The campaign to send a text message to vote for the Taj Mahal as one of the wonders of the world is extremely juvenile. You are supposed to take part in this farce because it is about someone’s version of patriotism.
My own Taj memories take me back to the night when I fell asleep on a stone slab. It wasn’t just any old stone slab. It was the spot where everyone who matters and everyone who doesn’t had been seated and photographed. Hillary and Bill Clinton, Begum Sehba and Pervez Musharraf, and the lonely Princess Diana supposedly making a profound point by showing up immortal fairytales for what they are: cold.
This is what Emperor Shahjehan would have seen and might have had second thoughts about chopping the limbs of those who spent years to create the homage to his wife who died in childbirth. The cruel mockery of his ostentation is that the person in the position of imam, who was paid 15 gold coins to act as caretaker of the mosque within its precincts 350 years ago, was until recently entitled to only Rs. 15 a month. Time is not supposed to stand so still.
The Taj is a monument to death, and looks it. However, it has not been mummified and embalmed with preservatives. It is getting to be a little less fair and lovely. The culprit is not a sun tan, but the Mathura Refinery in the neighbourhood.
Over a decade ago, there was a minor revolt between the propagators of chemicals versus those of marble. The battle lines had been drawn and, as often happens in our subcontinent, an outsider jumped into the fray.
Tariq Ali, ageing enfant terrible of anarchism, had reportedly written a cute little note to the then Indian prime minister asking him to auction the Taj.
As he stated, “The Agra Chamber of Commerce has said that it would rather see the Taj taken away stone by stone than see the Mathura Refinery go.”
He even pointed out helpful hints as to who might bid for it: “Who knows, an eccentric Texan billionaire might transport it to Dallas, or the Sultan of Brunei might pay for it to be specially flown to a chosen site on his island. Then again your neighbouring government in Pakistan might put in an offer you couldn’t refuse. This would be a tragedy for India, but at least the Taj would be preserved.”
I do not think it would have been a tragedy at all if we had one less marble-façade open toilet. Or we did away with a picnic site. Or photo-sessions on mosaic tiles. Imagine the myriad possibilities an auction might have brought.
Or better still, the government could have moved the capital there and let the politicians continue with their shenanigans with black-sooted faces. Or it could have been handed over to the Opposition who would meet with the same fate unless they discovered that even the refinery was a temple once.
There was still the Texan billionaire. They are no more about cowboys circling in their steeds; there might be the possibility of legitimate Bush men plundering the innards pretending to look for a cave within.
Of course, this is facile fantasy. Yet, there are people who throw away money for things of far lesser value than this trussed-up mannequin suffering from a bad hair day, but possessing perfect symmetry, great inscriptions and filigree work and an awesome reputation.
It isn’t anymore about history. It is also about a Greek called Yanni who fiddled near the tomb, about TV producers organising music programmes there, and Japanese tourists taking digitalised pictures with cameras the size of slit eyes, and Americans shouting into their camcorders, “This is where she’s got laid!” It is about the Friday crowds carrying shiny steel tiffins, making hay on the grass by stuffing their mouths.
The most charitable thing I can say about the Taj Mahal is that it could pass for a frozen wedding cake.
That is perhaps the reason everyone wants a piece of it.
There have been little-known ‘princes’ like Prince Yakub Habeeuddin Tucy claiming that it was built by their ancestors. There was another petition filed by Taimur Sultan and her sons claiming that they were the legal heirs of Shahjehan. They sought compensation from the government for using the Taj Mahal and the land around it.
It is really about money.
Over 80 years after the Central government had been looking after the 17th century property, a Muslim Trust woke up to sponge off a dead woman’s mausoleum. Since the Indian government gave it the right to all Muslim graveyards in the state of Uttar Pradesh, the Sunni Waqf Board said that the Taj Mahal fell under its jurisdiction. It also wanted 7 per cent of the earnings from ticket sales that amount to crores of rupees.
There has also been a public interest litigation filed by the ‘Institute of Rewriting Indian History’ which alleged that the Taj was an ancient Shiv Mandir and not a monument built by Shahjehan. An important query has been posed: Why has a grave been called a palace mahal? If it was in memory of Mumtaz, then why was it not named after her?
Would she have appreciated the quirks of creative minds? How would she have reacted to the analysis by historian James Fergusson, who believed that there had been a drastic departure from the style of Akbar by his grandson, what he referred to as a, “contrast so great as that between the manly vigour and exuberant originality of the first, as compared with the extreme but almost effeminate elegance of the second”?
As the paragon of sublime love and the recipient of a most romantic epic, would she have approved of the many lives and limbs that were sacrificed?
Shahjehan took years to pay this tribute, but like men who buy their women lingerie for their own pleasure, the dear old emperor did it for himself, his glory. She had to pay for it with her life. The world remembers him, not her.
Memories, too, can desecrate.
FARZANA VERSEY is the author of the forthcoming book ‘A Journey Interrupted: An Indian Muslim Woman in Pakistan’ published by Harper Collins. She can be reached at email@example.com