Lucknow: In the summer of 1632, the body of Arjumand Banu Begum, beloved wife of the Emperor Shah Jahan, began its final journey, a Mughal chronicler recorded, “to the Abode of the Caliphate, Akbarabad, escorted by the branch of the tree of sovereignty and caliphate, prince Sultan Shah Shuja’ Bahadur, the ‘Umdat ul-Mulk Wazir Khan, and the veiled lady possessing the virtues of Rabi’a, Satti Khanam, who had attained the high rank of first Lady-in-Waiting of that recipient of divine pleasure in Paradise.”
Exactly how the empress’ body came to be interred at what we now call the Taj Mahal has become the subject of bitter controversy, with powerful figures claiming the monument was once a Hindu temple.
On Thursday, the Allahabad High Court — hearing a petition by Rajneesh Singh, the media-in-charge of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Ayodhya unit — didn’t seem inclined to spend its time on the issue. “These debates are meant for drawing rooms, not for a court of law,” the bench of justices D.K. Upadhyaya and Subhash Vidyarthi reportedly said.
In response to Singh’s demand that sealed rooms in the Taj complex be opened for inspection, the judges joked: “Tomorrow you’ll come and ask us to go to the chambers of honourable judges of this court!”
The Lok Sabha MP from Rajasthan’s Rajsamand constituency, Diya Kumari — a member of Jaipur’s erstwhile royal family — had weighed in on the issue Wednesday, claiming that the land on which the Taj stands belonged to her ancestors. “I heard there was no compensation given then. But back then there was no law where you could appeal. It was definitely the royal family’s land.”
“We will provide the documents if the court orders,” Diya Kumari said.
What the Mughal documents say
Fortunately, no court order is needed to see the documents. Facsimiles of the relevant Mughal farmans, or orders, compiled by historian W.E. Begley, and translated by Ziyauddin Desai, have been available since 1989. The documents tell us the MP is partly right: The land on which the Taj stands did belong to her ancestor, Raja Jai Singh I of Amber. But the very same documents also record that Jai Singh received more than generous compensation for the haveli he gave up, and played a key role in supplying the marble with which the Taj was built.
The procession transporting Arjumand Banu’s body was a state occasion. Shah Jahan, the Mughal historian ’Abd al-Hamid Lahori records, ordered that “every day, abundant food and innumerable silver and gold coins should be given to the needy and the indigent.”
Jai Singh, wrote another historian, Muhammad Amin Qazwini, “as a token of his sincerity and devotion, donated the said land and considered this to be the source of happiness”. “However, His Majesty, in exchange for that, granted to the Raja a lofty house which belonged to the crown estate.”
A farman issued on 28 December, 1633, records the exact compensation made “in exchange for the haveli belonging to Raja Jai Singh, which that Pillar of the State (‘Umdat al-Mulk), for the sake of the Illumined Tomb, willingly and voluntarily donated as a gift.”
“The havelis detailed in the endorsement, together with their dependencies, which belong to the august crown property, have been offered to that pride of peers and vassal of the monarch of Islam, Raja Jai Singh, and are hereby handed over and transferred to his ownership,” it records.
In return for the Akbarabad haveli, Raja Singh received the havelis of Raja Bhagwandas, Madho Singh, Rupasi Bairagi; and Chand Singh, son of Suraj Singh. (Raja Jai Singh must have donated his property not long after the death of Mumtaz Mahal — at the latest by December 1631 — but apparently Shah Jahan’s grant of crown property in exchange took almost two years to be processed.
At least one of those havelis had been gifted by Rupasi Bairagi to his niece, Mariam-uz-Zamani (popularly known as Jodhabai), the daughter of Raja Bharmal, on the occasion of her marriage to the Mughal emperor Akbar in January, 1562.
The endorsements on the farman mention that the Raja had earlier received a different crown property, the haveli of the late Shahzada Khanam — whose identity is unknown — but it’s not stated whether that bequest was also part of the final, agreed exchange.
Farmans issued around the same time include tetchy missives from the crown, asking Jai Singh to ensure that marble from his mines was sent only for the construction of the Taj, and not to other customers.
Tangled claims on the Taj
Assertions that the Taj was once a Hindu temple date back to at least 1965, when one-time Ministry of Information and Broadcasting employee Purushottam Nagesh Oak published a book — no longer in print, but still available online — asserting the claim. Oak is famous, among other things, for insisting that the Kaaba in Mecca and the Vatican were also once Hindu temples — and the papacy was an ancient Vedic priesthood.
In 2000, a Supreme Court bench of Justice S.P. Bharucha and Justice Ruma Pal dismissed Oak’s claims as “misconceived.” “Somebody has a bee in his bonnet,” the judges reportedly remarked. For its part, the Archaeological Survey of India said in 2017 that it had no reason to believe there had ever been a temple where the Taj now stands.
Oak’s ideas, though, proved sticky: online groups still circulate a letter from the architect Marvin Mills, published in The New York Times in 1992, calling for carbon-14 and thermoluminescence dating of the monument.
The calls received little attention among experts, though. Thermoluminescence can, for example, establish roughly when ceramics were fired, but it isn’t clear how this information would establish if there was once a temple standing where the Taj now does. In general, scholarly historians have been dismissive of Oak’s theories.
End of the love story
Every Indian schoolchild knows — or ought to know — how the story ended: Emperor Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his son, Aurangzeb, allowed only to gaze at the Taj Mahal through his prison bars. From the account of the chronicler Niccolao Manucci, though, imprisonment wasn’t entirely without its consolations.
His son Aurangzeb’s wife, Aurangabadi, the story goes, had two beautiful maids, one named Aftab, which means ‘Sun,’ and the other Mahtab, or ‘Moon.’ “Finding that Shah Jahan was attracted by them, she gave them to him for his amusement,” the chronicler wrote.
“One day,” Manucci recorded, “Shah Jahan was in front of a mirror adjusting his moustaches, and these two women were standing behind him. One made a sign to the other, as if mocking the old man who wanted to get himself up as a youth. Shahjahan saw the gesture, and, touched in his reputation, had recourse to drugs to maintain his strength in his accustomed vices.”
“By these his bladder was so weakened that a retention of urine came on. For this no remedy could be found.” The emperor’s end had come — but the debate rages on.
(Edited by Rohan Manoj)