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How India Almost Lost the Taj

The magnificent forts of Agra and Delhi were turned into military garrisons. Marble reliefs were torn down, gardens were destroyed and lines of barracks were erected in their place.

Published: 20th March 2014 01:04 PM  |   Last Updated: 20th March 2014 01:31 PM   |  A+A-

TAJ

The Mughals treated their architectural labours with an indifference which was quite surprising considering all the money and effort that went into the construction of monuments. After the demise of the owner of the monument or the person to whom the tomb was dedicated, it was allowed to fall into disrepair. The British went a step further and approached them with an intent to maim or destroy.

The magnificent forts of Agra and Delhi were turned into military garrisons. Marble reliefs were torn down, gardens were destroyed and lines of barracks were erected in their place.

In the Delhi fort, the hall of public audience was turned into an arsenal, the arches of the outer colonnades were bricked over or replaced with wooden windows. In 1876, in an effort to brighten up the fort for a visit from the Prince of Wales, the entire hall was covered with a coat of whitewash. After the mutiny, it was proposed that the Jama Masjid be destroyed and a government building constructed in its place. Thankfully, this plan was shelved.

By the 19th century, the grounds of the Taj Mahal had become a favourite haunt for young English gentlemen and their ladies. Open air balls were held on the marble terrace in front of the main door and beneath Shah Jahan’s lotus dome, brass bands played as lords and ladies danced the night away. The minarets became a favourite place for suicide leaps and the mosques on either side of the Taj were rented out to honeymooners. Picnic parties were held in the gardens of the Taj and it was not uncommon for revellers to arm themselves with hammer and chisel and wile away the afternoons chipping out the fragments of agate and carnelian from the cenotaphs of the emperor and his queen.

The Taj became the preferred drinking haunt of Englishmen and its parks were strewn with the figures of inebriated British soldiers. Mobs of careless Indians vied with the British in contriving ways to exhibit their disrespect for the souls of the dead Queen and King. The Indians held fairs in the grounds, sullying the premises with orange peels and other debris.

Lord William Bentinck, the governor general of Bengal from 1828 to 33 and later the Governor General of India, took scorn for native arts to a new high when he announced plans to demolish the best Mughal monuments in Agra and Delhi and remove their marble facades, which would be shipped to London where they would be sold to members of the landed gentry who wished to embellish their estates. Several of Shah Jahan’s pavilions in the Red Fort were indeed stripped to the brick and shipped off to England. In fact, part of the shipment included pieces for George IV himself.

Finally, plans were made to dismantle the Taj Mahal and wrecking machinery was moved into the garden grounds. Luckily, just as the demolition crew was getting to work, word came in from London that the first auction was a failure and all further sales stood cancelled. It was not worth the money to demolish the Taj Mahal.

However, despite this condemnable attitude to the monuments, there were many visitors who were struck by the Taj’s beauty. As far away as London, symmetrical walkways and marble fountains sprang up in parks, domes became more bulbous, gardens took on the characteristics of Persian arabesques, cupolas and kiosks and appeared on the fronts of government offices and even in America, in official buildings such as the Capitol Building of Rhode Island, one can discern an outline suspiciously reminiscent of the Taj. Clearly, the beauty of the Taj was infectious.

Lord Curzon loved the Taj. Shocked at the monument’s dilapidated state, he restored it to its present condition. With  his encouragement, by the beginning of the 1900s there was a growing interest in Indian art.

In Delhi and Agra, more than £50,000 was spent on renovating the dilapidated monuments.

Military units were evacuated from the forts of both cities and a multitude of marble mosques and tombs, which had been turned into police stations, ticket offices and kitchens were returned to their proper use.



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