and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) had to categorically reject it and reaffirm that the edifice was a Muslim tomb.

That, of course, is still unlikely to settle the issue for the Hindutva revisionists because disproving the Islamic heritage of the Taj is, for them, a religious mission to which history and chronology are only to serve as handmaidens. As a scholarly proposition, it is about as outlandish as the PhD dissertation of a Tunisian which surfaced earlier this year, arguing that the earth was flat, that it was neither rotating on its axis nor revolving around anything but was stationary, and that all the other planets orbited around the earth.

Perhaps coming around to the realisation that the Taj is an unlikely ghar wapsi candidate, the fringe Hindutva elements seem to have changed tack, from appropriation to alienation and rejection, calling it a “blot on Indian culture”, a “symbol of barbarism” and demonising its builder Shah Jahan as one who “wanted to wipe out Hindus”. When matters looked like they were getting out of hand, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, who earlier had shown the way to show the Taj its place by suggesting that foreign visitors to India should not be given replicas of it, quickly made amends by noting that it was “built by the blood and sweat of Indian labourers”, and hastened to Agra to perform the Narendra Modi-trademark swachch (cleaning) ritual in the precincts of the monument. So, from reclamation to denigration to cleaning up is where we have come and where we are at in the current uneasy pause in this unseemly controversy.

The Taj is, as the lore goes, a testament to the singular conjugal love of Shah Jahan for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, who bore him as many as 14 children before she died in 1631. But it is no character certificate to Shah Jahan, who killed his siblings to succeed to the throne, and whose fidelity to the wife he immortalised in exquisite marble has itself been debated by historians. Sir Thomas Roe, the first English representative at the Mughal court, who met Shah Jahan, then in his twenties, in 1617, describes him as “ravenous and tyrannical”. The Italian traveller Niccolao Manucci depicts him as a profligate whose illness from 1658, when Aurangazeb displaced him, and eventual death in 1666 was caused by a urinary complication brought on by overuse of aphrodisiacs. The French physician Bernier suggests he had an incestuous relationship with his daughter Jahanara.

These contemporary accounts of Western travellers to India in the 17th century may well be infected with the same kind of orientalism that Edward Said spoke of with respect to Western attitudes to the East in the 18th and 19th centuries. But even if these character portraits were to be substantially true, they do not detract from the aura of romance and lustrous purity the Taj has acquired over the centuries. The Taj is not so much about Shah Jahan or Mumtaz Mahal as about his idealised love for her, to which this magnificent monument was raised, and which perpetuates that, and all such, love. The idea, romanced in marble, transcends the purported villainy of the man in real life. The life Shah Jahan lived, however we choose to construe it, does not detract from the love he commemorates.

The structure itself has been etherealised into an imaginary that defies historical time and architectural space. James Fergusson, among the earliest architectural historians, talks about “the singular and pathetic distinctness with which every part of it gives utterance to the sorrow and affection it was intended to express” ( An Historical Enquiry into the True Principles of Beauty in Art…:1849). For Rabindranath Tagore it was “a tear drop on the cheek of time”. Price Collier in his West in the East from an American Point of View (1911) exults about its gravity-defying delicacy, its vivified tactility and its enduring lustre: “…here are tons of marble and not an ounce of weight. If you could blow bubbles of mother-of-pearl, they would not shine more softly or float more lightly. It is the only building in the world that makes you wish to pat it, smooth it, touch it, as though it had the soft skin of a woman. It is not something you see; you feel it, hear it, taste it… This man put a diadem of brilliants on the brow of memory.”

The vintage English poet of ancient India, best known for his Light of Asia, Edwin Arnold, was as ecstatically moved by this memorial:

“... Earth hath nothing anywhere of mortal toil

So fine-wrought, so consummate, so supreme,

So beyond praise, Love’s veriest monument,

As that in Agra upon Jumna’s bank

Shah Jahan built for his lady’s grave.”

And again,

“ ... As when some face

Divinely fair unveils before our eyes

Some woman beautiful unspeakably,

And the blood quickens and the spirit leaps

And will to worship bends the half yielded knees

While breath forgets to breathe. So is the Taj.”

Some critical voices

The praise and awe have been so overwhelming and so universal that the odd critical voices come across as almost cussedly contrarian. Aldous Huxley has perhaps been the most influential of the Taj bashers, basing his criticism on the form and structure of the building itself, and without casting aspersions on the person who commissioned it. In his travelogue Jesting Pilate (1926), he devotes a chapter to Agra and the Taj. He begins circumspectly, saying, “I am always a little uncomfortable when I find myself unable to admire something which all the rest of the world admires—or at least is reputed to admire. Am I, or is the world the fool? Is it the world’s taste that is bad, or is mine?”

But then he is soon systematically demystifying the work and its setting. Even as he approaches the monument, around sunset when it is reputed to don its magical look, the myriad hues in the sky, the emerging stars, the silver sheen of the Yamuna, the gardened landscape leading up to it—none of these evokes any pathetic fallacy in him which is of any help to the Taj. “Nature, I repeat,” he writes, “did its best. But though it adorned, it could not improve the works of man. The Taj, even at sunset, even reverberated upside down from tanks and river, even in conjunction with melancholy cypresses—the Taj was a disappointment.”

He then takes on the cost and extravagance of the project, incredulous, in a negative way, about the inlay of precious stones, about “the smallest rose or poppy on the royal tomb” being “an affair of twenty or thirty cornelians, onyxes, agates, chrysolites”. “Imagination staggers…” he says. He contrasts this with evidence he cites from the roof of the structure, which shows “that the marble is only a veneer over cheaper masonry, not solid”. “It is a swindle!” he proclaims.

There may appear to be something to this point about the uneven quality of the marble used across the whole structure from an allusion, in E.B. Havell’s Indian Sculpture and Painting, and subsequently by several others, to Lord William Bentinck once planning to demolish the Taj in order to sell the marble. The project was supposedly abandoned because the quality of the marble from a section in the building that was damaged was found to be inferior and not to fetch the expected price.

The historian Percival Spear probes this alleged demolition plan in an essay “Bentinck and the Taj” published in The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (October 1949) and concludes that it was a rumour that gained credence by relay retelling by different authors, and by confusion about possible sale of some marble from a damaged part of Agra Fort with that of the Taj itself.

“The conclusion seems warranted,” he sums up, “that while Bentinck did, in fact, order the sale of some marble lumber in a Moghul bathroom in the Agra Fort, the Taj story was an imaginative addition by his military critics.”

But to return to Huxley and the Taj, he steps up, as he goes along, his criticism of it and declares that “architecturally the worst features of the Taj are its minarets. These four thin tapering towers standing at the four corners of the platform on which the Taj is built are among the ugliest structures ever erected by human hands.” He finds their proportions all flawed and clumsy. The main building itself passes muster, although “its elegance is at the best of a very dry and negative kind. Its ‘classicism’ is the product not of intellectual restraint imposed on an exuberant fancy, but of an actual deficiency of fancy, a poverty of imagination”.

He goes on a bit in this strain and, finally, in what must warm the cockles of the hearts of naysayers of the Taj in the Sangh Parivar, bats for Hindu Rajput architecture as superior to the Taj or “any work of the Mohammedans”. “Indeed it seems to me,” he concludes, “that anyone who professes an ardent admiration for the Taj must look at it without having any standards of excellence in his mind—as though the thing existed uniquely in a vacuum. The Taj exists in a world well sprinkled with masterpieces of architecture and decoration. Compare it with these, and the Imperial Mausoleum at once takes its proper place in the hierarchy of art—well down below the best. But it is made of marble. Marble, I perceive, covers a multitude of sins”. That last sentence alone hints at a mix-up of ethics and aesthetics, or even, if one were to read less generously between the lines, an Islamophobic inflection.

National treasure

But such isolated dissent and deconstruction, which political Hindutva seeks to expand and exploit, does not, cannot, sully the Taj, not only because of its widely endorsed intrinsic architectural worth, or its ineffable emotional lure and resplendence, but also because it has captured the imagination of generations, laymen and experts alike, as majestic love, entombed and epitomised. It is today cultural capital worth far more than all that marble or all those precious stones that went into it. It is our dearest national treasure. It does us proud. All we can, all we need to, do in grateful response is to exclaim with the ace percussionist in the tea brand commercial after his flourish at the tablas, “ Wah Taj!”

A letter from the Editor


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