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Of Traitors And The Taj Mahal

Names of roads and cities can be changed. Monuments, however, are not so easy to ignore.

26/10/2017 9:28 AM IST | Updated 26/10/2017 12:06 PM IST
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The Taj Mahal is not new to controversies. Much before Yogi Adityanath and Sangeet Som's vehement rhetoric, the Taj was the subject of books that went to the extent of trying to claim that the Taj was a Shiv temple originally. PN Oak was one of the people who spent a great deal of time and effort in trying to prove this. Indeed it was the name used by Oak in his work for the Taj Mahal, 'Tejo Mahalay,' which was recently used by a group of young men when they decided to recite prayers in the gardens of the Taj until they unceremoniously kicked out. The men were from Yogi Adityanath's Hindu Yuva Vahini and went to pray in the complex as a precursor to Adityanath's forthcoming visit- his first ever- to the Taj.

In recent years, theories such as that of Oak, have resulted in small video clips being circulated that try and use 'evidence' to make a case for the 'Tejo Mahalay.'

All this would be amusing were it not for the fact that a veritable industry has sprouted around this charade. Wiki historians, WhatsApp policy analysts, Facebook sociologists and YouTube anthropologists have spread so much misinformation that I have lost count of the number times that educated people have asked me to 'seriously consider this theory.' Of course this led me to question their education more than the myths around the Taj Mahal, but nonetheless, this also points to the manner in which a deep insecurity has taken over large sections of the population.

Why target monuments?

The first and most obvious answer is that historical monuments tend to symbolise the culmination of some individual or group's political and financial power. In the case of the Taj, it additionally represented the love of a man for his wife. Beyond this, however, monuments are also important because they tend to anchor communities in a certain cultural and civilisational context. In other words monuments, art and literature amongst other things root people in a certain sense of self.

Things like art and literature have more ephemeral lives as they can be destroyed and of course, can also fade from memory due to neglect or a change in aesthetic norms. The names of spaces, places and cities can also be changed. Monuments, however, are not so easy to ignore. They are often giant albeit mute symbols that complicate myopic historical narratives and act as an example of a past when some 'other' was in power. In this case, the perceived 'other' is the Muslim and the 'victim' the Hindu. Of course, theories (backed with evidence) of how the Mughals were equally, if not more concerned, with power rather than simply religion, generally fall on deaf ears as do any arguments that show how 'Muslim' and 'Hindu' are not stable and fixed categories that have remained the same over the course of history.

Since 'alt-theories' of the Taj originally being a temple have not yet made Supreme Court judges sit up and take them seriously, one course of action is to institutionally ignore them so that the Taj, like countless other monuments, fall victim to natural degradation and eventually becomes a ruin. The other alternative is to try to co-opt such symbols and monuments, and attribute a new interpretation or new history, à la Oak while ignoring their rich and complicated pasts.

Thankfully, due to national and international protection, the option of simply destroying the Taj Mahal seems to be off the table, at least for now.

Yogi Adityanath's recent statement in which he deemed the Taj acceptable because it was the product of the labour of the sons of 'Bharat Mata' is one such example. Perhaps the Yogi had a revelation that beauty often emerges from upheaval and violence. Perhaps he has become, God preserve us, a socialist. However, what seems most likely is that he has realised that his virulent rhetoric will serve no purpose other than causing disrepute in the international community. Of course, the destruction of monuments is something that the international community is intimately familiar with.

Just like Sangeet Som deemed the Taj to be a monument 'built by traitors,' leaders of ISIS and the Taliban made similar claims about Sufi Shrines, churches, temples, churches or the Buddhas in Bamiyaan in order to justify their destruction. The traitor, in those cases, was merely replaced by the 'kafir.' Thankfully, due to national and international protection, the option of simply destroying the Taj Mahal seems to be off the table, at least for now. The destruction of religious or historical sites is about severing the past from the present. By wiping out monuments these organisations are essentially levelling the historical landscape so that there are no more physical reminders of a complicated and often contradictory past.

There can be no doubt that while the Taj Mahal is certainly a monument that is the result of Islamic influences amongst others, it is not a Muslim monument. Indeed the broadly Indian influences such as the use of the motif of the lotus speak of a range of inspirations, which in turn is precisely what irks the likes of Som and Adityanath. Indeed, it is precisely this complicated past that also offers an insight into some the broader issues that animate the Taj Mahal controversy. The controversy around this monument is merely symptomatic of a wider malaise that is linked to questions regarding Muslim belonging in India.

This blanket condemnation of everything that is 'Muslim' as un-Indian- be it language, culture, clothes, spaces and places and even food, will only result in further alienation.

Those who say that the Taj is not a part of India's cultural heritage also question the loyalties of Indian Muslims. However, in the debate about Muslim patriotism, the key point that is often glossed over if not ignored is that it is not simply a question of whether the Muslims can be patriotic or nationalistic but it is about how these feelings are conveyed. According to this worldview, being patriotic is not enough but what Muslims must also accept is how to express their patriotism. The rites and rituals, symbols and history that animate this patriotism must also conform to some standard. While controversies about the recitation of the Vande Mataram illustrate one aspect of the debate, the Taj Mahal also is symptomatic of this phenomenon and herein lies the contradiction.

Monuments, much like other cultural symbols, anchor or root communities and allow them to develop a sense of selfhood and belonging. So it seems patently absurd that on the one hand the loyalties of Muslims to India are called into question while on the other, the symbols through which Muslims can organically root their belonging in India are deemed to be un-Indian. This blanket condemnation of everything that is 'Muslim' as un-Indian- be it language, culture, clothes, spaces and places and even food, will only result in further alienation. Perhaps, however, this is exactly what Som and others of his ilk want.

The fundamental issue then is about defining the idea of India and dictating the terms and conditions under which loyalty to this idea can be subscribed to. The Taj Mahal is one manifestation of this entire debate. Many of our current political leaders and their organisations seem intent on manufacturing a sense of historical victimhood to detract from the very real issues that confront us today. It seems that even one of the seven wonders of the world, a monument built to symbolise love and a living example of the confluence of different cultures is able to completely destabilise their fragile sense of self.

The opinions expressed in this post are the personal views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of HuffPost India. Any omissions or errors are the author's and HuffPost India does not assume any liability or responsibility for them.

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