Monday, August 25, 2008
Giles Tillotson – Taj Mahal
Early on in this new book on the Taj Mahal, the author makes the point that the building has reached a level of recognition in the popular consciousness, far beyond anything that those who original built it could have imagined. The building has been used in India itself to advertise everything from “tea to hotels”.
Internationally of course, the very silhouette of the building represents India incarnate which is why, as the author writes, there is “no town in midland Britain without at least one Taj Mahal takeaway”.
Surprisingly perhaps, the Taj Mahal doesn’t have that long a history, though the stories that have grown up around it would fill a book far longer than this one.
The one thing that most people know about the Taj, is that it is a tomb. Built in the 1630s by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, the Taj Mahal’s huge dome covers the grave of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal who died during the birth of the couple’s fourteenth child. Shah Jahan himself was buried next too her, unusually off-centre in this most symmetrical of buildings.
As Tillotson says - “The construction of the tomb… the effort, the cost and the splendid result have all been taken as further evidence of the power of Shah Jahan’s grief”. For many, these facts alone make the Taj Mahal the greatest monument to love – indeed it is why that arch-manipulator of the media, Princess Diana, could use it as a backdrop to send a message of loneliness on a visit to India with her then husband, Prince Charles.
For most readers in Britain the history of India will started with Britain’s involvement in that country, so Tillotson’s potted history of the Mughal emperors, Shah Jahan’s rise to power and his eventual house arrest by one of his sons, who assumed control of the throne, is informative and fascinating.
The wealth and power of the Mughal emperors is of course demonstrated by the Taj Mahal itself, but the design of the building came from a long tradition of Mughal architecture. This is often overlooked, and by the time of European involvement in the country, the building became the centre of a debate on it’s origin.
The somewhat racist attitudes of the white European colonials towards the Indian people meant that the Taj didn’t fit into either the Western sterotypes of backward India, nor to their ideas of art and architecture. The buildings very beauty became a problem for some of its visitors.
One of the earliest accounts by a Westerner, is from a French physician, Francois Bernier, who wrote from Dehli in 1663. For Bernier, the Taj Mahal doesn’t fit any established European tradition, though he is at pains to describe its layout and dimensions in terms of Parisian landmarks. While “liking Mughal architecture regardless”, Bernier comes away confused and worried that “I may have imbibed an Indian taste”.
Several similar accounts are described in the book – and we get a sense that many western colonials were disorientated by the Taj Mahal – it must have symbolished a different India – one that was at odds with the prevailing attitudes of the time.
Later on some learned architects went so far as to consider Mughal buldings to be of no value at all. Edwin Lutyens came to the country in 1912 to plan the new “Imperial City” for the colonial masters. He came away from a study tour of the country declaring that “I d not believe that there is any real Indian architecture”.
Perhaps it is this sort of view that has allowed many since the creation of the building to argue that there must have been European involvement in its design and erection. The author deals ably with these and other myths – his answers illuminating our own views of the building and the stories that have grown up with it.
The last chapters of the book deal with the historical and cultural legacy of the Taj Mahal. As a new wonder of the world, the building symbolises more that its collected history and culture – which is why there continue to be debates and argument over who should control it and how it should be looked after.
The building was originally designed to be self sufficient – raising funds from the fruits grown in its extensive and sumptuous gardens. Now, some eight thousand people a day visit the Taj Mahal – their cash is a major source of revenue, which no doubt creates its own problems and arguments.
Considering how famous the Taj Mahal is, few in the western world will have any idea of its real history. This history deserves to be told, not simply because it is fascinating, but really because the Taj Mahal doesn’t have a history of its own. The buildings history is intertwined with the history of the Mughal emperors as well as the rise and fall of the British Empire.
Its cultural imagery says much about the movement of millions of Indian people around the world, and their reception in places like the UK. The Taj’s image as a monument to love and a destination for honeymoon couples tells us much about ourselves and our own hopes, and the arguments that go on about it’s future give indications about the vested interests that arise around any famous place.
Giles Tillotson’s book is an excellent introduction to all of this, and it comes highly recommended.
Related Reviews (Other books in the Wonders of the World series)
Fenlon - Piazza San Marco
Goldhill - The Temple of Jerusalem
Gere - The Tomb of Agamemnon
Ray - The Rosetta Stone
Hopkins & Beard - The Colosseum