03/02/2015 8:16 AM IST | Updated 14/07/2017 12:03 PM IST

The Awfully Unromantic Taj Mahal

INDIA - MARCH 06:  Indian tourists visiting The Taj Mahal mausoleum approach the southern view, Uttar Pradesh, India  (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)
Tim Graham via Getty Images
INDIA - MARCH 06: Indian tourists visiting The Taj Mahal mausoleum approach the southern view, Uttar Pradesh, India (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)

India sulked when the Obamas skipped the Taj Mahal during their recent visit here. But really, I'm tired of famous people posing with that marble tomb as their endorsement of the idea that it somehow is the ultimate icon of romance. Because the story of how and why Emperor Shah Jahan built this monument for his deceased wife, Mumtaz Mahal, is anything but romantic.

The Taj, which took twenty-two years to complete, was built with the labour of twenty-two thousand slaves. The colossal expenditure of building it (over $1 billion now), which included dragging the marble and precious stones from all corners of the globe, was also extracted from the Emperor's subjects - the impoverished villagers and shopkeepers, in the form of imposed and oppressive taxes. That history lives on, as even today the Taj's luxurious, white autocracy stands apart from the miles of crowded, grey squalor of the towns and lives that surround it.

But the real lies are the stories of romance woven around the life and death of the woman believed to be buried here. Mumtaz Mahal, was Shah Jahan's third wife, and was engaged to him when she was merely 14. In their 19 years of marriage, she bore 14 children, enduring a pregnancy almost every year, till she died giving birth to her fourteenth. She died of postpartum haemorrhage because of the multiple, back-to-back pregnancies she was forced to endure.

It's absurd that many view this form of lethal, reproductive labour, as indication of Mumtaz's "favourite" wife status. To be the number one pick of a man's harem, surely is not any woman's idea of romance. And Shah Jahan in his lifetime had collected 2000 women in his harem! But if indeed, Shah Jahan shared that special intimacy with Mumtaz, then wouldn't he have noticed her body, visibly, weakening and crumbling, right before his eyes, with each successive pregnancy? Or was she only a detached vagina and womb, a sex toy to him, and not a real person whose body, health and welfare would register in his consciousness in any way? Indeed, if this is love then India still has plenty of it. India, even today, accounts for the highest number of maternity related deaths (17%), largely due to the same reasons - early, multiple and consecutive childbirths, where women are denied birth control, or ownership and choice of over their own bodies.

Harems and their treatment of women, constitute some of the darkest chapters of women's history. They reduced women to collectible objects, to be literally stabled like horses, by men who owned them just for sexual entertainment, and a sense of testosterone power. Though many associate harems, or zenanas, with the Muslim period in India, the fact is they existed in India among the Hindus, long before the arrival of Islam. King Tamba of Benaras in the 6th century BC had 16000 wives in his harem.

Of course a King was entitled to his pick of any girl or woman in the kingdom whether or not she was willing. But claiming and cloistering them in his harem, was one way of maintaining sexual exclusivity. To ensure that exclusivity, harems were rigidly guarded by trusted servants who checked veiled guests to ensure they weren't men in disguise. Women in the particularly large harems experienced such sexual frustration that they'd attempt to liaise with whichever men they could access - the guards, the servants, visiting physicians, and even the sons of other queens. That's why the guards were often eunuchs or were men from poor families who had been specially castrated for the job! Women in the harem also frequently engaged in lesbian sex or sneaked in fruits and vegetables to use as dildos to overcome their sexual ennui (The Kamasutras, transl A. Daniélou, 1994).

The regimented institutionalisation of the monarch's harem was maintained through a strict internal hierarchy of its inmates. The position of the queens in the pecking order was determined by a number of factors: their origins, looks, preference by the king, and even caste. Though a king could have sex with a lower-caste wife, she was still too "impure" and unfit to tend to his bathing or other personal needs (Laws of Manu 9.85). The children she bore, similarly could not have the same claim to the king's title and wealth as the sons of the upper-caste queens. Queens were not just ranked in the harems, but were kept in control through promotions and demotions depending on their actions and behaviour (Laws of Manu 9.80). If a queen disobeyed the King or senior queens, was rude, or could not bear children, she'd face demotion, and the humiliation of having a younger queen given seniority over her. The punishment meted out to a woman for infidelity was to be torn to pieces by street dogs (Laws of Manu 8.572).

But what I find more interesting is that even as we today continue to romance the Taj, Indian women writers in the late 19th and early 20th century had outright denounced its representative harem culture and its custom of sequestering women. Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain in her landmark play Sultana's Dream (1905) suggested the creation of an equivalent system for men to be called a 'murdana' where men would be kept in isolation, and controlled. Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922), a teacher and women's rights activist, said it was a terrible "cruelty" on women, and it treated them like "prisoners." And in Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay's 1931 novel Sheshprashna (The Final Question), the female protagonist, Kamal, who along with questioning social norms that physically and psychologically bind women, also challenges people's idealisation of the Taj Mahal as an epitome of a man's timeless love for a woman, and asks how being Shah Jahan's favoured wife, made Mumtaz his soulmate. For could the Taj Mahal change the fact, that she was still, only, the pick of a harem?