The Taj Mahal, an enduring testament to Shah Jahan’s everlasting love for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, is visited by an estimated 3.5 million people every year and is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Designated by UNESCO in 1983 as a world heritage site, it generates a huge amount of foreign exchange for India.
During the nearly four centuries of its existence, it has made a powerful impression on visitors. The 17th century French traveller, Francois Bernier, who visited India in (1658-1668) during Aurangzeb’s reign, was enthralled by the Mughal masterpiece. After visiting the sparkling marble mausoleum, he noted in his memoir, Travels in the Mogul Empire, “I decidedly think that this monument deserves much more to be numbered among the wonders of the world than (the) pyramids of Egypt, those unshapen masses which when I had seen them twice yielded me no satisfaction.” Although the comparison of the two monuments, showcasing different facets of human craftmanship, may be unfair, his enthusiasm for the Taj is, nevertheless, unmistakable.
The Taj Mahal has undergone multiple periods of hardships during its lifetime. Following the collapse of central Mughal power, and prior to full establishment of British sovereignty over India, it fell victim to the prevailing anarchy. Marauding Jat militias, operating in and around Agrain the early eighteenth century, robbed the mausoleum of many of its precious and semiprecious stones. According to some reports, the decorative silver gates at the main entrance of the Taj Mahal were carted away by robbers.
When Agra fell to the forces of British General Lord Lake in 1803, the mausoleum as noted by Diana and Michael Preston in their book, Taj Mahal, was in a sorry state as “most of the valuable fittings, as well as carpets, jeweled canopies and wall hangings had disappeared from the Taj Mahal.” The British, having no appreciation of the transcendent beauty of the monument they had found in a bedraggled state, used it as a money-making enterprise. “They rented out the mosque and the guest house flanking the mausoleum as cottages for honeymooning couples.”
India’s archeological treasures at the time were valued neither by the British nor Indians. However, the arrival of Lord Curzon as the Viceroy of India (1898-1905) proved a boon for these monuments, as he is credited with saving and refurbishing many of them.
In one of his speeches before leaving India, Lord Curzon declared from the marble plinth of the Taj, “If I had done nothing else in India, I have written my name here, and the letters are a living Joy.” Curzon’s contributions are being recognised slowly. Indian Prime Minister, Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru, is quoted as remarking, “After every viceroy is forgotten, Curzon will be remembered because he restored all that is beautiful in India.”
While serving as India’s viceroy, Curzon gifted to the mausoleum a replica of a beautiful brass lamp he had seen hanging in an ancient mosque in Cairo that he greatly liked. He ordered a reproduction of the lamp and the master craftsmen of Cairo produced an exact copy. The lamp, bearing the inscription “Presented to the Tomb of Mumtaz Mahal by Lord Curzon, Viceroy 1906,” has since been hanging from the centre of the interior dome above the imperial graves.
Following India’s independence, much attention and care were lavished on the Taj as it showcased the country’s architectural and archaeological pre-eminence and drew large number of foreign and local tourists. However, since the advent of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), a rightwing Hindu Nationalist Party Government, and the installation of Mr Narendra Modi as India’s prime minister in 2014, the country’s secular and pluralistic ethos has come under great stress. The Taj is now facing a hostile climate spawned by members of the ruling party merely because of its association with the Muslim emperor Shah Jahan, an experience unlike any it faced during nearly four centuries of its existence.
Attacks on the Taj Mahal are not a new phenomenon, only they have become widespread and more acceptable. For many years, a fringe group in India has been advancing the bogus thesis that the Taj Mahal was in fact the Shiva temple and was built by a Hindu King and, therefore, it should be handed over to Hindus. The Uttar Pradesh High Court dismissed the petition some time ago for lack of any credible evidence. More recent attempts focus on denigrating the Mausoleum as incompatible with Indian culture and for being the legacy of Muslim invaders.
According to the well-known Indian writer, Biswajeet Banerjee, “In Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, the state government even deleted the profile of the Taj Mahal from its official tourism booklet.”
The campaign of repudiation of the Taj Mahal is not limited to a few bigoted BJP members; it has become main stream and embraced by some high-level government officials. The saffron-clad, Hindu priest, Yogi Aditya Nath, the current chief minister of UP, the state where the Taj Mahal is located, is quoted as instructing his officials that, “The foreign dignitaries visiting his state should be gifted a copy of the Hindu religious book “Bhagvad Gita, instead of replicas of the Taj Mahal.”
The state government has also reduced the funds needed for the upkeep of the Taj. The negative publicity has made an adverse impact on India’s tourism as the number of foreign tourist has gone down by almost 35 percent. In a recent article in Washington Post, Anne Gowen, the paper’s bureau chief in India, has quoted some officials in the tourism business, “The current state government is not supporting Agra as a tourist destination, because of its Mughal monuments.” Unsurprisingly, the resources of the state government are being directed to support Hindu religious sites, such as Varanasi, and the main temple in Gorakhpur where Aditya Nath was the chief priest before his rise to high executive position.
For many people, both Indians and foreigners, who admired the vibrancy of the Indian democracy, its emphasis on the sublime ideals of secularism and pluralism, assiduously cultivated and nurtured by its founding fathers Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s recent descent into religious and tribal quagmire are dismaying.
The current trend has been polarizing India along religious and ethnic lines, mired forever in ancient historic controversies and grievances. Modi and his policy followers have been leaving no stone unturned to maligned historical places that were designated by UNESCO as world heritage sites. This Modi’s strategy has catapulted India and its people towards non issues.
India and World Heritage Site, Taj Mahal