Is the Taj a Monument of Shah Jahan’s Unparalleled Love or Vanity?
Contrary to popular belief, Shah Jahan, creator of the Taj, was perhaps less noble and even less devoted to Mumtaz.
The main structure of the Taj Mahal, the silent and majestic testimony to an emperor’s love and affection for one of his many wives, actually took only about four years to build, as against the commonly believed 22 years.
Nevertheless, over the centuries, the marble-domed mausoleum has been held to furnish irrefutable proof of Shahab-ud-din Muhammad Khurram or Shah Jahan’s nobility and intense affection for Mumtaz Mahal. As one American scholar of the Taj says:
Never before or since has such an extravagant memorial been built by a man for a woman.
Indicting Shah Jahan for Cruelty
Certain elements of the BJP’s shouting brigade have attributed to Shah Jahan, the immeasurable violence that he wrought in the wars that he fought in his bid to expand the Mughal empire. But this is as much true of Akbar and Jahangir, and even the Hindu kings before the advent of the Mughals, and their expansionist measures that led to empire-building across the sub-continent.
This is also true of absolute monarchs in Europe, who were not far behind, or, at times, even surpassed the cruelty of their counterparts in medieval and ancient India.
In the event, it would be unfair to judge an emperor, or for that matter, the entire imperial Mughal lineage, beginning from Zahiruddin Mohammad Babur, by the standards of modern Indian perspectives and concepts such as rule of law, justice, fairness, accountability and peace.
Today, when the Taj has come under attack from a section of the BJP, including UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Sardana MLA Sangeet Som, who has described Rabindranath Tagore’s poetic expression of the Taj as “a teardrop on the cheek of time” as a “blot on Indian culture”, it gives cause to pause and ask: Was the grand Taj Mahal, which, in the words of Eleanor Roosevelt “symbolises the purity of real love”, truly a noble embodiment of “unparalleled marital devotion, a monument to undying love?”
Is Taj Mahal a Memorial of Love?
First, some facts – Mumtaz Mahal lived for 38 years (1593-1631 AD). Mumtaz died three years after Shah Jahan became the padshah of Hindustan, and a few hours after giving birth to her 14th child. She was the second of the emperor’s three legally wedded wives. Shah Jahan and Mumtaz were married for 19 years. Shah Jahan lived till the age of 74, which would make for 35 years of supposed celibacy in an age when concubines, and any number of female companions, was the order of the day.
In 1658, Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his “rebellious and puritanical” son Aurangzeb. So, it was from the tower-prison of Agra’s Red Fort that he would supposedly gaze at the marbled marvel across the Yamuna, “seeking solace in the poignant beauty of the mausoleum he had built for his one true love”.
Former University of Iowa History professor Wayne E Begley’s research suggests otherwise.
For Begley, the belief and general explanation – “what else but great ‘Love’ could have inspired such great Beauty?” – is essentially a myth that “ignores” certain historical records that Shah Jahan “was less noble and romantically devoted than we thought, and the Taj Mahal is not purely and simply a memorial to a beloved wife”.
The Taj was not the only architectural wonder that Shah Jahan gave to the world.
But none ever “surpassed” the Taj in “splendour”. Regardless of Shah Jahan’s nobility and adherence to religious orthodoxy, contemporary Mughal accounts paint a picture of an emperor who was vain, ruthless, cruel, petty, arrogant and a man “obsessed with power and the emblems of power”.
Begley notes that five years after Shah Jahan met Sir Thomas Roe, the first English ambassador to the Mughal court, he had his elder brother Khusrau murdered (in 1621), besides ordering the deaths of five other close male relatives in his “relentless pursuit of the imperial throne”.
Taj: Representative of the Emperor’s Vanity
Some historians agree that contemporary European accounts also cast serious “doubt upon Shah Jahan’s reputation as a devoted husband”.
Begley observes that:
According to gossipy chronicles of the Italian Niccolo Manucci, Shah Jahan indulged his sexual appetite with the wives of his officials and others…Francois Bernier and other European travellers make an even more serious indictment against Shah Jahan when they report contemporary rumors that he had incestuous relations with his eldest daughter Jahanara for a period of several years following his wife’s death.
In 1914, German philosopher Hermann Keyserling “concluded” that the Taj was “not even necessarily a funeral monument”, which Begley agrees “seems to be on the right trail”.
Begley’s research and scholarly investigation into the mystery and the meaning of the Taj reveals – through a complex depiction of the mausoleum, the garden around it, its architecture, the inscribed Koranic verses on the walls, the positioning of the graves of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, comparison with other Islamic monuments and much more – that the “symbolism of the cenotaphs – and perhaps the entire tomb – seems explicitly designed to reflect Shah Jahan’s exalted image of himself as the Perfect Man”.
In other words, the Taj was representative of the emperor’s vanity and egoistic nature. This is revealed by the “mystical titles and epithets” he took for himself: ‘Auspicious Lord of the Age’, ‘King of the World’, ‘Shadow of God’ and ‘August Representative on Earth of Divinity’.
Not Really a Romantic Symbol of Devotion
Begley argues compellingly that it is:
there against the entire background of Islamic religious concepts, as well as the background of Shah Jahan’s life and personality, that the Taj must be interpreted. Within this broader context, the Taj seems less a romantic symbol of devotion than a vainglorious, yet profound attempt to define God in Shah Jahan’s own terms, perhaps even to rival him…Of course the beauty and majesty of the Taj also reflect the glory of its earthly creator, who has certainly been immortalised by it, although perhaps for the wrong reasons.
By creating a veritable Paradise on earth, its creator was feeding his own obsession with himself. And once the peacock throne was shifted to the Diwan-e-Khas of Delhi’s (Shahjahanbad) Red Fort, Shah Jahan had inscribed a famous Persian couplet (by Amir Khusrau), which “seems to sum up his view of himself and his empire” – “If there is Paradise on earth, It is Here, it is Here, it is Here.” Love alone may not have been the sole reason for the creation of the Taj.
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