Distorting history

Print edition : August 12, 2005

Portrait of Shahjahan from Lahori's Padshahnama. Reprinted from King of the World: The Padshahnama, an Imperial Mughal Manuscript from the Royal Library, Windsor Castle by Milo Cleveland and Ebba Koch, 1997. -


THE arguments presented in the Uttar Pradesh Sunni Central Wakf Board's July 13 order claiming possession of the Taj Mahal are flimsy not the least because they distort the historical record but because they are a loosely worded, rambling and repetitive chain of claims.

The central argument appears to be that the Taj's ownership cannot be viewed in isolation from the ownership of the subsidiary monuments in the complex that are used for religious purposes even today. If these are wakf properties, so indeed must be the Taj, the argument goes.

The Wakf Board in its order is unable to establish a documented legal claim on the monument. Although it refers to Lahori's Padshahnama, the official history of the first 20 years of Shahjahan's reign that has the earliest references to endowments for the upkeep of the Taj, it does not directly quote from the Persian text or from a translation. It makes a serious error in its claim that "Shahanshah Shahjahan dedicated the income of 30 villages of Pargana Haveli and Nagar Chand of Akbarabad for the construction of Roza Taj Mahal and management of Mosque and annual urs of Mumtaz Mahal and nominated himself sole Mutawalli of the said wakf" (emphasis added). Nowhere in the Padshahnama does Lahori say that the endowment of 30 villages was used for the construction of the Taj. Indeed, the Taj was completed when Lahori wrote his work. Work on the monument commenced around 1631, three years after the accession of Shahjahan and following the death of his wife Mumtaz Mahal. It was completed in 1648, and Lahori's work was written around 1650.

Lahori's Padshahnama then is a "basic historical document" on the Taj, as Irfan Habib, a leading historian on Mughal India, says in his interview to Frontline. W.E. Begley, the principal author of the well-known work Taj Mahal: The Illumined Tomb, told Frontline: "There is no mention of an endowment for the Taj in any other contemporary source other than Lahori. The express purpose of the endowment of the revenue of 30 villages, shops and caravanserais around the tomb, according to Lahori, was the maintenance of the Taj." The Taj was maintained by a huge staff, and these persons had to be paid and fed. "The excess revenues were never assigned to anyone, but were vested, according to Lahori, in trusteeship with the `sovereign of the time'." Lahori, it would appear, leaves no room for any ambiguity here. "It was unquestionably a government building," Begley argues. "Besides, in that period wakf only meant an endowment. It is only now that it means a religious endowment. There was certainly no Wakf Board in Shahjahan's time."

From the hands of the Mughal state, the Taj passed into the possession of the British government. Evidence of this is available in a major catalogue of the monuments of the region prepared by A. Fuhrer in 1891. The historical record, it would appear, is thus clear: from the custody of the "sovereign of the time" in the Mughal period, the Taj Mahal became the property of the colonial state, and of the Indian republic after Independence. Apart from the weak historical foundation upon which the order of the Wakf Board rests, its very legality may be challenged under Section 38(8) of the Wakf Act, 1995. It is unfortunate that the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has shown little evidence of having been alive to any of these issues in its defence of this precious national legacy.

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