Thursday, May 19, 2022

A Saga of Distorted History, Romance and an Exploited Queen

The world-famous mausoleum, the Taj Mahal, seems to be romancing with historical facts to maintain its unique status. A symbol of ardent love, perhaps hearsay, between the fifth-generation Mughal emperor Shah Jahan and his queen Mumtaz has many secrets buried in the queen’s tomb. Some also see Mumtaz as a victim of her own charm.

Agra, an Indian city where the Taj Mahal is located, reverberates around the year with tourists who, after stepping onto Indian soil, dream of visiting this medieval period majestic monument built in sun-dipped marble. However, the stories circulated to immortalize the Taj down the centuries are not only inconsistent but also contradictory to historical evidence.

Whether the indisputable architectural wonder straddling the bank of the Yamuna River was actually built at the behest of Shah Jahan or was an existing palace rebuilt or altered by him with Koranic engravings remains to be solved. Yet, it is evident from archival documents that the land belonged to Mirza Raja Jai Singh of neighboring Amber (Jaipur). The Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, had issued orders (Farman) to seize the land, with which the Raja had to comply. The building was also said to be a temple palace inhabited by the ancestors of Raja Jai Singh’s Rajput imperial family. It is a fact that, born to a Rajput Hindu mother, Jodha Bai, Khurram (real name of Shah Jahan) was close to the Kachawa clan to which Jai Singh belonged.

Anomalies regarding the king’s devotion to Mumtaz, cost and period of construction, name of the architect, etc., were brought to light by PN Oak, the founder-president of the institute of Rewriting World History.

There is no proof of Shah Jahan’s special affection for Mumtaz.

Royina Grewal, the author of “In the Shadow of Taj” (Penguin, 2007), delving into the myths and history of Agra for conversations with varied citizens, mentions (p. 177) “a friend of a friend makes an astonishing comment….the Taj Mahal was, in fact, a Hindu temple built by Raja Man Singh. Shah Jahan simply converted it into a tomb for his wife by adding a few Islamic elements such as calligraphy. I have heard of this untenable theory but never dreamt that I would meet an adherent. In the year 2000, the Supreme Cost of India dismissed a petition that sought to declare that the Taj Mahal was a Hindu temple…I attempt to explain that the mausoleum was originally referred to as ‘Rauzah-i-Mumtaz Mahal,’ a name which certainly occurs in Mughal records of the time…. the appellation ‘Taj Mahal’ came in common use under the British when Taj or Taje Mahal, based on an abbreviation of the empress’s name common among Europeans, was corrupted into the present form.

Digging out buried lies.

A long stint in the army, broadcasting, and journalism shaped PN Oak’s ideology about historical developments in India. His research work titled the ‘ Taj Mahal was a Rajput Palace’ (Hindi Sahitya Sadan, 1965), ‘ The Taj Mahal was a Temple Palace’ (Hindi Sahitya Sadan, 2003), and ‘Taj Mahal: The True Story’ (Houston, Texas, 1990) bears testimony to his research acumen and ideological prejudices. In the preface of these books, he concludes that the Taj was actually built somewhere around the fourth century as a palace while “it is believed to have originated as a somber tomb in the 17th century”. His works draw references from various anthologies, Sanskrit scriptures, extracts, travelogues, preserved manuscripts, and other mythological, architectural and historical records. Interspersed with ideological overtones, most scholars sneered at Oak’s work, but many find a glimmer of truth in some of his inferences.

A critical approach, along with philosophical and evidential corroboration of his conclusions, makes one at least review the legend about the Taj Mahal and the myths associated with it in the light of the counterpoints presented by Oak. His submission that the Taj Mahal is a Hindu temple commandeered for use as a Muslim tomb has been explained by him quoting Shah Jahan’s own court chronicle Badshahnama written by Mulla Abdul Hamid Lahori, one of his courtiers.

The site of the Taj Mahal originally belonged to the Maharaja of Jaipur.

The Persian text published by the Asiatic Society of Bengal records that “the sacred dead body of the queen Mumtaz-ul Zamani was reburied in Akbarabad (old name of Agra) at the site covered with a majestic, magnificent lush garden amidst which the building known as the palace (manzil) of Raja Man Singh, at present owned by his grandson, Raja Jaisingh…. Although the Raja valued it greatly as his ancestral heritage….in exchange of the grand palace the Raja was granted a piece of government land.”

The ‘Catalogue of Historial Documents in Kapad Dwara, Jaipur (the top-secret documents of royal families) compiled by historian Gopal Das Bahura and Chandramani Singh (published by Jaigarh Public Charitable Trust, Amber, Jaipur) mentions on pages 176-177 that a farman was issued by the Mughal court granting to Maharaja Jai Singh in 1699 AD four havelis as compensation for construction of the tomb.

Dr. Kala Nath Shastri, Chairman, Modern Sanskrit Chair, Rajasthan University, and a veteran Sanskrit scholar, calls Oak’s submission of the Taj Mahal as being a ‘Shiva temple’ pure conjecture and finds no testimony in Sanskrit Bateshwar inscriptions as claimed by Oak. Dr. Shastri, however, agrees that the land on which the majestic building now stands belonged to the Jaipur royal family. There was a structure that was used as an official boarding place for the kings and their entourage. His argument that a building, perhaps not the present one, existed before Shah Jahan’s times rests on his knowledge about the royal practices of the past when the king would exchange or compensate land for land and building for building. Hence, if the building was obtained in exchange from Raja Jai Singh, there could have been a structure of similar grandeur, he opines.

Dr. Jagat Narain, Director, Maharshi Kanva Itihas Shodh Sansthan (a history research institute) in Kota, rejects Oak’s research and says that where the starting point is a theory rather than a hypothesis, the work loses all its authenticity. With a deep background in historical studies, Dr. Jagat Narain agrees that there could have been a pre-Taj Mahal structure that was definitely not a temple but a residential palace belonging to the Rajput royal family. Raja Jai Singh and his ancestors being loyal to the Mughals, had no qualms about handing over the place to Shah Jahan. There could have been a temple somewhere on this land. He suggests that after razing the Rajput building, the Taj Mahal was erected using much of the re-usable building material of the dismantled building.

Dr. Pratima Asthana, former Vice-Chancellor of Gorakhpur University and a historian, is not sure about the building being a temple or a palace earlier but says that there is proof of the construction of a building alongside the Yamuna river and that Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty in India, is said to have died there. She adds that there could have been a temple at that site, but to think that it was as glorious as the present Taj Mahal is sheer fiction. She says that historians had debated the controversy raised by Oak about the Taj being a Hindu temple without any proven conclusion and that raising the issue in a religiously sensitive world would be unnecessary.

Does the Taj epitomize the exploitation of women?

Mumtaz, who was reburied at the Taj Mahal in Agra, had actually died at Burhanpur, some 600 miles from Agra, after delivering her 14th child. Married at the age of 18 to 21-year-old Shah Jahan, she was pregnant for almost all the years of her married life. Oak infers that Mumtaz was a commoner by birth. There is no proof of Shah Jahan’s special affection for Mumtaz, whose name has been variably recorded as Mamtaz-ul Zamani or Nawab Aliyaa Begam (Badshahnama) or Arjumand Banu Begum.

Dr. Pratima Asthana terms the monument as a symbol of the exploitation of women while agreeing that Mumtaz was the victim of a chauvinist emperor like Shah Jahan, who had thousands of women in his harem. He perhaps doted on her because she accompanied him on his travels. Dr. Asthana says that the legendary love story may not be fictitious and that it transpires from history that Mumtaz was a devout wife and loyal to her husband. In return, she was sexually exploited to the extent that she died after her 14th pregnancy.

Royina Grewal hints at the king’s lifestyle (p. 156): “Khurram took a third wife five years after his wedding to Mumtaz and was married for the fourth time to a Rajput princess. Mumtaz was deeply anguished by these liaisons even though she understood that they were marriages of political expediency…Khurram also had numerous concubines, whom he visited to avoid rumors of waning potency, but in a gesture of his love for his wife, he had several ladies abort their pregnancies, a cruel and terrible consequence but a concession to Mumtaz who is said to have pleaded that he never raise children by any other woman, ‘lest her children and mine should come to blows over succession.”

Is the Taj Mahal a symbol of the EXPLOITATION OF WOMEN?

But admiring their bond, she also writes that “Mumtaz and Khurram were inseparable…she insisted on accompanying him even to the battlefield. (p. 156)…. After he (Shah Jahan) ascended to the throne, Shah Jahan set off for the Deccan once again…. although she was three months pregnant with her 14th child. Mumtaz refused to be left behind….the royal entourage reached the strategic hilltop fort at Burhanpur…on 16 June 1630, Mumtaz went into labor…. a few hours later, a messenger summoned the emperor as the empress was sinking…..Mumtaz is said to have asked him to perpetuate her memory in a tomb such as the world had never seen, and to never marry again…”. She writes: “Shah Jahan’s consuming grief is well documented,”

Mumtaz is said to asked Shah Jahan to PERPETUATE HER MEMORY in a tomb such as the world has never seen.

Royina also narrates a fanciful myth about this pair which contradicts Oak’s theory of Mumtaz being a commoner. She writes (pp. 144 153): “Nur Jahan’s niece, Arjumand Banu Begum…grew up in enormous luxury…her grandfather was chief minister of the empire and her father a very important noble… There is a story about Itmad-ud-Daulah’s haveli, where Mumtaz Mahal grew up…..Arjumand grew up in the zenana…she enjoyed many forms of entertainment, including Meena Bazaar, a market in the fort run by women, exclusively for women… men were only allowed into Meena Bazaar on certain days….these were light-hearted occasions when ladies of the highest aristocracy posed as shopkeepers…music played, torches flared, and oil lamps flickered, generating an ambience of romantic illusion…the young blades of the court swaggered by, showing off to the women…among them was Prince Khurram, the handsome sixteen-year-old son of Jahangir…he had a wide forehead, large eyes, an aquiline nose and wore a moustache and beard, possibly to hide scars from a bout of smallpox.

“Khurram had few Mongol characteristics except for his fairness, and was more like his Rajput mother…Prince Khurram strolled through the crowds in Meena Bazaar and his eyes fell upon Arjumand, just turned fifteen…..she was a classic Persian beauty with perfectly proportionate features and almond shaped eyes. Khurram went up to her and happily paid the fortune she asked for a piece of glass, his normal serious demeanour transformed…Khurram approached his father, and his stepmother, Nurjahan, Arjumand’s aunt…to his great joy the betrothal was agreed upon…. Arjumand’s joy must have been beyond measure….Khurram and Arjumand were betrothed in 1607, but their wedding was delayed…political considerations governed imperial marriages, and Khurram wed a Persian princess in 1610… Arjumand was heart-broken but is said to have channeled her sorrow into learning the Koran by heart.

“Within a short while she was consoled by rumours that the couple was estranged…and soon after the birth of a daughter, the Persian princess left Agra for her homeland. Arjumand and Khurram were finally wed on 10 May 1612….the feasting and merrymaking lasted far into nights…Arjumand’s elaborate make up of several layers of wax and powder took several hours…was escorted to an enormous decorated palanquin and the bridal procession moved off (the court)…. Arjumand’s name was changed, as was the custom…she would now be called Mumtaz Mahal, crown of the palace…..”

Dr. Asthina confirms that Mumtaz was a chaste wife yet a victim of her own charm. She scoffs at the rumor of Mamtaz’s affair with the architect of the building.

Lotus and conches on marble lattices of the Taj Mahal are associated with Hindu deities, temples, and architecture.

A building raised with 118 million rupees.

Raghunath Tiwari, an expert on the history of Jaipur, has noted in his diary about the Taj Mahal from Nand Kishore Pareek’s column ‘Nagar Parikrama’ in which he states that the architects were invited through tender and a team including Chiranjilal from Delhi, Ismail Khan from Turkey, Kazi Khan from Lahore, Aman Khan from Iran and one Essa Khan, whose citizenship was unknown. They all synthesized their architectural acumen and expertise in building the monument that incurred an expense of 11,84,48,626 rupees seven annas and six pai, paying each of its 20,000 masons Rs. 1,500 per month, which equals Rs. 150 million by today’s standards.

According to Oak, the court chronicler Mulla Abdul Hamid Lahori estimates the construction cost to be Rs. 4 million. He also says that the documents fail to build a consensus on whether the architect was Essa, a Persian or Turk, Ahmed Mehendis, a Frenchman, Austin de Bordeaux, or Geronimo Veroneo, an Italian, or Shah Jahan himself.

Oak lists more than 120 points, which need further corroboration. He has quoted profusely from the Badshahnama, French merchant Tavernier, English traveler Peter Mundy, French visitor Bernier De Laet, Mughal court chronicler Mullah Abdul Hamid Lahori, authority on architecture E B Havell, historian H.G. Keene, Nur-ul Hasan Siddiqui’s books, chemistry professor of Brooklyn College Evan T. Williams, Aurangzeb’s letter for Shah Jahan, Babur’s Memoirs, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Epigraphia Indica, orders issued by Shah Jahan’s court and others to prove his point. He finds the year of burial of the queen speculated to be 1629 and 1632 AD and the years of construction from 10 to 22 years as a reason to question the legend’s veracity. He postulates: “Had she deserved a fabulous burial, the date of her death would not have been a matter of much speculation… in a harem with 5,000 women, it was difficult to keep track of dates of death”.

Also, Oak’s claims of the ownership of the building, architectural design, octagonal shape and identical entrance arches resembling the Hindu style, marble work similar to Amber (Jaipur) palace, the Jaipur ruler refusing to send marble and detaining stone cutters, chance digging in 1973 and revealing a set of fountains six feet below and other such references persuades readers to believe that there could have been a Shiva temple called Tej-i-Mahalaya or Tas-i-Makan, later corrupted to Taj Mahal. He also makes a rather unpalatable hypothesis that perhaps the building called Man Singh’s palace was surrounded by brick for 22 years to hide it from public view for alteration and re-designing so that the building could be passed off as a new structure.

Whether the Taj Mahal is a genuine gesture of a disconsolate emperor to immortalize his love or a seized palace converted into a tomb can be debated. Still, the fascination and aura of Mumtaz resting in this exquisite mausoleum remains intact as this sepulcher draws visitors from across the world.

First published in Reading Bee, London (Spring Issue 2009)

Author profile
Dr. Shipra Mathur

Dr. Mathur is a veteran journalist based in Jaipur, India. The views expressed here are solely those of the author.

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