FROM THE SA­CRED TO THE PROFANE

Domus - - CONFETTI - Text Amita Baig, Rahul Mehro­tra

A re­cent book on the Taj Ma­hal puts for­ward var­i­ous per­spec­tives that do not only con­tex­tu­alise the ex­quis­ite her­itage struc­ture but also the chang­ing to­pog­ra­phy of the city in which it stands. It maps the vi­sion and com­mit­ment re­quired for the fu­ture of the city whose heart and iden­tity hinges largely on the mon­u­ment

To tell the story of the Taj Ma­hal is a daunt­ing task; to tell it anew is per­haps even more so. Yet in In­dia, no build­ing is com­pa­ra­ble in con­cept, beauty, scale, and am­bi­tion, and no story about it can ever be com­plete. The Taj Ma­hal in its white mar­ble glory stands out, a sym­bol of love, of empire, and of an em­peror’s un­yield­ing de­ter­mi­na­tion to con­struct jan­nat or par­adise on earth. Each of its mul­ti­ple nar­ra­tives which try to re­con­struct the whole, has a nu­ance that elic­its new in­ter­pre­ta­tions. In Myths of the Taj Ma­hal and a New The­ory of its

Sym­bolic Mean­ing (1972), Wayne Be­g­ley makes a per­sua­sive ar­gu­ment that this was not a mere mau­soleum. It was far more sym­bolic and had pro­found and am­bi­tious di­men­sions. Writ­ings on the Taj Ma­hal vary from the flow­ery, al­most ob­se­quious court records, to lat­ter ac­counts of 19th- and 20th-cen­tury travel writ­ers, in­flu­enced by the new lib­eral and ra­tio­nal dis­course, emerg­ing so­cio-po­lit­i­cal thinkers, and democrati­sa­tion im­bued with more mea­sured in­ter­pre­ta­tions bor­der­ing on the pro­saic. But never be­fore, or since, has a tomb of this stature been built for an em­press, and cer­tainly Shah Ja­han’s own an­ces­tors were far more mod­estly in­terred. How­ever, even as we ven­ture to in­ter­pret what Shah Ja­han en­vi­sioned, why he didn’t plan for his own mor­tal­ity still re­mains a mys­tery. It was cer­tainly this ab­sence which gave rise to the leg­end of the Black Taj across the river where Me­htab Bagh stands. Per­haps, he was so ine­bri­ated with power that he be­lieved he was in­fal­li­ble, or in all like­li­hood, de­spite their ri­valry, he be­lieved his sons would pro­vide for him. Maybe time sim­ply ran out, since af­ter build­ing Shah­ja­han­abad in Delhi, he was im­pris­oned in Agra un­til his end.

A de­scen­dant of Timur on the one side, and of Ra­jputs on the other, Shah Ja­han was born of a mother who was a Surya­van­shi – be­lieved to have de­scended from the sun – from Mar­war. Un­doubt­edly in­flu­enced by his twin lin­eage, and un­like Ak­bar who dab­bled in the pos­si­bil­ity of a new and over­ar­ch­ing faith un­der his lead­er­ship, Shah Ja­han pos­si­bly ap­pro­pri­ated the par­a­digm of merg­ing the spir­i­tual and tem­po­ral from Hindu rulers. In fact, he of­ten de­vi­ated from the pu­ri­tanism of the ulema as he was un­doubt­edly in­flu­enced by his Hindu lin­eage as well. Mughal em­per­ors were great devo­tees of

Sufi saints, and even Babur cir­cum­am­bu­lated Niza­mud­din Auliya’s grave in Delhi be­fore mov­ing to Agra where he made his palace gar­den. Ak­bar built Fateh­pur Sikri, fol­low­ing his de­vo­tions to Salim Chisti, an in­flu­ence that stayed with his sons and grand­son. Sev­eral schol­ars are of the opin­ion that the Taj Ma­hal was a mon­u­ment which re­flected the zenith of the Mughal Empire, and was pa­tro­n­ised by a man pos­si­bly ex­per­i­ment­ing with the hereafter, with per­haps a touch of xeno­pho­bia. The em­peror would re­main the un­ri­valled em­peror of the world, and ex­plore a di­men­sion in which em­peror and God be­came one, each a re­flec­tion of the other.

Shah Ja­han only ever saw the tomb from the river­front as he trav­elled by barge from his fort. His vi­sion, there­fore, was cir­cum­scribed by a per­cep­tual map, one rarely seen by the vis­i­tor and one that po­ten­tially of­fers new imag­i­na­tions of the mon­u­ment. If one were to see the Taj Ma­hal through the em­peror’s eyes, one would re­alise that the north­ern wall along the wa­ter­front is the only ex­ter­nal wall so richly em­bel­lished, clearly in recog­ni­tion that this was the em­peror’s en­trance. He would have ar­rived by barge, be­low the takht, his per­spec­tive of the Taj Ma­hal de­ter­mined by this van­tage point. Fur­ther­more, maps of the time show the pro­jec­tion at the Taj Ma­hal us­ing the river, not the char bagh, as the cen­tral point, thus clearly in­di­cat­ing that all per­spec­tive of the time used the river as the point of ar­rival, the cen­tre of the larger com­plex of the Taj Ma­hal.

Equally, this site ex­presses the du­al­ity of the em­peror’s ideas, one so pow­er­ful that lit­tle stood be­tween him and the un­known – per­haps a power which even drove him to cre­ate, rather sim­u­late, the un­known. Each el­e­ment pro­vides an al­le­gory of this du­al­ity – from the royal to the spir­i­tual, the ruler and the ulema, the em­peror and the com­moner, per­haps even ‘heaven’ and earth. The metaphor ex­tends through­out the com­plex and is most clearly cap­tured in the cal­lig­ra­phy on the

pish­taqs, leav­ing lit­tle doubt that the en­tire plan was based on the idea of the hereafter, the rest tak­ing cre­ativ­ity and ar­chi­tec­ture to such a level that no one would ever sur­pass it or even ques­tion its sym­bol­ism. The Taj Ma­hal is un­doubt­edly con­ceived as a sa­cred space. Per­haps, Shah Ja­han was con­ceited enough to ex­per­i­ment with the du­al­ity of the ideals of build­ing the myth­i­cal place – an imag­ined con­nec­tion be­tween heaven and earth? The en­tire con­cept re­flects this du­al­ity, the sense of reach­ing for the un­reach­able, cre­at­ing

jan­nat. Each el­e­ment is so fan­tas­ti­cal that, in fact, it is just that.

The story of the Taj Ma­hal to­day is of­ten that of the over­whelm­ing mag­nif­i­cence of a man who loved his wife so deeply that he built this sub­lime mon­u­ment. But the nar­ra­tive is more com­plex – of a man con­sumed by pas­sion for his wife, il­lu­sions of grandeur in want­ing to make jan­nat on earth, and his de­sire to en­sure his own im­mor­tal­ity through this mon­u­ment. Many other sto­ries are yet to be ex­plored – sketches of how its de­sign might have been etched in stone; gar­dens that trans­formed ev­ery sea­son on the em­peror’s whim; wa­ter sys­tems that nour­ished the land­scape; fan­tas­ti­cal flow­ers in per­pet­ual mourn­ing, and mark­ings left be­hind by face­less crafts­peo­ple who made all this pos­si­ble.

Stand­ing at the podium of the Taj Ma­hal, look­ing down at the tur­bid wa­ters of the Ya­muna, one can hardly imag­ine the ex­cite­ment of the Mughals who set­tled in Agra be­cause of its snow-fed wa­ters. But there are many evolv­ing ideas, not least that the Ya­muna was ap­pro­pri­ated by Shah Ja­han as the cen­tre­piece of his de­sign for the Taj Ma­hal.

Con­tem­porar­ily in Europe, the Re­nais­sance was un­der­way and a more cul­tured way of life was gain­ing ground as cas­tles and forts gave way to palaces of im­mense lux­ury and grandeur, start­ing with the Medi­cis in Florence in the 15th cen­tury. Else­where, na­tion-states were be­gin­ning to form and in France, Spain, and Bri­tain, a palace was a sym­bol of power for the monar­chs of the 17th cen­tury. In France, the Lou­vre and Fon­tainebleau were con­verted from dis­mal cas­tles into lav­ish palaces and sim­i­lar trans­for­ma­tions were tak­ing place across Europe. In Hin­dus­tan, in many ways, the Taj Ma­hal be­came the sym­bol of the end of the Mughal Empire, while in North Amer­ica, the foun­da­tion of Har­vard Uni­ver­sity and sev­eral other uni­ver­si­ties were laid – a pre­cur­sor to the con­struc­tion of cen­tres of learn­ing and knowl­edge. St Peters in Rome and St Paul’s in Lon­don were also be­ing built, with im­mense domes that were sym­bolic of the Church’s supremacy and power, dis­tinct from those of the State. Against this back­drop of great build­ings, the Taj Ma­hal stands apart for the rich nar­ra­tives and sym­bol­ism rolled into a sin­gle com­plex and yet cod­i­fied piece of ar­chi­tec­ture and land­scape. The Taj Ma­hal is imag­i­na­tion made tan­gi­ble yet eva­sive. Agra’s fate was also linked to its ruler. His­tor­i­cally at the cross­roads of In­dian civil­i­sa­tion, dur­ing Ak­bar’s rule, it was de­scribed as the ‘em­po­rium of the traf­fic of the world’. The city played a piv­otal role in the his­tory of In­dia but its own for­tunes were de­ter­mined when In­dia was ruled from here. Shah Ja­han moved his cap­i­tal to Delhi soon af­ter he built Shah­ja­han­abad, and as the cost of con­struc­tion of the Taj Ma­hal be­gan to bank­rupt the city, Agra’s destiny was sealed. Once a cen­tre of trade and great cul­tural tra­di­tions, with royal pa­tron­age now shifted to Delhi, the fate of the mon­u­ment, and the city which flour­ished around it, floun­dered. Be­hind this im­mense en­ter­prise with stag­ger­ing statistics, are the sto­ries of the build­ing of the mon­u­ment and the rise and fall of the city whose destiny is in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked to it. Shah Ja­han lived a life of colos­sal ex­cess at the cost of the peo­ple who made it pos­si­ble. While there are no records of the im­pov­er­ish­ment of the work­force at the Taj Ma­hal, cer­tainly in 1632, Hin­dus­tan was in the grip of a famine, and Mughal wars fur­ther laid to waste huge tracts of land which would con­trib­ute in no small part to the de­cline of the Mughal Empire.

The city which sourced its life and en­ergy from the river with its wa­ter­front gar­dens, tombs, grand man­sions and its pros­per­ous trade with mer­chants,

traders, Je­suits and mer­ce­nar­ies con­stantly pour­ing in, grad­u­ally dis­si­pated once the eco­nomic hub moved north. Gone were the days when mu­sic, art and lit­er­a­ture had flour­ished along­side vast tan­ner­ies en­gaged in mak­ing leather shoes for the Mughal armies, the ma­houts who trained fight­ing ele­phants and the crafts­men who catered to the in­sa­tiable de­sire to build and em­bel­lish the city. Agra, once a cos­mopoli­tan cap­i­tal city, was doomed. As the Mughal power de­clined and ma­raud­ers stripped the heart of In­dia, even the sa­cred tomb was des­e­crated. Colo­nial rulers danced on the plat­form once used by the de­vout, and young lovers etched their names on the glass win­dows of the hasht bi­hisht. But for the com­mon sense of Lord Curzon in the late 19th cen­tury, much more would have been lost. Clear­ing the gar­dens of over­growth, he made valiant ef­forts to pro­tect and pro­mote the Taj Ma­hal. Much of how one views the Taj Ma­hal in present times is cir­cum­scribed by his views on neat­ness and or­der. To­day, the Taj Ma­hal and Agra Fort, both World Her­itage Sites, still dom­i­nate the river­front. They have at­tracted na­tional and in­ter­na­tional con­cern for their pro­tec­tion. A Pub­lic In­ter­est Lit­i­ga­tion filed in 1984 sought to con­trol in­dus­trial pol­lu­tion which was threat­en­ing to dis­colour the white mar­ble of

the Taj Ma­hal. The Taj Trapez­ium was no­ti­fied and, to­day, no pol­lut­ing in­dus­try can op­er­ate within a 50-km ra­dius of the mon­u­ment. More­over, in a law un­prece­dented in the his­tory of preser­va­tion, a green belt of 500 me­tres has been pro­vided around the Taj Ma­hal.

The Taj Ma­hal, the jewel in In­dia’s crown will be pre­served for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. But the city has many more sto­ries to be told – it has a suc­cess­ful mar­ble craft trade, even though its tan­ner­ies were shut down by 1994, Agra re­mains one of the largest shoe-man­u­fac­tur­ing cen­tres, a legacy of Em­peror Ak­bar who or­dered shoes for his army, which were then made here. Ak­bar had man­dated by law for the first time in Hin­dus­tan that all sol­diers were re­quired to wear shoes. Many such skilled work­ers in­clud­ing jew­ellers, gold­smiths, car­pet-weavers and mar­ble crafts­men sur­vive in a city which, de­spite re­peat­edly los­ing its eco­nomic moor­ings, and not least be­cause of the Taj Ma­hal, still pre­vails. Theirs are tales of re­silience and grit that form the in­vis­i­ble back­bone of Agra’s his­tory. New op­por­tu­ni­ties to craft a road map to bring the Taj back to its peo­ple re­quire vi­sion, de­ter­mi­na­tion and the ex­plo­ration of the mul­ti­ple nar­ra­tives that make Agra and the Taj Ma­hal a po­ten­tially rich land­scape and a true won­der of the world. In­dia has the op­por­tu­nity to craft its own roadmap to val­ouris­ing its her­itage but it needs vi­sion to be in­clu­sive of the cit­i­zens to whom these mon­u­ments be­long, mesh­ing the past and the present in imag­in­ing as well as con­struct­ing the fu­ture.

Taj Ma­hal and Agra in their chang­ing avatars

To­day, the Taj Ma­hal is an oa­sis in a city over­bur­dened and de­graded and al­though the huge green space around the mon­u­ment of­fers to the cit­i­zens respite from ur­ban pres­sures, and while many of the res­i­dents of Agra still seek refuge in its serene en­vi­rons, away from the noise and chaos, its fate still re­mains un­cer­tain in its chang­ing avatars. There are a slew of is­sues which the city needs to ad­dress to re­store the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the city and its her­itage. The in­ter­de­pen­dence of the cit­i­zens and their her­itage was largely eco­nomic; with­out that the city has floun­dered. The fu­ture of the city whose heart and very iden­tity hinges on the Taj Ma­hal re­quires breadth of vi­sion and great com­mit­ment. Cities across In­dia have faced im­mense chal­lenges where de­vel­op­ment has been in con­flict with the preser­va­tion of mem­ory and the con­ser­va­tion of the past. With the Taj Ma­hal, se­cure be­hind its high walls and the ASI firmly me­di­at­ing a very fo­cussed path to re­store and con­serve this her­itage, the dan­ger of the mon­u­ment be­ing iso­lated from its con­text is very real.

Out­side the Taj Ma­hal, be­yond the sphere of its pro­tec­tors lies a rud­der­less city with­out a re­newed imag­i­na­tion about its fu­ture. Delhi re­mained the cap­i­tal of in­de­pen­dent In­dia and Agra, a small and in­signif­i­cant mid-sized town con­tin­ued to sur­vive its many avatars by ad­just­ing to the re­al­ity of the con­tem­po­rary land­scape that emerged around it. Tra­di­tional in­dus­tries gave way to small-scale work­shops; metal work­ers once mak­ing swords es­tab­lished ad hoc foundries; brick kilns catered to the emerg­ing mid­dle class build­ing their homes and tan­ner­ies served shoe fac­to­ries that had re­placed the cob­blers mak­ing shoes for Ak­bar’s army. Agra in­deed re­flects how cities in In­dia have coped with the tran­si­tion of royal pa­tron­age to a ro­bust democ­racy. It is the quin­tes­sen­tial small town of con­tem­po­rary In­dia, om­nipresent as a re­source of his­tor­i­cal and cul­tural mem­ory that would re­main un­sung, were it not for the Taj Ma­hal.

Reimag­in­ing the Taj and its con­text

‘The fu­ture of the mon­u­men­tal her­itage of Agra will only be se­cure within a civic or­der which first pro­vides for the well­be­ing of the cit­i­zens and im­bues them with a sense of pride.’ The vi­sion state­ment of the Blue Rib­bon Panel of the In­doUS Joint Mis­sion in 1995 re­mains as valid to­day as it was 21 years ago. It is equally im­por­tant to recog­nise that the vi­sion of the panel in­ex­tri­ca­bly links the fate of the mon­u­ment to that of the city, a vi­sion born out of pro­found con­cern for the cit­i­zens of Agra, whose fu­tures are as frag­ile and un­sus­tain­able in its present con­di­tion.

While the pres­ence in their midst of a World Her­itage Site is an ob­vi­ous ad­van­tage, it is not lever­aged in any way to en­rich their cul­tural, so­cial and eco­nomic ecol­ogy.

Tourism in Agra has grown ex­po­nen­tially, not just in terms of in­ter­na­tional but also do­mes­tic tourists. Eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment and com­mu­ni­ca­tion have made travel within In­dia rel­a­tively easy for all In­di­ans. Thus, the vol­ume of do­mes­tic trav­ellers to Agra, and in­deed the Taj Ma­hal has al­ready ex­ceeded what the mon­u­ments can sus­tain. To­day, six mil­lion tourists visit the Taj Ma­hal ev­ery year; ap­prox­i­mately 30% of the tourists are for­eign and 70% are In­dian. Of the ASI’s in­come of ru­pees 25.3 crores for Agra, ap­prox­i­mately half comes from the in­come of en­trance tick­ets to the Taj Ma­hal. The Agra De­vel­op­ment Au­thor­ity (ADA) earns ru­pees 25 crores from the Taj Ma­hal and noth­ing goes back for its up­keep – only the ASI spends ru­pees three crores in­de­pen­dently a year to look af­ter the the Taj Ma­hal. Thus, even the eco­nomic model of sub­si­dies that sur­round the Taj Ma­hal does not priv­i­lege the mon­u­ment, leave alone its po­si­tion within the larger ecol­ogy of Agra. This lop­sided em­pha­sis on the de­ploy­ment of funds for the mon­u­ment and the un­even re­la­tion­ship be­tween the city au­thor­ity and the cus­to­di­ans of the mon­u­ment, is em­blem­atic of the larger dis­junc­ture in the con­flict­ing re­la­tion­ships that ex­ist be­tween in­sti­tu­tional au­thor­i­ties for their con­cern for the Taj Ma­hal.

The book Taj Ma­hal: Mul­ti­ple Nar­ra­tives by Amita Baig and Rahul Mehro­tra is pub­lished by Om Books (2017). All ex­cerpts, texts, and pho­to­graphs fea­tured here are used with the per­mis­sion of the au­thors, ed­i­tors and pub­lish­ers.

This page, top-left: an im­age of the cover of the book Taj Ma­hal: Mul­ti­ple

Nar­ra­tives (2017); topright: a spread from the in­tro­duc­tory chap­ter of the book Op­po­site page, top: The em­peror only ever ap­proached the Taj Ma­hal by boat from the fort, which de­fined his per­spec­tive of the mon­u­ment. The richly em­bel­lished façade be­fits the royal en­trance at a time when the pris­tine wa­ters of the Ya­muna would have flowed along­side; bot­tom: a spread from the book in­di­cat­ing the for­ti­fi­ca­tion of the city of Agra over the ages, and the cre­ation of its river­front

Top: it is not a mat­ter of us­ing only the past and the his­toric nar­ra­tives to in­form con­ser­va­tion strate­gies but of find­ing ways of us­ing newer con­tem­po­rary nar­ra­tives and as­pi­ra­tion to in­form the agen­das for con­ser­va­tion in the present. If one were to sim­ply look at the panorama of Agra, there is yet so much op­por­tu­nity for sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment. The Taj Ma­hal will re­main the cen­tre of Agra; it needs to be­come the cen­tre of its peo­ple

This page, top: the river­front of Agra seems frozen in time, with the fac­to­ries closed un­der court or­ders. High­ways cut into the city’s fab­ric, cat­a­pult­ing tourists into the Taj and evad­ing the city; bot­tom: the trans­for­ma­tion of the River Ya­muna from an idyl­lic wa­ter­way

to the way it is now de­mands a much more ex­pan­sive re­sponse to the city’s fu­ture Op­po­site page, top: draw­ings of the Delhi Gate of the Agra Fort (top); the It­mad ud Daulah, or the tomb of Mirza Ghiyas Beg (cen­tre); and the Taj Ma­hal (bot­tom)

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