Afterlife of a ‘Monument’: Taj Mahal
This article is written by Hilal Ahmed. It was originally published on www.sahapedia.org an open online resource on the arts, cultures and heritage of India.
Raghu Rai’s famous picture of the Taj, which shows bajamat namaz (Muslim congregational prayer) at the mosque situated inside the Taj Mahal complex (Figure 1), seems to capture the multilayered meanings of a ‘monument’ in a significant way. The picture reminds us that the Taj Mahal—which is often perceived as a symbol of eternal love and India’s ‘national contribution’ to the built heritage of the world—could also be seen as a religious place of worship. Rai’s pictures clearly brings out the architectural synchronisation as well functional distinctiveness of the two main buildings of the Taj complex—the central tomb building that is erected over the graves of Mumtaz Mahal and the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan and the mosque, which is on the right side of the tombs, facing the Ka’aba. The picture, in addition, encapsulates two kinds of publics—a congregation that offers prayer at the mosque simply paying no attention to the central building (at least in that very moment) and a ‘public’, which stays at the central building and seems to follow the given official meanings of the Taj as a world heritage site.
How do we make sense of these ostensibly incompatible elements—two different sites inside a known monument, two kinds of publics, and, above all, two modes of commemoration? We might say that the mosque and the tomb building are inseparable parts of the whole monument complex and presenting them separately does not solve any purpose. Similarly, it can also be suggested that the activities such as religious worship are not consistent with the recognised architectural/archeological/historical values of the Taj. These activities might encourage religious fundamentalism and therefore must be stopped. If we look at Raghu Rai’s picture from this perspective, we might get a very straightforward interpretation: the worshippers appear as the unintended public that encroaches upon the ‘secular’ space of the Taj; while, the rational ‘public’ that commemorates the site in an acceptable way, seems to look at the congregation in a puzzled manner as if the worshippers intentionally defy the official meaning!
Fig.1: Namaz at the Taj
Source: Inherited Spaces, Inhabited Places: World Heritage Sites in India, External Publicity Division, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India.
Although one cannot ignore the positive intentions imbedded in these overtly ‘secular’ readings of the buildings like the Taj Mahal, there are at least two important questions which pose a serious challenge to this ‘building centric’ approach to conservation:
Is it possible to look at the Taj merely as a secular historical monument? If yes, how could we respond to the religious meanings embedded in the very architectural composition of the buildings, which is an intentionally built maqbara (mausoleum)?
Religious communities, especially the religious minorities have a set of constitutional rights that legally protect the right to worship. Are Muslims as a religious minority entitled to use the spaces such as the mosque in the Taj Mahal for offering congregational prayers?
I investigate these questions historically to look at the ways in which the Taj Mahal, a maqbra built by Shah Jahan in the 17th century, transforms into a modern historical monument. This exploration, I hope, can help us to move beyond the secular/communal binary and appreciate an Indian-specific form of secular conservation of historical monuments.
It is quite common to use terms like ‘historical architecture’ and ‘monument’ interchangeably to describe old buildings or historical sites. There is, however, an important conceptual difference between these two terms. Historical architecture is a broad category and it could be used to describe a number of old buildings, ruins and protected monuments. On the other hand, the basic function of a monument is to commemorate an idea, event or person. In this sense, a ‘monument’ could have two interrelated aspects: (a) the object/structure that is intentionally erected to symbolise a person or an event, and (b) the associated idea/story that has to be remembered/commemorated. In India, a monument is also a legal entity. The artistic and historical values of a particular historic building determine its status as an officially declared historical monument which commemorates significant historical events related to the nation’s past. Thus, any historical building could be converted into an official national monument or alternately any officially declared national monument could simply cease to be ‘a national monument’ at any point of time.
This substantial difference between ‘historical architecture’ and a ‘monument’ is very crucial in understanding the process by which a particular building or a group of buildings is converted into a protected historical monument or monumental complex in India. This process deals with a number of issues: a particular building is differentiated from other buildings; its physical characteristics are identified as symbols; its architectural properties are measured; certain historical and artistic values of the building are determined; its history is traced; and finally it is preserved as a heritage of a nation, community or people. In a broader sense, we may call this the process of monumentalisation. The transformation of the Taj Mahal into a ‘monument of national importance’ and subsequently into a ‘world heritage site’ is the outcome of this process.
The Taj Mahal, as it is quite well know, was a popular tourist spot for the colonial officials, particularly for the Orientalists, who regarded this building as an exemplary architectural achievement of India. However, the formal monumentalisation of the Taj began in the early 20th century. Lord Curzon, who had a great interest in Indian historical architecture, took special interest in the renovation of the Taj Mahal. In fact, Curzon initiated a massive restoration project, which was completed in 1908, to protect the buildings of the Taj complex and the revival of its gardens. Curzon officially reported:
It is no longer approached through dusty wastes and a squalid bazaar. A beautiful park takes their place; and the group of mosques and tombs, the arcaded streets and grassy courts that precede the main building are once more as nearly as possible what they were when completed by the masons of Shah Jehan. Every building in the garden enclosure of the Taj has been scrupulously repaired, and the discovery of old plans has enabled us to restore the water-channels and flower-beds of the garden more exactly to their original state.
This restoration project also remained quite sensitive to the religious as well as the popular meanings associated with various buildings situated inside the Taj complex. For instance, when a section of local residents requested the colonial officials to perform certain religious rituals at the graves of Mumtaz and Shah Jahan, they were not merely allowed to visit the graves but also a set of clear instructions were issued in this regard by Lord Curzon himself. Was the colonial state highly sympathetic towards the cultural-religious meanings of the Taj? Or, was it merely an act of appeasement to pacify the local community? It is important to note that the colonial state separated itself from the religious affairs of India communities. As a result, a legal principle of strict neutrality was evoked to define the relationship between the domain of the state and the domain of religion. The protection of religious places of worship—functional as well as non-functional—was given priority in this framework, simply to uphold the practicalities of the principles of strict neutrality.
Let us take the example of the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act, 1904, to elaborate this point. This law not only defined the term ‘monument’ in a legal-administrative sense, but also legalised the process of monumentalisation in India. Importantly, the historical relevance of the religious place of worship was also identified in this law. Section 13 (1) of the Act, for instance, very clearly noted that any ‘place of worship or shrine maintained by the Government […] shall not be used for any purpose inconsistent with its character’. In fact, the Collector was given some special powers to protect the religious character of such monuments under this law (Section 13 (2b)). Thus, the conservation of a historical building as a ‘monument’ in colonial India was always seen in relation to its recognised architectural/religious character. The Taj Mahal, in this sense, was technically considered as a ‘functional monument’ by the colonial authorities. This had been the reason why the Muslim local community was allowed to use the mosque situated in the Taj complex for religious purposes. However, the use of this building for offering namaz, etc. was contingent upon the larger agenda of the conservation of the entire monument complex. The colonial state followed the norms given in the Indian Archaeological Policy, 1915. Clause 19 of the 1915 policy says:
In this country it is impractical to lay down one law which will be applicable to every case. Thus a distinction is drawn between the older Buddhist, Hindu and Jain edifies on the one hand, and the more modern erections of the Muhammadans on the other; and in the case of the latter the view is taken a policy of limited restoration not only desirable but justified on the ground that the art of the original builder is still a living art. It is held also that in the case of monuments which still serving the purpose for which they were built, whether they be Hindu temples or Muhammadan mosques or tombs or palaces where ceremonial function are still performed, there are frequently valid reasons for restoring to more extensive measures of repair than would be desirable, if the buildings in question were maintained merely as antiquarian relic.
Therefore, the restoration of the Taj Mahal in the early 20th century, which was considered to be the state’s prerogative, was not confined to the Taj’s archeological/artistic value, religious acts, rituals and popular meanings of the Taj were also given some kind of policy consideration. In a broader sense, the concessions given to local community to perform certain religious rituals at the Taj Mahal was not an act of appeasement but a clear manifestation of a secularism of strict neutrality.
The partition of India on the basis of religioun also affected the heritage map of south Asia. Interestingly, Mohenjo-daro, Harappa and Taxila, which were extremely important ancient Indians sites, were under the control of Pakistani authorities; while most of the significant Indo-Islamic buildings including the Taj Mahal remained in India. This division of architectural heritage was, on the one hand, advantageous for the Nehru-led government to consolidate the already worked out theory of composite nationalism; at the same time, the protection of Indo-Islamic buildings in the early 1950s was a serious issue. The Hindu rightists sought to capitalise on the political outcomes of the partition violence. For them, Indo-Islamic buildings were ‘symbols’ of Muslim dominance. Nevertheless, for Nehru, Indo-Islamic sites and particularly the Taj Mahal was a symbol of India’s composite culture. In the Discovery of India, Nehru writes:
Beautiful buildings combining the old Indian ideals in architecture with a new simplicity and a nobility of line grew up in Agra and Delhi. This Indo-Mughal art was in marked contrast with decadent, over-elaborate and heavily ornamented temples and other buildings of north and south. Inspired architects and builders put up with loving hands the Taj Mahal at Agra.
These words, I suggest, should not be understood as ‘political rhetoric of secularism’. Nehru had worked hard to translate this interpretation of India’s past into a serious policy discourse in the 1950s. Under his leadership, the Indian Constitution had already granted a few protected fundamental rights to the religious communities, particularly to religious minorities. In this sense, he developed a different interpretation of secularism—a participatory secularism that recognises the colourful cultural-religious life of Indian communities, while adhering to the logic of a ‘principled distance’ from religions and religiosities.
Following this context-specific elucidation of secularism, the Nehruvian state laid down two principles of neutrality in relation to monuments. First, a few Indian historical sites were declared as the ‘monuments of national importance’ under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act (1958). These monuments were to be conserved in such a manner that the objective national history of India could be displayed. Second, it was decided that the monuments would be protected as ‘dead entities’ and the state would follow the principle of strict neutrality in relation to religion.
The ownership of the Taj, and, for that matter, its nature as a monument, has always been a contentious issue in postcolonial India. Although the local Muslim community has been allowed to use the Taj mosque for offering prayers, the Taj’s representation as a Hindu/Muslim/secular monument has continued to affect the public discourse in a significant way. The legal-official status of the Taj mosque becomes crucial in this regard. It is important to note that the question of religious worship in a protected monument is always dealt on a case-to-case basis. Any religious activity in a protected monument, therefore, needs to be seen in relation to the principles set out by the ASI in this regard. As per the established principles, if a building is used by the local community for religious activities at the time of formal notification (the date when the building is taken over by the ASI as a protected monument), particular religious activity would be recognised as an important marker to determine the religious character of the ‘monument’. The ASI, following Section 13 of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958, ensures that the conservation of the building would respect the recognised religious character of the monument.
The Taj mosque, technically speaking, is a part of the Taj monument complex. The local community, particularly the Muslims have been using the tomb area as well the mosque for religious purposes since the time when the colonial authorities decided to take care of the Taj as a protected monument. Interestingly, the scope of the religious activities increased over the years. For instance, apart from regular prayers, Friday prayers and Eid congregational prayers, the Taj mosque was also opened for Muslims for offering the special namaz of Taraveeh in the month of Ramzan from 7.30 to 10 pm. In fact, the Superintending Archaeologist, Agra Circle, issued an official order in this regard on 16 October 2003. Similarly, on 9 September 2004, the ASI gave permission for the three-day annual urs of Shah Jahan inside the Taj Mahal. The devotees were exempted from paying entry fee during those three days.
The most interesting debate on the ownership of the Taj Mahal took place in June 2005 when the Uttar Pradesh Sunni Wakf Board (UPSWB) declared that the Taj was a wakf property and therefore it should be given back to it for protection, conservation and management of religious activities. The controversy began in 1998 when Mohammed Irfan Bedar, a resident of Firozabad, filed an application before the UPSWB, seeking the registration of the Taj Mahal as wakf property. However, the UPSWB did not respond to this application. Questioning this delay on the part of the UPSWB, Bedar filed a writ petition before the Allahabad High Court. He argued that the Court should direct the UPSWB to expedite a decision. On 8 November 2004, Allahabad High Court dismissed the writ petition filed by Irfan Bedar and directed the UPSWB to take a decision within three months on this issue. In response to this directive, UPSWB gave an official reply that the Taj Mahal was a wakf property.
The UPSWB gave two arguments to justify this decision:
Being a maqbara (mausoleum), the Taj Mahal is a wakf as per the Sections 2 and 40 of the Government of India’s Wakf Act, 1995.
Taj Mahal as a wakf has a historical legitimacy. The UPSWB refers to the Padshah Nama by Abdul Hamid Lahori, published by the Asiatic Society of Bengal, and the Shahjahan Nama, volume II, pages 290-94, published by Majlise-Taraqqi Adab, Lahore, as its sources for its claim that the Taj Mahal and its mosque, and a structure called the Jama’at Khana were established with prayers and charities in accordance with Muslim Sunni laws and traditions by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan.
In response to these claims, the ASI submitted its reply to the UPSWB. The ASI argued that the Taj Mahal was not dedicated by Shahjahan for charitable purposes. In support of this claims, ASI submitted a copy of a notification issued by the British government on 18 November 1920, under Section 3 (1) of the Ancient Monument Preservation Act, 1904, which clearly established that the ownership of the Taj was vested in the government. In addition, it was also claimed that the ASI has a legal-constitutional right to protect, conserve and manage the monuments of national importance. Therefore, the Wakf Board has no power to interfere in the matter.
If we look at this reply closely we might get following two arguments:
Taj Mahal, being a monument, is a dead entity, which has no relation with living communities.
Taj Mahal is a monument of national importance therefore it needs to be protected on the basis of the principle of strict neutrality.
Historian Irfan Habib, who followed this controversy very closely in 2005, underlines the limits of these two seemingly conflicting positions. In an interview, Habib argued that the claims of the UPSWB were not justifiable on historical bases. He says:
The […] Wakf Board relies on Lahori’s Padshahnama but misrepresents it. In his judgment he devotes only four or five lines to the Padshahnama evidence. He does not have access to the Persian text of the Calcutta edition, but relies on some publication from Lahore. Whatever it is, he misrepresents the relevant passage in Lahori. Lahori does not say that Shahjahan made himself the custodian (mutawalli) of the Taj. In fact, Shahjahan made the ‘sovereign of the time (khalifa-i waqt) the custodian of the Taj. Secondly, the Wakf Board order misrepresents the functions of the monuments within the Taj complex. There is certainly a mosque in the complex, but the Wakf Board erroneously refers to the building on the opposite side of the mosque as the jama’at khana, a building used for religious teachings. Lahori calls it the mehman khana (‘guest house’) and it was used for entertaining guests. There was no religious significance attached to it […] Nowhere do revenue documents style the Taj as wakf property. They call the property of the Taj either nazul (government property) or roza (tomb).
Habib also finds the limits of the position of the ASI. He says:
[…] The ASI’s arguments […] are not complete. The ASI […] relies on an official notification issued by the Lieutenant Governor of the United Provinces, Agra and Oudh in 1920, which declared the Taj a protected monument under the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act, 1904. In fact, the Taj was denoted as government property, and managed by the government from much earlier. A. Fuhrer, in his book The Monumental Antiquities and Inscriptions in the North-Western Provinces and Oudh, published in 1891, describes the buildings of importance in Agra, and gives the Taj pride of place. He classifies the Taj Mahal as a monument coming under Category 1A, which refers to properties of the government that were totally maintained by the government. If it had been a monument under private ownership, he would have classed it under category 1B, which refers to monuments of equal importance as under 1A, but which are privately owned yet must still be maintained by the government. The ASI should have used Lahori’s Padshahnama, which is the original document on the Taj’s ownership, and Fuhrer’s book, to give substance to its case.
Evoking the legal-constitutional discourse of secularism, Habib suggests that the Wakf laws and the laws related to the conservation of monument of national importance need to be synchronised. He says, ‘there is need for fresh parliamentary legislation to reconcile the Ancient Monument Acts with the Central Wakf Acts to exclude protected monuments from the purview of the Wakf Act […] in any case, central legislation should carefully clarify the matter, and keep our historical buildings under proper national management’.
This controversy, as it was expected, died down within a year and like many other unresolved political and legal issues, the ownership of Taj Mahal is turned into a ‘matter pending before the honourable court’. The complex legal details arising out of various on-going cases are irrelevant for our discussion. However, the controversy takes back to the two basic questions we raised in the beginning of this article.
Irfan Habib’s reasonable arguments are logical, rational and above all secular. No one would differ with him on the question of the limits of UPSWB’s claims. However, I find the secularism of Habib problematic, not because of his critique of UPSWB or his suggestions regarding the centrality of conservation laws but because of his adherence to a kind of secularism that stems from a clear and rigid dividing line between religious practices and conservation. In Habib’s framework, Muslims as worshippers in Taj Mahal are missing completely. He is interested in the conservation of the Taj through a set of building-centric conservation laws—partly because such laws are desirable to maintain the ‘secular credential of India’s heritage’ and partly because of there is an ambiguity with regard to the legal status of a few Islamic religious places of worship which are protected as ‘monuments’ such as the Taj Mahal.
Habib’s clear rejection of the Wakf status of Taj goes against spirit of the recommendations of one of the most discussed official reports in recent years—the Sachar Commission Report, 2006. In one of its recommendations, on page 232, the report says:
The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act 1958 has often been at cross purposes with the Wakf Act. Very often the former has an overriding effect. There are innumerable cases where the wakf properties despite being a place of worship and religious reverence, cannot be touched by the Wakf Board because it is declared as a protected monument. Given the present state of large number of wakf properties under the control of ASI , it would be proper if their lists are annually reviewed and their condition is assessed in a joint meeting of senior officers of the ASI with representatives of the Central Wakf Council.
Does this recommendation of the Sachar Committee Report defend the claims made by the UPSWB on the Taj? Does this claim reject Habib’s reasoned arguments in favor of secularism? It is important here to note that there is a crucial distinction between the act of worship by common Muslim and the claims made by the UPSWB on the Taj Mahal. The Sachar Commission Report is concerned with the act of worship and therefore it argues for an official discussion on such matters, again on a case-to-case basis. From this point of view, the polemical claims of UPSWB on Taj can be rejected because the Taj has always been protected by the ASI. However, since it has a mosque, which is recognised as functional wakf as ‘wakf by use’, the Muslim community is allowed to offer prayers inside it. This permission does not contradict with the principles of conservation outlined in the 1958 Act. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, the Sachar Commission Report underlines the concept of ‘principled distance’ quite implicitly. Unlike Habib’s claim that there should be clear dividing line between religious activities and conservation, the Commission recognises the Wakf Boards as a stakeholder in this case so that a meaningful, context specific and above all principled ‘dialogue’ could be initiated. These possible discussions could not merely help in finding out amicable solutions to such contentious issues but would also discourage organisations like UPSWB from making polemical claims.
To conclude, let us go back to two kinds of secularisms, which we have witnessed in colonial and postcolonial India. Curzon’s secularism of ‘strict neutrality’ and Nehru’s ‘participatory secularism’ show continuities and discontinuities in the monumentalisation of the Taj Mahal. They both evoked secularism of different kinds to protect the architectural beauty and archeological significance of the Taj Mahal; they both remained sympathetic to the religious meanings of the Taj, though for different reasons; and instead of offering a fixed meaning of the Taj, they both recognized it as a social text, which could be read in many (and even contradictory) ways.
Raghu Rai’s picture of the Taj Mahal becomes very relevant in this regard. Capturing these trajectories of monumentalisation of the Taj, this picture shows that the very architectural composition of this monument, many a times, is reconfigured by various publics for commemorating it in several different ways. So, the Muslims, who offer prayers at the Taj, should not be understood as anti-secular elements; rather the very act of worship inside a ‘protected monument of national importance’, I suggest, signifies an India-specific notion of secular monument.
This interpretation of Rai’s picture should also be seen in relation to communal politics of monument. The Hindu and Muslim rightists want us to believe that one and only one meaning of this great building is possible. Rai’s picture, I argue, responds to these claims in a radical manner simply by depicting the discursively constituted multilayered monumentality of the Taj.
This article is written by Hilal Ahmed and is a part of the larger multimedia module named ‘Taj Mahal’.
For the complete module, visit: https://www.sahapedia.org/taj-mahal-1
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