How Hindu Nationalists Politicized the Taj Mahal

“The challenge to the Indian-ness of the Taj Mahal is a challenge to the Indian-ness of Muslims”

The Taj Mahal is reflected in a puddle.
The Taj Mahal is reflected in a puddle in Agra, India, on August 9, 2016.  (Cathal McNaughton / Reuters)

Perhaps no single building is more associated with India and Indian history than the Taj Mahal. The story behind the building is almost as famous as its architecture, a paragon of the Indo-Islamic style. In the mid-17th century, the grieving Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, using 20,000 laborers over 20 years, constructed the enormous mausoleum for his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal, after she died during childbirth.

In time, the Taj Mahal, with its milky white, meticulously carved and decorated marble walls, became an eternal symbol of love and Mughal extravagance; Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore once described it as “a teardrop on the cheek of time.” Designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, it receives over 7 million visitors each year.

Yet in October 2017, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government of Uttar Pradesh, the largest state in India, chose not to include the Taj Mahal in the state’s tourism brochure. This was no oversight: The move reflects the BJP’s long-standing effort to promote Hindutva, an ideology that seeks to place Hindu faith, culture, and history, at the core of Indian identity. It views the presence of foreigners throughout history as corrupting Indian civilization—especially Muslims who ruled large swathes of the subcontinent for centuries after descending from the Central Asian steppes. Narendra Modi, India’s BJP prime minister, has referred to this period of history, along with British colonialism, as a period of slavery.

Much of the BJP’s vitriol for the history of Muslim rule is projected onto the Indian Muslims of today, comprising 15 percent of the population. Hindu nationalists often question Muslims’ loyalty and right to their homeland, a view exacerbated by the communal tensions engendered by Partition in 1947. The BJP leadership has been criticized for inciting violence against Muslims with its inflammatory rhetoric, including the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat which killed over 1,000 people (Modi was the state’s chief minister at the time). In 2014, Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu priest perpetually cloaked in his saffron robes and appointed the BJP chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in March 2017, stated at a political rally, “If [Muslims] kill one Hindu man, then we will kill 100 Muslim men.”

In many ways, Adityanath’s meteoric rise in Indian politics exemplifies both the BJP’s ever-tightening embrace of extreme Hindu-nationalist positions and increasing political power. A controversial figure since his election to parliament in 1998, Adityanath founded the militant Hindu group Hindu Yuva Vahini, which has been accused of inciting communal tensions and is linked to recent attacks on Muslims. He has long been a hardline promoter of Hindutva, stating in 2005, “I will not stop until I turn [Uttar Pradesh] and India into a Hindu rashtra [nation].” He promised to cleanse India of other religions, calling this “the century of Hindutva.” After Adityanath became chief minister, he pushed for a number of policies that aligned with his ideological position, including increasing legal protections of the cow, considered sacred in Hinduism. These measures have been criticized for stoking violence against Muslims suspected of eating beef or of raising cattle for slaughter, in attacks known as “beef lynchings.”

The same year that Adityanath made his century-of-Hindutva declaration, then-prime minister Manmohan Singh convened a commission to study the social, political, and economic conditions of India’s Muslims. The study found that they often felt viewed with suspicion “not only by certain sections of society but also by public institutions and governance structures.” Tabrez Ahmad, an Urdu teacher in Lucknow, told me Indian Muslims even feel pressured to prove their loyalty when India plays Pakistan, its Muslim-majority neighbor, in cricket.

On a visit to Lucknow’s Jama Masjid, one of the main mosques in Uttar Pradesh’s capital city, I spoke to the muezzin about how his community perceived the newly elected BJP state government. Besides its rhetoric stoking violence, he complained that new policies have favored Hindus and economically crippled Muslims, especially as cow-protection laws shuttered many smaller slaughterhouses that largely employed Muslims. He repeatedly described the BJP government as “mussulman ka dushmanthe Muslim’s enemy.

The challenge to the Indian-ness of the Taj Mahal is a challenge to the Indian-ness of Muslims—a consistent theme in BJP rhetoric. In June, Adityanath remarked, “Foreign dignitaries visiting the country used to be gifted replicas of the Taj Mahal and other minarets which did not reflect Indian culture.” He praised Modi for instead gifting copies of the Bhagavad Gita and Ramayana, sacred Hindu religious texts. Sangeet Som, a BJP politician, called the Taj Mahal a “blot” on India built by “traitors,” adding, “Taj Mahal should have no place in Indian history” as Shah Jahan “wanted to wipe out Hindus.” He even warned that, “If these people are part of our history, then it is very sad and we will change this history.” Hindutva proponents have even argued the Taj Mahal was originally a 12th-century Hindu temple built by the Maharajah of Jaipur, with its name a distortion of the original Sanskrit, Tejo Mahalaya, meaning “The Great Abode of Tej” (a name for the Hindu God Shiva).

While the BJP government has acknowledged the architectural wonder’s value as a tourist destination, its potential future hangs in the balance, given Hindu nationalism’s growing popularity and political power. Shamsul Islam, a professor at Delhi University has said that the Taj Mahal’s very existence is now in danger. While the specter of Hindu mobs destroying it is an unlikely one, Islam recognized that the Taj Mahal could be permanently damaged through deliberate neglect as air and water pollution take their toll on the ancient structure.

Yet this fear is no mere hyperbole. Hindu nationalists have long targeted Islamic buildings and other historic sites. For example, a survey found that 230 Islamic historic sites were vandalized or destroyed, many reduced to mere rubble, during the 2002 Gujarat riots. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the 1992 razing of the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya, which resulted in communal rioting around the country that led to nearly 2,000 deaths. Hindu nationalists have argued that the mosque, constructed in the 16th century by the Mughal Emperor Babur, was built over a destroyed Hindu temple, a claim contested by scholars, near the site traditionally considered to be Lord Rama’s birthplace. On December 6, 1992, leaders of the BJP, alongside fellow Hindu nationalist groups Vishva Hindu Prashad and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, gathered outside the mosque to offer prayers, followed by a mob of their followers breaking through the security barrier and, piece by piece, pounding the ancient structure to the ground with sledgehammers. The site has been a source of controversy in recent years—in 2005, Islamic militants attacked the makeshift Hindu temple that had been built on the mosque's ruins with an explosives-laden jeep.

In the wake of this attack, the Allahabad High Court upheld the argument that a temple structure pre-dated the mosque and ruled in 2010 that the site should be divided into thirds between the Muslim community, the Hindu community, and the Nirmohi Akhara, a Hindu sect. However, in the following year, the Supreme Court suspended their decision, maintaining the site’s status quo. The Supreme Court is set to hear appeals to the High Court 2010 decision beginning in December 2017.

Today at the site, numerous souvenir stalls play videos of the mosque’s destruction, with DVDs of the footage available for purchase alongside Hindu religious trinkets. The atmosphere of the site is oppressive, thanks to a pervasive security presence. To enter the site, one must pass through four separate security checkpoints amid rows and rows of fencing, punctuated by guard towers manned by soldiers carrying machine guns. It has the feel of a POW camp rather than a religious-pilgrimage destination, though one treated with great reverence by the devotees that I accompanied through the twisting labyrinth of chain link and barbed wire. There is no visible reminder of the Babri Masjid’s existence.

India is a mosaic with many overlapping cultures and religions. Yet Hindu nationalists wish to define it in one narrow way. Ali Khan Mahmudabad, a professor at Ashoka University, told me that, “In India, there is diversity down to the village level. It’s a necessary part of the land.” But, he warned, “It’s dangerous when one identity overshadows others.” Purifying a land is never a peaceful process, he reminded me.

History is a framework through which a society understands itself, and monuments are a physical manifestation of the past, for good or ill. The rejection and destruction of these monuments is not only about rejecting the nation’s past and de-coupling people from their history, but disconnecting those associated with that history from any claim to a part of the nation’s identity. Gazing at the architectural beauty of the Taj Mahal, amid a controversy over the monument's fate under a BJP government, one can't help but wonder what else is at stake in the battle over history and identity in India.