Part III of “Ruckus over the Taj Mahal”
Preposterous as P N Oak’s arguments doubtless are, scarcely worthy even of rebuttal, the position adopted in recent months by BJP hardliners and their supporters, as outlined in the first part of this article, compels us to move towards a history of the Taj Mahal that would be more sensitive to considerations which are far removed from those who marvel at the architecture and the design of the entire complex or who are entranced by the idea of romantic love. Oak’s popularity is not of recent vintage: his claims generated a controversy that was, as I had written fifteen years ago in my History of History: Politics and Scholarship in Modern India (Oxford University Press, 2002; 2nd ed. with postscript, 2005), carried out in the “Letters to the Editor” column of the English-language daily Indian Express over a period of four months in 1987-88. Historians have felt bound to rebut his claims, which suggests how Hindu nationalists have been able to shift the grounds of the debate.
In December 1989, to take one illustration, the monthly magazine Seminar, which has at times occupied an important place in the intellectual life of the country, devoted an issue to the theme of “Mythifying History”. One of the contributors, R. Nath, then a historian at Rajasthan University, penned a piece called “The Taj: A Mausoleum”. Nath, who had devoted many years of his life to the study of the Taj Mahal, sought to show conclusively that Oak does not have a shred of evidence to support his various allegations that the Taj Mahal was earlier a temple devoted to Shiva, or even a palace built or owned by one of Akbar’s generals, Raja Mansingh (1550-1614).
There is little doubt that the political preeminence of the BJP at present has given Oak’s ideas a fresh lease of life. On 26 March 2015, a petition was filed in the Agra District Court by six lawyers acting on behalf of the Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Hindutva’s principal ideological organization. I should say rather that the petition was filed on behalf of Lord Shiva himself, since this deity is named as the plaintiff: it is alleged by Mahadev [Shiva] that the Taj Mahal complex, which has long been under the jurisdiction of the Archaeological Survey of India, is its lawful property. The petition, where the lawyer Harishankar Jain appears as “friend” of the deity, states that “during the 12th century, Raja Paramardi Dev had built [the] Tejo Mahalaya temple palace, which at present in common parlance is known as Taj Mahal. The temple was later inherited by Raja Maan Singh, the then maharaja of Jaipur. After him in [the] 17th century, the property was held and managed by Raja Jai Singh but was annexed by Shah Jahan (1632) during his regime.” The deity therefore sought lawful restitution of his property—and also protection from encroachment, defilement, and usurpation. “The property is not a burial ground and has never been so in the past”, the petition continues, and it therefore requests that the use of the property for “purposes” other “than Hindu ‘pooja’ of the deity”—these other purposes being the offering of prayers by Muslims—be barred as “unconstitutional”.
There is much that is marvelously interesting in this petition: as I have had occasion to remark to my students on many occasions, Hinduism suggests a continuum between asuras [demons], humans, demi-gods, and gods. If gods and goddesses can be born and reborn, there is no reason why they cannot ‘appear’ as plaintiffs in courts of law. Hinduism is nonpareil, as far as religions go, in its homage to the element of play. The admixture of an invocation of the prerogatives of the deity and rights guaranteed under the constitution is likewise more than worthy of comment. But let us leave aside all the fecund possibilities that come to mind. The Agra court in its wisdom admitted the petition, directing the central government, the ministry of culture, the Archaeological Survey, and the home ministry to file their replies within a month. In November 2015, the Minister for Culture addressed Parliament and made it be known that in its opinion the Taj Mahal was a “tomb” and not a “temple”; more recently, on 17 August 2017, representatives of the Archaeological Survey appeared before the Agra Court and flatly rejected the claim that the Taj Mahal had ever been a Shiva temple.
There may be, it has been argued by Ebba Koch in her 2006 book on the Taj Mahal, a longer history of Hindu misgivings about the Taj. She notes that despite the monument’s worldwide fame, it has been little studied—except perhaps by architectural historians. Koch contends that the Archaeological Survey, which has been in existence since 1861, has never published a guidebook to the monument. But Koch seems to puzzle little over this omission, if indeed she is right about the ASI’s failure to publish a guidebook to the most famous site under its care, and seems rather certain about what this failure portends. Thus, she writes: “The image of the Taj Mahal has been reproduced more often that of any other building. It has become a symbol of India, despite India’s uneasiness with its Islamic past and despite being a tomb, which has no place in the Hindu tradition.” Has India always been uneasy about its Islamic past? Are some communities rather more uneasy than others? “That the Taj was founded as a Hindu temple is now the firm belief of many a visitor,” Koch argues, “who is at pains to put his foreign fellow visitors right about the origin of the building”: “The Taj Mahal is really ‘Tejo-Mahalaya’, a Shiva temple.”
So perhaps, whatever the Archaeological Survey or the Culture Ministry might say, P. N. Oak and his acolytes have triumphed after all. But perhaps we should also be less hasty in reaching such a conclusion. I have not read Koch’s book and have only seen excerpts from her book in reviews, and I am unable to say what led her to the view that the communal history of the Taj has now become part of Hindu commonsense and that the Taj-as-Tejo-Mahalaya is now part of “the firm belief of many a visitor”. Did she speak to the so-called guides who roam the Taj’s grounds in the hundreds? Has she read pamphlet literature in Hindi which would lead her such a view? The Hindu Janajagruti Samiti [literally, ‘Organization for the Reawakening of Hindus], set up for the “Establishment of the Hindu Rashtra” [Hindu nation-state], has already deified “Pujya [Venerable] P. N. Oak” and given over an entire web page to the “Shocking Truth of the Taj Mahal”, but do these Hindutva enthusiasts reflect the views of common Hindus? As I have argued so often before, Hindu nationalists have been, from the inception of the internet, ardent advocates of the digital rewriting of Indian history.
And yet Koch’s reading is not entirely communal, even if she doesn’t pursue the further implications—about Indian Islam—of her own argument. The Taj Mahal poses problems for Muslims as much as it does for Hindus—perhaps even more so. As Koch points out, “tombs were from the beginning a controversial issue” in Islamic traditions: the devout have held tombs “to be irreligious, heathen, and non-Islamic”, and there are hadiths which unequivocally forbid worship at tombs as a form of idolatry and polytheism. Certainly, if India had been under Wahhabi rule, the Taj might well have been reduced to rubble by now. The Saudi religious establishment is nothing if it is not full of ferocious anti-idolaters, and we should remember that they have not even spared the mosque of Fatima, the grave of Muhammad’s mother, the tombs and graves of early martyrs of the religion, and so on. Ziauddin Sardar is among many scholars who have documented the wholesale desecration of Mecca in recent years—not by infidels, but by those who describe themselves as Islam’s most zealous votaries. I doubt, however, that there are more than a handful of Muslims in India who would call for the destruction of the Taj Mahal as ‘grievously un-Islamic’. Indian Islam has not been reduced to this state—not yet, in any case.
(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 II, “Hindutva’s History of the Taj Mahal”, see: https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2018/01/04/hindutvas-history-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