On Monday, Donald Trump arrives in India. As part of the United States President’s itinerary, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath will take him to see the Taj Mahal.
This shouldn’t be too surprising. There is no other single Indian monument more famous than the Taj Mahal. In a poll conducted in 2007, the Taj Mahal in Agra was voted as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. So treasured is it as a monument of humanity, a picture of it was included among the 115 images on the Voyager spacecraft when it was launched in 1977. In case the vehicle was discovered by intelligent extraterrestrial life, the scientists who launched Voyager wanted them to know that earthlings had built the Taj Mahal.
Yet, there’s one group of people who really isn’t as sold on the Taj as Trump and the rest of the world: Hindu nationalists.
Given that it was built as a mausoleum by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, Hindutva supporters have launched a series of attacks on the monument. In 2017, the Taj Mahal was left out of Uttar Pradesh’s official tourism booklet by the Adityanath government. In fact, Adityanath has previously criticised the mausoleum for not being Indian enough since it was built by the Mughals.
Some other Hindu nationalists take a more creative approach to the problem of India’s most famous monument being Mughal: they deny it is Mughal at all, claiming instead that it is actually a Hindu temple. This bizarre claim is widespread in Hindutva circles has even been repeated by a minister in the Modi government.
But this leads to a paradox: why is Adityanath taking Trump on a tour of the Taj Mahal if the Mughals and anything built by them is so disliked? Hindutva has its own pantheon of medieval kings. Why not take Trump to visit sites associated with them?
The most obvious answer is the Mughals were so dominant in medieval India that the West recognises the dynasty more than any other in India. In fact, dating from the seventeenth century, the word “mogul” itself in English refers to a “powerful person”.
This power also means that Mughal monuments have a grandeur that is unmatched in India in terms of scale and opulence. The expanse and centralised nature of the Mughal Empire meant it could draw in to its capitals a quantum of wealth from the provinces that was unheard of in medieval India. The grandeur of the Red Fort in Delhi, the Taj Mahal in Agra or the Badshahi Masjid in Lahore are, more than anything, a result of the power of the Mughal state. This means, politics aside, Mughal monuments are easily the most impressive buildings in town. If India needs to put its best foot forward in front of a guest, a Mughal monument is its best bet.
On the one hand, Hindu nationalists dislike the Mughals. Yet, on the other hand, the Mughal empire is the only state to have united South Asia politically in the popular Indian imagination. While, two millennia ago, the Mauryas did also rule a vast portion of South Asia, Indians – never great at keeping historical records – had completely forgotten about the dynasty. It took the arrival of the British and a phalanx of modern historians to tell modern Indians that they had a great emperor called Ashoka.
The stature of the Mughals as a pan-Indian empire meant meant that the British, who became the paramount political power in India by the 18th century, consciously styled themselves after the Mughals in order to signal to their subjects that Calcutta – their first capital – was picking up where the Mughal Empire’s capital of Delhi had left off.
The British started using Persian (right till 1947, the British king styled himself Kaisar-e-Hind or Emperor of India) and used a modified Mughal style in its architecture to establish sovereignty over India. By the 1930s, the British even shifted their capital back to Mughal Delhi.
In 1857, as parts of the Bengal Army rebelled against the British, they automatically headed to Delhi and, by some accounts, virtually forced the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar to become their leader. Zafar had no power at the time, but his title as Mughal emperor was a valuable stamp for the largely rudderless revolt.
Later, as modern Indian nationalism took root, Subhas Chandra Bose challenged British rule by exhorting his Indian National Army with the slogan “Dilli Chalo!”, march to Delhi, with the Red Fort as the symbol for India. Since the Red Fort was the Mughal nerve centre, it was easily used a metonym for the whole country. As legal scholar Kanika Sharma puts it: “The iconicity of the Red Fort was such that there was a belief that to raise your flag over the Red Fort was to raise your flag over all of India.”
As India became independent, like the British Raj before it, it also drew a line from the Mughals. Every year on Independence Day, the prime minister – including Modi – addresses Indians from the Red Fort, hoping to reuse some of Shahjahan’s power for modern purposes.
So powerful is this association that even Hindu nationalists cannot break it. Ideologically inclined proponents of Hindutva would prefer to see, say, the Raigad Fort of Shivaji as the symbol of the Indian Union. But Shivaji did not rule all of modern Maharashtra, not to mention India. Similarly, no other state in the Maratha Confederacy ever reached the pan-South Asian scale of the Mughal empire. In fact, even when the Marathas were more powerful that the Mughals, they could not think of deposing the emperor at Delhi as the Indian sovereign. Only a foreign power, the British, could consider taking that extreme step.
Many Indians would have favourable views of the kings that Hindutva supporters hail. But they sit in very different box compared to the claim to pan-South Asian sovereignty that the Mughals make in popular memory.