`The Taj is not wakf property'

Published : Aug 12, 2005 00:00 IST

Historian Irfan Habib. - S.R. RAGHUNATHAN

Historian Irfan Habib. - S.R. RAGHUNATHAN

Interview with Irfan Habib.

The Aligarh Historians Society, in its swift and reasoned response to the order of the Uttar Pradesh Sunni Central Wakf Board claiming the Taj Mahal as wakf property, presented historical evidence that clearly establishes state ownership of the Taj Mahal during the Mughal and colonial periods. Irfan Habib, India's leading historian on the Mughal period, discusses with Parvathi Menon the historical record in respect of this controversial issue.

On the recent controversy over the ownership of the Taj Mahal, there is a view that the whole thing is really a non-issue. After all, how can any individual or organisation lay claim to any part of our public heritage, let alone the Taj Mahal, which holds a place all of its own in India's cultural legacy. How seriously, in your view, should professional historians, and the concerned public, take this claim?

No, I do not think it is a non-issue. If the provisions of the Central Wakf Act, 1995, are what the U.P. Sunni Central Wakf Board claims they are, then there is the need for fresh parliamentary legislation to reconcile the Ancient Monuments Act with the Central Wakf Act and to exclude protected monuments of national importance from the purview of the Wakf Act.

From the final order of the Wakf Board, it appears that the case for the Taj being considered wakf property is not based on the relevant passage in Emperor Shahjahan's chronicler Abdul Hamid Lahori's Padshahnama but on revenue records that, according to the interpretation of the Board, state that the Taj stands on wakf property. Would you comment on this?

In fact, the Chairman of the Wakf Board relies on Lahori's Padshahnama but misrepresents it. In his judgment he devotes only four or five lines to the Padshahnama evidence. He does not have access to the Persian text of the Calcutta edition, but relies on some publication from Lahore. Whatever it is, he misrepresents the relevant passage in Lahori. Lahori does not say that Shahjahan made himself the custodian (mutawalli) of the Taj. In fact, Shahjahan made the `sovereign of the time' (khalifa-i waqt) the custodian of the Taj. Secondly, the Wakf Board order misrepresents the functions of the monuments within the Taj complex. There is certainly a mosque in the complex, but the Wakf Board erroneously refers to the building on the opposite side of the mosque as the jama'at khana, a building used for religious teachings. Lahori calls it the mehman khana (`guest house') and it was used for entertaining guests. There was no religious significance attached to it. It acquired the name jama'at khana only about 150 years ago.

Nowhere do revenue documents style the Taj as wakf property. They call the property of the Taj either nazul (government property) or roza (tomb).

Also, the Archaeological Survey of India's (ASI) arguments on the ownership of the Taj, as quoted by the Chairman, are not complete. The ASI, according to the Wakf Board, relies on an official notification issued by the Lieutenant Governor of the United Provinces, Agra and Oudh in 1920, which declared the Taj a protected monument under the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act, 1904. In fact, the Taj was denoted as government property, and managed by the government from much earlier. A. Fuhrer, in his book The Monumental Antiquities and Inscriptions in the North- Western Provinces and Oudh, published in 1891, describes the buildings of importance in Agra, and gives the Taj pride of place. He classifies the Taj Mahal as a monument coming under Category 1A, which refers to properties of the government that were totally maintained by the government. If it had been a monument under private ownership, he would have classed it under category IB, which refers to monuments of equal importance as under 1A, but which are privately owned yet must still be maintained by the government. The ASI should have used Lahori's Padshahnama, which is the original document on the Taj's ownership, and Fuhrer's book, to give substance to its case.

How authentic is Lahori as a source for Shahjahan's period? In the wake of this controversy, its veracity as a source is being questioned in certain quarters.

Lahori's was an official history of the first 20 years of Shahjahan's reign, and as one can expect from official histories, there may have been individuals and episodes he chose not to write about. However, in respect of the Taj Mahal, Lahori is an outstanding source. Indeed, it is a basic document for a study of the Taj. In five or six pages he gives a detailed survey of the monument, its elevation and ground plans.

The ASI should have got Lahori translated (the passages concerned are translated in W.E. Begley and Z.A. Desai's well-known work on the Taj Mahal) and presented it before the Wakf Board. There is ample evidence to show that the government fully maintained the Taj well before 1920. The Taj was measured again by A. Hodgson, Surveyor-General of India, in 1825. He does not say it was wakf property. Mirza Amir Beg wrote a detailed book in Persia on the Taj in 1853, in which he presents the monument's measurements, its architecture, and even the stones used in its construction and decoration. He too never mentions that it was wakf property.

Should the case for the public ownership of India's historical and cultural legacy be pegged on supporting historical evidence? In the case of the Taj Mahal such evidence is fortunately present in the historical record. But in the case of other monuments on which ownership claims could be made in the future, such supporting evidence may not be available. Nevertheless, the argument for our historical heritage to be safeguarded by the state on behalf of the people remains strong. What are your views on this?

When the government drew up the Wakf Act, it never thought of ancient monuments, and as I said, new legislation is required to exclude protected monuments from the Wakf Act's purview. There are many monuments in Agra that are still under Fuhrer's category 1B. The argument that because there are religious buildings that come under the Wakf Board in the Taj complex the Taj too is wakf property is not acceptable. Just because there are mosques inside the Red Fort, Delhi, and the Agra Fort, does that make these monuments wakf property too? In any case, Central legislation should carefully clarify the matter, and keep our historical buildings under proper national management.

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