Published on 7th February, 2016, in Mumbai Mirror.
Long ago I saw a film called Lal Patthar. It tells the story of a rich, educated and bored man, played by the dashing Raj Kumar, who marries a village girl, played by the gorgeous Hema Malini, and as part of their honeymoon takes her to Taj Mahal, that global pilgrimage of lovers and romantics. But to his surprise, she does not share his admiration of this monument of love, this ‘tear drop on the cheeks of time’. She calls it a ‘tomb’, and runs out because she feels polluted and has to take a bath. It is at that moment, the hero realises his wife belongs to a different world, and in his view, an inferior one: a village bumpkin, her beauty notwithstanding. Today this would be read as a divide between modern India and traditional Bharat. For modern Indians, Taj Mahal is a secular structure, stripped of all religious roots. Not so for traditional Bharat, that looks upon it as a tomb, a holy tomb of lovers maybe, or even, a place where there once stood a temple.
Taj Mahal is a mausoleum (sounds better than tomb) built over the grave of Mumtaz Mahal, wife of the Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan, on the banks of the river Yamuna, in the city of Agra. The city today is spectacularly filthy, neglected by every government that has ruled the state since independence. Taj Mahal is closed on Fridays in keeping with Supreme Court orders, making one wonder if the monument is secular, or religious, for Friday is the day of rest for Muslims.
The practice of entombing great people – sages, kings, poets, and lovers – comes from ancient imperial Persia since the time of Cyrus the Great, and has been embraced by Shia Muslims. The Sunni Muslims, with roots in the tribal egalitarianism of Arabia, frown on this practice.
The Mughal kings had mixed feelings about this practice and so while Babar’s resting place is very simple with no dome, the tomb of Humayun has a dome. The tombs of Akbar and Jahangir are grand, but have no dome. Aurganzeb’s tomb is the simplest of all, unmarked, open to the sky, though he did build a tomb for his wife, the Bibi ka Maqbara at Aurangabad.
In traditional Hindu families, contact with death results in pollution, and depending on how close you are to the deceased, the period of pollution varies. That is why, traditionally, when a person dies, no trace of the dead body is kept anywhere near the house. It is cremated outside the village, and the bones gathered and thrown in a river as soon as possible.
Burial and tomb building are not common Hindu practices, though a few communities do practice it. Buddha was cremated, but his followers kept his tooth and bones as relics in stupas. This practice was adopted by Hindu monastic orders. So when a great teacher, or acharya, dies, his body is not cremated as it was seen as purified by yogic practices. Instead, it’s buried in the seated position in salt and ‘samadhis’ built on top of it.
It is with the arrival of Islam that villages started having burial grounds (kabristan) for Muslim invaders, immigrants and converts, alongside cremation grounds (smashan-bhumi). Many tombs of Sufi saints became shrines, or dargahs. Chattris or pavilions started being built on the cremation site of great Rajput kings and queens, probably following the practice of Delhi sultans who were mimicking the ancient Persian practice. After independence, it became important politically, to mark the cremation spots of leaders. So we have Gandhi Samadhi and Shakti Sthala. Visit to ‘tombs’ is no longer inauspicious, and are encouraged as part of political and nationalistic ritualism. So today, you don’t have to bathe after visiting the Taj Mahal. Those who do, do not talk about it.
Of course, there are many who are convinced that Taj Mahal is a temple. Viral emails and serial Whatsapp messages present the conspiracy theory that Taj Mahal is actually Tejo Mahalaya, a Shiva temple. The gentleman who first made this claim, P. N. Oak, also believed the Stonehenge of England has Hindu roots. It makes for intense conversations over tea on days when you have nothing else to do. But a brief exposure to Hindu temple architectural principles, and you will know that the Taj Mahal cannot possible be a Hindu construction. Was there a temple at the site before that was torn down to build this monument? Were the workmen who embedded Hindu motifs on the structure Hindu? Were their hands cut so that they could not recreate this beauty? These are stuff of legend. They cannot be proven. In fact, there is so little literature on Taj Mahal that it is easy to prove anything we want to. The British were convinced that the architect of Taj Mahal could not be an Indian; it had to be a European, maybe Italian, maybe French.
For people around the world, visiting Taj Mahal is a pilgrimage. That a Muslim tomb is the most popular image of India does exasperate many radical Hindus, especially in the diaspora (‘why can’t it be Varanasi?’). Most visitors assume it is a palace for ‘mahal’ does mean palace in colloquial parlance, until they see the tomb. And then you see, people bowing to the two graves there – that of the queen, and her royal husband, buried by her side, not because their children admired their love, but simply because their son, Aurangzeb, was pragmatic and wanted to reduce state expenditure.
In the last 50 years, the definition of religion has changed from God, to anything sacred, and with that so has the definition of pilgrimage. Today, pilgrimage is not about visiting sites linked to divinity alone, but to sites associated with sacredness, or at least a sense of deep meaning, energy and mythic power. In other words, we now live in a world where we can go on religious as well as secular pilgrimages, where lovers can go to Taj Mahal, patriots to the Wagah Border, (male) devotees to Sabarimala, and everyone can go to Siddhi Vinayaka, Kumbh Mela, or to the house of Amitabh Bachchan. It is these routes that create and bind India. And that is a good thing.