Debunking an urban myth about Taj Mahal 

 Tourists at the Taj Mahal in Agra.

Tourists at the Taj Mahal in Agra. | Photo Credit: PTI

A monument of national importance, the Taj Mahal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. UNESCO describes it as a “masterpiece of architectural style in conception, treatment and execution”. This 17th century wonder is again at the centre of multiple narratives driven by ideologicy. In the process, history is being pushed into the shadows.

The latest attempt at building an ideologically-driven narrative came against the backdrop of Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurating the Kashi Vishwanath Dham in December 2021. In an appreciable gesture, Mr. Modi showered flower petals on sanitation workers who work at the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, to thank them for keeping the temple clean. But this heartwarming gesture soon became another reason to criticise the Mughals. Several news channels started comparing Mr. Modi with Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. The point hammered home was that unlike the Prime Minister who had showered flower petals on sanitation workers, Shah Jahan had chopped off the hands of those who had built the Taj Mahal. In their misplaced exuberance, some politicians from the ruling establishment picked up the thread. In no time, social media was flooded with posts suggesting that the hands of workers who had built the Taj Mahal were chopped off.

The fact remains that this is a well-known urban myth. There is no historical evidence to prove that Shah Jahan did this. This urban myth goes back to the 1960s or at least resurfaced around that time. As this controversy has been raked up again, let us revisit written records to salvage the truth.

Builders of the Taj

The Taj Mahal was conceived as a memorial by Shah Jahan for his wife Mumtaz Mahal. UNESCO states that several historical and Quranic inscriptions in the Arabic script have helped us understand how the Taj Mahal was built. Masons, stone-cutters, inlayers, carvers, painters, calligraphers, dome builders and other artisans were requisitioned from the whole empire and also from Central Asia and Iran to construct the monument. UNESCO says: “The Taj Mahal is considered to be the greatest architectural achievement in the whole range of Indo-Islamic architecture... The uniqueness of Taj Mahal lies in some truly remarkable innovations carried out by the horticulture planners and architects of Shah Jahan.”

While we cannot discount the skills and craftsmanship of the artisans and workers, it was indeed the expertise and creative capabilities of the architects and planners, including those from Central Asia and Iran, which gave us this marvel. The supervision of the process, starting from the ideation stage to the conception and execution stage, was entrusted to the Mughal nobles.

Account books and Mughal records say, for example, that Ata Muhammad, a stonemason, was paid ₹500 a month. Shakir Muhammad from Bukhara received ₹400, while Muhammad Sajjad, a mason from Multan, and Chiranjilal, a façade worker from Lahore, were paid ₹590 and ₹800 a month, respectively. The normal wages of such workers were about ₹15 rupees a month, as reflected in period records for trained workers. Therefore, it can be safely assumed that the people quoted in the account books were team leaders who were responsible for certain work. They were perhaps tasked with engaging local and other workers. These huge sums were redistributed among several people.

Also, apart from these masters, architects, calligraphers and organisers feature in historical records. Some of them were, or became part of, the Mughal nobility. The uniqueness of the monument has been attributed to the calligraphy. We know from historic records that this distinguishing feature in the monument was devised and supervised by a noble, Amanat Khan, who was originally a calligrapher from Shiraz in Iran and migrated to the Mughal court with his elder brother Afzal Khan in 1608 CE. He began working in the Imperial Library of emperor Shah Jahan, while Afzal Khan soon rose to become Prime Minister of the empire. Amanat Khan was appointed to design the calligraphy on the mausoleum in Agra, which came to be known as the Taj Mahal. Impressed with his work, Shah Jahan conferred on him the title of ‘Amanat Khan’ (like an heirloom) and a ‘mansab’, a land title that ranked with the nobility. Amanat Khan worked on the Taj Mahal for six years. The calligraphy inside the domed hall of the grand mausoleum was completed in 1638. However, just when he completed the most important project of his life, a personal tragedy struck him. Afzal Khan died in Lahore. W. E. Begley, an eminent scholar of Indian and Islamic Art, wrote that the old calligrapher spent his entire income in constructing a memorial for his brother. It is said that Amanat Khan did not return to Iran on the request of his closest friend Ustad Ahmad, who was the chief architect of the Taj Mahal.

Respected architects

Ustad Ahmad was a respected architect who was equated with the nobility of the time. Shah Jahan’s court historians emphasise his personal involvement in the construction. More than any other Mughal emperor, he showed great interest in building new magnificent buildings. He held daily meetings with his architects and supervisors.

The court chronicler, Abdul Hamid Lahori, wrote that Shah Jahan would make “appropriate alterations” to whatever the skilful architects had designed after considerable thought and “would ask the architects competent questions”. In writings by Lahori’s son, Lutfullah Muhandis, two architects are mentioned by name: Ustad Ahmad Lahori and Mir Abd-ul Karim. Ustad Ahmad Lahori had laid the foundations of the Red Fort in Delhi. Mir Abd-ul Karim had been the favourite architect of the previous emperor, Jahangir. Several designers and architects, 37 in all, are mentioned by name in Mughal history. It is probable that they all worked together to shape the Taj Mahal. They include Ismail Afandi (aka Ismail Khan), who had worked for the Ottomans in Turkey as a designer and builder of domes; Qazim Khan, a goldsmith from Lahore, who cast the gold finial that crowns the dome; Chiranji Lal, a lapidary from Delhi, who was chosen as the chief mosaicist; Amanat Khan, the master calligrapher whose signature is inscribed on the Taj gateway; Mohammed Hanif, a master mason from Delhi; and Mukrimat Khan and Mir Abdul Karim from Shiraz, chief supervisors and administrators.

While the efforts and hard work of artisans and workers played a key role in the construction of the monument, we know that projects of this nature and scale are created by the planners and architects. They were all felicitated and rewarded by Shah Jahan for giving shape to his passion and vision. The records conclusively show that the rumours about the chopping of hands were just that: hearsay. For leaders to repeat this myth every now and then only betrays their ignorance and lack of understanding of history.

M. Saleem Beg, who retired as Jammu and Kashmir Director of General Tourism, and was a member of the National Monuments Authority, heads the Jammu and Kashmir chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage

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Printable version | Mar 9, 2022 3:42:36 pm |