Anything that moves

‘Blot on Indian culture’: Sangeet Som is recycling old myths about the Taj Mahal (and Shah Jahan)

The Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath and Deputy Chief Minister Dinesh Sharma too need some history lessons.

In calling the world’s most gorgeous building a blot on Indian culture, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Sangeet Som mixed up the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan with his successor Aurangzeb. In Som’s world, Shah Jahan, who commissioned the Taj Mahal, imprisoned his father, while in fact, as most Indians know, he was imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb in his last years. Uttar Pradesh’s Deputy Chief Minister Dinesh Sharma, obviously a card-carrying member of the Raving Loony Hindutva History gang, backed Som up, contending that the Mughal tradition of sons killing fathers went against the grain of Indian culture. As it happens, no Mughal prince or king ever killed his father, but histories of Hindu Rajputs record at least two patricides. Rana Kumbha of Mewar was killed by his son Uday Singh in 1468 CE, and the princes Bakht Singh and Abhay Singh murdered their father Ajit Singh of Marwar in 1724. So much for Indian culture.

This is not to suggest Mughals were ethically superior to Rajputs. Mughal history isn’t short of fratricides and betrayals and, had the rebellions of Jehangir against his father Akbar, or Shah Jahan against his father Jehangir succeeded, there’s no telling whether they’d have spared the deposed emperor’s life.

Sharma went on to repeat a well-known calumny against Shah Jahan, one that involves workers’ hands being cut off. It’s a story that got attached to the Taj Mahal at some point, as if something so beautiful could not exist without a dreadful shadow, and has made its way into the popular conception of Mumtaz Mahal’s mausoleum. Such tales exist in many cultures, adhering to real or mythical edifices. The Russian Czar Ivan the Terrible is supposed to have killed Postnik Yakovlev, architect of Moscow’s famed St Basil’s Cathedral, to prevent him from surpassing that masterpiece. Even the namesake of the Agra tomb, Bombay’s Taj Mahal hotel, has a myth attached to it, about the architect jumping off the top floor after discovering his plan had been turned back to front.

Had an outrage of the kind Sharma describes actually occurred in Shah Jahan’s time, we would have heard about it from European chroniclers, who were always on the lookout for salacious gossip, and not above manufacturing myths. Father Sebastian Manrique falsely credited the Italian Geronimo Veroneo with designing the Taj, presumably because he couldn’t imagine an Asian dreaming up something so fabulous. A number of European writers, beginning with Johannes de Laet as early as 1631, the year Mumtaz Mahal died, spread the rumour that Shah Jahan and his eldest daughter Jahanara Begum were lovers. “Oriental Despot Maims Artisans” would have been a headline too tempting to resist.

Obviously, the hand-cutting myth was born decades after the mausoleum was completed, though long before the equally false myth of the Taj being a Shiva temple. I wouldn’t put it past Hindutvavadis to tout the temple theory while also condemning Shah Jahan for an atrocity related to a building that, in their minds, he did not construct. After all, consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

Separating truth from lies

The truth, for those petty minds interested in consistency and historical accuracy, is less bloody. Shah Jahan was an inveterate builder from a very early age. Jehangir wrote in his memoirs about visiting his most talented son in Kabul when Khurram was a mere 15-year-old, “On Friday, the sixth of Rabi’ II (July 30, 1607) I went to the house Khurram had built in Orta Bagh – truly a harmonious structure.” The Taj Mahal is obviously Shah Jahan’s greatest achievement but, had it not existed, he would still count among the world’s most prolific and important builders.

In the period when the Taj was rising on the Yamuna’s bank, and the years after, the emperor commissioned dozens of projects in Agra, Delhi, Lahore, and provincial capitals such as Ajmer. These were all built in a style characteristic of his reign, using similar materials and decorative techniques. It’s likely that the best artisans worked on a number of sites, moving to a new construction after their work in one location was complete. Chopping off their hands would have meant having to find a huge number of craftspeople proficient in the same techniques. And good workers weren’t any easier to come by in those days than they are today, especially when a patron had Shah Jahan’s exacting eye.

Historical records reveal that artisans working for the Mughals were paid reasonably well. Although we routinely condemn the exploitation of British colonialism, we have not entirely absorbed the fact that per capita incomes in India peaked under Mughal rule and fell consistently during the period of British dominance. Artisans, in particular, were very hard hit in the 19th century. However, though ordinary Indians were better off in the 17th century than in the 19th, that’s not to say the majority lived cushy lives. Most Indians struggled to make ends meet in both eras, and getting a gig with the richest man in the world was a good way to stave off poverty. We should think of craftspeople involved in Mughal projects not as slave labour or egregiously exploited workers but rather as professionals whose talents and services were in demand and who received a relatively comfortable wage as reward for their work.

Uttar Pradesh’s Chief Minister Adityanath, in response to the controversy following Som’s speech, said the Taj was Indian because it was made by the blood and sweat of Indian labourers. It was a clever way of side-stepping the issue while also subtly alluding to the myth of severed hands. The Taj was certainly built with the sweat of Indian labourers, but blood, not so much.

The final mistaken contention of the Som-Sharma faction is that Shah Jahan was a foreigner. It’s an odd claim to make about a man who spent his entire life within the Indian subcontinent and its near vicinity, and who had three Rajput grandparents along with one of mixed Persian and Central Asian ancestry. Shah Jahan was at least as Indian as Leo Varadkar is Irish or Barack Obama is American.

We can put down two versions of the Taj Mahal’s history. In one, it is commissioned by a foreigner who imprisons his father, sleeps with his daughter, bankrupts the economy with his extravagances, and commits unspeakable crimes against craftspeople. The second story is of an Indian ruler with immaculate taste who loves his wife dearly, appreciates artisanal skill, and pays labourers a living wage. The truth does not lie somewhere in between.

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