The 17th-century white marble structure, commissioned by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, has been described by India‘s own Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, as “a solitary tear suspended on the cheek of time”. Seven million tourists flock to view the grandiose structure every year.
Yet the monument is now mired in controversy after several politicians from the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) argued that it had no place in the country’s heritage because it was built by a Muslim ruler.
Mr Sangeet Som, a BJP leader, denounced the monument as a blot on Indian culture and warned that the history from the Mughal era would be rewritten. His BJP colleague, Mr Subramanian Swamy, maintained that the Taj Mahal was built on land stolen from a Hindu king, while fellow party leader Vijay Katiyar claimed it was built by Hindu kings but appropriated by Shah Jahan. The outlandish claim was refuted by the Archaeological Survey of India.
The Taj Mahal is located in the city of Agra in Uttar Pradesh state, where Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath sparked the current round of criticism of the monument by saying in June that it did not reflect Indian culture. It was subsequently left out of an Uttar Pradesh government tourism brochure that listed other spots such as temples.
But Mr Adityanath appeared to change tack last week, saying that the monument would be preserved because it “was built from the blood and sweat of Indian labourers and that of the sons of Bharat Mata (mother India)”.
The BJP, while noting that it has no position on individual monuments, has remained critical of the Mughal period.
“There is no party view on the Taj Mahal but the Muslim Mughal era was a period of extreme exploitation and intolerance. That’s our party view,” said BJP spokesman G.V.L. Narasimha Rao.
Founded in 1526, the Mughal dynasty ruled over an empire that spanned the entire Indian sub-continent until the 18th century. Historical ruins and structures from the Mughal era – including Delhi’s Red Fort, from where Indian prime ministers address the nation on Independence Day – dot northern India. Emperor Shah Jahan ruled for 30 years, from 1628 to 1658, and his beloved third wife, Mumtaz, died giving birth to their 14th child.
Critics maintain that the attack on the Taj Mahal was part of a Hindu nationalist effort to polarise society along religious lines, a charge denied by the BJP.
“(The Hindu nationalists’) chief objective is not to do history and research. We would welcome a challenge. But this is not their objective or their intention,” said Mr Harbans Mukhia from the Indian Council of Historical Research, who is an expert on Indian mediaeval history.
“I think for long what is seen as this country’s cultural heritage was never seen as belonging to X or Y religion. It was a heritage reflecting its composite culture,” said political analyst Sandeep Shastri.
“The moment you start nitpicking different elements of this heritage it runs counter to fundamental choices we made as a country that what is Indian is not necessarily the project of a certain religion or property of those belonging to a certain religion. It is a heritage that reflects the multicultural and multi-religious identity of India,” he said.
The government has sought to distance itself from the controversy, maintaining that the 17th-century monument – which is facing other challenges such as pollution, which has led to the discolouring of the white marble – was not being ignored or starved of funds.
But the opposition has picked up on the issue to criticise the BJP, with the Nationalist Congress Party demanding an explanation from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and others wondering if he would stop addressing the nation from the Red Fort.