Was The Taj Mahal Put Up For Sale?

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The Taj Mahal, iconic of India, was once rumoured to be sold. Today this magnificent monument is a political weapon.

The Governor-general has sold the beautiful piece of architecture, called the Mootee Musjid, at Agra, for 125,000 rupees (about £12,500), and it is now being pulled down! The taj has also been offered for sale! but the price required has not been obtained. Two lacs, however, have been offered for it. Should the taj be pulled down, it is rumoured that disturbances may take place amongst the natives.

When the Welsh adventurer Fanny Parkes read a report in the Calcutta John Bull in 1831 that the Taj was to be put for sale, she was livid:

By what authority does the Governor-general offer the taj for sale? Has he any right to molest the dead? To sell the tomb raised over an empress, which from its extraordinary beauty is the wonder of the world?

Then, as now, Fanny understood that certain things have no price. The report added that two lakh rupees had been offered for the Taj – a princely sum, then, but not one that can be taken seriously. For, the rumours of the Taj Mahal’s sale have been greatly exaggerated. They played on the fears and discontent of a military and civilian population that was increasingly disliking the then Governor General, William Bentinck.

Bentinck was appointed to reduce expenses and balance the books after the Company’s expensive Burmese War. One of the orders he was given was to cut the practice of ‘half-batta’ where soldiers were paid field allowances even while they were in cantonments. Bentinck did not want to carry out this order but was forced to anyway.

The resultant unpopularity made him many enemies. He compounded this by carrying out the anti-Sati reforms in 1829 – offending many Indians who saw Sati as part of a way of life.

Rumours began to spread, among the military as well as the civilian populace. They were provoked by two acts in particular.

One was the sale of the Agra Gun – a legacy of either Akbar or Shah Jahan. One of the largest cannons in history, it was said to be able to send a projective as far as 24 miles (39 kilometres). By the time Bentinck was appointed Governor-General, it was lying in a state of ruin. To raise the funds needed to build a bridge across the Yamuna, he had the gun melted down. It was so large that it had to be destroyed by an explosion – provoking the fears of many locals.

Bentinck also ordered the sale of some marble from the Agra Fort. It was this that gave him the reputation of being un-averse to destroying legacy for profit. But the truth reflects a more pragmatic decision.

When Hastings visited the Agra Fort in 1815, he found a bathroom in a state of ruin. The cost of repair was too high, so instead, Hastings had the marble bath and its fittings removed for use in a Calcutta mansion. When Bentinck arrived two decades later, it was in a larger state of ruin – so he had the rest of the en-suite sold as well. At the time, even the Taj was in a state of disrepair – so much so that the British paid for its restoration.

But W.H. Sleemans visited the fort in 1836 and witnessed the sale without knowing the backstory. Apparently, the commanded price had not been met, so he wrote:

Had these things fetched the price expected, it is probable that the whole of the Palace, and even the Taj itself, would have been pulled down, and sold in the same manner.

Sleeman’s account was one of the reasons behind the rumour. But two others added to the fire.

In ‘Indian Sculpture and Painting’, E.B. Havell wrote that Bentinck “seriously considered” the demolition of the Taj, and was “only diverted because the test auction of materials from the Agra Palace proved unsatisfactory.” Later writers such as G. Rawlinson were harsher.

In the Company’s days, the British were complete vandals; even so enlightened a Governor-General as Lord Cavendish Bentinck (sic) seriously contemplated the demolition of the Taj Mahal in order to provide lime for a new Government House at Calcutta. 

However, there appears to be no source that suggests that Bentinck actually gave an order to dismantle or sell the Taj. His unpopularity seems to have shadowed his actions, which involved a period of cost-cutting, where maintenance spent on the Taj was reduced. That said, the British were engaged in some restoration work.

The rumours nevertheless played a part in making the British out as villains defiling Indian sentiment. The Revolt of 1857 which took place shortly after also saw acts of vandalism performed on the Taj, where soldiers chiselled precious stones from its walls. Bentinck was not a part of this desecration.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the British took up the Taj Mahal’s restoration in earnest. Led by Lord Curzon, the restoration was completed in 1908. The iconic monument survived centuries of ruin and despair. During World War II, it was even covered up so enemy bombers wouldn’t be able to recognize it from the air.

Whatever the intentions of the British were in India, selling the Taj Mahal was not among them.

The political weapon

Today, the iconic Taj Mahal is one of India’s greatest monuments, the seven wonders of the world, that stands in its glorious magnificence. Yet it is the centre of a political dispute. The BJP’s leader, Sangeet Som, said that “the Taj Mahal is a blot on Indian culture” as it was built by Muslims. Despite the Taj Mahal attracting 8 million visitors every year to Uttar Pradesh (and countless dignitaries and royalty), Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and his state machinery are attempting to distance the Taj Mahal from India’s cultural heritage. Emboldened by Adityanath and his coterie, a group of lawyers have filed a suit in a civil court suggesting that the Taj be broken up to unearth a Shiva temple

Under pressure from the centre for extreme statements made by him and his party members, yesterday, the UP Chief Minister made a complete U-turn on his statements. In what is being seen as a ‘damage control mission’, he visited the Taj Mahal and led a massive cleanliness drive, calling the Taj Mahal a “world class monument”, built by the “blood and sweat of the sons of India”.

Interestingly, while he was inside the Taj Mahal, his party members were busy politicizing the issue. Speaking to a newspaper, the BJP legislator from North Agra said:

Several historians believe there was a Shiva temple at the same place where the Taj Mahal is located. Mughals first demolished the Shiva temple and then built the Taj Mahal. It is a fact!

This version of history comes from PN Oak, who also made absurd claims that the Westminster Abbey was once a Shiva temple and that Hindus once conquered Italy. As historian William Dalrymple noted, Hindu supremacists “have found it hard to believe that such a masterpiece was built by the same Muslims they despised”.

Historical monuments could be given many meanings. Pernicious rhetoric about them, much like cancer, eats into the cohesive social fabric of the society. Attempts by religious fundamentalists to impose extreme religious views on historical monuments have resulted in the loss of great monuments across the world. The destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban in Afghanistan and the destruction of the Babri Masjid by members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Shiv Sena and BJP are a point in case.

Taj Mahal is as much a part of the Indian culture as the Ramayana. It is one of India’s iconic monuments and shall continue to be so for generations to come.

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