I last visited the Taj Mahal in winter of 2008. Early morning mist curled up from the charbagh, the Persian gardens of Paradise at the base of which stands the red sandstone platform from which arises the famed marble mausoleum. It wasn’t my first visit — you cannot grow up in India and not go see the Taj on a school trip, at least. I was there to show it to my six-year-old daughter: a UNESCO Heritage site that is the world’s most famous monument to love. I had made sure to hire a guide in advance, one who came highly recommended as his client roster included foreign corporate executives. I was anxious for my daughter to learn some of the facets that make the Taj extraordinary — glorious symmetry, exquisite pieta dura, elegant calligraphy — and appreciate how it is truly symbolic of India.
The guide proved a downer. He hurried us through the gardens, made a brisk halt at the central pool — where celebrities from princess Diana to the Clintons have been photographed, ignored the garden wall pavilions with their intriguing verandahs accentuated with coupled columns and arches, rattled off dimensions of domes and minarets, amidst a steady dribble of urban legends. I was disappointed, until I was livid.
As we perambulated the monument, he pointed to the pinnacle atop the central dome, urging us to notice its design. The finial is too far for the naked eye to discern much. But a replica exists on the red sandstone platform and he walked us to it. See, he triumphantly pointed to a carving — a coconut resting on mango leaves atop a pot of water — a popular Hindu design! Then he began his spiel about how the Taj Mahal was actually an ancient Hindu temple called Tejo Mahalya which the Mughals had repurposed.
Perhaps my husband spied my thunderous expression; he paid the guide and packed him off. Thereafter, we perambulated the Taj on our own, guiding our daughter through a building that while Islamic in conception is imbued with Hindu design elements. Shah Jahan, the builder of Taj Mahal was an islamic ruler to a very large Hindu population and he pioneered an architectural style that replicated his own mixed heritage (his mother and grandmother were both Hindu princesses) and reflected the diverse nature of his subjects.
The guide’s story, attributed to one P. N. Oak, is routinely dismissed by historians. But I was so disillusioned I determined to write a story that would rescue the Taj Mahal from lies and show the monument for what it truly is: a symbol of syncretic India. The challenge was huge. Most Indians know little about the monument except for its famed beauty and fabled love legend. There is a dearth of scholarly work — indeed, the Austrian historian Ebba Koch is the only one permitted to take measurements of the complex over her thirty-year research on the monument.
I decided to do a ‘Da Vinci Code’ on the Taj Mahal — a thriller format to make a medieval monument go contemporary. Ms Koch’s ‘The Complete Taj Mahal’ became my bible as I strove for historical and architectural accuracy in my novel. Upon its release in 2012, ‘The Taj Conspiracy’ became a runaway bestseller. Most gratifying to me was readers who wrote saying they took my book along as a guide when visiting the Taj.
My research on Taj also familiarized me with the fragile state of the monument, something I wove into the narrative to raise awareness of its alarming vulnerability in the face of increasing pollution, a depleting Yamuna river, and rising terror. And now, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, the state in which Taj Mahal is located, has initiated two things. Taj Mahal is omitted from the state’s official tourism booklet, and it is not allotted any cultural heritage fund for the coming year.
Yogi Adityanath, who dresses in the saffron robes of a Hindu priest, has gone on record to state that the Taj Mahal “does not reflect Indian culture.” The right-wing Hindu party he represents — which governs India under Prime Minister Modi — is doing a fine job of mixing faith and fundamentalism as it attempts to pour a several-millennia old Hindu faith into its narrow Hindutva ideology. Indeed, the single largest contribution of the Modi government might be that it has made a majority (Hindus make up 80 % of the population) feel insecure.
Cultures such as India’s don’t die abruptly. Radical Chinese experiments such as the Great Leap Forward, or the dramatic overhaul of a communist society to a capitalistic one, are near impossible in a country as diverse as India and composed — as the Nobel-Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen has coined — of “argumentative Indians.” What guts it is steady erosion. The benign neglect that Taj Mahal has suffered thus far is in line with what other historic monuments in India face. But what Mr Adityanath’s stipulation does is to fast-forward the Taj for neglect hoping for its demise.
Taj Mahal is more symbolic of our heritage than we Indians realize. To borrow from a character in ‘The Taj Conspiracy’ who, at a crucial juncture when the monument is facing an extraordinary threat, exhorts: Just as the color white contains all colors within it, this monument of white embodies our innate ancient pluralism.
If the Taj Mahal goes down, so will an integral piece of India’s soul.
© Manreet Sodhi someshwar