The Taj Mahal we don't know about
A new book reimagines the great monument in the context of the city it is in — Agra, once the capital of the world.
- Total Shares
Scholars have written about the Taj Mahal before. Ebba Koch’s The Complete Taj Mahal and the Riverfront Gardens of Agra is an excellent reference. So is Taj Mahal by Giles Tillotson to a lesser degree. But Taj Mahal: Multiple Narratives by conservationists Amita Baig and Rahul Mehrotra is a brilliant synthesis of the many strands that bind us to our most famous monument.
Some things are all too well known. Commissioned by Shah Jahan for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, it took 22 years to build, and was completed in 1648. Others are less so celebrated and that is where Baig and Mehrotra’s work is so valuable.
They unpeel layer upon layer of the monument to answer several questions: was it a monument to Shah Jahan’s beloved? Or to his own monumental ego? What would it have been like if Lord Curzon had not intervened to save the Taj Mahal from being pillaged, but also if he had not changed the char bagh to an English lawn?
What if the Yamuna had not becoming the stinking mess it is now and remained the way to approach the tomb as Shah Jahan did, by boat from Agra Fort?
Taj Mahal: Multiple Narratives, by Anita Baig and Rahul Mehrotra; Om Books.
The book reimagines the Taj Mahal in the context of the city it is in — Agra, once the capital of the world.
As the book says:
"Four hundred years ago, Agra was considerably more cosmopolitan than it is now; the emperor’s omrahs were not only Mughal but also Persian and Turkish. During Shah Jahan’s reign, Agra was a sophisticated city to which travellers and merchants from around the world gravitated.
Purveyors of exotic goods presented themselves at the court of the emperor. From Portuguese Jesuits to itinerant English traders, all were mesmerised by the scale and grandeur of the Mughal capital, previously unknown to them. When William Finch arrived in Agra in 1611, he was greeted by an English mercenary, three French soldiers, a Dutch engineer, and a Venetian merchant!
Agra was a hugely prosperous city at its peak during Akbar’s reign. Artisans migrated from the villages to the city as patronage was assured. Silks, laces, gold and silver embroidery on turbans are mentioned in Khulasat-ul-Tawarikh. Akbar initiated the manufacture of carpets, even though merchants continued to import carpets, especially from Persia. In the imperial workshops, carpets over 20 yards in length and nearly seven yards wide were woven.
Fabrics of great variety were woven in Agra and in the 16th and 17th centuries, it was the centre of indigo manufacture. Agra and Fatehpur Sikri were important centres for pottery, ivory and metalworks, especially the production of swords, shields, daggers and chain armour of highly refined craftsmanship.
By the time the Taj Mahal was built, stone craftsmanship had reached its zenith and became almost an industrial undertaking. Agra was the melting pot of skills from Hindustan and beyond as many converged here to create one of the world’s finest buildings."
The writers propose, as conservationists have before them, to restore Taj Mahal within the context of the city, to make the story of Taj Mahal one that everyone identifies with. And why not? Taj Mahal symbolises everything that is India — built by a Muslim emperor born of a Hindu mother (a princess from Jodhpur no less) and restored to somewhat former glory by an Englishman.
Taj Mahal as seen from Mehtab Bagh.
The book views Taj Mahal as Shahjahan did, a sacred site, jannat, with the river cutting across a complex that perhaps included Mehtab Bagh on the other side. The writers also trace the changing narrative of the Taj Mahal — from a sacred site hosting dinner dances in the British period with its gardens being used for lovers’ trysts and its walls being full of declarations of affection.
It also leaves us with several questions: what would it take to restore the Agra riverfront to the Mughal days with 44 aram baghs?
Mehrotra believes part of the reason Agra city did not identify with Taj Mahal through history is because the aram baghs were pleasure gardens for the elite and remained removed from common people. Not just that — the writers believe Taj Mahal has a future only if Agra can be seen in the wider context of Mathura and Vrindavan.
If like me you’re a lover of the Taj Mahal (though I advise anyone who visits Agra to also pay attention to the gorgeous Itimad-ud-Daula tomb – made for Shah Jahan’s father-in-law) there are things that will surprise you in this book and enthral you too.
So here it is. Did you know:
1. That Nurjehan, Jahangir’s wife, was Mumtaz Mahal’s aunt?
2. That Agra was the capital of the world at one point, with everything available there?
3. That Shah Jahan only ever approached Taj Mahal from the river, not from we enter?
4. That Lord Bentinck actually want to auction it but decided it was too cumbersome to break the marble into little pieces?
5. That Mehtab Bagh was part of the Taj Mahal complex, obscured for centuries by flooding and silting?
There’s all this and much more joy to read and behold in Taj Mahal: Multiple Narratives.