Monuments are the eternal ambassadors of history. They evoke reverence by defying interpretation as empirical proof of the past. They are built, not to destroy a culture, but to enrich the imagination of future generations. Which is why, the Taj Mahal, one of the nine wonders of the world and the crown of India’s tourist ecosystem, should not be seen as a symbol of relgious conquest. The Taj is not Babri Masjid or the Victoria Memorial in Calcutta.
The Babri Masjid was not a monument. It was a symbol of brutal conquest, constructed to denigrate a domestic faith. The mosque that has invaded the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi, is an ugly token of Muslim imperial arrogance. The hundreds of mosques that have been built over the razed precincts of temples remind us of an old shame. But the Taj is not a symbol of conquest. It’s just a heartbreakingly exquisite piece of architecture, embroidered with romance. It would be very short sighted and regressive to treat it as a Muslim monument. It belongs not just to India, but to all of mankind.
Cultural cleansing is a speciality of Islamic aggression, starting with the library of Alexandria. In 2001, the world was horrified when the Taliban blew up the 2,000-year-old Bamiyan Buddhas because they were ‘unIslamic.’ As illiterate tribal chieftains, civil war riffraff of the Middle East and rabid preachers cut a violent swathe through fallen, failed nations their first victim was history. The Taliban destroyed everything that they deemed unacceptable to the Sunni Wahabbi version of Islam—Sufi shrines, Shia mosques and churches. IS set up the Kata’ib Taswiyya (settlement battalions) to destroy monuments. It turned Mosul into a graveyard of an Age—tombs of prophets Daniel, Jonah and Jirjis were blown up. Churches dating back to the 16th century were dynamited. Even incriptions hailing Allah and the Prophet were destroyed.
But we are not them. We are a confident modern nation that has just rediscovered its heritage. India’s genius is that it outlives its conquerors, and appropriates alien influences by Indianising them. In food, language, classical music and architecture India has demolished the values of conquerors by diluting their essence with its own cultural power. Hence, Tansen’s ragas, Persian pilafs, mulligtawny and Urdu are now uniquely Indian.
Having said that, the Taj is not the only jewel in India’s crown. Myriad temples and palaces have fallen into neglect. Their lofty architecture and magnificent planning do not find space in the agenda of the bureaucracy. Cities that are home to such monuments are pockmarks of urban neglect. The filthy home of the Taj Mahal, Agra itself comes 47/73 in the Swachh Survekshan programme rankings.
In spite of being the Prime Minister’s constituency, Varanasi, where one of the holiest of Shiva temples in India is situated, was rated among the country’s 10 dirtiest cities by the government in 2016. The Hampi ruins are defaced by graffiti and filth, making a mockery of the glory of a great Hindu empire. Monuments under the protection of ASI are routinely encroached upon by squatters and the political land mafia. There is so much to be done before undoing anything. Let’s start with the basics.