Part V of “Ruckus over the Taj Mahal”
Most histories of the Taj Mahal that have ventured into politics advert either to Aurangzeb’s intolerance for what he took to be idolatry or to Hindutva accounts of the Taj as narrated in the first three parts of this article. Shah Jahan watched as his sons competed to succeed him on the throne, with Aurangzeb eventually emerging triumphant. The war of succession was brutal, as such wars are—everywhere. It is said that Aurangzeb had his father imprisoned: as narrated to me by my father decades ago, the pitiful old man was put behind bars in a room from where he could view the Taj. The commonly accepted account is that Shah Jahan was confined to the Agra Fort, where his daughter Jahanara tended to his needs for eight years before he passed away in 1666. One of the more moving compositions of the great artist Abanindranath Tagore, the nephew of Rabindranath and the younger brother of the celebrated Gagendranath, is called “The Passing of Shah Jahan.” The Emperor’s last thoughts were evidently on the Taj. He reposes in bed with Jahanara at its foot; his head is turned towards his greatest creation. The longing in his eyes is palpable, but the object of his attentions is ever so far away. Jahanara’s own tomb, though elegant, was to be very simple by comparison: it is open to the sky and part of the famous Nizamuddin complex in Delhi.
The political history of the Taj, for the present, thus appears to be bookended by Aurangzeb at one hand and the Hindutva nationalists, whose loathing for Aurangzeb is unqualified, at the other end. There are a few numbers which appear in nearly every history of the Taj that is more than a paragraph long: 20,000 workers are said to have labored over a period of 22 years. There would seem to be something in this for the historian of the working class. The craftsmen appear to have come from as far as Baghdad and Constantinople. But just exactly how were ‘workers’ and ‘craftsmen’ distinguished? We can imagine that those who inscribed the verses from the Koran, wove the jewels into the stone, or carved out the most delicate windows from the stone were all “craftsmen”. The dome of the Taj is nearly 20 stories high; it required a ramp one mile in length to take the workers to the top.
But, moving beyond the construction of the Taj, why is it that we hear so little about the Taj in the colonial period? In the mid-19th century, apparently, the Taj was little more than a honeymooning site and a pleasure resort. The histories tell us that at this degenerate point, when neither the Indians nor the British cared much for the Taj—the Indians because they were supremely indifferent to their own cultural achievements, the British because they were indubitably certain of their own superiority—the intrepid and far-sighted British hero came along. That hero was none other than Nathaniel George Curzon, later Earl Curzon of Kedleston, who commenced his Viceroyalty at the close of the 19th century and served until 1905. A popular Balliol College rhyme on Curzon summed it up neatly:
My name is George Nathaniel Curzon,
I am a most superior person.
My cheeks are pink, my hair is sleek,
I dine at Blenheim [the ancestral home of Churchill] twice a week.
Curzon had the Taj Mahal restored and the canals repaired and filled with water; the gardens, which had fallen into decline, were likewise spruced up though Curzon did not entirely follow the original design. The Taj was finally becoming a candidate for admission into the modern age. It is around this time that Jamsetji Tata opened the first luxury hotel owned by an Indian and named it, perhaps not coincidentally, the Taj Mahal Palace, which since 1903 has remained one of the most iconic landmarks of Bombay.
It took something like 250 years for the Taj Mahal to become part of the traveler’s itinerary, another fifty years before it became part of the tourist trail, and another two to three decades before it would become an item of consumption. The Taj’s history would henceforth be inextricably linked up with the ugly trinity of modernity in India: banality, corruption, and terrorism. First, the banality: one imagines that this is easily explained. The Taj is unlike any other building in the world: a visit to Buckingham Palace, the Kremlin, the White House, or the Forbidden City counts for something, but nothing mesmerizes like the Taj. A visit to the Taj without having oneself photographed in front of it is nearly inconceivable; the photograph is a rite of passage, almost. We may think of something like the selfie before “the selfie” was invented. But that is only the most predictable source of the banality behind a visit to the Taj. I was astounded to learn that, on the 50th anniversary of Indian independence in 1997, the Greek musician Yanni was allowed the rare honor of giving a live concert at the Taj Mahal. Those who have even the remotest kind of familiarity with Yanni’s music will recognize it as something like a slightly superior kind of ‘elevator music’. To suppose that the Government of India could find no more elevated specimen of a musician, and that in a country like India, to perform live at the Taj is staggering to the imagination. Yanni has his fans, and they will take umbrage at my verdict, but the fact that the Government of India associated the sentimental hogwash around Yanni’s music with the Taj tells us something about the kind of Mills & Boon romanticism in which the Taj is drenched.
The banality offends or one may just shrug one’s shoulders. One may also view the decision of the Government of India to permit a live concert at the Taj as a challenge to the terrorists, though it would not explain the choice of Yanni. Last year, terrorists affiliated to the Islamic State appear to have issued a threat against the Taj, but terrorist threats to blow up the Taj have a much longer history. The most palpable of these threats emanated from Sikh secessionists in the mid-1980s, who were enraged when the government of then Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi launched an attack on the holiest shrine of the Sikhs, Amritsar’s Golden Temple, in an attempt to weed out militants who had holed up in the shrine and amassed a large arsenal of firearms and bombs. They promised to blow up the Taj Mahal in retaliation, and I recall days in the mid-1980s when the Taj was shut down. Viewings of the Taj by moonlight were halted. The militant secessionists had for some years been targeting not only Hindus but ‘moderate’ Sikhs, those who—like men shorn of beards—refused to keep the symbols of the faith, but in issuing threats to blow up the Taj they may have, quite unknowingly perhaps, been triggering off a new chapter in the history of Sikh-Muslim animosity. Two of the Sikh Gurus had been martyred at the hands of Mughal Emperors, one at the hands of Aurangzeb and another by the command of his grandfather, Jahangir. If the Sikh militants thought they were sending a message to the Government of India and their Hindu persecutors in issuing a threat against the Taj, the message was quite possibly being read and interpreted by Indian Muslims as an assault on their history and cultural memory. A political history of the Taj revolving around semiotics and what I would characterize as ‘message panics’ is yet to be attempted.
The political history of the Taj, however, can be written in other idioms as well. I have briefly alluded to ‘corruption’ and others will have in mind the ‘pollution’ that has at times disfigured the Taj and remains an ever-present threat. Agra, for all the great monument that characterize the city, a city which was the capital—an exceedingly short-lived one—of the Mughals and even of Sikandar Lodi before the Lodis were sent packing by Babur, has long been in shambles; the state of Uttar Pradesh is nearly rock-bottom in India with respect to most of the important markers of economic and social progress. Small-scale industries—highly polluting, largely unregulated—have over the decades sprung up around the Taj, in both very close and medium proximity. The Taj, by the late 1980s, was beginning to look dirty, disfigured, decrepit; soot had formed around the minarets and domes; even the marble in the interior was losing its sheen. Intellectuals, ‘concerned citizens’, environmentalists, the various keepers of India’s heritage: these were among the groups that agitated for government action to save India’s most famous monument from irreparable harm. Others sought the same outcome for the more practical reason that the Taj was then, as it is today, a principal revenue earner for a state government that is not only strapped for cash but is corrupt to the core. The Supreme Court ordered these unregulated industries around the Taj shut down: however, in India, as in other countries where there is a separation of powers, the Court can command change but cannot execute it. Moreover, in India the stories of ‘pollution’ and ‘corruption’ are intertwined. Far too many local and state-level politicians were invested in the industries; some only received bribes from the businessmen who owned these interpreters, others were themselves owners. Most of these industries would eventually be shuttered: when it comes to the question of the Taj, the country’s reputation is at stake. Whatever else the Taj may be good for, it is also likely to exercise something of a restraining effect on those who only act because they long that India should look good before the world.
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/
Part II, “Hindutva’s History of the Taj Mahal”, see: https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2018/01/04/hindutvas-history-of-the-taj-mahal/