India’s most famous monument is being pulled into the thick of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s drive to reconfigure the country’s past.
The Taj Mahal, the ivory-white tomb built in the 17th Century by a Mughal emperor for his wife, has frequently raised the hackles of Hindu nationalists. In their playbook, India should be best-known for a Hindu monument, not a Muslim one.
Tourists tend to think otherwise. In 2015, India’s culture minister, Mahesh Sharma, revealed that one in every four foreign tourists coming to India visits the Taj Mahal, in the town of Agra in Uttar Pradesh. Last year, at least 6.2 million people, from India as well as overseas, went to see the Taj Mahal.
For legislators from the BJP, this appears to be difficult to abide.
Earlier this month, a 36-page tourism booklet, published by the BJP government in Uttar Pradesh, excluded the Taj Mahal and other non-Hindu sites from its list of attractions. Instead, the booklet’s advertised “Limitless Possibilities” focused on places that were important to Hindus: the ancient city of Varanasi, for instance, or the gathering of pilgrims scheduled in Allahabad in 2019.
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The Taj Mahal was also left out of the state budget’s 12.4 billion rupee (Dh705 million) allocation, in July, to maintain sites “of cultural and historical importance to promote tourism”. The monument continues to receive funds from the federal budget.
These deliberate omissions raised a storm of criticism, especially given that Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, had belittled the Taj Mahal during a speech in June.
“Foreign dignitaries visiting the country are given replicas of the Taj Mahal and other minarets which do not reflect Indian culture,” Mr Adityanath said. What they ought to be receiving, he added, are copies of the Bhagavad Gita or Ramayana, the literary epics of Hinduism.
Mr Adityanath’s statements seemed to have given cues to other members of his party.
On Sunday, Sangeet Som, a BJP legislator in the Uttar Pradesh assembly, called the Taj Mahal “a blot on Indian culture” that was built by “traitors.”
“Is this history that the person who built the Taj Mahal imprisoned his father?” Mr Som said, confusing Shah Jahan, the emperor who built the mausoleum, for his son Aurangazeb, who did throw his father into prison.
“Do you call it ‘history’ when the one who built the Taj targeted many Hindus in Uttar Pradesh?” Mr Som went on, once again deviating from the truth of Shah Jahan’s reign. “If this is history, then it is very unfortunate and we will change this history, I guarantee you.”
On Wednesday, Vinay Katiyar, a BJP parliamentarian, tried a different tack. The Taj Mahal, he said, was once a temple to the Hindu deity Shiva. “It was constructed by Hindu kings. The rooms and carvings there prove that it was a Hindu monument,” Mr Katiyar said.
“It was a famous monument but was grabbed by Shah Jahan,” he added. “[It] was made a mausoleum as they [Muslim kings] had more power.”
Mr Katiyar's theory has been popular in the Hindu right at least since 1989, when a revisionist historian named P N Oak published Taj Mahal: The True Story. In the book, Oak claimed that the building's original Hindu name had been "Tejo Mahalaya," and that its sealed chambers still hold idols and other Hindu artefacts that have been hidden from sight.
Oak’s theory has been debunked often. In 2000, after Oak filed a petition to have the Taj Mahal declared the construction of a Hindu king, the Supreme Court dismissed the case, telling Oak that he had “a bee in his bonnet” about the Taj. The Archaeological Survey of India, this past August, reiterated that no evidence suggests that the Taj Mahal had ever been a temple.
On Tuesday, Mr Adityanath, forced to distance himself from Mr Som’s statements, said: “It does not matter who built it and for what reason. It was built by the blood and sweat of [India’s] sons.”
“It is very important for us, especially from the tourism perspective. It is our priority to provide facilities and safety to tourists there,” he said. He also announced a plan to visit the Taj Mahal on October 26, and said the state budget still held 1.56bn rupees in funds to develop parks and other facilities in and around the monument.