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The Taj Mahal paradox

This monument is just one more chapter in the ongoing story of contestations between symbols — of what belongs and what doesn’t to India

The Taj Mahal paradox

This was the exact term I typed on Google to get a sense of the latest controversy over the legend of Taj Mahal. The first link I got was of samarthbharat, literally meaning ‘Capable Bharat’. It had a few lines on Taj, mainly arguing that Taj was a waste of resources as it didn’t serve any purpose; that it wasn’t made for any utilitarian reason and so on.

Of course, John Stuart Mill, the father of Utilitarianism, must have turned 90 times in his grave seeing some ideologue of Hindutva running down Taj on such principles!

I was instantly reminded of a friend, whose motto during our university days, was “if you can’t beat them, join them”. But Taj is a case of sour grapes. It is seen as a symbol of artistic pinnacle through the prism of ‘Islamic architecture’, making this so-called Hindu of Capable India feel entirely inadequate and jealous, and therefore his/her rant against it.

There have been previous attempts from the other end too, where a writer called P.N. Oak, a self-proclaimed Hindu historian, if such a term exists, wrote a book in the 1960s on how Taj Mahal was a Shiva temple called Tejo Mahalaya, and was appropriated by the Mughals.

Recently a more practical and straightforward push to deny ‘foreign’ legacy has come in the wake of ascension of Yogi Adityanath, the so-called Hindu priest, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, which is the rock bed of Hindu heartland where Taj is situated.

Present day India is built on this legacy. It is enriching millions of WhatsApp forwards based on such conspiracy histories. I remember reading a piece back in my childhood on how the world was actually an extension of ancient Hindu glory, where a Denmark was a corrupted name of Sanskrit Danavmark and a Somalia was based on the name of Ravana’s grandfather Sumali, who came from those lands.

This stream of Hindutva warriors has always exhibited their feeling of inadequacy by inventing their imperialist desires through mythology. The trend has overtaken the BJP rule in India so much today that the Rajasthan government announced they were going to re-write their history textbooks to establish that it was actually Rana Pratap who won the battle of Haldighati against Akbar and not vice versa.

One thought that the theatre of the absurd was merely an aesthetic ploy to tease the hidden layers of our existential dilemmas!

Recently a more practical and straightforward push to deny ‘foreign’ legacy has come in the wake of ascension of Yogi Adityanath, the so-called Hindu priest, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, which is the rock bed of Hindu heartland where Taj is situated. Adityanath gave a statement to the effect that gifting a replica of Taj to the visiting foreign dignitaries does not represent the ‘true’ Indian culture, instead, he suggested, they should be given copies of Ramayan and Mahabharat.

Within the next few weeks, a 30 page booklet was released by the state tourism department, where Taj was not given a place. Predictably enough it led to an uproar. The feeble defence came from the tourism minister who argued that the booklet was merely listing the potential sites of new heritage places which needed to be promoted and not the already established ones, like Taj. Interestingly, the booklet stresses on the need to promote Hindu pilgrimage sites, which haven’t got much attention so far.

One of the seven wonders on the world, Taj is an ultimate symbol of love, a sublime aesthetic expression around which hundreds of legends have existed since centuries. That’s precisely why the monument gets into the hair of the present government or its shaven head chief minister. He is one who created anti-Romeo squads against the ostensible idea of ‘defending Hindu girls against the rapacious Muslim men’, but more broadly against the idea of love itself. In the immediate aftermath of his chief ministership, self-styled vigilante squads backed by the state police went around town hitting, publicly shaming young boys and girls seen together in public spaces.

The euphoria died its quiet death as it began to boomerang on the state.

So, Taj represents at least two strong narratives which are anathema to the present regime. First, it represents the so-called ‘Islamic architecture’, a legacy of the old colonial historiography, which termed anything which came up during the middle ages from the lens of Islam — as if all those ugly concrete slabs of towers constructed in the 19th and 20th centuries need to be called Christian. That historiography has, unfortunately enough, got so deeply seeped into our minds that we see any artistic, aesthetic achievement only through the prism of religion. In today’s world of resurgent, identity-based politics, these monuments are easy pickings.

Second, as I mentioned above, is its association with the idea of love in the form of a monument, as if that’s a foreign thing. This very idea needs to be purged too because the idea of love, believe it or not, is subversive too.

This brings me to the first point. Even if Taj was built not to serve any grand purpose but to satisfy the whims of an emperor, do we reduce it to merely that? How would you account for the great Greek monuments which were founded on the labour of a vibrant slave economy, the Roman ruins of Coloseum, a standing monument to the barbarity of early civilisations or Egyptian Pyramids built through the sweat and blood of unaccounted numbers of slaves? Do we simply shun them because under each of these foundations are buried stories of wastage or torture or do we acknowledge that art is a far more complex phenomenon which needs a more nuanced understanding of the context within which artistic explorations have taken shape?

On the other hand, these religious fanatics look so common across the board. The ISIS destroyed the lovely monuments of Palmyra, Talibans destroyed, the Buddhist Bamiyans… and Hindutva fanatics are gunning for those they believe to be representatives of Islamic excellence.

Taj is just one more chapter in this ongoing story of contestations between symbols of what belongs and what doesn’t.

Avinash Kumar

avinash photo copy
The author has been in the development sector for more than a decade and currently works with an International non-governmental organisation based in Delhi. He may be reached at: [email protected]

One comment

  • Seems like a narrative made to suit one’s “superior” nature that disdains the opinions of the “Hoi polloi”. This is exactly why so called progressives are dismissed as parasites interested not in a conversation but in “shaming” the other into silence.

    Let us take a breather for a moment and acknowledge that Shah Jehan married Mumtaz’s sister just a few days after she died – so much for his undying love. As a symbol of love, the Taj is mostly propaganda and less a reality.

    As for aesthetics, it is a nice architecture, so what is wrong in calling it a good looking place but still a crappy love story of a king who married over 10 times, one of whom, Mumtaz, he married after killing her husband – do you think Mumtaz loved him for killing her husband?

    AS for the rants of this writer as well as the Yogi, just ignore them.

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