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From Lord Curzon to BJP’s Sangeet Som, Taj Mahal has many political narratives

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Taj Mahal has always functioned as a political text, capable of producing a number of different and even conflicting meanings.

Justifying the UP government’s decision to drop the Taj Mahal from the state tourism department’s booklet, BJP MLA Sangeet Som asserted: “Many people were sad when the Taj Mahal was removed from the tourism booklet. What history are we talking about?…The history that the builder of the Taj had worked to eliminate Hindus from Uttar Pradesh and India?”

This rather provocative statement might be seen in relation to Hindutva’s political campaign to rewrite medieval India’s past as a history of Muslim dominance. However, this straightforward conclusion is problematic.

Som, and for that matter, UP government’s overtly political attitude towards Taj Mahal is not entirely exceptional. Taj Mahal has always been a political entity— which is perceived and celebrated as a powerful symbol to produce various political narratives.

Taj Mahal: A symbol of British generosity

Taj was a popular tourist spot for the colonial officials, particularly for the Orientalists, who regarded this building as an exemplary architectural achievement of India. However, the formal monumentalisation of the Taj began in the early 20th century.

Lord Curzon, who had a great interest in Indian historical architecture, took special interest in the renovation of the Taj Mahal. In fact, Curzon initiated a massive restoration project, which was completed in 1908, to protect the buildings of the Taj complex and the revival of its gardens.

The entire restoration project tried to accommodate Indian feelings and perceptions– permissions were granted to the local community to use the mosque and tomb space for religious/ceremonial purposes; a particular kind of ‘Mughal’ dress was given to the attendants of the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) at the Taj; and a decorated lamp was installed inside the main chamber of the tomb in order to show the intrinsic link between Mughal past and the British present.

Curzon’s various correspondence and speeches seem to suggest that he wanted to employ Taj to be a symbol to represent the British rule as part of a historical continuity. In his speech in the Legislative Council on 5 September 1905 on the eve of Delhi Durbar, Curzon underlined the fact that ‘local’ or native sensibilities were given adequate attention in the matter of state. The restoration of the Taj was presented as an example to demonstrate the achievements of his administration in India.

Taj Mahal: A symbol of ‘unity in diversity’

This colonial politicization of the Taj was opposed by the nationalist leaders, particularly by Jawahar Lal Nehru. For him, Indo-Islamic sites, especially the Taj Mahal was a symbol of India’s composite culture. In his book Discovery of India, Nehru writes:

Beautiful buildings combined the old Indian ideals in architecture with a new simplicity and a nobility of line grew up in Agra and Delhi….Inspired architects and builders put up with loving hands the Taj Mahal at Agra.

Nehru worked hard to translate this interpretation of India’s past into a serious policy discourse: Taj was declared a monument of national importance; and, at the same time, it was publicised as an official symbol of India’s contribution to world heritage. This official portrayal of the Taj purely as a ‘heritage site’ and/or a symbol of ‘eternal love’ got established as the most reliable and uncontested meaning of this building in later years.

Taj Mahal: A symbol of Muslim India

Although the local Muslim community has been allowed to use the Taj mosque for offering prayers, the Taj’s representation as a Hindu/Muslim/secular monument has continued to affect the public discourse in a significant way.

The most interesting debate on the ownership of the Taj Mahal took place in June 2005 when the UP Sunni Wakf Boad (UPSWB) declared that the Taj was a wakf property and therefore it should be given back to it for protection, conservation and management.

The UPSWB made two points to justify its position:
• Being a maqbara (mausoleum), the Taj Mahal is a wakf as per the Sections 2 and 40 of the Government of India’s Wakf Act, 1995.
• Taj Mahal and its mosque were constructed for charitable purposes by Shah Jahan following Muslim Sunni faith and traditions.

In response to UPSWB’s claims, the ASI argued that the Taj Mahal was not dedicated by Shah Jahan for charitable purposes. It was claimed that the ASI had a legal-constitutional right to protect, conserve and manage all the monuments of national importance, including the Taj.

This controversy, as it was expected, died down within a year. And like many other unresolved political and legal issues, the ownership of Taj Mahal is turned into a ‘matter pending before the honourable court’.

Yogi Adityanath’s recent assertion that Taj Mahal does not symbolise authentic Indian culture and tradition and BJP’s conscious move to demonstrate its “intentional ignorance” towards the Taj, therefore, is another mode to make use of the symbolic capacity of this monument.

This negative and explicitly hostile political interpretation of Taj, however, reminds us that Taj Mahal has always functioned as a political text, which is capable of producing a number of different and even conflicting meanings. Wah Taj!!!

This is the first piece in a two-part series. You can read the second part here.

Hilal Ahmed is the author of “Muslim Political Discourse in Postcolonial India: Monuments, Memory, Contestation”. He is also an associate professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.

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