Towards the end of 2008, news spread all over Bangladesh that a life-size replica of the Taj Mahal was being erected at the outskirts of Dhaka. While officials of the Indian High Commission reacted with shock and outrage, Bangladeshis were terribly excited. Ahsanullah Moni, a colourful Dhallywood movie producer who was the private investor behind the bold initiative, had made huge promises. Architects had been sent to Agra to meticulously measure the original, marble from Italy and jewels from Belgium had been imported, and a colossal $58 million had been invested (or so it was advertised).
Just before Eid 2009, when the Taj Mahal of Bengal was finally inaugurated in the Narayanganj district, an hour-and-a-half’s drive to the southeast of Dhaka, both the indignation of the Indian authorities and the enthusiasm of the Bangladeshi public deflated instantly. With its disregard for the original proportions, spontaneous addition of colours and questionable design innovations, the outcome did not quite match the expectations.
A local blogger summarised the disappointment of the first visitors: “When I saw the face of the Taj Mahal, my mouth went on automatically: ‘shala, shala’ [goddamn, goddamn].”
Moni, who is infamous for his low-quality plagiarism of Hindi films (and now of Mughal monuments), explained that this investment was an act of charity on his part: “Everyone dreams about seeing the Taj Mahal but very few Bangladeshis can make the trip because it’s too expensive for them.”
And that seems to be the prosaic purpose of the self-proclaimed “Bhalobashar Taj Mohol”, or the Taj Mahal of Love, entertaining the masses. The site is a hotspot for shy lovers as well as families. Visitors click selfies, purchase cheap Taj Mahal-related goodies manufactured in China and binge on Bengali Chinese food in the nearby eateries. The place is strikingly deprived of political, spiritual or even artistic ambition.
Despite the relatively high cost of the entrance ticket (100 taka, which, after conversion, is almost double the Rs 40 Indians have to pay to visit the original monument in Agra), the Taj Mohol (as per the vernacular pronunciation) remains popular among lower middle classes. It is, in its own way, an example of the prominence of the Taj – the grand, genuine one – in the national imagination of Bangladesh. Because that wonder of the world is ubiquitous in Bangladesh.
The painted representation of the monument is an absolute classic motif of rickshaw art. Innumerable restaurants and wedding halls sport its name. And its majestic marbled domes often find their place in government offices, printed on mugs, calendars and posters bearing the slogan, “Government of Bangladesh”.
Link to the past
Across the border, in Pakistan, the Taj has been at the centre of recurrent debates related to national identity. A few individuals who believe that the quintessence of Islamic architecture is represented in Nur Jahan’s mausoleum have suggested that India is not worthy of harbouring such splendour and that the people of Pakistan, as the natural inheritors of the Mughal Empire, could legitimately seek moral ownership over the Taj.
Apart from being historically questionable, this Pakistani-centric interpretation of cultural heritage is somewhat insulting to Bangladesh. East Bengal was also an important part of the Mughal Empire. In 1608, Dhaka – then known as Jahangirnagar – became the capital of the province of Bengal while Calcutta was nothing but a second-range town. Which is also why remnants of Mughal architecture are still visible in Bangladesh – two famous examples are Dhaka’s Lalbagh Fort and Sat Gambuj Mosque. Yet, on the whole, Mughal vestiges are scarce and in decrepit condition.
Given this relative vacuum, it could be speculated that honouring the beauty of the Taj Mahal (or at least trying to) may be a way for Bangladeshis to celebrate the role they played in the formidable Mughal saga. Besides, apart from a mere cultural dimension, the genuine Taj Mahal also has an evident religious connotation. Not only was it built by Muslim rulers, but its premises are still used to perform the namaz.
However, in reality, the interest of Bangladeshis in the monument seems largely irreligious and deprived of ideology. For instance, when asked why on earth the People’s Republic of Bangladesh would use the Taj Mahal to customise some of its official mugs, a senior official and proud owner of the item proposed a rather straightforward explanation – “Maybe simply because it looks nice?”
Last year, visiting the Bangla Taj Mohol became even more entertaining after an Egyptian Pyramid, featuring similar architectural improvisation, was inaugurated at the same site. The Embassy of Egypt has apparently not yet expressed concern of copyright violation.