India’s government has been dragged into a bizarre row over whether the Taj Mahal, widely seen as a masterpiece of Muslim architecture, should be converted into a Hindu temple.
A legal case, first brought by six lawyers in Agra in April, claims that the monument famously built by a seventeenth-century Mughal emperor as a tomb for his beloved wife was originally an ancient shrine to the Hindu god Shiva.
The petition, which was accepted by the Agra Court, names a Hindu deity as its main plaintiff.
It calls for ownership of the monument to be transferred to Hindus for worship and, most controversially, for Muslim religious activity to be blocked and graves to be removed.
Currently, only Muslims are allowed to worship at the site, offering Friday prayers at a mosque attached to the Taj Mahal.
Questioned in parliament on Monday, Dr Mahesh Sharma, India’s culture minister, said he was aware of the suit, but that “the government has not found any evidence which can suggest that Taj Mahal was a Hindu temple of Shiva”.
However, experts warned this alone will not be enough to quash the suit, which has inflamed tensions in India at a time when growing religious intolerance is already a daily talking point.
“What the culture minister has said will be the government’s official stand on it, but the court has yet to decide,” said Dr Bhuvan Vikrama, of the Archaeological Survey of India, which manages the mausoleum.
Theories over the Taj Mahal’s supposed Hindu heritage have abounded for decades, albeit well outside the historical mainstream.
In his 1989 book Taj Mahal: The True Story, revisionist historian PN Oak claimed the monument was built in 1155, decades before the Muslim invasion of India. He said its name is a corrupt form of the sanskrit term “Tejo Mahalay”, signifying a Shiva Temple.
However, Oak is the author of many outlandish and discredited theories, including bizarre claims that the Hindus once conquered Italy, and even that Westminster Abbey was once also a Shiva temple.
That, though, has not stopped his writings being widely circulated online.
As British historian William Dalrymple noted, Hindu supremacists "have found it hard to believe that such a masterpiece was built by the same Muslims they despised”.
Today, the same claims have been taken up by some members of the ruling BJP, the Hindu nationalist party led by prime minister Narenda Modi.
Lakshmikant Bajpayee, the BJP president of Uttar Pradesh state, where the monument is located, said in December that the Taj Mahal was an ancient temple that was sold by Hindu king Jai Singh to Shah Jahan, the Mughal emperor widely believed to have built it.
"I am not saying this in air but there are documents to prove this," he said.
Likewise, the Agra court case was filed by lawyer Hari Shankar Jain, who claims to be a sympathiser of the RSS, a Hindu nationalist organisation with close ideological links to Mr Modi's BJP.
While government ministers have now been forced to pour cold water on the claims, some in the tourism industry surrounding the Taj Mahal believe the damage is already being done.
Speaking at the Agra district court in May, a collection of tourist bodies warned: “The Taj Mahal is a major tourist attraction and a symbol of national pride not only for Agra but also for the entire country.
“Making the Taj Mahal controversial would affect not only the source of attraction for the world but also tourism in the country.”
Thursday, December 3, 2015
Hindus in India challenge the history of the Taj Mahal as a Muslim site
Strange revisionist ideas can be found anywhere, as reported from New Delhi by Andrew Marszal of the London Daily Telegraph, December 1, 2015: