Taj-ing it together: Reconciling conflicting perspectives on the Taj Mahal

19 minutes to read
Paper
Jarell Paulissen
24/06/2018

When people think of India, there are usually two things that come to mind: spicy food and the Taj Mahal. This paper will focus on the latter.

What lies on the horizon

The Taj Mahal was commissioned by the Mughal (Indian Muslim) emperor Shah Jahan in 1632 and took around twenty years to complete. It was built as a mausoleum for his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, after whom it was also named. An estimated 20.000 labourers from both Asia and Europe, as well as 1.000 elephants, were brought in to build the structure. The Taj Mahal is one of the best examples of Mughal architecture, which combines Indian, Persian and Islamic elements. It was put on the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites in 1983 and remains one of the most famous buildings in the world, as well as a symbol for ‘incredible India’ (History.com Staff, 2011). 

However, is the Taj really the symbol we take it for? In this essay, I will show that it is not. Instead, I am going to demonstrate that there are multiple, conflicting interpretations. The question then becomes as follows:

     Is it possible to reconcile the different views on the Taj Mahal?

To aid me in my endeavour, I will be drawing on the writings of Hans-Georg Gadamer and Jonathan Culler about the ‘horizon of situation’ that affects interpretation. Moreover, the paper will be divided over the following subsections:
1) Where does the popular idea of the Taj Mahal come from?
2) How is the Taj Mahal interpreted by critics of this view?
3) What do native Indians have to say about the Taj Mahal?

In what follows, I will first outline a theoretical framework of the hermeneutical approaches I am going to use in this textual interpretation. Then, I am going to describe the following different interpretations of the Taj Mahal:  an orientalist view, a critical reading, and a nationalist perspective. The selection of these different standpoints is based on lectures about colonial travel writing given by prof. dr. Beck and dr. Nugteren at Tilburg University. In the conclusion, finally, I am going to provide an answer to the main question, as well as reflect on the hermeneutical approach used in this paper.

Romanticism emerged in the 19th century in response to the Enlightenment and was particularly interested in the uniqueness of nations, which was believed to be founded upon a shared language, history and artistic preferences.

A hermeneutical approach

In Truth and method (1960), the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer states that vision is always limited by a person’s particular situation, and is therefore inextricably connected to the concept of horizon. He defines the term horizon as “the range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point” (p. 301). Being aware of one’s horizon is just the beginning; the next step is to try and expand it with new insights. Not taking the horizon into account will lead one to overstating the importance of what one sees, while taking it into consideration will allow one to put things into perspective and see their relativity. This means that to find the correct hermeneutical method is to have the appropriate horizon (Gadamer, 1960). Building on this idea, Culler (2011) states that readers bring their own experiences to the table when it comes to interpretation. By this he means that the meaning an interpreter gives to a text or other cultural production is influenced by his/her ethnic background, social environment and upbringing.

Culler also uses the term horizon to describe such a personal framework. According to him “interpreting is a social practice. Readers interpret informally when they talk to friends about books or films [...] For the more formal interpretation that takes place in classrooms, there are different protocols” (p. 64). Yet later on he says that “if you come up with an interpretation, you have to persuade others of its pertinence” (p. 66). It seems he is contradicting himself here; I do not think there is a significant difference between formal and informal interpretation. If persuasion is always necessary, it follows that an interpretation made outside of an academic setting has to meet the same requirements as a formal one (Culler, 2011). Mieke Bal even goes so far to say that certain academic concepts are themselves affected by this. People with different backgrounds will think of entirely different ideas when hearing the same term. This is why you should always be explicit about the meaning you ascribe to the concepts you use (Bal, 2002).

Orientalism: colonial accounts of the Taj Mahal

There are multiple ways to look at places like the Taj Mahal, but at some point, certain narratives are woven into a discourse of dominant themes. Such a discourse is written by a particular group that is dominant itself: “the powerful have a breathtaking ability to stamp their own meanings on the past” (Samuel & Thompson, as cited in Edensor, 1998, p. 61). The Western notion of the Taj Mahal as the romantic epitome of Indian culture has its roots in the orientalist writings of the British colonial era. According to Pal, the admiration the British had for the Taj reflected a multitude of aesthetic preferences that were the result of orientalist fantasies. The symmetry and white marble of the mausoleum appealed to admirers of the classical world; its capability to arouse strong emotional responses appealed to those who searched for the sublime and for the romantics there was no story more tragic than that of the Taj (Pal, as cited in Edensor, 1998). As a result, this particular view of the Taj Mahal became popular among the educated British elite.

The Taj Mahal has captured the imagination of many

In Cultural globalization: A user's guide, MacGregor Wise (2008) states that the modern idea of culture is that it embodies the traditions and history of a certain society, evidenced by its music, art and literature. But only the works of culture that fit in a society’s views of itself and others are taken up in this tradition, which meant that for a long period of time only the work of wealthy and educated white males was seen as culture, and that the supposed cultural superiority of Westerners became the principal means of comparison in assessing the worth of native populations (MacGregor Wise, 2008). The second concept that needs to be explained is romanticism. Romanticism emerged in the 19th century in response to the Enlightenment and featured a particular interest in the uniqueness of nations, which was believed to be founded upon a shared language, history and artistic preferences. As mentioned earlier, such a tradition is not a natural given. Moreover, the construction of national identity in this manner has often been associated with the rise of nationalism. As a side note, Romantic thinkers were also very interested in the exotic (Doorman, 2004).

Finally, this brings us to orientalism. According to British-Palestinian scholar Edward Said, who minted the term in his 1978 book Orientalism, it is the foundation of the way in which Westerners think about the East. It is a prejudiced view of primarily Islamic peoples and their culture, that reduces them to the fictional notion of a romantic and exotic East. Said argues that the Western study of the Islamic world was an exercise in political intellectualism: it was a way to confirm the European identity rather than conduct objective research. As such, the entire body of orientalist literature is rooted in Western images of a mythical place called the Orient, which distorts the objectivity of even the most well-meaning and open-minded Western scholar. He also argues that orientalism was applied to non-European societies simply in order to justify imperialistic interests. Orientalist thinking also involves the supposed contrast between the irrational, weak, and feminized non-European Other with the rational, strong, and masculine Westerner (Said, 1978). 

Maini Mahanta of Nandini magazine has even admitted to always taking some chili powder with her to throw into the face of men with wandering hands.

Colonial accounts of the Taj played an important part in its establishment as a supposedly crucial part of a trip to India. The British, in order to take inventory of all the knowledge about their expanding empire, sought to classify buildings on a world scale, and from these debates, the Taj emerged as one of the finest structures ever built. This ranking perspective also ties into the notion of the Taj Mahal as a symbol for India, on par with the Pyramids in Egypt and the Great Wall of China. Another important issue to take into account here is religion. Edensor (1998) points out that, because of its broadness and lack of central authority, Hinduism was seen as incomprehensible and therefore primitive, whereas Islam to some extent still overlapped with Christianity. The perceived uncivilized chaos of Hinduism was believed to be reflected in its architecture. Hence it lacked the aesthetic qualities favoured by the Europeans. The Taj on the other hand, as a structure of Mughal origins, supposedly did possess these qualities, which allowed it to be admired by the colonizers (Edensor, 1998). In short, the Taj came to represent various Western notions that subscribed to the orientalist view of the non-European Other.

Not so incredible India

In her article The awfully unromantic Taj Mahal, Rita Banerji (2015) states that the romantic notion of the Taj as a symbol for eternal love is a false one. She begins by pointing out the poor conditions of the workers and the taxes that were forced upon them to finance the project. Even today, the luxurious marble structure stands out in between the many poor homes and lives around it. But her focus is on the story of Mumtaz Mahal. The third wife of the emperor was only fourteen years old when they got engaged, and she gave birth to as many children over the course of nineteen years. The cause of her eventual death was an internal haemorrhage that came as a result of the many pregnancies she was forced into. Banerji objects to the idea that this is an indication of Mumtaz’ status as the emperor’s favourite wife, because, she says, it ignores the harem culture of the time (Banerji, 2015).

Banerji (2015) goes on to point out that India is still responsible for the highest rate of maternity related deaths, because Indian women are still denied birth control and ownership of their own body, and connects this to the practice of harems. Harems reduced women to objects of sexual entertainment and a means to express male dominance. Stabling women like that ensured that a ruler could maintain sexual exclusivity. They were closely guarded by trusted servants, often eunuchs, and categorised by their looks, their origins, and even their caste. A ranking system was in place, which meant that a woman could be promoted if she pleased the emperor or demoted and replaced if she did something wrong. Infidelity was punishable by death. Mumtaz Mahal was one of 2.000 wives in the emperor’s harem, so claiming that she was his favourite rests only on the knowledge that she was picked most often to entertain him.

Yet the Taj Mahal continues to be romanced, even after novels written by Indian women in the nineteenth and twentieth century denounced harem culture and the stabling of women the structure represents. One of these books even questions the notion of the Taj Mahal as the romantic epitome of timeless love and what made Mumtaz the favourite wife (Banerji 2015). 

This romanticised view is in stark contrast with the situation in modern-day India. In an article in The Guardian, Helen Pidd (2012) points to a study conducted by experts in the field of gender studies that found that out of all the G20 countries, India was the least favourable place to live for women. Child marriage, for instance, is still happening all over the country; girls as young as ten years old are being offered in marriages to older men, and 45% of them is married before the age of eighteen. The study also showed that around 55% of adolescents think it is justifiable of a man hits his wife. Crimes targeting women specifically, such as harassment and rape, are still a big issue as well (Pidd, 2012).     

According to Maini Mahanta, who is the editor of women's magazine Nandini, which means daughter, there is a ‘Taliban-plus’ mentality taking root in Indian society, because the situation is even worse than in places controlled by these radical Islamists. She says that the country is plagued by hypocrisy when it comes to how women are viewed and treated. The Taliban do not hide their views, Mahanta states, but in India people worship female deities, while at the same time blaming women for causing the crimes they were the victims of. She goes on to say that certain traditions continue to portray women as helpless and unable to think for themselves, such as the raksha bandhan, or ‘safety-ties’ young girls tie around their brothers’ wrists to remind them they have to protect their sisters. Mahanta also points to an ancient Indian book that supposedly preaches that girls and women are and must always be accompanied by a father, husband, or son. This, Mahanta says, reinforces the ‘cult of the good girl’, in which young women are taught to hide themselves and not draw any attention whatsoever (Pidd, 2012).

Another voice in the struggle for women’s rights in India is Monisha Behal, chairwoman of the North East Network women’s rights organisation, who says that the country having a female president and a woman in charge of the ruling political party means very little. Behal refers to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to point out the discrepancy between India in the UK, because harassment in the former is much more common, even though both nations have had female leaders. Out of all the women that Pidd (2012) interviewed for her article, every one of them said that harassment was a daily occurrence for them, especially on public transportation. Maini Mahanta of Nandini magazine has even admitted to always taking some chili powder with her to throw into the face of men with wandering hands. A newspaper journalist by the name of Deepika Patar says that city buses in Assam, where she lives, are notorious hotspots for gropers (Pidd, 2012). Banerji, Mahanta and Behal try to deconstruct the popular view of the Taj, but do not seem to offer an alternative.

Nationalism and the editing of history

Edensor (1998) begins his theory on the nationalist perspective on the Taj Mahal with two claims about national narratives. The first is based on Hutchinson, who states that such national narratives combine myths and historical facts and usually contain stories of origin, a cultural golden age and its decline, and the promise of a better future. The second claim comes from Bhabha, who speaks of the ‘double time’ of the nation, by which is meant the notion that the particular nation has always existed and that its subjects must draw from this past to plan its future. Besides histories and myths, national narratives also include symbolic landscapes and important places that refer to aesthetic and historical qualities that are supposed to glorify the national culture. Although the Taj Mahal is regarded as a national monument, it also embodies the tension between different forms of Indian nationalism.

Despite the fact there was plenty of historical data available about when, how and by whom the building was commissioned, a number of historians from India as well as from the UK have claimed from the 19th century onwards that the mausoleum was not built during the reign of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan.

After India became an independent nation in 1947, the new state was in need of a national identity that recognized all of its different cultural and religious traditions. This secular nationalism tries to rectify the distortion of colonial history when it comes to religion and largely disregards religious conflict. Hence, it highlights the positive aspects of the Mughal dynasty, for instance architectural achievements like the Taj Mahal. The secular nationalist narrative marks the Taj as a diverse Indian creation rather than a solely Mughal structure: it’s a manifestation of the diversity that is India (Edensor, 1998). Hindu fundamentalists, on the other hand, claim that the secular histories are distortions themselves, and that they in fact don’t embody true ‘Indianness’. The adherents of this view rebrand the Taj by claiming the secular narratives were “not shaped by Indian concerns but by foreign ideologies”, whereas the “Hindu Indian subject is untainted by foreign influence” (Deshpande, as cited in Edensor, 1998, p. 78).

Rewriting history like this was a common practice in both India and Pakistan, where the governments of either country have tried to erase the historical connections with the other. The Paki state, especially after the war in 1971, has attempted to disconnect the nation from an area that had been under the same rulers for centuries, simply because it was predominantly Hindu rather than Muslim. The Indian state, on the other hand, held Pakistan to be an ‘unnatural creation’ up until the late ‘80s. Over the course of the following decade, however, Hindu nationalist groups such as the Bhartiya Janata Party have given this narrative a much more aggressive form and began to whitewash India’s past of any Islamic influence. In 1992, for example, members and affiliates of the BJP demolished the historical 16th century Babri Mosque, built by the very founder of the Islamic Mughal dynasty (Paracha, 2015).

Although Pakistan was the first of the two countries to begin the process of rewriting history to fit a certain narrative, it was also the first to dial back its religious fundamentalist rhetoric and has been trying to realign its construction of history with the historical facts. Yet in India it seems to be going in the complete opposite direction. The aforementioned Bhartiya Janata Party, along with the radical Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and certain public intellectuals in the country, continue to lay claim to the most famous monument in the country and the subject of this paper: the Taj Mahal. Despite the fact there was plenty of historical data available about when, how and by whom the building was commissioned, a number of historians from India as well as from the UK have claimed from the 19th century onwards that the mausoleum was not built during the reign of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (Paracha, 2015).

Different groups lay claim to the Taj Mahal

Even in modern times, many Indians draw from books that support this false idea, such as the one written by Hindu national revisionist P.N. Oak; Taj Mahal: The true story. Published in 1989, the book claims the Taj was originally built as a Vedic temple somewhere in the 1100’s, or at least before India fell under Muslim rule. Oak believes that the Taj was built by Raja Paramdari Dev, and that Shah Jahan simply took ownership of it. In spite of all the proof he brings to the fore, his theory has failed to pass through scholarly analysis and overcome its disregard for historical evidence. Still, large parts of the Hindu nationalist movement continue to hold on to this narrative. What’s more is that Oak even went on to suggest that Islam and even Christianity are in fact derived from Hinduism, and that not only the Taj Mahal but also Westminster Abbey were once temples to the Hindu god Shiva (Paracha, 2015).

Unraveling the Gordian knot

From an orientalist point of view, the following can be said about the Taj Mahal: firstly, the structure fits into European aesthetic preferences and is seen as a vital part of a trip to India in the eyes of the British; secondly, religious bias caused the colonisers to regard this piece of Mughal architecture as superior to Hindu sites and thirdly, the Taj was placed on a list of buildings that were regarded as symbolic for a particular nation from all over the world. All of this can be placed in the tradition of 19th-century romanticism, which focused on history and the exotic. In short, the colonial perspective leans heavily on the horizon of orientalism. The reason why this particular view has become dominant has to do with the power dynamics between former colonies and their former colonists. Because the white colonists were the ones who wrote about the Taj, and not the natives, their orientalist ideas and prejudices became widely accepted in the Western world. Cultural imperialism then led to the spread of this white view of the Taj to other parts of the world.

The critical perspective is strongly connected to the struggle for women’s rights in India, and insists that the Taj is not the symbol for eternal love it is thought to be. According to this view, Mumtaz Mahal was in fact a plaything, a vessel for the emperor’s sexual needs and a means to procure as many heirs as possible. Even today, the reality for many women in India is that they are not in charge of their own lives and bodies. This does not concur with the orientalist notion that the Taj is the epitome of Indian culture, because from a feminist point of view it represents the harem culture. Moreover, the idea that the Taj is a symbol for eternal love goes against the real-life situation in which women’s rights are under pressure. The horizon of feminism is therefore the main pillar of this particular interpretation of the Taj. On top of that, the construction of the Taj cost many workers their livelihoods and possibly even their lives. This is not to say that the mausoleum is instead an icon for emancipation, but rather it shows that the popular notion is a false one. Yet despite the fact that all this is known, the mausoleum is still revered as a shrine to the emperor’s love for his third wife. 

From a nationalist standpoint, the Taj Mahal can be used to justify competing forms of Indian nationalism. For ecular nationalists, the building embodies the diversity of the Indian nation that strives to fix the distortion of religion, but for Hindu fundamentalists, it’s a symbol for India’s Hindu heritage that needs to be protected from secular distortion. Thus, the nationalist perspective is informed by the horizon of religion. The secularists try to disconnect the Taj from religious conflict, while the fundamentalists continue to lay claim to it as a specifically Hindu site. It is interesting to note that, even though the fundamentalists accuse the secular thinkers of playing into orientalism, it is in fact the fundamentalists’ attempt at constructing a national history that can be tied to orientalist thinking. This interpretation namely fits under the umbrella of romanticism, because its proponents call upon the past to create a national identity. The fact that a European mode of thinking affects the Indian nationalists could mean that even they are still caught up in concepts from the British colonial era.

Leaving behind every single horizon will reduce it to a building of a certain size built in a certain year.

The concept of horizon can, as has been demonstrated, provide further insight into why different groups can come up with conflicting interpretations. Each of these perspectives uses arguments to support its claims, which is in line with my personal view that every interpretation has value, as long as proof is brought to the table. However, the fact that the Hindu fundamentalist perspective rests largely upon an almost blatant disregard of history has led me to abandon this theory. I now think Culler is correct, when he says there are different protocols for interpretation in an academic setting. Although the religious nationalist view of the Taj is supported by arguments and is accepted by a large group of people, the evidence itself doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. A similar case could be made for the colonial perspective, because an orientalist reading of history is also a form of disregarding it, since it is based on a strongly romanticised version of the facts.

Coming back to the main question of whether it is possible to reconcile these different interpretations, the following can be concluded. Remaining at the level of the horizon will lead to an impasse; different views contradict one another, so there will never be a consensus of what the best possible interpretation is. This even leaves open the option of having an interpretation that does not align with the facts. If, on the other hand, we were to ignore our horizons completely to come to an interpretation that excludes all normative statements, it would leave us with a rather sterile list of historical facts. Luckily, the theory of horizon provides a solution to this problem. According to Gadamer, being aware of one’s horizon is merely the first step. In order to come to a more complete understanding of a particular text, one must look beyond the scope of personal experience. Taking notice of different viewpoints allows us to expand our horizons, thus enabling us to see the relative importance of certain aspects instead of over- or underestimating them.

I believe this is where the answer lies when it comes to bringing together the different perspectives on the Taj Mahal. Not going beyond the different horizons will turn the Taj Mahal into a cultural battleground, where it is simultaneously seen as the epitome of Indian culture and a symbol for the oppression of women, all the while being claimed as a Hindu site by those who seek to rewrite history. Leaving behind every single horizon will reduce it to a building of a certain size built in a certain year. To me, it seems that a middle ground à la Gadamer would be the best path to an interpretation that is neither chaotic nor empty. In this perspective, the Taj Mahal could be described as a building of distinctively Mughal origin, commissioned by the Muslim emperor Shah Jahan and dedicated to his third wife Mumtaz Mahal, who was only one of many wives in his harem and died as a result of her being forced into too many pregnancies; a building that proves to the world that the people of India are capable of producing such a feat of architectural prowess, but is not Hindu. 

References

Bal, M. (2002). Travelling concepts. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.

Banerji, R. (2015, March 2). The awfully unromantic Taj Mahal. Huffington Post. 

Culler, J. (2011). Language, meaning, and interpretation. In J. Culler (Ed.), Literary theory: A  very short introduction (pp. 55-68). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Doorman, F.M. (2004). De romantische orde. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Prometheus/Bert Bakker.

Edensor, T. (1998). Tourists at the Taj: Performance and meaning at a symbolic site.
Abingdon, England: Routledge.

Gadamer, H. (1960). Truth and method.  London, England: Bloomsbury.

History.com Staff. (2011). The Taj Mahal. Retrieved from http://www.history.com/topics/taj-mahal

MacGregor Wise, J. (2008). Cultural globalization: A user's guide. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Paracha, N. (2015, November 12). How the Taj Mahal became part of the campaign to erase India’s Muslim pastScroll

Pidd, H. (2012, July 23). Why is India so bad for women? The Guardian.

Said, E. (1978). Orientalism. New York, NY: Pantheon.