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On Anna, Selfishness & Corruption..

Last week I chanced on an interview of Anna Hazare in which he talked “about the inspiration behind his social activism, his philosophy and his vision for India”. The interview was from last year, a few weeks before AAP’s spectacular debut in Delhi. It had a quote that caught my eye.  It was Anna’s response to the question, “In your opinion, what is the root cause of corruption?”

“The root cause of corruption is selfishness; the selfish nature of human beings”, Anna said.  “They go to any lengths to pursue their self-interest…Second, there is no deep thinking about the purpose of life. And since there is no purpose to life, we want to fill that void with commodities, things. You become an MLA and an MP and in a short period of two or three years, you become a billionaire. How? Do you really need so much? Since you keep increasing your needs, corruption increases.”

Keep Reading…

September 23rd, 2014 Posted by | Corruption in India, Politics and Governance in India, ToI Columns | 3 comments

“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

The Motifs, The Design, The Features – Was the Taj Mahal really built to be a Tomb?

In the earlier part of this series, I mentioned how there were now enough reasons to warrant a deeper investigation and a fresh look at the whole “history” of Taj. The list of reasons included the mention of an extant palace (‘manzil’) on the very same site where the Taj stands today, the implausible pace of construction, the lack of eye-witness accounts, the lack of details in Badshahnama and the extensive leaks in the structure which puzzled the ‘master-builders’.

In this concluding part, I will outline evidence & incongruities regarding design & architectural features that appear to support our belief about the Taj being a redesigned or re-modelled extant structure. Even as I write this, I realise I am handicapped in exploring this specific aspect. I am neither a trained architect nor a student of Indian, Persian, Saracenic, Hindu architecture or design. Much of what I have written below therefore depends on the testimony of others; some of these odd features are of course, obvious even to the untrained eye. As always, I am happy to stand corrected on some or all of these points. With that caveat, let’s get back to the features and design elements that make us question the received wisdom on Taj.

As it happens, quite a number of these features are readily apparent.

For instance the four towers that are mistakenly labelled as “Minarets”. Unlike a traditional “Minar”, these towers are all equal in height. Typically the minars are the highest points in a Mosque or Islamic structure unlike in the Taj where the dome rises above all the towers. The towers themselves are far more elaborate than traditional minars – and do not rise from the walls of the mausoleum. Their character is more that of a watch-tower than a minar. Strangely the “Masjid” itself has no minars!

Or the mosque and its counter-part on the other side, the so-called “Jawab”. Why would a mosque need a counter-part? Was it really built as a counter-part or did it have some purpose? As Dr Godbole wonders in his book, “Simple Analysis of a Great Deception”, “Was it a caravansary for pilgrims or a meeting hall where the faithful gathered before prayer? Aurangzeb calls it Jamait Khana – a guest house, which is quite appropriate in a Hindu Temple or a Palace, but has no place in a Mausoleum[i]. Even if we accept the point about “balance” and aesthetic necessity, why is the mosque not in the direction of Mecca?

Or the underground chambers which are clearly visible if one ever descends to the river bank and looks up at the Taj. Strangely, while these were noticed by numerous chroniclers (e.g. Sleeman, Keene, Vincent Smith, James Fergusson), few bothered to explore the purpose of their construction. Those that did, found their presence puzzling. E.g. “It was these openings that brought to view the existence of these long-hidden chambers. The mouths of staircases were shut up with stone slabs. It is hard to find out why these underground chambers were built…From the existence of the sand, lying thickly on the floor it might be reasonably supposed that there was a ghat or landing place on the spot, which however was disused subsequently for some reason unknown. The real object of building them remains a mystery”. This on Pg 36 of Md. Moin-Ud-Din’s book on “The History of the Taj[ii]

Or the numerous rooms that are hidden from view and are no longer accessible to visitors, including the eights rooms on each storey around the cenotaph, the rooms under the marble plinth, the rooms under the mosque and the “Jawab“. Why were they built? Why were some of them sealed? Why are some locked? Why is it that none are accessible to the public? What dark secrets do they harbour? What is there to hide?

Or the medieval, pre-artillery, defense character of the perimeter wall of the complex, when artillery (cannons) was already in use by the time Mughals came to India[iii]? Something that was also noticed by Dr Godbole[iv], “The perimeter walls on the East and West side of Taj Mahal …have defence mechanisms built in at the top. If attacked by an enemy the defenders would pour hot water or oil through the holes on the enemy soldiers climbing up the wall. This gives a clue of when Taj Mahal was originally built. Such walls are not needed in a mausoleum, but are appropriate to defend a Palace”.

Or the unexplained structures, for instance the well-documented large well (Baoli) in one of the towers near the mosque? Here is Fanny Parks[v] writing about it in 1850, “The two jamma khanas are beautiful buildings, on each side of the tomb…One of them is a masjid:…One of the burj near the masjid contains a fine baoli (well)” (By the way, did you notice she refers to the two buildings flanking the Taj as a “Jamma Khanas”?).

The list of oddities keeps getting longer. For instance, the presence of Nakkar-khanas (drum houses), guest rooms, Gaushala, stables, pavilion for elephants[vi] and horses[vii]. What was the point of having all these in a solemn place of burial? Or the odd stairs on the platform on the sides leading down to the river. For what purpose?

Or the strange pillars mentioned by Carllyle (a British Civil Servant who served in India in the 1870s) [viii], one of which “once stood in the garden of Taj Mahal; and while there, for some reason or other now unknown, the shaft of the pillar used to rock on its base, with a slight touch of the hand[ix]. Or the repeated reference to the pinnacle as “Kalas[x]”, a Sanskrit term, in an account by a Muslim author. Was this a throwback to a past that is deliberately not spoken of?

Or the revelation from dimensional analysis suggesting that “Taj Mahal complex was executed using the traditional measurement units mentioned in the Arthasastra[xi]? Or the numerous Hindu symbolisms detailed in “The Question of the Taj Mahal”, by P. S. Bhat and A. L. Athawale?[xii].  Or the lack of elaborate records referring to the construction and the effort it must have taken.

I could perhaps list a few more but I don’t think it’s necessary.  This exploration of the history of Taj has been a wonderful learning experience for me. Unfortunately it has left me with more questions than answers.

Many of these questions cannot be answered unless the ASI opens up the monument to experts including historians, architects, students of art and design. Until that happens, we are unlikely to know the full story behind this remarkable piece of Indian architecture; we are unlikely to get any closer to the truth.

Although speculation is always dangerous in such situations, it is becoming increasingly hard to avoid the conclusion that the original structure of the Taj (and the surrounding complex of buildings) predates ShahJahan. The original structure was most likely a palace-temple complex. It may have been in disuse for a few years before the death of Mumtaz and had probably suffered some neglect. It certainly needed some maintenance (as we know from the extensive leaks). It is very likely that ShahJahan undertook extensive renovations and restoration of the building, even as he changed the very nature of the structure. It is almost certain that the marble overlay on the exterior was ordered by him, as were the floral motifs, the marble screen and the inscription of verses from the Quran. It is likely that extensive records relating to its construction do not exist since the building was not built during Mughal times. But there is also the possibility that such records were destroyed – or are not traceable – or are traceable but in private hands (e.g. in the archival collection of the royal families of Rajasthan).

We shall never know unless we dig deeper, metaphorically speaking. This is not a matter that can be pursued by amateurs. The history of this monument cannot be decided on the basis of speculation. It will need research. The push for this research can only come from ASI. The ASI will move only if there is political will. This brings me to a close of this series but this mystery remains far from closed. Someday, I hope we will learn the truth.

To conclude (and as a bonus), here are some startling sentences from a 1979 publication by Wayne Begley on “The Myth of the Taj Mahal and a New Theory of Its Symbolic Meaning” which give us good reasons to doubt the apocryphal story about this “monument of love”. Begley writes,  “this (that it was ShahJahan’s great love for Mumtaz that inspired the monument)can be shown to be essentially a myth – a myth which ignores a great deal of evidence to the contrary, that Shah Jahan was less noble and romantically devoted than we thought, and that the Taj Mahal is not purely and simply a memorial to a beloved wife. A serious reassessment of this important monument is long overdue”.

I rest my case. Jai Hind, Jai Bharat!

Related Posts: Part 1 and Part 2 in the series, The Biggest Whitewash in Indian History? Cross-posted over at ToI blogs

Bonus Link: An online compendium of articles & images that I came across during my research on the Taj.

[i] Dr Godbole, Pg 101, “Simple Analysis of a Great Deception”.

[iii] From Prof Marvin Mill’s review of  the book, “TAJ MAHAL-The Illumined Tomb, an anthology of seventeenth century Mughal and European documentary sources”, by W.E. Begley and Z.A. Desai: Published by the University of Washington Press, Seattle and London, 1989 (The Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture). Prof.. Marvin Mills is a leading New York architect and professor of architecture at the Pratt Institute.

[iv] Pg 97, “Simple Analysis of a Great Deception” by Dr VS Godbole; Section titled, “Battlemented Walls”

[v] Chapter XXX in “Wanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque”, Pg 354. https://archive.org/stream/wanderingsofpilg01parluoft#page/n5/mode/2up

[vi] References to “Court of Elephants” occurs in Twining’s book “Travels in India a Hundred Years Ago by Thomas Twining” https://archive.org/stream/travelsinindiahu00twin#page/190/mode/2up/search/parley)

[vii]  These are mentioned in the Archaeological Survey of  India’s “Annual Report of the North-West Provinces Circle”, of 1900, portions of which are reproduced at Pg 66 of Dr Godbole’s book, “Simple Analysis of a Great Deception”

[viii] From the Archaeological Survey of India Report for the Year 1871-72, prepared by M/s Beglar (on Delhi ) and Carllyle (on Agra ). Volume II, pages 124-125, “Before concluding this report, it may be well that I should offer a few remarks in connection with the great square black basaltic pillar which, with the base and capital of another similar pillar, and a long ponderous block of similar stone, which probably formed part of the entablature over the pillars…The pillar above referred to, it is well known, once stood in the garden of Taj Mahal; and while there, for some reason or other now unknown, the shaft of the pillar used to rock on its base, with a slight touch of the hand, like one of the “logan” or rocking stones. Besides the remains of another pillar, and the large block of similar stone, before mentioned, which are in the grounds of the museum, there are also the remains of a third pillar now placed as gate posts at the gate of a European residence in the cantonments at Agra.”

[ix] From Taj Mahal – The Great British Conspiracy – Part 2 by Dr VS Godbole

[x] In Moin-Ud-Din’s text, “History of the Taj”, Pg 38 and 39 https://archive.org/stream/historytajandbu00aldgoog#page/n55/mode/2up/search/kalas

[xi] “New insights on the modular planning of the Taj Mahal”, R. Balasubramaniam, Department of Materials and Metallurgical Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur 208 016, India  (Paper published in July 2009)

[xii] From “Itihas Patrika”, Vol. 5, pp 98-111, 1985

August 22nd, 2014 Posted by | Debates & Discussions, Indian Architecture & City Planning, ToI Columns | 2 comments

The Yazidis, the rage, the silence of the Ummah..

Less than a week back, the world witnessed a remarkable series of coordinated demonstrations. In Washington, in London, in Paris, in Sydney and tens of cities around the world, protestors marched to express solidarity with the people of Gaza in what was widely labelled as a “Day of Rage”.

Yet, even as these protests were happening, another tragedy was unfolding less than a thousand miles north-east of Gaza. Hundreds of women and children were being summarily executed, some buried alive.  Hundreds others were being captured, branded as slaves & sexually assaulted. Such was the severity of this crisis that  the UN warned of an imminent genocide. The horror shows no signs of abating.

Almost “200,000 people, mostly Yazidi, have been forced to leave their homes around the town of Sinjar since an ISIS attack on 3 August”. Earlier this week, a heart-rending account of the plight of these innocent people caught in the cross-fire of Jihad moved me to ask a simple question, where is the condemnation by Islamic scholars and leaders of this barbarity?

Multiple accounts mention how the Yazidis have been particularly singled out for massacre and how the Jihadis “have been more ruthless in their pursuit of them than they have against other minorities”.  As Saneev Sanyal noted in his poignant piece aptly titled, “The massacre of the Yazidis”, “The Christians of Mosul were given the choice to convert, pay the jiziya tax or leave. The Yazidis were given no such choice and are often killed on sight as “devil-worshippers”.

And yet, I could not find statements of condemnation by leaders of the Islamic world against this atrocity being committed in the name of Islam. Even as we were witnessing one of the most appalling and barbaric episodes in modern history – unrivaled in scale and utterly terrifying in its nature – voices of condemnation from the Islamic world were either non-existent  or too weak to matter.

Perplexed, I asked commentators on twitter to help me point to instances of clear and categorical condemnation of monstrosities being unleashed in the name of Islam. Numerous tweets and re-tweets later, all I had were barely 2 links, one of which predated the hell of Mt. Sinjar.

Why does it matter? It matters because ISIS claims to be inspired by Islam. Therefore the challenge to them cannot be limited merely to the political – or the military. It needs to be at the level of ideology too.

I therefore felt that it was incumbent on Islamic scholars and leaders world-wide to unequivocally condemn this barbarism.  I was not alone.  Three days back, in an unexpected deviation from “from its customary language in the highly sensitive area of inter-faith relationsthe Vatican asked…religious leaders, and above all Muslim religious leaders” to “take a clear and courageous stance…(and be) unanimous in their unambiguous condemnation of these crimes (by ISIS) and denounce the invoking of religion to justify them”.

There were some positive stirrings last week (e.g. the condemnation by British Imams and by Cairo’s Grand Mufti) but I am yet to see a direct statement (leave alone statements) specifically condemning the cruelty towards Yazidis (save a statement by the Arab League, another by a chaplain at a US University and a third that predates the ISIS assault on Sinjar).

Why am I so interested in the Yazidis? The Yazidis matters because they have been bearing the brunt of this madness. In the deadly drama unfolding in Iraq & Syria, they are the ones paying the heaviest price.

And yet, the Islamic world prefers silence in the face of this matter of rage.  In the meantime, the usual arguments get parroted. “This is not Islam”; “ISIS is not following true Islam”; “They (the killers) are not Muslims” and the more outlandish ones, including the familiar “This is a Zionist conspiracy to malign Islam and Muslims

What is it that is stopping community leaders and Islamic scholars from condemning this murder and mayhem? What is stopping them from issuing a fatwa against ISIS? What is stopping them from publicly excommunicating Al-Baghdadi?

What is stopping protests and speeches against the ISIS – for their killings of not just the Yazidis but also Christians and Shias and Sunnis who are deemed to be un-cooperative? Or is the Day of Rage reserved only for Israel?

Why this thundering silence from the Ummah? I wonder. I sigh. And I remember a question I asked almost two years ago, “Is the problem at the heart of Islam, the silence of sensible Muslims?”.  Have a peaceful weekend. Jai Hind, Jai Bharat!

Related Posts: Condemnation of ISIS Cruelty towards the Yazidis and Is the problem at the heart of Islam the silence of sensible Muslims?

Cross-posted at ToI blogs

August 15th, 2014 Posted by | Current Affairs, Global Terrorism, ToI Columns | 8 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

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