Rough Cut

Sangeet Som, Taj Mahal is everything India should be proud of

The cherry-picking of history, defining acts by religious denomination, are not just detrimental to the nation's well-being but also laughable.

 |  Rough Cut  |  4-minute read |   16-10-2017
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What exactly is bothering the BJP about Taj Mahal? That it was built by a Muslim emperor as a tribute to his wife? How little they know of our history and its syncretic culture. It is too much for them to read either Ebba Koch's The Complete Taj Mahal and the Riverfront Gardens of Agra or Taj Mahal: Multiple Narratives by conservationists Amita Baig and Rahul Mehrotra, so perhaps I can summarise their most definitive findings.

Nothing could be more symbolic of India's shared cultural past than Taj Mahal, which was commissioned by Shah Jahan for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, took 22 years to build, and was completed in 1648.

It was built by a Muslim emperor born of a Hindu mother (a princess from Jodhpur no less who is related to the erstwhile Maharaja Gaj Singh of Jodhpur, who is very proud of this fact) and restored to somewhat former glory by an Englishman, Lord Curzon. It was ravaged by many kings, including Suraj Mal, who raided its silver doors; nearly auctioned by Lord Bentinck, and even turned into a party place briefly under the British. But it has survived as a testament to India, its diversity and its richness.

It is also a testament to the very glorious past that revivalists like to recall when Agra was the capital of the world. Read this description from Multiple Narratives:

"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!

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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 metal works, 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."

BJP MLA Sangeet Som says Taj Mahal is a blot on Indian culture because it was built by a king who imprisoned his own father. There are enough examples of other kings, of other religions, doing the same - Bimbisara, who offered his throne to Buddha, was imprisoned by Ajatshatru. Should one question Buddhism? Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath believes Taj Mahal doesn't reflect Indian culture: "Foreign dignitaries visiting the country used to be gifted replicas of the Taj Mahal and other minarets which did not reflect Indian culture.'' This belief that we should abandon the monument that Rabindranath Tagore called a "teardrop on the cheek of time" comes after many decades of persistence but unsuccessful petitioning from men such as PN Oak and Amar Nath Mishra that the Taj Mahal was built by Hindu kings.

This cherry-picking of our history, defining acts by religious denomination, are not just detrimental to the nation's well-being but also laughable in their puny attempts to diminish our cultural heritage. We are all products of the past and our past is so diverse, a fact that we have always celebrated in the past. Why change it now? We all know the strong anti-intellectual strain in the BJP but it would be a pity if this got official sanction and encouragement.

Should not all this energy be used to reimagine the Taj Mahal, which attracts an estimated seven-eight million tourists a year? Baig and Mehrotra have some very practical lessons on how this can be done. They believe part of the reason Agra city did not identify with Taj Mahal through history is because the 44 aram baghs belonging to noblemen along the river Yamuna 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, which would make them a triangle of towns which would be a magnet in the Incredible India campaign. Perhaps Yogi Adityanath and Sangeet Som should focus on that, instead of fighting ghosts from the past.

Also read: What GST — the tax nightmare — tells you about BJP's politics

Writer

Kaveree Bamzai Kaveree Bamzai @kavereeb

Consulting editor, India Today Group

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