The Taj That is India
NEW DELHI: On a recent visit to Darbhanga the Hon’ble Chief Minister of India’s largest state and considered by many-and certainly by its own prodigious population-to be the crucible of India’s culture, has declared that the Taj Mahal had no connection with Bharat’s culture. Yet as we celebrate the 70th year of our freedom accompanied as it tragically was by the most bloody partition in all human history, we would do well to remember what today’s Bharat is.
India represents an unprecedented experiment in nation building after centuries of being part of empires that have laid the foundations of its economic, social and geographic boundaries. This experiment is unprecedented because it differs radically from the idea of the nation state stemming from the European experience which based national boundaries on the strength of ethnic, linguistic and religious commonalities.
The concept of ‘nation’ was no doubt disseminated across the world in an age of colonialism, when subject people looked with envy upon the European concept that had fuelled such domination. And so small states, emerging from colonial rule, often ethnically diverse, with these diversities sometimes hostile, were sought to be molded into nation states, with, as we can now see, lasting resentments or, in breaking the yoke of colonial power, seeking themselves to build nations.
Yet South Asia with its sustained engagement with the world has built a unique identity both for itself and for India’s Islam which carries significance for a world moving into an era of globalization. In this region, an unhappy consequence of colonial rule was the birth of Pakistan, seeking to build a nation on grounds of religion.
Malaysia sought to build a secular State, with a bias towards the ‘bhoomiputra’ (indigenous Malays, overwhelmingly Muslim) in a nation with two dominant ethnic communities. The Philippines and Indonesia, ethnically more homogeneous but with differences in religion have also sought, with varying degrees of success, to build their nations by recourse alternating between democratic and dictatorial means.
India on the other hand, has been a cultural and economic multi-ethnic entity for centuries, in a convergence of which the Taj Mahal can be described as apotheosis. A mausoleum is a concept not in keeping with orthodox Islam. Witness today the chagrin of much of the world’s Muslim community at the demolition of centuries old mausoleums by the Wahabi government of Saudi Arabia. The Islamic concept of burial is similar to the rite of cremation, simply a return of human remains to nature.
The Taj was indeed built by a Muslim Emperor, but Shah Jehan was son of Jagat Gosain, Rathore princess of Marwar, with a paternal grandmother who was from the Kuchwaha house of Jaipur, married to the Mughal Emperor Akbar with the title of Mariam Zamani. And the Rajput influences in the design and ornamentation of the Taj will be obvious to any amateur observer of the traditional architecture of the great cities of Rajasthan, leading some to claim that the Taj is in itself a Rajput palace. If it requires to be labeled then of course the Taj Mahal, given the ancestry described, so is.
To add to this diversity is the fact that this was a monument built to celebrate the Sunni Emperor’s Shia Empress. And if the building of mausoleums to Emperors is frowned upon by Muslim orthodoxy, a mausoleum for queens is almost unique to India. Here you have the tomb of Noor Jehan in Lahore, the Bibi ka Maqbara in Aurangabad built by then prince Mohammed Muazzam for his mother Dilras Bano Begum and a mausoleum to Qudsia Begum, wife of Mohammed Shah in Delhi’s present day Jor Bagh.
There is also in Delhi the tomb of the great Hindi poet Abdul Rahim Khan Khanan, which is in fact a tomb built by him for his wife Mah Banu, wherein he was interred, located in the present Nizamuddin neighborhood.
But without doubt the most magnificent of these tombs in India or anywhere is the Taj Mahal built as a temple to the Empress Mumtaz Mahal using the tradition of India’s temple architecture. Hence it is located on an elevated plinth as are the temples of Khajuraho, and is built of marble from the Sind-Rajasthan region, decorated with semi-precious stones from the farthest reaches of a vast Empire, already embracing the area of the Solasa Mahajanapad, the sixteen great states extending from the Kabul Valley in the north to the Godavari in the South that constituted Bharat in the 6th century BC, yet to reach its zenith. These were patterned into mosaic on its walls and ceiling and sculpted into its façade by artisans drawn from India’s rich crafts tradition in gems, stonework and sculpture, silver and gold smithy, mostly Hindu, bordered by Islamic calligraphy of majestic proportion, all coalescing into what is the highest achievement of Indian artistry.
The dome, an architectural innovation initiated by the Pantheon of ancient Rome, and a contribution of the Turks to India’s architectural array, is crowned with a gold plated finial; rising from an inverted lotus-the lotus is the party symbol of the Hon’ble CM’s own party-on its summit, surmounted by an Islamic crescent topping a pinnacle reminiscent of the Hindu Shiva trident kalash.
This is surely among the world’s most perfect domes. British Viceroys anxious to establish British superiority over the Indians vanquished by the defeat in the war of 1857 conceived the Victoria Memorial of Kolkata, in 1905; although modeled on the Taj it is today not even talked of as a comparison. And so, just as every class of Indian society was over the centuries assigned a place in its professional economic hierarchy, which was both a social security and a guarantee of continuity, each class, the ruler, the priest, the skilled, the artisan, the laborer finds expression in the Taj, a supreme expression of India’s architectural achievement, described movingly by India’s poet laureate Rabindranath Tagore and composer of our national anthem as ‘a teardrop on the cheek of time.’
But where did this convergence start and where did it break? Why indeed did a separate state of Pakistan based on what were perceived as exclusive national rights of a vital element of Indian society emerge as detritus of the British Indian Empire?
In framing its Constitution, India, describing itself as a ‘Union of States’ gave to itself a Federal Constitution with a strong unitary bias. Emerging from a bloody Partition amidst doubts, most famously voiced by former British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill that India was even a nation, India sought to weave itself together, while acknowledging diversities, particularly of religion, education, culture and language, into a cultural fabric with political autonomy to ethnic diversities. The Taj Mahal is an expression of that tapestry, which is India.
(Wajahat Habibullah was the chairperson of the National Commission for Minorities. Prior to this, he held the position of the first Chief Information Commissioner of India as part of a long innings in government).