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Part III of “Ruckus over the Taj Mahal”

PNOakPhoto&TajPamphlet

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.

Indian-Conspiracy-Taj-Mahal-Or-Tejo-Mahalaya-800x445

This is from a website called “The Truth Behind Taj Mahal (Tejo Mahalaya).”  It offers what is claims are “103 Facts” about the Taj.  Source:  https://www.moviemint.com/the-truth-behind-taj-mahal-tejo-mahalaya-lord-shiva-temple/

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).

DomeOfTheTajMahal

“The dome of the Taj Mahal bearing a trident pinnacle made of a non-rusting eight-metal Hindu alloy. The pinnacle served as a lightning deflector too. This pinnacle has been blindly assumed by many to be an Islamic crescent and star, or a lightning conductor installed by the British. This is a measure of the careless manner in which Indian history has been studied till now. ”  This is part of the caption that appears with a photograph on one of many websites, following P N Oak, which claims to offer proof that the Taj Mahal is Tejo-Mahalaya, a Shiva Temple.  Source:  http://www.krishnapath.org/photographic-evidence-taj-mahal-a-vedic-temple/

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.”

Dwight Eisenhower, Jawaharlal Nehru

President Dwight Eisenhower on a visit to the Taj Mahal with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, 13 December 1959.

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

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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.

Taj_Mahal-10_WithRiver

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.

PNOakTajMahalBookletCover

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.]

PNOakBooklets

The covers of two other books by P. N. Oak.  The Hindi book on the left states:  Fatehpur Sikri is a Hindu City.”

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

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