Tuesday 28 June 2022
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Taj Mahal: Barking Up The Wrong Oak

Since the late 1990s, revisionist PN Oak's repeatedly rubbished conspiracy theory on the Taj Mahal has been rearing its head time and again

Date:

Surajit Dasgupta
Surajit Dasgupta
Co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Sirf News Surajit Dasgupta has been a science correspondent in The Statesman, senior editor in The Pioneer, special correspondent in Money Life, the first national affairs editor of Swarajya, executive editor of Hindusthan Samachar and desk head of MyNation

Six days ago, for the umpteenth time, somebody filed a petition at the Supreme Court, asking for public access to allegedly inaccessible portions of the Taj Mahal, notwithstanding the fact that a week earlier, the Allahabad High Court had dismissed a similar petition, saying the was not a competent authority to make a judgement call on history. Soon, social media platforms were flooded by fans of revisionist PN Oak’s conspiracy theory that had posited more than two decades ago that the Taj used to be a temple of Shiva known as Tejo Mahalaya. The hypothesis is backed neither by any literature of the Shah Jahan era nor any archaeological evidence. All that Oak gave were arguments like asking why certain structural parts of Taj Mahal’s architecture resembled those of temples. The Supreme Court, after examining his theory, had famously commented he had a “bee in the bonnet”.

Given some hostile verdicts of the recent past, it was expected that the apex court’s judgment of 2000 would be pooh-poohed. But the Supreme Court has not always been as it is currently. Many judgments went in the favour of Hindus too under the leadership of three consecutive chief justices of India: Deepak Misra, Ranjan Gogoi and Sharad Arvind Bobde. The year 2000 was a part of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s era. Until then, people had not quite often heard of judicial overreach or, worse, judicial activism, as they do today.

Now, after facing a serious challenge on academic grounds, the Oak fans revised their position, climbing down from the claim that it was a temple of Shiva to the claim that it must have been some other building that the Mughal king usurped. Then, a mythical 22-room theory was floated and the endorsers of the conjecture asked why a tomb should need rooms in its basement. Third, the conspiracy theorists asked why Padshahnama (alternatively known as Badshahnama) does not mention the Taj Mahal. Fourth, there was a question of whether burying Mumtaz Mahal once away from the plot where the Taj Mahal stands, then disinterring the body and bringing it to Agra was permissible in Islam. Fifth, it was found that a large section of Hindi speakers wrongly believed (a) that “mahal” was a ‘Hindi’ word that had descended from Sanskrit and (b) that it could not have been the name of a person.

While this writer made a detailed post on Facebook on the subject, the answers to the questions above were posted as comments and, hence, accessing them may not be a user-friendly experience. Hence this article in Sirf News.

It’s propaganda that certain parts of the Taj are always inaccessible to the public. The Archaeological Survey of India does open it occasionally. And the is convinced, as it submitted before the apex court in 2000, that it was never a temple. The department reiterated its statement in 2017 in a court in Agra after the Union Ministry of Culture clarified in November 2015 (the Narendra Modi government’s era) in the Lok Sabha that there was no evidence of any temple at the Taj.

“Historically and even according to records as available there is an ancient monument named as Taj Mahal alone at the bank of river Yamuna at Agra duly declared by the government to be of national importance having gained the worldwide recognition as the 7th wonder of the world. As per available records right from the British period since 1904, the monument Taj was declared a protected monument by notification on 22 December 1920,” the stated in its affidavit.

When Oak derived a wrong inference from the title deed of the plot on which the Taj Mahal stands

Historian Giles Tillotson (by no stretch a Marxist, in case one inquired) calls Oak’s claims a “desperate bid to assign a new meaning to the Taj” and “pseudo-scholarship”. He says Oak interprets the statements of Padshahnama about Shah Jahan’s purchase of the land for the Taj from Jai Singh I — “upon where a mansion built by an ancestor of the Raja earlier existed” — to claim that the Taj Mahal was a wonder of ancient Hinduism.

Tillotson says Oak furnished no evidence to redate the Taj Mahal from the 17th century to 13 centuries earlier. In fact, after Tillotson’s challenge, Oak dropped his original claim and then said — without evidence once again — the ‘temple’ existed in the 12th century.

Mystery of ’22 rooms’ under Taj Mahal

The Indian Express recently published a report that cited archaeologists and historians to say that the so-called “22 rooms” in the basement of the Taj Mahal are not really rooms, but rather a long arched corridor along which doors were fixed so the space could be utilised better.

An employee of the said the department’s staff at the Taj clean the “rooms” weekly or fortnightly, and “There is nothing on the walls there.”

“There is no secret history in the basement, it is for security reasons only that the area is kept out of bounds for visitors,” the official said.

Former Regional Director (North) archaeologist KK Muhammed — a rage in Hindutva circles since the time he testified in favour of the Hindu side during the court hearings on the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute hearing — said that he had seen no religious motifs inside the basement rooms of the Taj. He said such rooms were not uncommon in other Mughal-era structures of a similar nature — in Agra, and at the Humayun’s Tomb and Safdarjung’s tomb in Delhi.

“The maintains all these basement rooms. The walls are bare, there are no motifs; it’s just a structural element to raise the plinth on which the main mausoleum and the minarets stand,” Muhammed said.

Muhammed said the Taj was first mentioned in the Badshahnama, the official chronicle of Shah Jahan’s reign — and that its architectural features are such that it could not have been built even 50 years before the time that is historically assigned to it, given the way Mughal architecture evolved. “It takes the double-dome, inlays, and jaalis from various Mughal structures that existed at the time it was commissioned,” Muhammed said.

The newspaper cited above quoted the official from the ’s Agra Circle as saying: “For a structure of this size, once the foundation is done, arches are created to lift the platform and spread the load uniformly. Surveys are conducted from time to time by going to the basement to test the strength of the Taj Mahal.”

Fact Check: Kapil Mishra Says There's 'Scientific Evidence' That Taj Mahal  Is 'Tejo Mahalaya'
BJP’s Kapil Mishra was misled by the claim that had gone viral on social media platforms

Why Padshahnama does not mention Taj Mahal

The writers who were commissioned to write Padshahnama were given specific briefs on what they must write. By and large, they covered only two things: Court proceedings and military campaigns. While Shah was, among all Mughals, the greatest patron of arts, Padshahnama does not mention any construction work. Taj Mahal was not the only monument the compilation missed.

Further, the writers had either died or turned too old for the compilation work before the construction of the Taj was complete.

Muhammad Amin Qazvini’s work ended in 1636, covering the first 10 lunar years of Shah Jahan’s rule.

Jalaluddin Tabatabai wrote another Padshahnama, but the extant portion of the text covers only four years, from the fifth to eighth regnal year of the emperor.

Abdul Hamid Lahori wrote his Padshahnama in two volumes. The first volume of this work is based upon Qazvini’s work but has more details. The second volume covers the next ten (lunar) years of Shah Jahan’s reign. He completed his work in 1648.

Muhammad Waris, a pupil of Lahori, was given the responsibility to complete the task and his Badshahnama (completed in 1656) covers the rest of the period of Shah Jahan’s reign. Meanwhile, the construction of the Taj finished in 1653.

Finally, the full text of the Padshahnama has still not been translated into English. The Asiatic Society has the original manuscript, but it neither completes the work nor allows somebody from outside to access the Persian writings. One must look elsewhere for written proof of the Taj. Architect cum writer Ustad Ahmad Lahori’s son Lutfullah Muhandis mentions two architects: Ustad Ahmad Lahori and Mir Abd-ul Karim. Ustad Ahmad Lahori had laid the foundations of the Red Fort at Delhi (built between 1638 and 1648). Mir Abd-ul Karim had been the favourite architect of the previous emperor Jahangir and is mentioned as a supervisor, together with Makramat Khan, for the construction of the Taj Mahal.

Know more about them from these sources:

  1. Taj Mahal Description and Profile (Ahmad Lahori, architect of the emperor) UNESCO dot org website
  2. Malcolm Dunkeld-edited “Construction history society newsletter”, Chartered Institute of Building website

Contention: Mumtaz Mahal was not buried where Taj Mahal stands today

It is true that the body of Mumtaz Mahal, born Arjumand Banu Begum, was temporarily buried at Burhanpur in a walled pleasure garden known as Zainabad, originally constructed by Shah Jahan’s uncle Daniyal on the bank of the Tapti. However, the king never intended to make Burhanpur his queen’s final resting place. Her body was disinterred in December 1631 and transported in a golden casket escorted by her son Shah Shuja, the dead empress’s head lady-in-waiting, and the distinguished courtier Wazir Khan, back to Agra.

In Agra, the body was interred in a small building on the banks of the Yamuna. Shah Jahan stayed behind in Burhanpur to conclude the military campaign that had originally brought him to the region. While there, he began planning the design and construction of a suitable mausoleum and funerary garden in Agra for his wife. It was a task that would take 22 years to complete, the Taj Mahal.

Sources

  1. Diana and Michael Preston’s book Taj Mahal: Passion and Genius at the of the Moghul Empire
  2. Ebba Koch’s book The Complete Taj Mahal — And the Riverfront Gardens of Agra
Taj Mahal: Barking Up The Wrong Oak [interior image]

On sharing the information above, some respondents found the part on exhumation incredible. They contended that disinterring a buried body was impermissible in Islam. Not true. In exceptional circumstances, the Qur’an and the Shari’ah allow it and there are ahadith that say such a thing was done on quite a few occasions in the lifetime of Prophet Mohammed. It continues to the present day when the body of a Muslim individual needs re-examination for clues in a case of crime after its burial.

In an exposition on forensic science, Science Direct says, “There are situations where the exhumation of graves can be permissible due to previous examples of exhumation in Islamic law. According to a Hadith narrated by Anas ibn Mālik (d. 712), when the Prophet Muhammad arrived at Medina, he built a mosque in a place where some graves were exhumed and palm trees were cut down. Furthermore, Jābir ibn ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Amr, one of the Muslims whose father was buried in a collective grave with the body of ‘Amr ibn al-Jumūḥ ibn Zayd ibn Ḥarām al-Anṣārı̄ in the battle of Uḥud, explains how much pain he was in because his father’s body was buried in a collective grave on the battlefield in Uḥud, about five kilometres from where he was living in Medina, and that he did not rest until his father’s body was transferred after six months to an individual grave in Medina.”

The exposition continues: “Finally, Shaykh Makhlūf, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, issued a fatwa permitting the transfer of human remains of ‘the last Ottoman sultan, ‘Abd Al-Majı̄d, and his wife, who were embalmed and buried in France, to be buried in Egypt’. These three cases of exhumation outline some of the possible instances in which exhumation of the deceased can be permissible under Islamic law.”

‘Mahal’ not a Sanskrit-origin word

The Sanskrit for a palace or castle is prāsād (प्रासाद). The word “mahal” came to some Indian languages from Arabic mahall via Persian mahal. As Hindi speakers have been using an assortment of foreign-origin words since Islamic invasions began in the last millennium, by now the discernment to distinguish indigenous words from borrowed vocabulary is largely lost. Believing that mahal came from Sanskrit via Prakrit is a case in point.

Sources

  1.  “Definition of mahal”Lexico.
  2. Joseph Catafago’s “AN ENGLISH AND ARABIC DICTIONARY, in Two Parts, ARABIC AND ENGLISH, AND ENGLISH AND ARABIC, IN WHICH THE ARABIC WORDS ARE REPRESENTED IN THE ORIENTAL CHARACTER THEIR CORRECT PRONUNCIATION AND ACCENTUATION SHEWN IN ENGLISH LETTERS”.
  3. Ibid “AN ENGLISH AND ARABIC DICTIONARY, in Two Parts, ARABIC AND ENGLISH, AND ENGLISH AND ARABIC, IN WHICH THE ARABIC WORDS ARE REPRESENTED IN THE ORIENTAL CHARACTER THEIR CORRECT PRONUNCIATION AND ACCENTUATION SHEWN IN ENGLISH LETTERS”

Hindu aspects of Taj Mahal

There is no gainsaying in asserting that certain structures of the Taj resemble those of temples. That is a common feature of all Mughal-built buildings. The Mughals had come from the backwaters of central Asia, a part that remains remote and neglected in today’s world: Andijan, Fergana Valley, contemporary Uzbekistan, the birthplace of Babur. Being an underdeveloped area, the only beautiful structures they had seen — or even central Asian invaders before Babur had seen — were those built by Turks farther westward and those built by Hindus in India. Naturally, therefore, all structures ordered by Muslim kings, regardless of whether they were built on razed temples, combined aspects of Turkish and Indian architecture. The Taj was no different. Before the Taj, the tomb of Humayun was built on a near-identical design.

Consider the fact that of the 40,000 temples that invaders destroyed, the Taj figures in the writings of neither Sita Ram Goel nor Ram Swarup. Hindu Temples – What Happened to Them by Sita Ram Goel, Arun Shourie, Harsh Narain, Jay Dubashi and Ram Swarup nowhere mentions that the Taj Mahal was earlier Tejo Mahalaya.

Remember, to win a case in the court, evidence is of greater import than arguments. “Why does the Taj have parts that look like a temple’s?” is an argument. Evidence would be (1) findings from excavations, (2) historical accounts and (3) literature of the period. None of the three establishes there ever was a Tejo Mahalaya.

The Ram Janmabhoomi case was won by the dint of findings as well as the history of several Vishnu temples dating back to 1000 BC on the plot where later Babri Masjid had come up. There was the history of Babur’s general Mir Baqi who supervised the construction of the mosque. No such pre-Taj history exists about the plot of land where the Taj has been standing since Shah Jahan’s period. Another myth about the Taj is that the then Mughal king had ordered the chopping off of thumbs or arms of all labourers involved in the construction, but let’s not digress.

Those who believe it was Tejo Mahalaya or some other building before it was Taj Mahal must have presented one of the following proofs in support of their contention:

  1. Report of an archaeological study
  2. A book of the 17th century, which states clearly that Shah Jahan had razed an existing building and ordered the construction of the Taj on it
  3. Citations from a qualified historian who has studied (1) above and agreed it was Tejo Mahalaya or some other building before

None of the above came forth in the debate in the comment section under my Facebook post from the side of the conspiracy theorists.

Harm that Oak and his fans cause

A favourite of many who love to punch holes in Marxist history, historian Koenraad Elst rubbished the Tejo Mahalaya theory in 2010. In 2017, when the ghost of Oak reared its head again, Elst blasted the theorist once again.

That was also the occasion when the historian pointed out how genuine seekers of historical knowledge do a disservice to their own cause by believing and furthering Oak-like make-believe. Today, Elst expressed his disappointment with the Hindu right again.

This article will deal with that now.

Oak would have been a respected figure as a veteran of the INA. He squandered that social status away by floating the Tejo Mahalaya theory. Note that he had said even the Westminster Abbey, Vatican City and the Kaa’bah were originally Hindu structures! Even the Mahabharata, the epic with extensive geographical descriptions of kingdoms from where warriors came to fight in Kurukshetra, does not claim that the civilisation of the era went anywhere beyond today’s Afghanistan in the west and Indonesia in the east. And this revisionist called Oak reaches up to Italy and England, not just Saudi Arabia! I am sure the devotees of Oak also believe that the etymology of Viagra originates from the Sanskrit word व्याघ्र (this was a popular joke about newbie raita wingers — a pejorative reference to the semi-educated, excitable section of the right wing — in the 1990s).

The Tejo Mahalaya theory threatens to once again reduce the so-called right-wing to a laughing stock in the community of scholars. It’s a classic case of the right-wing gifting intellectual victory on a platter to the left. Finally, when you make a claim that is serious, you are not taken seriously because you have had a history of being frivolous.

The apprehension is no hypothesis. Two days ago, BBC seized the opportunity by commissioning a leftist columnist who made mincemeat of Oak’s Tejo Mahalaya and the revisionist’s fans. And since the criticism is right, we must grin and bear it even as several British-Marxist theories, beginning with the Aryan invasion/migration theory, stand discredited.

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