Part II of “The Ruckus over the Taj Mahal”
Someone else’s “history”, be it of a phenomenon, event, or country, generally appears to be myth. By common consent, we reserve the word myth for all that which we find unsupportable, incredulous, unlikely, and, most importantly, unpalatable. Those who view themselves as reasonable understand that histories may be disputed, and according to this judicious point of view the least we can say is that some histories are better than other histories. They may be better because they are supported by what is generally called “evidence” or they put forward an account that is more persuasive. But I suspect that, more often than not, and however little we are willing to acknowledge this, our reasons for construing some narratives as better or as reasonable has little to do with their intrinsic qualities as “reasonable”. Rather, some narratives, that is some accounts of the past, appear to conform to the intellectual and ideological predispositions with which we view texts.
All this might quite reasonably seem to the reasonably educated reader to be a rather lengthy and circuitous way of affirming that most readers approach a text with some bias, however little they are willing to admit this. However, my claim here is not merely about bias, or the force—which is considerable and occasionally overwhelming—of prejudice in human reasoning and evaluation; rather, my concern here is with the epistemic status of history, which is derived in part from the opposition to myth, which as a word has only derogatory implications. History as we know it is nothing without the Promethean struggle against myth. There are, to be sure, times when ‘myth’ appears in more of a neutral vein, such as in discussions of a Greek myth. That (to take one illustration) the story of Vishnu reclining on a serpent is a ‘myth’ is undisputed: what we make of the myth is quite another matter. The Hindu might find such a myth full of meaning, but to the science zealot such a myth is mere rubbish, or at best a story that people might tell to themselves for amusement. Then there are others who might find the myth full of meaning, but do not at all consider themselves as Hindu; there are yet others who find myths meaningful, though it is the general pattern to which myths conform rather than the meaning behind a particular myth that is of interest to them.
How might we locate Hindutva myths, histories, or mythohistories about the Taj? The fact that the BJP is now the all-powerful party and therefore seeks to control the narrative is assumed to be behind the recent attempts to alter the received narrative about the Taj, but in fact alternative accounts were first put forward over five decades ago. In the early 1960s, the self-professed historian, P. N. Oak, and a number of other like-minded men formed an organization which they described as the “Institute for Rewriting Indian History”. By the mid-1970s, this organization had over 200 members—a very small number, if one considers that we are all engaged in rewriting history, but a rather large number if one takes into account the extraordinarily bizarre views to which the members appear to have subscribed. Little is known about Purushottam Nagesh Oak apart from a note left behind by him: he was a Maharashtrian Brahmin from Indore and spent some time in Agra, home to the Taj, and then Pune, that den of Brahmin orthodoxy. He claims to have spent some time as a member of Subhas Bose’s Indian National Army: this claim remains unverified, and of course claiming association with Bose is a sure way of winning cultural capital in India, especially among the ultra-nationalist set that has had enough of Gandhi and (as the Hindutva advocates have often argued) his soft womanly wiles.
Oak and his friends took it as their divine brief to demonstrate that all major monuments associated in India with the Muslim faith are Hindu in origin, which was meant to imply not merely that they had been built with the remnants of Hindu edifices, but that they had been converted from Hindu to Muslim places of worship. The further implication was that Muslim rulers do not have the capacity to construct architectural masterpieces. “Our Institute is pledged, among other things,” wrote Oak in 1976, “to rid Islamic history of the silly notion that Muslim rulers and courtiers who built no palaces built majestic and massive mosques and tombs. The world must know that those buildings are all pre-Islamic.” Oak put foreign scholars on notice “that all historic buildings in India are captured Hindu buildings”, and students of the “Islamic period of Indian history” were admonished to recognize the “basic fact that every temple, mansion and fort overrun by Muslim invaders was advertised as a mosque tomb or citadel ‘built’ by them.” By this time, Oak had been able to publish a score of books, the titles of many of which adequately convey the gist of his claims: The Taj Mahal is a Temple Palace; Fatehpur Sikri is a Hindu City; Agra Red Fort is a Hindu Building; Delhi’s Red Fort is Hindu Lalkot; and The Taj Mahal is Tejo Mahalaya: A Shiva Temple. In his efforts to leaven his claims with the nectar of popular devotion, Oak went so far as to characterize, in his pamphlet Lucknow’s Imambaras are Hindu Palaces, the famous mosques from the time of the Nawabs of Oudh as “conclusively proved in our research volume to be of holy and hoary Ramayanic origin.” [See Annual Report of the Institute for Rewriting Indian History (New Delhi: IRWI, 1976), pp. 8-9, 11, 18.]
The presence of great Islamic architecture outside India does not appear to have been disconcerting to Oak, since he was prepared to argue that “his findings in history have a worldwide application”: all great Islamic building complexes, whether in Iran, Central Asia, or elsewhere, were “earlier Hindu palace complexes.” But it is his views on the Taj Mahal which are particularly germane for us. The word ‘Mahal’, Oak wrote, refers to a palace, which the Taj is assuredly not; after Shah Jahan had “seized” the Tejo Mahalaya, which was a Rajput palace and the site of a Shiva Temple, he renamed it the Taj. The Taj’s octagonal shape owed everything, Oak maintained, to the guardians of eight directions (ashta dikpala), and the lingam that would have been in the Shiva temple was desecrated and removed. According to Oak, Shah Jahan and the Europeans colluded, perhaps in an earlier illustration of how Muslim and Western opinion is joined at the hip in an animus against Hinduism, to create a massive and elaborate fraud. The Europeans offered what purport to be eyewitness accounts of the construction of the Taj; Shah Jahan’s administrators and the keepers of the treasury generated fictitious financial records in an attempt to fool people into thinking the Taj was constructed in Shah Jahan’s lifetime and at his orders. All of monumental history, and I mean this in multiple senses, embodied most gloriously in the Taj Mahal had as its source nothing more than the malicious intent to disguise its own Hindu origins.
(To be continued)
For Part I, “Ruckus over the Taj Mahal: Monumental Love–and Lunacy”, see: https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/30/ruckus-over-the-taj-mahal-monumental-love-and-lunacy/
For Part III, “Communalism and the Politics of the Taj Mahal”, see: https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2018/01/06/communalism-and-the-politics-of-the-taj-mahal/
Part IV: Towards Another History of the Taj: Rumors, Legends, Longings
Part V: A Political History of the Taj Mahal: A Few Thoughts for Researchers