Taj mahal i did not see

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The Tear Drop

daya dissanayake

It has been called a Shrine of Love. Gurudev Tagore called it a "tear drop on the cheek of time". It is a historic site. A great monument. It also would have caused not just one tear drop but rivers of tears to fall from the 20,000 men who laboured for 22 years to build it, to flow into the ocean of sweat which poured from their bodies.

It is the tears and the sweat and the blood that I would have seen, seeping through the marble slabs, had I gone in to see the Taj Mahal. Instead I roamed around the vehicle park and the innumerable tourist shops while the other delegates who attended the SAARC literary festival walked into see one of the seven wonders of the world.

I sat in the shade of a neem tree and watched the tourists walking in and out of the gates. I tried to imagine a flow of humanity numbering over two to four million a year through this monument. I wondered what they saw, and what their feelings were. They would have heard of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, and listened to various versions about the Taj Mahal, as recited mechanically by the tour guides. The total interest of the guides would have been to get the maximum sales commissions from what the gullible tourists purchased. The visitors purchase replicas of a mausoleum, said to be of the same marble as had been used for the Taj Mahal. They collect chains, bangles, pendants and invariably the Agra delicacy, 'Petha', which is said to be unique to Agra. But in our country we too know it as 'Puhul Dosi' made from ash pumpkin.

I had always wondered what was the true love of Shahab Uddin Muhammad Shah Jahan. As his name implies, did he want to become the 'King of the World'? Was it love for power and glory, or love for one woman amongst his eleven wives? Was he considered the 'greatest Mughal' because he conquered so much land, or because he caused the death and suffering of hundreds of thousands of human beings in the wars he initiated? He was considered great because he won the wars, because he walked to his victory over dead bodies.

Arjumand Banu was married to Shah Jahan when she was 19 years old. She had 13 children over a period of 18 years. She had died during the birth of her 14th child. She had been given the title Mumtaz Mahal (Chosen one of the palace) by her husband, because of his deep love for her. Poets had extolled her beauty and gracefulness, yet she had also enjoyed "watching elephant and combat fights", which would not have been so graceful.

We only hear about, talk about and think about Shah Jahan, but we do not pause even for a moment to think of the poor people who slaved to build the Taj Mahal, not because they were interested in creating a work of art, but because they were compelled to work. No one would have been able to refuse. We also do not know, probably because there would not have been any record, of how many of these workers had got injured or had died during the construction. We have no record of how many would have been punished for failing to carry out their task satisfactorily. Shah Jahan not only exploited human labour, but also is said to have caused immense suffering to one thousand elephants to carry all the building materials from all over India. This fact has slipped the minds of our animal lovers.

There are also many legends about how Shah Jahan had cut off the hands of the workers, of the architects, had even blinded the chief architects. Though there is no evidence to establish any of these legends, they would never have arisen if Shah Jahan was such a sensitive person, with so much love for his wife, and had such good taste as to visualize the Taj Mahal.

We also do not talk about the architect or architects who designed and supervised the construction. Ustad Ahmad, also known as Isa Khan, is mentioned as the chief architect, while other names have been mentioned in Mughal histories: Ismail Afandi who had worked for the Ottomans, Qazim Khan goldsmith, Chiranji Lal lapidarist, Amanat Khan calligrapher, Mohammed Hanif, Multan and Quandhar master masons, Mukrimat Khan and Mir Karim supervisors and administrators. If not for these people and all the other unnamed and unknown artisans the Taj Mahal would never have been built. If the Mughals had not conquered all the land around them, and looted all the wealth of these lands, Shah Jahan would never have been able to find the funds to build this.

There is no mention of how the money was found, because none of these rulers had ever done an honest day's work in their life time. Perhaps we could say this about most ancient projects, which were of no apparent benefit to mankind, like the pyramids. They could be considered as monuments of exploitation. Megalomania leading to the erection of mega-monuments.

One more question which came to my mind was, the reason for all the million to visit the Taj Mahal or any other historical site. Could we really see the beauty, the majesty and appreciate the craftsmanship in just about one hour?

The ideas of Stephen Knapp also came to my mind as tourists carried with them the tiny replicas of the Taj Mahal. P. N. Oak's book 'The 'True Story of the Taj Mahal' claims that the name Taj Mahal is a corrupt form of the term Tejomahalay, signifying a Siva temple. That is another story, perhaps for another day.

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