FROM THE SACRED TO THE PROFANE
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.
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...
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...
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...
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)