Will the Taj Mahal face the same fate as Babri Mosque?

The white marble mausoleum known as the monument of love was built in Agra, Uttar Pradesh in the 17th century by Emperor Shah Jahan for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal. PHOTO: AFP

An anti-Muslim communal storm kicked off recently in India involving the Taj Mahal. On September 27, while observing World Tourism Day, Uttar Pradesh Tourism Minister Rita Bahuguna Joshi released a tourist guide, "Uttar Pradesh Tourism—Limitless Possibilities", which conspicuously omitted the Taj Mahal. 

The white marble mausoleum known as the monument of love was built in Agra, Uttar Pradesh (UP) in the 17th century (1632-53 AD) by Emperor Shah Jahan for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal. It is not only a Unesco world heritage site, but also India's topmost tourist attraction visited by millions each year, bringing in huge revenues (about Rs 210 million annually) for the UP government. Tourists coming to India feel their trip remains incomplete unless they visit the Taj Mahal. In fact, the Taj Mahal is an icon of India's identity. 

The omission of the Taj Mahal from the brochure has shaken secularists and bewildered anti-BJP political parties. The brochure gave special emphasis on Hindu religious sites—Ayodhya, Mathura-Brindaban, Varanasi, etc. Though not admitted by the UP government, the reason for omitting the Taj Mahal was because it was a Muslim mausoleum. To cover up the deliberate omission, Minister Joshi said, "We have been misunderstood…We are just putting emphasis on other sites…" 

But Rajya Sabha MP Vinay Katiyar (BJP), who spearheaded the Babri Mosque demolition movement was not apologetic and said, "The Taj Mahal is a Hindu Temple…There used to be a Shivling there which had water dripping on it from up top. That ling was removed and a mausoleum built there". Katiyar was actually trying to resurrect maniacal historian PN Oak's theory that the Taj Mahal was originally "Tejo Mahal, Lord Shiva's temple". Clearly, Katiyar's rhetoric was based on wilful dementia.

Interestingly, the controversy surrounding the Taj Mahal has been going on, especially among Hindu zealots, since Oak published his book on it in 1989. Before Oak died in 2007, he took his claim to the Indian Supreme Court in 2000, where it was thrown out as no more than a "bee in his bonnet". Some of Oak's ludicrous findings were—Westminster Abbey is a temple to Shiva; Arabian Peninsula was part of the Indian empire of King Vikramaditya; the Holy Kaaba was originally a Hindu temple, etc.

Another UP MLA, Sangeet Som, twisted history and described the Taj as a "blot" on Indian culture that had been "built by traitors (Shah Jahan)…who wanted to wipe out Hindus…the Ramayana and the Gita represent Indian culture and the Taj Mahal doesn't…I guarantee that history will be changed". Som's rhetoric meant that since Shah Jahan was bad, the mausoleum is also bad and "should be erased from history".

The secular Indian media denounced these bigoted anti-Muslim rhetoric of marginalised BJP legislators. The controversy was quickly picked up by the international media. Many condemning the communal attitude of the UP government went into investigative journalism to establish that the Taj was never a Hindu temple site. Twitterites described the omission as "Taj ki Chori" and one post said, "Who cares about the Taj Mahal? People around the world want to see world class Gaushala (cowshed) in UP"— in reference to India's cow vigilantism. 

To contain the damage, Chief Minister saffron-robed Yogi Adityanath (44) came out with a statement saying, "It does not matter who built it and for what reason; it was built by blood and sweat of Indian labourers". This was actually an opinionated remark underscoring the Indian labourer and denigrating the Mughal emperor who built it. The controversy was not long in coming. In June Adityanath (44) said he was glad that visiting dignitaries were no longer being presented small replicas of the Taj as mementos as it did not "reflect Indian culture". Hindutva firebrand Yogi is well known for his anti-Muslim prejudices. 

In 2015, six lawyers filed a suit in the Civil Court of Agra, where upon the Union Ministry of Culture, and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) categorically stated that no temple of Shiv Linga ever existed on the site of the Taj Mahal. The property was not usurped but was obtained by Emperor Shah Jahan in exchange from Raja Jai Singh. Not surprisingly though, many BJP legislators still believe Oak's theory that the Taj Mahal was a temple.

The recent uproar by extremist Hindu hardliners has frustrated historians. Leading historian R Nath said, "It is absolutely wrong and absurd. The history of Taj is among the best chronicled of any Indian monument. We know exactly how the land was acquired, how the foundations were laid and how it was built. There is not a single piece of evidence to support the theory that it was a Shiva temple", said Nath. 

Realising the damage that the debate was doing, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, "Nations cannot develop if they don't take pride in their history and heritage. If they do, they are sure to lose their identity over a period of time". Modi's remark is open to interpretation as he did not make any reference to the Taj. 

Some have raised questions whether Modi will raise the tricolour from the ramparts of the Red Fort, also built by Shah Jahan, on Independence Day. Opposition Congress party spokesman Singhvi said, "At one level it is a joke and at another level it is tragic. Such pettiness diminishes India." 

The wider RSS strategy is to erase the history and heritage of India from during the Muslim period as a period of extreme exploitation, barbarism and intolerance of other faiths and denigrate Muslims questioning their "Indian-ness". RSS wants to ban Muslims offering Friday prayers at the Taj mosque and allow Hindus to perform puja inside the Taj. The problem is that the Taj is a Muslim mausoleum and it cannot be "Hinduised" or secularised. 

The Taj Mahal, the 7th wonder of the world with its extremely sophisticated architecture and extraordinary beauty, is already going through bad times. The BJP government's neglect (no funds to preserve it), coupled with pollution turning its white marble yellow, will probably lead to the monument dying a natural death, if Hindu fanatics do not demolish it before that, like they did the Babri mosque in 1992.

Mahmood Hasan is former Ambassador and Secretary.

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