'How better can we depict the Mughal heritage?'
Veer Arjun Singh reports.
IMAGE: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited the Taj Mahal with his family during their visit to India last month. Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters
In 1989, a self-proclaimed historian claimed that the Taj Mahal, a Mughal-era mausoleum, was, in fact, a temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva.
In his book, Taj Mahal: The True Story, Purushottam Nagesh Oak argued that Shah Jahan had seized the 'Tejo Mahalaya', a Shiva temple and a Rajput palace, and converted it into a tomb.
Despite the fact that in 2000, the Supreme Court dismissed his petition that a Hindu king had built India's biggest tourist attraction, Oak's theory continues to survive. And resurfaces every now and then, often to find its way into polarising political rhetoric.
The 2018 edition of the Taj Mahotsav, which recently concluded, posed another such opportunity to drag the Taj Mahal back into controversy.
As news got out that the 10-day annual arts and crafts mela in Agra, focused on the monument of love, would feature a nritya natika (musical) based on the life of the Hindu deity Lord Ram, it was instantly labelled as an attempt by the state government to saffronise the festival.
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, a Hindutva leader who had during the 2014 state election campaign sided with Oak's theory, appeared to add credence to this argument.
After all, he had said as recently as in October 2017, that the Taj Mahal had no connection with India's culture and that he would prefer to gift the Bhagavad Gita or the Ramayana over replicas of the mausoleum to foreign dignitaries.
And then, Sangeet Som, the MLA from Adityanath's Bharatiya Janata Party, went to the extent of calling the Taj Mahal 'a blot on Indian heritage' that was built by 'traitors'.
Adding fuel to the fire, Vinay Katiyar, the founder-president of the Bajrang Dal and a BJP lawmaker from Faizabad in Uttar Pradesh, recently said, 'You can call it Taj Mahotsav or Tej Mahotsav. It's the same.'
The architectural wonder. Katiyar added, would soon be converted into a 'Tej Mandir'. Katiyar's comments drowned out the clarification from the UP government and its tourism department about the event.
Back in Agra, five days before the festival started, there was no sign that anything has changed at all since it was first organised in 1992.
Events around Ram and Krishna formed part of a larger line-up that included qawwalis, mushairas and kavi sammelans, besides dance, music and theatre performances, with some playback singers from the film industry also turning up.
Dinesh Kumar, the deputy director of UP Tourism which organises the event, clarified that the theme this year was 'dharohar' (heritage or legacy) and not Ram.
The musical on Ram was just one of the 200-plus performances, he said.
To weigh in on the argument that the Taj Mahotsav is not influenced by party politics, Kumar, who is also a member of the Taj Mahotsav Samiti which sets the agenda for the event, presented a few papers detailing the schedule.
A similar performance on the life of Ram had escaped controversy in 2015, he said.
"We are known as the city of the Taj. Tour guides and locals have learned its history by heart and recite it to tourists all day. The Taj is the focal point of this festival and forms the backdrop of all promotional material," says Kumar. "How better can we depict the Mughal heritage?"
The Taj Mahotsav this year ran at eight venues simultaneously around the city. The crowds of more than 3,00,000 people it attracts are mostly locals who eagerly await the yearly festivities.
Pramod Aggarwal, a craftsman and shopkeeper at Shilpgram, while overseeing the coming together of his makeshift wooden stalls and tent roofs, was quick to counter the allegation that there is any attempt to make the event a Hindu versus Muslim affair.
"We are about 400 Hindu and 250 Muslim vendors from around the country breaking bread together at the event," he said, "Not once in the last 10 years has there been communal discord."
Another vendor, Brij Lal, added, "The violence at Kasganj is deplorable, but in Agra there is always communal harmony."
Like every year, Nadeem Ahmed was charged with supervising the cleaning at the event, while his relative sells overpriced marble replicas of the Taj Mahal to curious foreigners.
"Around the Taj Mahal, where I live, normal life is largely unaffected by the change of governments," he said, adding, "I am eager to watch Sabri sahib's perform and my wife and children always come when schoolchildren perform plays based on Krishanji's childhood."
It's a meeting of cultures and religions. And, for the local craftspersons, it's a way of making good money during those 10 festive days.
While the fireworks play out in the form of television sound bytes, the festival's opening song succinctly captures the mood on the ground.
This is how it goes: 'Apni dharohar jamuna hai, prem ki garima Taj Mahal hai. Brij ki raj main Soor ke pad sangh, goonj rahi Ghalib ki ghazal hai'.
Translated simply: 'Our heritage is the River Yamuna and the pride of love, the Taj Mahal. Among the lines of poet Surdas, echo the ghazals of Ghalib.'
Amid the hullaballoo, the Taj towers above and beyond it all in pristine, silent glory.
Some names have been changed on request