|| Satyameva Jayate ||

Dedicated to “Bharat” and “Dharma”

“A country without a memory…”

On facebook last week a reader, in response to my recent series on the Taj, asked, “Kyun Gadhe Murde Ukhadane main time waste kar rahe ho…?”.  That comment set me thinking. The phrase “Gadhe Murde” had hit the nail on the head. It summarised the way most Indians feel about history. “History is boring; It merely digs up the past; It is unnecessary; It serves little purpose”. No wonder, few Indians have a strong sense of history. And the more “educated” you are, the less acquainted you are likely to be, not just with history but also the rich traditions of the past.  One of the most common refrain in my discussions with youngsters is, We are not interested in what happened in the past. We want to focus on the future!”. Unsurprisingly, History is one of the least popular subject in our colleges and universities. Anyone who claims to have a genuine interest in history is seen as pretentious and boring; sometimes both.

Does history really matter? It apparently has little relevance in our daily life. You may struggle in the real-world if you have not studied elementary maths but a lack of awareness about history is unlikely to hold you back in most careers. But matter it does. A lot actually.  It matters because of the glimpses it offers of a heritage and a culture. It matters because it helps us understand the evolution of societies, of communities and nations. It matters because it helps us realise the mistakes – and learn from them. It matters because it helps us prepare for the future.

Unfamiliarity with history can lead to not just ignorance but a deeply flawed and embarrassing view of the past, often marked by self-loathing. It can also manifest in a scornful disdain of traditions and heritage. The utter devaluation of an age-old language Sanskrit – a language that was almost chosen to be the national language, but lost  by a single vote – is symptomatic of this disdain of the past and of history. An immensely valuable link to our past, the language of the Itihas-s and Purana-s, is no longer easily accessible, thanks to a deep distrust of the past. The effects of utter lack of understanding of the historical past & the scornful disdain it induces, can be debilitating – especially when they manifest themselves in our leaders.  India’s first Prime Minister is a case in point. As the redoubtable Arun Shourie wrote, “Pandit Nehru is the most vivid example of the type. He was the truest of nationalists. His sacrifices for our independence compare with those of anyone else. But he had little acquaintance with our tradition –  his descriptions of it, even when they seek to laud it, do not go deeper than the superficial cliche: one has only to read his account of even a relatively straightforward text such as the Gita alongside that of Sri Aurobindo or Gandhiji or Vinoba to see the chasm”.

History matters. More than you think. And while historical narratives can be distorted to imbibe a sense of false pride among people (remember the false narrative of “Aryans” and the misappropriation of the Swastika  by the Nazis in the 20th century?), they can equally be twisted to make a community feel wretched & worthless. As amateur historian Dr Prodosh Aich has written in his book, “Lies with Long Legs”, “We are, what we know. And we only know what we have been told“.

History matters because it is evocative. It can inspire powerful emotions and trigger events that can have profound and lasting impact. Both the “World Wars” had their roots in history. The most dreaded terrorist group in the world today, the Islamic State draws its inspiration from history.  Numerous geo-political flashpoints in the world have their seeds in history.  History shapes our world-view and how we interpret and react to contemporary events. No wonder the “teaching of history” is often a subject of controversy.

History can be a powerful nourishment to help establish the identity – of a community, a society and a nation. Indeed, a deep understanding and awareness of history, is key to maintaining a sense of identity. Without such a collective memory, a society is “..as rootless and adrift as an individual with amnesia“.  This sense of “being adrift” is beautifully captured by VS Naipaul in this haunting passage:

At dinner that evening, high up in one of those towers, a journalist touched the subject of identity. “Indian” was a word that was now without meaning, he said. He himself, he was in his thirties, of the post-Independence generation, no longer knew who he was. He no longer knew the Hindu gods. His grandmother, visiting Khajuraho or some other famous temple, would immediately be in tune with what she saw; she wouldn’t need to be told about the significance of the carvings. He was like a tourist; he saw only an architectural monument. He had lost the key to a whole world of belief and feeling, and was cut off from his past.

The past matters. History matters. “Gadhe Murde” matter. It is important to resurrect these ghosts.  Remember Santayana? “A country without a memory is a country of madmen“.

Cross-posted over at ToI

Related Posts:

On Aurangzeb, Kashi Vishwanath, Lies and Half-Truths

De-falsify India’s History by Dr Subramanian Swamy

Those who forget history

Forgetting History: Delhi’s “Iron Pillar” 

Max Mueller & Correcting History: One Step at a Time

* The image is that of the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque that was built from parts taken by destroying  27 Hindu and Jain temples that stood in the complex.

Additional References

History hijacked by perverse politics of bogus secularism

How the Empire has been taught in British Schools

How history was made up at Nalanda

The Litmus Test of Whether Your History is Secular

Objective Whitewash for Objective History (PART I of II) !

Past is political

and finally an interesting nugget:

The New Yorker piece is peppered with anecdotes on Samir Jain narrated by media professionals and Times staffers.

# Namita Gokhale recounts sitting next to Samir Jain at a dinner. Jain tells Gokhale, ‘I think history doesn’t exist and if I were Prime Minister I would ban the study of history.’ When Gokhale responds that she would give him two tight slaps and a kick and if he didn’t remember, she would agree there was no history, Samir slips away and ignores her the rest of the evening. [source]

September 7th, 2014 Posted by | Indian History, ToI Columns | 14 comments

Re-examining History: The Gold Railing, The Leaks, The Palaces

or was the Taj an extant structure prior to 1631?

*** CAUTION: Long Post ***

In the first part of this series, we noticed the wide discrepancy in historical accounts of the construction of the Taj which led us to “…wonder whether the brickwork of the central edifice, the foundations, the layout, indeed the entire structure, was already complete when Shah Jahan started to ‘build’ the Taj Mahal?”

What makes me think that? Is the fact of wide divergence in the accounts of construction of the Taj basis enough to conclude that the structure pre-dates the death of Mumtaz Mahal? Not quite.

But there are other, strange, unexplained and inconvenient facts.

For instance, the intriguing mention of a gold railing by Peter Mundy  who we know was at Agra[i] at the time of Mumtaz-Mahal’s death. He writes, “There is alreadye about her Tombe, a raile of gold[ii].”

This is a railing of solid gold. Peter Mundy mentions it was already in place when Mumtaz Mahal’s body was brought to Agra in January 1632. Let us leave aside, for the moment, the obvious question of why would such a railing of enormous value be placed (or be already present) in a building that – by almost all accounts – had just begun to be constructed.

Here, an important digression.

Not many would know that the Taj Mahal is actually a seven storied structure. The courtyard in front of the building corresponds to the third storey of the edifice. The marble platform on which the central edifice stands is the fourth storey.  This platform – or a structure built over it – must be the place where Mumtaz Mahal’s body was placed.

This assumes that the foundations of the monument – and the three lower floors were already complete when Mumtaz Mahal’s body was brought to Agra in January 1632 – or at the very latest by February 1633 – which is the date of Peter Mundy’s account.

Is this realistic?

Does it not strain credulity that work on this monument – that could not have begun before Mumtaz Mahal’s death in June 1631 could have – in the bare space of 20 months – progressed to such an extent that not only would the foundations but at least three floors would be complete and the fourth storey (where the cenotaph is) would be ready for decorations with gold etc.? All this in a record time of 20 months (at best)?

The railing must have been notable for it does find mention in other sources, including the “Badhshahnama”[iii].

This is Syad Mohammad Latif writing about it in 1896, “ We are told in the Badshah Namah that, in 1042 A.H. (1632 A.D.), a fence or enclosure of solid gold studded with gems was placed around the Empress’s sarcophagus. It was made under the directions of Bebadal Khan, the Superintendent of the Royal Kitchen (Khasa Sharifa), and was a perfect specimen of the art of Indian jewelry. It weighed forty thousand tolahs of pure gold and was valued at six lakhs of rupees.

Ignore and oddity about the Superintendent of the Royal Kitchen[iv] supervising a “perfect specimen of the art of Indian jewelry” and read on.

In the year 1052 A.H. (1642 A D) the golden palisade above mentioned was removed, as it was feared that gold in such mass would exposed to the danger of theft by ill-disposed people, and in its stead the present net work of marble, previously referred to, was put up. This structure, which in elegance and beauty is a master-piece of sculpture, was according to the Badshah Nama, prepared in a period of ten years, at a cost of fifty thousand rupees.”

This is getting “curiouser and curiouser”. Why was the gold railing removed only after ten years? Was it because  the marble net work was now ready and the railing could now be taken into the royal treasury? Or was it really because of the “danger of theft”? “Theft” of a piece of solid gold weighing “40,000 tolahs”?

And why was work on the marble net work begun almost as soon as the golden railing was in place (note that the work took 10 years to construct)? Or was the railing placed purely as a temporary measure (in which case it is hard to explain its precious worth and intricate work)? Or, was it already in place, part of a grand structure that pre-dated Mumtaz Mahal’s death?

Recall that Peter Mundy had already included the “Tombe” in his list of “places of noate[v] in Agra, barely a few months into its supposed construction.

But we are at risk of clutching at straws to prove our point. Is there anything more substantive that might suggest the structure existed before Shah-Jahan supposedly had it built?

As it happens, there is.

Which brings us to the strange story of a leaking Taj Mahal. That’s right, “leaking”. Well, you might expect a 350-year old building to leak after these many years, right? Except that the leaks we are talking about, started appearing much earlier. Much, much earlier. They are mentioned in a report that dates back to 1652 – the 21st year of “construction” of the Taj!

The report is actually a letter of 1652 from Prince Aurangzeb to Shahjahan.

In the letter, Aurangzeb writes, ” the dome of the holy tomb leaked in two places towards the north during the rainy season and so also the fair semi-domed arches, many of the galleries on the second storey, the four smaller domes, the four northern compartments and the seven arched underground chambers which have developed cracks”

“During the rains last year the terrace over the main dome also leaked in two or three places. It has been repaired but it remains to be seen during the ensuing rainy season how far the operations have proved successful.”

“The domes of the Mosque and Jama’at Khana leaked during the rains and were made watertight. The master builders are of the opinion that if the roof of the second storey is re-opened and dismantled and treated afresh with concrete over which half a yard of mortar grout is laid, the semi-domed arches, the galleries and the smaller domes will probably become watertight, but they say that they are unable to suggest any measures of repairs to the main dome…” [Ancient India, 1946, pp 4-7]

But is the letter authentic? Is it credible? How could such a remarkable example of architecture and design start leaking even as it was being constructed?

Let’s check the authenticity and reliability of this “letter”. The letter was published in Muraqqa-I-Akabarabadi edited by Said Ahmad of Agra in 1931 (page 43, footnote 2). A translation by MS Vats, a Superintendent in ASI appeared in a publication by Archaeological Survey of India, titled, “Ancient India” in 1946, Volume 1[vi] (Pages 4-7[vii]) in 1946.

Strangely, the letter finds no mention in some of the major publications on this subject since then[viii].

It does however find a brief mention in “The Peacock Throne” by Waldemar Hansen on page 181 but is not explored further.

We do find other, scattered references to this letter. For instance, this news-report about a book on Taj Mahal[ix]. It is therefore, safe to assume that the letter exists and is credible.

The letter is odd for several reasons. A few of these oddities are worth highlighting. First, the very fact that such a structure could begin to leak merely a few months, or at best a few years after its construction was ‘complete’ (if we take the period of 17 years, the monument was complete by 1648) is difficult to believe.

Second, the leaks had started appearing much earlier. They were noticed “last year..” too. Third, they appear to be extensive and not localized.

But the strangest bit is this sentence, “..The master builders…are unable to suggest any measures of repairs to the main dome.”

Read that again: “The master builders..are unable to suggest any measures of repairs..”.

Which begs the question, were these “master builders” the original designers & builders of this monument? Or were they clueless since they had no awareness or knowledge of the original structure?

But perhaps the leaks were just symptomatic of poor design? Or poor maintenance? Or a freak design fault?  Regardless of circumstances, by themselves they are not enough to establish the fact of an extant structure.

We need more evidence before we can seriously consider this possibility. Is there anything else?

Turns out there is, Again, not conclusive, but reason enough to raise serious doubts about the story of the Taj, as we are told in history books.

What is this piece of evidence? What oddity is it that can cause such serious concern?

This is where we come to “Badhshahnama” (also referred to as “Padshahnama”), a collection of volumes that detail events during the reign of Shahjahan by Abdul Hamid Lahori. The preface mentions how Lahori was summoned by the Emperor form his retirement since he wanted someone to write an account of his reign in the style of Akbarnama of Abul Fazl which greatly admired[x].

So we can fairly assume this to be probably the most authoritative account of the regime*.

The Persian text of these accounts was published by the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1867.  Extracts from the text, translated in English, were published in 1877 in “History of India as told by its Own Historians”, by Elliot and Dowson in Volume VII that dealt with the reigns of Shahjahan and Aurangzeb.

Strangely, these extracts (all of 168) pages have only a fleeting reference to the passing away of Aliya Begum (Mumtaz Mahal). Even more strangely, they make no mention at all of either the Taj Mahal or any massive construction at Agra – neither in the main text, nor in the index. It is important to note here that the monument was not called “Taj Mahal” during those times but there is no mention of any of its alternative names (Rauza-e-Mumtaz Mahal, Rauza-i-Munauwara, Rauza-i-Muqqadas or Imarat-i-Rauza-i-Mutahhara) in the extracts either.

This in spite of the work being “…most voluminous..(entering) into most minute details of all the transactions in which the Emperor was engaged, the pensions and dignities conferred upon the various members of the royal family, the titles granted to the nobles, their changes of office, the augmentations of their mansabs, and…. lists of all the various presents given and received on public occasions[xi]…”.

Unfortunately, the full text of the Badshahnama has still not been translated in English[xii]. So we have no means to conclusively say (as yet) whether these records of the court and the reign of Shah Jahan mention the construction and other details of Taj Mahal or not[xiii].

But we do have references to this text in other books. One such book is “Agra – Historical and Descriptive” by Syed Muhammad Latif, Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, that was published in 1896.

Latif’s book is notable not because of its reference to the BadshahNama, but for something else – a seemingly casual sentence that nevertheless is remarkable in contradicting everything we are told about the structure. It appears on Page 105, Latif, referring to BadshahNama, writes:

“The site selected for the mausoleum was to the south of the City. It was originally a palace of Raja Man Singh, but it was the property of his grandson, Raja Jey Singh.”

Read that again. Slowly. “The site selected for the mausoleum was…originally a palace of Raja Man Singh” This is odd, to say the least and raises a number of difficult questions.

If this extract from the Badshahnama is true, what happened to the palace? Was it demolished? Or was it re-designed and converted into the marvel we see today? Or is the palace itself what we call the Taj today?

But before anything else, we need to establish the credibility of this sentence – particularly since it appears to turn the entire story about this “labour of love” on its head.

Does it appear in any other accounts? Is it referred by any other writer? Or writers?

Our next exhibit in this curious tale – which alludes to this very same fact – is a most unlikely source, published almost a 100 years after Latif’s book. It is a 1982 booklet on Taj Mahal titled “Taj Museum”. On Page 4 of this slim volume, we find this sentence, “The site selected for the burial was an extremely pleasant and lofty land situated to the south of the city on which, till then stood the mansion (Manzil) of Raja Man Singh and which was, at that time, in possession of the latter’s grandson, Raja Jai Singh.”

Guess who published this booklet? The Archeological Survey of India!

The reference in Badshahnama would have probably gone unnoticed – until at least such time as the full translation of the text was not done, had it not been for the work of PN Oak, who published a book in 1968 titled, “Taj Mahal was a Rajput Palace”. In that book, he reproduced two pages from the Badhshahnama, along with the translation. In those two pages, he identified the sentence, “Raja Mansingh’s palace, at that time owned by Raja Jaisingh (grandson of Raja Mansingh) was selected for burial of Arjumand Banu Begum alias Mumtaz-ul-Zamani.”

Unfortunately PN Oak’s work was discredited soon after it was published – largely owing to some of the hypothesis that appeared to be far-fetched and in the realm of fantasy. The source of the translation – or the translation itself – was never challenged, to the best of my knowledge[xiv].

Critics usually counter this by pointing to the fact  that there is a mention of a “foundation was laid” towards the end of the extract, although no further details of the work, labour and costs related to this “foundation” are available. It is possible that this reference to the “foundation” was not literal. But, in the absence of any other details and lack of the complete translation of the Badshahnama, it is difficult to say for certain whether the account mentions the details of construction of this amazing edifice or not.

There is at least one more account which mentions the “manzil” of Raja Jai Singh.  It is a book titled, “Jehangir’s India” by W H Moreland, first published in 1925.  Although the title mentions Jehangir, the book has little to do with Jehangir, the Emperor. It is actually a translation of Pelsaert’s Remonstrantie of 1626. It is “primarily a commercial document, but, fortunately for posterity, Pelsaert included in it a detailed account of the social and administrative environment in which commerce had to be conducted.”

Pelsaert was posted to India in 1620. “He reached Surat in December of that year, travelling overland from the East coast, and was forthwith sent to Agra, where he remained until the end of 1627”. Moreland tells us that “There can be no question that he had an accurate ear, while we know …that he had mastered the language of the country”.

In his description of Agra, that begins right at the start of the book, Pelsaert wrote, “The breadth of the city is by no means so great as the length, because everyone has tried to be close to the river bank, and consequently the water-front is occupied by the costly palaces of all the famous lords, which make it appear very gay and magnificent…I will record the chief of these palaces in order.

After passing the Fort, there is the Nakhas, a great market, where in the morning horses, camels, oxen, tents, cotton goods, and many other things are sold. Beyond it lie the houses of some great lords, such as Mirza Abdulla, son of Khan Azam (3000 horse); Aga Nur, provost of the King’s army (3000 horse); Jahan Khan (2000 horse); Mirza Khurram son of Khan Azam (2000 horse); Mahabat Khan (8000 horse); Khan Alam (5000 horse); Raja Bet [?] Singh 1 (3000 horse); the late Raja Man Singh (5000 horse); Raja Madho Singh (2000 horse). 

We know that several of these palaces (which were lso noticed by other travelers e.g. Bernier, the French Doctor who stayed at Aurangzeb’s court between 1658-1665) survived well into the 19th century although most were in ruins by then. The remaining “were demolished during the famine works of 1838 when the Strand Road was constructed[xv] or were blown up during the first war of independence in 1857[xvi].

Pelsaert had already left India by the time of Mumtaz Mahal’s death. So we cannot say for certain – at least based on this evidence – that the palace of Raja Man Singh is what we know today as the “Taj Mahal”.

But there are now enough reasons to doubt the credibility of the claim that Shah Jahan started the construction of this magnificent architecture as a tribute to the memory of Mumtaz Mahal.

The list of these reasons is now getting longer. And the inconvenient facts keep accumulating.

For instance, the mention of an extant palace (‘manzil’) on the same site where the Taj stands today.  The implausible pace of construction, the lack of eye-witness accounts, the lack of details in Badshahnama, the wide discrepancy in contemporary accounts by foreign travellers. The damning mention of extensive leaks in the structure which puzzled the ‘master-builders’ etc. etc.

How does one reconcile these inconvenient pieces of evidence and records with the “history” that we read? Are these not enough to warrant a deeper investigation, a fresh look at the whole “history” of this monument?

In Part III, we will look at other evidence (including design and architectural components) that lead us to believe that the edifice may have been originally designed for purposes other than to serve as a mausoleum.

Stay tuned. Jai Hind, Jai Bharat!

Read Part III here

P.S. The above is a scanned image of a (unverified) letter by ASI in response to an RTI. It states that ASI does not have any “scientific evidence” that Taj Mahal was constructed/ ordered to be constructed by Shah Jahan

[i] Mundy was in Agra for almost the whole of 1631, 6 1/2 months in 1632 and a few months in 1633. “The Travels of P Mundy”, Volume II Travels in Asia, edited by Lt Col Sir R C Temple, C.I.E, 1914

[ii] From Pg 213, Chapter titled, “Agra and Divers Perticulartities There”. The footnote to this sentence in the book, “The Travels of Peter Munday in Europe and Asia 1608-1667” mentions that “The rail of solid gold studded with gems, which Mundy saw in 1632, was valued at six lakh of rupees. This golden palisade was removed in 1642, as it was feared it would be an incentive to robbery, and was replaced by a network of marble. See Latif, Agra, p.115.”  (“The Travels of P Mundy”, Volume II Travels in Asia, edited by Lt Col Sir R C Temple, C.I.E, 1914)

[iii] This is from the book titled, “Agra Historical and Descriptive” by Syad Muhammad Latif, Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, published in 1896. Pg 115

[iv] This may well have been a careless (or inadvertent) mistake since the extracts from Badhshahnama published by Elliot do mention a Be-badal Khan who was the superintendent of the goldsmith’s department (see the description of the peacock throne and the mention of pearls and diamonds, Pg 49)

[v] “The Travels of P Mundy”, Pages 208/9

[vi] The article was “Repairs to the Taj Mahal”, Volume 1 of  “Ancient India”, written by M. S. Vats. The book was re-published in the year 1983.

[vii] Pl see this link

[viii] For e.g. “Splendours of the East” by Sir Mortimer Wheeler, (G Weidenfield and Nicolson, London 1965); “Great Mughals” by Bamber Gascoigne (Jonathan Cape, London 1971); “India Discovered” by John Keay (Windward publication, London 1981) – All these references, courtesy Dr Godbole.

[ix] Book review of Amina Okada and M.C. Joshi’s ‘Taj Mahal’ (Abbeville Press, Pages: 232) by Aman Nath, published in February 28, 1994 issue of India Today, from which, “Joshi quotes a letter of Aurangzeb to his imprisoned father as early as 1652 (the Taj was completed in 1643) which makes interesting reading: “The dome of the holy tomb leaked in two places. During the rains last year the terrace over the main dome also leaked in two or three places. It has been repaired but it remains to be seen during the next rainy season to what extent the operations have proved successful.

The master builders are of the opinion that if the roof of the second story is reopened and dismantled and treated afresh “with concrete, over which half a yard of mortar grout is laid, the semi domed arches, the galleries, and the smaller domes will probably become watertight, but they cannot suggest any means of repairing the main dome.”

[x] Reference: Lahori, Abdul Hamid; tr. by Henry Miers Elliot (1875). Badshanama of Abdul Hamid Lahori. Hafiz Press, Lahore. p. 3.


[xii] Apparently, an English translation of the complete Badhshahnama (of Abdul Hamid Lahori) by Dr. Hamid Afaq Siddiqi has recently been published in two volumes by Idarah-i Adabiyat-i Delli (Delhi, 2011). I have not been able to verify this information.

[xiii] It must be noted that it is entirely possible that other extracts exist – and that they specifically detail events around the construction of this magnificent structure. It is also possible that the entire text may already have been translated. I am open to be corrected on this.

[xiv] Here again, I may be wrong. If it has been shown that PN Oak’s translation is inaccurate and/or the source itself is of dubious authenticity, I would be happy to stand corrected on this.

[xv] Page 59, “Simple Analysis of  a Great Deception” by Dr V S Godbole

[xvi] Dr Godbole has cited these books mentioning this fact, “Agra District Gazetteer” from 1905, description of Agra City on page 213 and the footnote on page 207 by R C Temple who compiled Mundy’s Travels, mentioning that Asaf Khan’s palace was blown during 1857).

In this interview, Prof Irfan Habib mentions Lahori’s book as the primary source of study on Taj.

July 19th, 2014 Posted by | Debates & Discussions, Indian Architecture & City Planning, Indian History, Medieval Indian History | 4 comments

Re-examining History: The Making of the Taj

*** CAUTION: Long Post ***

This article is the first in a series in which I intend to probe some of the odd “facts” about Taj Mahal – the iconic structure that has become symbolic of grandeur & beauty in medieval Indian architecture.  This series will largely draw on the seminal research and study of primary sources & contemporary accounts by Dr V S Godbole during the years 1981 – 1996, condensed in his book, “Taj Mahal: Analysis of A Great Deception”

In the first part, a closer look at the effort that went into construction of the Taj Mahal, specifically the oft-cited figures of “20,000 men” who worked on it “incessantly for 22 years”. The official website of the monument mentions that “..the construction of the Taj Complex began about 1631 AD. The principal mausoleum was completed in 1648 AD by employing thousands of artisans and craftsmen, whereas, the outlying buildings and gardens were finished five years later in 1653 AD. …A labour force of about twenty thousand workers was recruited from across the Northern India.”

What is the basis of this “fact”? Where did this figure come from?

The figures are first mentioned in the book, “Travels in India” by J B Tavernier, a French jewel merchant who made five voyages to India in the 17th century. He wrote[i], “I witnessed the commencement and accomplishment of this great work, on which twenty-two years have been spent, during which twenty thousand men worked incessantly”

Interestingly, Tavernier did not say when the construction began nor when it finished.

More interestingly, while Tavernier’s first visit to Agra was only in 1640, almost every account of the Taj states that its construction began in 1631-1632.

So it is highly unlikely that Tavernier could have seen the commencement “of this great work”. His second visit to Agra was in 1665, by which time almost all historians agree that the construction had completed. The duration of 22 years is therefore almost certainly based on hear-say. Oddly, the translator of Tavernier’s accounts, Dr Ball makes no mention of (much less explain) this discrepancy. And no one doubts the veracity of the account[ii].

Although Dr Ball’s translation of Tavernier’s book was only published in 1889, these numbers were beginning to get quoted by other historians and writers. In the early part of 20th century, they began to acquire a life of their own.

Here is E B Havell, Principal of the Government School of Arts, Calcutta writing in, “A Handbook to Agra and the Taj[iii]” (1904), “The master-builders came from many different parts…Twenty thousand men were employed in the construction, which took seventeen years to complete”. Havell did note the discrepancy in number of years in a footnote, “Tavernier says twenty-two years, probably including all the accessory buildings”.

Here is Vincent Smith in his book “History of Fine Arts in India and Ceylon[iv]” (1911), “..We know..from Tavernier who witnessed both the commencement and completion of the buildings that operations did not cease finally until 1653 nearly 22 years after they had begun

The figures were now well on their way to becoming accepted facts. The list of books in which these were quoted, grew in number over the years, from Major Thorn’s “Memoir of War in India”, (1813[v]) through to “India Discovered” by John Keay (1981).

But was Tavernier the only foreign traveler in India during the time the Taj was being constructed?  Or were there others? Turns out there were.

Did they write about their travels? Yes, they did. Did they visit Agra during their journey? Yes, at least a few did.

Surely they must have written about this remarkable structure being constructed? And written about its grandeur? And mentioned the number of men working on it?

Let’s find out what they had to say.

One such traveler was Fray Sebastian Manrique, a Portuguese missionary who was in Agra for four weeks in Dec-Jan 1640-1641[vi].  His eye-witness account (one of the rare ones that actually mentions the construction) talks about “..a vast, lofty, circular structure” inside “a huge square-shaped enclosure”.

How many people do you think he found working on the site?  “On this building, as well as other works, a thousand men were usually engaged”. Read that again. “A thousand men”.

The figure is odd not just because of the wide divergence from the number cited by Tavernier[vii] but also because of what these men were doing, namely, “.. many were occupied in laying out ingenious gardens, others planting shady groves and ornamental avenues; while the rest were making roads and those receptacles for crystal water, without which their labour could not be carried out[viii]

Strangely, no mention of masons. Or bricklayers, or stone cutters or the thousands supposedly working on the actual building. This even as the building was “..still incomplete, the greater part of it remaining to be done[ix]

If true, this was an awkward fact. Especially because both Tavernier and Manrique were apparently in Agra at around the same time & had travelled by the same road from Dacca.

How do historians explain this discrepancy?

Vincent Smith writes, “ …The number (20,000) rests on Tavernier’s excellent authority. According to Manrique, the staff of workmen numbered only 1,000 in 1640. No doubt the numbers varied much from time to time[x]

The translators of Manrique’s travels say, “ Manrique’s figure is certainly a rough one.

…Tavernier says 20,000 men worked incessantly. Manrique, however is writing long after and without notes and again his visit seems to have been but cursory.”

But we know that Manrique wrote his account within a year of returning from his travels in 1641. So it certainly was not “long after”. As for cursory, it is not clear what was the basis of this statement. Was it because the number was so much at odds with the 20,000 figure?  But perhaps Manrique was not so reliable after all. Were there any other travelers? There were.

One of them was Albert de Mandelslo, a German who was in Agra in October-November 1638[xi].   Surely he too must have witnessed the building and the construction activity – now in its sixth year?

What does he say about it? Nothing.

That is right, absolutely nothing. As Dr Godbole notes in his book, “He, however, describes Red Fort of Agra in detail. He describes the Mughal treasure…(of)..diamonds, rubies, emeralds, statues of gold, brass, copper, brocades, books, artillery, horses, elephants and other valuables.

He tells us of king’s ministers and their duties, gives details of cavalry, artillery, guards… describes celebrations of Nauros and king’s birthday. He even describes the fights of lions, bulls, elephants, tigers and leopards arranged by Shahjahan[xii]

But no mention of Taj Mahal at all. Let alone any construction activity.

Don’t any historians refer to Mandelslo? Some do, but keep quiet about that fact that he says nothing about Taj Mahal[xiii]. Others try and explain it away, e.g. here’s Fergus Nicoll[xiv], “Despite providing detailed observations on life in Agra, Mandelslo apparently did not visit the Taj Mahal (then in its sixth year of construction). The omission may be explained by his premature departure from the city, prompted by a chance meeting with the relative of a man he had killed in Persia, fearing reprisals (and notwithstanding the efforts of servants and colleagues  to lie on his behalf), he retreated to Lahore before continuing his journey to the Far East.”

In short, we are asked to believe that a man who provided “detailed observations on life in Agra” – and was certainly present in Agra when the construction was going on, did not visit the building or saw any activity, since he had to flee from a relative of someone he had killed in Persia, even though servants and colleagues were prepared to “lie on his behalf”!

Image showing the basement of the Taj and one of the rooms with a timber door (since sealed by masonry and now inaccessible to general public) courtesy, website of Dr Stephen Knapp

So we have one historical account which appears to be unreliable, another that does not square up to the first and a third which makes no mention of this remarkable structure.

Were there any other travelers? There were.

We have at least one more eye-witness account of the activity around the construction of this masterful edifice.

This account comes from Peter Mundy, a merchant of the (English) East India Company, who was stationed at Agra[xv]. Peter Mundy’s account is useful since he was in Agra at the time of Mumtaz-Mahal’s death.

Oddly, he makes no mention of the death (or to be more precise, the news of her death). For such a beloved queen, one would expect shock at the news of her passing away and even public mourning. But Peter Mundy makes no mention of this.

Surely Mundy must have seen the beginning of the construction?  What does he say about Taj Mahal?

“(In Agra) places of noate..are the Castle, King Ecbars [Akbar’s] Tombe, Tage Moholls Tombe, Gardens and Bazare[xvi]

Isn’t it odd that a tomb whose construction had begun only a few months back was already a ‘place of note’?

But wait, “ This Kinge is now buildinge a Sepulchre for his late deceased Queene Tage Moholl[xvii]”, he writes.

Looks like we do have evidence of the building being constructed after all. Except that there is a slight complication – or two.

Mundy goes on to describe the scene at the site thus, “The buildinge is begun and goes on with excessive labour and cost, prosecuted with extraordinary diligence, Gold and silver esteemed comon Mettall, and Marble but as ordinarie stones[xviii]

Mundy does not say at what date he saw this but it would be fair to assume that this was in early 1633[xix], after Shah Jahan’s return to Agra (in June 1632). It is very unlikely that construction could have begun before October 1632 due to the monsoon rains.

And yet neither Peter Mundy nor Albert Mandelslo mention any digging of foundations – in spite of the fact that a structure of this size would typically require massive support.

Of course, Taj Mahal does have foundations – in the form of masonry wells. But only one historian has made specific reference to them[xx]. Why did Mundy not notice these wells or foundations being dug? Or did they already exist at the site?

There is a second complication in Mundy’s account. Did you notice the reference to “marble” being used as “ordinarie stones”?

Well, isn’t the Taj Mahal made of marble?  Actually not.

Contrary to popular perception, the entire construction is of brick and red sandstone. It is only the lining that is of marble.

So how did Mundy notice men working with marble, barely a few months into the construction of the edifice – which by then was already a “place of note”, counted alongside the Red Fort and Akbar’s tomb?

One final oddity.

As some of you would know, the (English) East India Company had a factory at Agra from 1618 to 1655. This was also the period during which the Taj Mahal was supposedly built. “And yet there is no mention of the Taj Mahal, Mumtaz Mahal or tomb of the queen of Shahjahan…in their records[xxi]

No historian has so far referred to the Dutch East India Company records[xxii]. So it is safe to surmise that they do not contain any information about the Taj Mahal either. Isn’t this odd? Very odd?

And thus, one is compelled to wonder whether the brickwork of the central edifice, the foundations, the layout, indeed the entire structure, was already complete when Shah Jahan started to “build” the Taj Mahal?

In the next part, we will examine whether the Taj was an extant structure that predates Mumtaz Mahal’s death in 1631. Stay tuned!  Jai Hind, Jai Bharat!


Read Part 2 of this post here

Related Posts: Taj Mahal: The Biggest Whitewash in Indian History?,  Was the Taj Mahal a Vedic Temple?

Also read how designers of the 17th century Taj Mahal employed the same unit of measurement used by the Harappan civilization as far back 2000 BC in this ground-breaking research by Prof R. Balasubramaniam, IIT-Kanpur.

Cross-posted over at ToI in two parts.

[i]  His voyages were between 1638 to 1668. Between 1677 and 1811 there were nine editions of his book’s English translation. The 10th edition of the English translation was published by Macmillan & Co. in 1889 by Dr Ball. In this translation, we notice this sentence (Chapter 7, “The sequence of the same route, from Delhi to Agra., The First Book”) Refer http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00generallinks/tavernier/volume_one_index.html and http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00generallinks/tavernier/vol1_chapter07.html. From “Travels in India” by J B Tavernier, 1889, Book I, chapter VIII, pp 109/111[i]

[ii] This is Vincent Smith in 1893, “The testimony of Tavernier is doubtless correct if understood as referring to the whole complex of buildings connected with the mausoleum. He visited Agra several times. He left India in January, 1654, returning to the country in 1659. Work on the Tāj began in 1632, and so appears to have been completed about the close of, 1653”. Vincent Smith omitted the fact that Tavernier’s first visit to Agra was in 1640 and his second was in 1665 (although he did travel around in India during this period) and yet pronounced his testimony as “doubtless correct”. Source: Sleeman’s Rambles and recollections of an Indian official, edited by Vincent Smith, 1893 http://www.gutenberg.org/files/15483/15483-h/15483-h.htm 

[iii] The full title of the book is “A Handbook to Agra and the Taj, Sikandra, Fatehpur-Sikri, and the Neighbourhood” published in 1904. This sentence occurs in Part Ten, “The Taj http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00artlinks/agra_havell/10tajmahal.html

[iv]  The book was published in 1911. The exact sentence appears on pp 412/413

[v] The list includes Lt Col Sleeman’s “Rambles and Recollections of an Indian Official” (1844), HG Keene’s “Handbook to Agra” (1874), finding its way into Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1875, in Le Bon Gustave’s “Les Civilisations de L’Inde” 1887, Thomas Twining (Governor of Bihar)’s “Travels in India, a Hundred Years Ago (1893), EB Havell’s Agra and Taj (1904) and more recently, “The Great Moghuls” by Bamber Gascoigne (1971), “The Taj Mahal” by David Carroll (1972), “India Discovered” by John Keay (1981). At least three of these authors (Keene, Gustave and Havell) mention 17 years as the period of construction of the main building but go on to say it took 22 years for the total completion. Even when the writers did note that Tavernier’s first visit to Agra was in 1640-41 and second in 1665 (e.g. Prof Ram Nath of Agra University, in his book, “Agra and its Monumental Glory, 1977, Appendix E, page 94), they did not dispute the “20,000” figure for the number of workers.

[vi] His exact dates of stay were between 24th December 1640 and 20th January 1641.

[vii]  Seasonality may not explain the variance; Manrique was in Agra during the winter months of December & January – a good time for construction, I would think.

[viii]  From “Travels of Fray Sebastian Manrique”, translated by Lt Col C E Luard and Father H Hosten 1927, Vol II, pp 171/174.

[ix] Pg 183, Chapter “Paradise on Earth”  in the book “The Peacock Throne: The Drama of Mogul India” by Waldemar Hansen.

[x] From “History of Fine Arts in India and Ceylon by Vincent Smith”, 1911 pp 412-419.

[xi]“The Voyages and Travels of J Albert Mandelslo”, by Olearius Adam, London, 1662.

[xii] From Dr V S Godbole’s “Taj Mahal – Analysis of A Great Deception”, Pg 21.

[xiii]  E.g. Sir R C temple, “Travels of Peter Mundy” (1914), Ball and Crooke, “Tavernier’s Travels in India” (1925), and Walderman Hansen, “The Peacock Throne” (1973).

[xiv] Notes on Pages 199-205, published on Pg 300 of the print edition, Book titled, “Shah Jahan”.

[xv] Mundy was in Agra for almost the whole of 1631, 6 1/2 months in 1632 and a few months in 1633. https://archive.org/stream/travelsofpetermu02mund#page/150/mode/2up/search/moholl “The Travels of P Mundy”, Volume II Travels in Asia, edited by Lt Col Sir R C Temple, C.I.E, 1914.

[xvi] “The Travels of P Mundy”, Pages 208/9 (sic)

[xvii] “The Travels of P Mundy”, Pg 212 (sic)

[xviii] “The Travels of P Mundy”, Pages 213/214 (sic)

[xix]  Peter Mundy was in Agra between Jan – Mar 1633

[xx] There is a reference to foundations in Cambridge History of India, 1937, Volume IV Mughal Period. Taj Mahal is described on pages 561-567. Mr Percy Brown tells us, “…. At the same time, its proximity to the river, demanded special care in the preparation of foundations which it was the practice of the Mughal builders to support on masonry cylinders. Some such system was no doubt employed in the substructure of the terrace.” [But Brown quotes no reference from any court chronicle.]

[xxi] Pg 34, Analysis of A Great Deception by Dr V S Godbole, from which, “The (English) East India Company had a factory at Agra from 1618 to 1655. And yet there is no mention of the Taj Mahal, Mumtaz Mahal or tomb of the queen of Shahjahan built by him in their records. [Ref :- Foster W, The English Factories in India, 1914]. No one has so far referred to Dutch East India Company records. It seems therefore that they do not contain any information about Taj Mahal.

[xxii]  The Dutch established the factor y in Agra in 1621. It continued to exist until 1720.

July 7th, 2014 Posted by | Debates & Discussions, Indian Architecture & City Planning, Indian History, Medieval Indian History, ToI Columns | 4 comments

An uneven battle, the heroes of Haldighati & forgetting history

Today happens to be an important date in Indian medieval history. It marks the birth of one of India’s true heroes – a man whose life exemplifies valour, courage, fierce pride and self-respect – MahaRana Pratap Singh of Mewar*.

Unfortunately most of us have only the foggiest idea of his exploits, thanks to our “education”.  The MahaRana is largely ignored in the history textbooks of early years in India. Yesterday, as I was browsing the Class VII History Text Book prepared by NCERT, I noticed it did not have any mention of MahaRana Pratap. That’s right. No mention at all. Not a word. Unsurprisingly, no mention of the Battle of Haldighati either, one of the most riveting episodes of his life and struggles.

For an event that spawned a legend in the annals of Rajasthan, the battle of Haldighati was a short affair. Some say, it lasted for barely four hours. The Mughal forces greatly outnumbered MahaRana’s army (as much as 4:1 by some estimates).  Heavily outnumbered, the  Rajputs inflicted heavy casualties on the Mughals before eventually losing the battle. Haldighati proved to be a turning point in the fight against the Mughals by the Rajputs and perhaps the first breakthrough in almost fifty years.

One of the lesser known heroes of Haldighati was the Jhala Sardar, Man Singh.  The story goes that when Jhala Sardar saw his king wounded and his steed faltering, he donned the royal garments (including the Crown and royal emblem) of MahaRana Pratap, thus confusing the enemy and took the entire attack of the Mughal hordes upon himself.

The Jhala Sardar did not live to see the results of his extraordinary courage, but it was his sacrifice that let MahaRana Pratap live for another day and continue his fight against the Mughals, eventually liberating all of Mewar except Chittorgarh.  His descendants in Udaipur still proudly carry the emblem of Mewar as their coat of arms.

The other less-known heroes of Haldighati were the Bhil Adivasis of the Aravallis, whose valour, knowledge of terrain and “intensive arrow showers” made the battle far from one-sided. In recognition of their extraordinary contribution to Rajputana & to protecting these lands, a Bhil stands along-side a Rajput on either side of the Royal Coat of Arms of Mewar.

The Battle of Haldighati was the last pitched battle fought by the MahaRana against the Mughals. But the war was to continue. From his hideouts in the Aravallis, he began a long and debilitating guerilla campaign against the Mughals. The MahaRana’s hatred towards Akbar ran deep – at least partly (if not largely) explained by the ruthless massacre by Akbar of thousands of peasants and artisans that lived within the walls of Chittor after the third seige of the fort in 1567 (a  figure of 30,000 massacred is mentioned on Pg 131, “A Comprehensive History of India: Comprehensive history of medieval India” by B.N. Puri, M.N. Das).  Over the next 20-odd years, Akbar planned several campaigns to Rajputana to capture or kill Pratap. They all failed. The MahaRana’s exploits in the ravines and the hard struggle for survival in the wild is the stuff of legends. For several years, he and his family survived on wild berries and by hunting and fishing for food. Legend has it that he even ate chapatis made of grass seeds during those dark days. And it is said he did not sleep on a bed till his very end because of a vow to not rest until Chittor was free from foreign occupation.

I wonder who tells these stories to our children these days? Are they even told about these at school? Does the MahaRana get the treatment and time he deserves or is he dismissed as a Rajput king who fought against the “Great Mughals”? Is there anyone who tells our young what happened…and how the times were back then?

What about history textbooks, you may ask. I looked up one myself.  Instead of stories of valour and pride, what we have are bland sentences, such as, “In the north-east, the Ahoms were defeated in 1663, but rebelled again in the 1680s. …Campaigns against the Maratha chieftain Shivaji were initially successful. But Aurangzeb insulted Shivaji who escaped from Agra, declared himself an independent king and resumed his campaigns against the Mughals…” (Pg 49, Ch 4, Part II, “Our Pasts”)

There are at least two remarkable heroes mentioned right there in the lines above. Sadly Lachit Barphukan is even less familiar to young Indian children than MahaRana Pratap. As for Shivaji being referred to as a “Maratha chieftain”, I will leave it for another day.

What a pity that in a civilization with historical continuity that stretches back to thousands of years, most children grow up indifferent to history; some actually dreading it. Can there be anything more embarrassing?

* According to the Gregorian calendar. According to the Hindu calendar, his birth anniversary is celebrated on the Tritiya (3rd) of Shukla Paksha of Aashaadh. This year falls on 11th June.

Related: Remembering the MahaRana; Cross-posted over at ToI blogs

May 9th, 2014 Posted by | Indian History, Islamic Rule in India, Medieval Indian History, ToI Columns | 2 comments

“The Myth of Islamic Contribution to India” – Excerpts

Excerpts from a well-researched post by Shankara that appeared on CentreRight.in:

*** “The myth about Islamic contribution to India” – by Shankara ***

Is it ignorance or agenda that drives Indian history narrative? 

…Let us clear the air on the Islamic contributions to India and Hindu society at large. Lets look at some broad categories that can be used as a framework to measure them.

Universities and colleges

Before the advent of Islam on Indian soil, India has as many as 20 large universities some of them which were international in nature, some of the prominent ones were Takshashila, Nalanda, Sharada Peeth, Varanasi, Kanchipuram, Valabhi, Vikramshila, Jagaddala, Lalitgiri, Phuphagiri, Udayagiri, Odantapuri, Ratnagiri (Odisha) etc where student from across the world studied Mathematics, Algebra, Astronomy Physics, Alchemy, Medicine, Anatomy, Surgery, Literature and whole lot of other topicsAs Muslim invaders progressed east across India, these Universities were extinguished one by one starting with Takshashila the largest and the oldest to the brutal destruction and burning of Nalanda by Bhaktiyar Khilji in the 1193 AD. In turn none of these benign invaders from Bin Qasim to Kutub-udin-Aibak to Babur to Aurangzeb to Nadir Shah instituted a new University or center of learning. I invite apologists like William Dalrymple, Romila Thappar, Girish Karnad etc to cite examples where these invaders and conquerors promoted science, education and learning and institutionalized learning.

Farming and Irrigation

Girish Karnad takes great pleasure in belittling the Vijaynagar Empire, its achievements and rejoices in its destruction by blaming it on fictitious decadence theory. Little does he know that Vijaynagar was probably one of the first welfare states in the world if not the first? The kingdom paid from its treasury for empire wide water works to ensure running water for its subjects. Even today we can see remnants of aqueducts in southern India from that era. The kingdom paid for irrigation tank building projects to harvest rain water some of which are still in use today for farming. The kings of Vijaynagar especially Krishnadeva Raya personally engineered and supervised the building of a damn across the Tungabhadra still in use today. Similar irrigation works and canal building were undertaken by Hindu kings all across India. Indian farmers had perfected the irrigation using a system called Phad (river water diverted into fields) and Baadh (overflowing river, tank or lake is breached to irrigate fields) besides other mechanical methods still used today. In and around Bhopal huge natural lakes were maintained by Hindu kings for fish farming and as a source of irrigation for farmers, which were drained by Mughal’s to play polo. Compare this to lack of any such projects during the Mughal era or earlier Delhi Sultanate.

I would also like to point the blatant lie of Marxist historians to credit the revenue and taxation system to the Mughals especially Akbar. The system of revenue collection and taxation existed from time immemorial instituted by Hindu kings based on Hindu ‘Shashtras’ which the Delhi Sultanate and later Mughals institutionalized it for brutal oppression. It was unimaginable that barbarian tribal warlords who roamed the central Asian dust bowl had any knowledge about taxation and revenue collection that they could impart onto others.

Health care

Fa-Hian, writing about Magadhain 400 AD, has mentioned that a well-organised health care system existed in India. According to him…

Nobles and householders of this country had founded hospitals within the city to which the poor of all countries, the destitute, the crippled and the diseased may repair. They receive every kind of requisite help. Physicians inspect their diseases, and according to their cases, order them food and drink, medicines or decoctions, everything in fact that contributes to their ease. When cured they depart at their ease.

Fa-Hians account coupled with Charaka’s treatise on medicine and hospitals shows that India may have been one of the first countries to institutionalize public health care. Earlier during the Mauryan’s under Ashoka (300 BC) had institutionalized hospitals and veterinary clinics were established in towns and villages and even on busy highways.

Closer to our times the Maratha’s had built a series of ‘Chattrams’ as rest and recovery places for travelers and pilgrims.

Chatrams were not mere boarding places. They provided food, health facilities and space for the animals that accompanied travellers. Eachchatram was separated from the other by a day’s travel. Old resting places for travellers are found in other countries, but what makes these chatramsdifferent from the caravanserais is that they cater to all kinds of travellers — not merely traders. In South India, trade and pilgrim routes coexisted and the inns served both pilgrims and travellers. Endowing pilgrims and pilgrimage was considered important and special care and facilities were provided. The most important pilgrimage route in South India was the one that led to Rameswaram. Along this route, 18 chatrams were built and patronised by the Maratha Kings in the 18th and 19th Centuries. The most elaborate and ornate of them are the Mukthambal Chatram at Orathanadu and Yamunambal Chatram at Needamangalam.

The Chatram were built by the Maratha ruler of Thanjavur, Maharaja Serfojee who wrote the British to continue the services…

Chatrams have Doctors, skillful in the cure of diseases, swellings and the poison of reptiles. Travellers who fall sick at the Chetram or before their arrival, receive medicines, and the diet proper for them, and are attended with respect and kindliness until their recovery’.

This letter of Sarfojee Maharaj is reproduced in full in Annam Bahu Kurvita: Recollecting the Indian Discipline of Growing and Sharing Food in Plenty.

..People interested in reading more about Indian medicine and health care in ancient India can refer to this paper

*** End of Excerpts ***

Read it in full here.

November 8th, 2012 Posted by | Distortions, Misrepresentations about India, Impact of Islam on India, Indian History, Medieval Indian History | 6 comments

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