Tasveer Ghar: A Digital Archive of South Asian Popular Visual Culture

Fantasizing the Mughals and
Popular Perceptions of the Taj Mahal

Catherine B. Asher

Fig.01

Fig.02

The Taj Mahal today has become an international icon and of this there is no doubt.1 For example, an advertisement in a Japanese subway for grave markers features an image of the Taj Mahal to underscore the point (fig. 01). Much imagery of the Taj Mahal, particularly that used in western advertising, however, gives no indication that the Taj Mahal is a funerary monument. Examples include an advertisement promoting the late hotelier Leona Helmsley’s Helmsley Palace in New York that compared her hotel to the Taj Mahal, thus thoroughly misunderstanding its originally intended use.2 So too I recall the day many years ago when my daughter came home from her secondary school in St. Paul, Minnesota (USA), telling me that I was going to be very upset because her teacher informed the class that the Taj Mahal was a Hindu palace.3 With these few examples of how the Taj Mahal is viewed outside of the subcontinent, I would like to consider how the complex and by extension the Mughals were and perhaps still are understood in India for a period ranging roughly from the formal end of the Mughal empire in 1858 into the post-independence period as evidenced in part by visual ephemera in the Priya Paul collection (fig. 02).

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I commence my discussion of the attitudes toward the Taj Mahal in the subcontinent itself with two post-Independence examples. One is a booklet on Brajbhumi entitled The Lands of the Legends of Love featuring on its cover not an image associated with the terrain of Krishna’s childhood but rather with an image of the Taj Mahal,4 considered by many as a symbol of undying love. The Taj Mahal, as Kajri Jain notes, was a favorite backdrop, whether the actual monument or the backdrop of a photo studio, for posing couples in public places.5 In this same spirit, although devoid of any couples, is an oversized New Year’s Card, probably inspired by Valentine cards, purchased in Kolkata in 2010, underscoring this notion.6 The interior’s pop-out image of the Taj is emblazoned with the following: “You are my passion;” “You are the sunshine of my soul!” and “I have a heart full of love, which I always like to give you” (fig. 03). Clearly, the notion that the Taj Mahal is the penultimate symbol of love is alive and well in India today.

Fig.04

A second Indian image of the Taj Mahal is evoked in a 1979 interview by historian and blogger Jyotsna Kamat with nationalist historian R.C. Majumdar whom Kamat considers India’s greatest historian; it was conducted shortly before Majumdar’s death.7 What is noteworthy for our purposes is that this interview took place in Majumdar’s living room, which was embellished with a painting of the Taj Mahal. This might not be unusual given the vast number of wall calendars that bear images of the Taj Mahal, including ones in the Priya Paul collection (fig. 04). However, considering Majumdar’s approach to Indian history as witnessed in his eleven-volume work The History and Culture of the Indian People, which essentially celebrates both India’s ancient past and independence from foreign rulers, among whom he included the Mughals, the presence of the Taj Mahal in this scholar’s living room appears ironic.8 This seeming paradox raises questions about the place of the Taj Mahal in Indian thought and imagination, and, who so to speak “owns” this architectural masterpiece. Is the Taj Mahal essentially a national icon, considered distinct from the larger Mughal legacy?


1 I would like to thank Sugata Ray for his help with this essay. For accessible sources on the Taj Mahal see: Ebba Koch, The Complete Taj Mahal and the Riverfront Gardens of Agra (London: Thames and Hudson, 2006), and Giles Tillotson, Taj Mahal (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2008).

2 This advertisement was featured in the 1980s in up-scale food magazines such as the now defunct Gourmet. See Pratapaditya Pal et. al., Romance of the Taj Mahal (London and Los Angeles: Thames and Hudson; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1989), 10-11.

3 See Koch, 250. Tillotson, 112-14; 163.

4 The Lands of the Legends of Love: The Braj Circuit (Lucknow: Prakash Packagers, 2001). No author’s name is provided.

5 See Kajri Jain, “Monuments, Landscape and Romance in Indian Popular Imagery” http://tasveerghar.net/cmsdesk/essay/37/index_1.html (accessed September 25, 2010).

6 For Valentine cards, see Christiane Brosius, “The Rhythm of Romantic Love,” http://tasveerghar.net/cmsdesk/essay/92/ (accessed September 25, 2010). Another source of influence could be Christmas cards (editorial remark by CB).

7 http://www.kamat.com/kalranga/itihas/rc_majumdar.htm (accessed July 24, 2010). I want to thank Sandria Freitag for bringing this to my attention.

8 The sections on the Taj Mahal were not written by Majumdar, but by other scholars who tend to praise the building. They make virtually no mention of its Timurid prototypes, thus treating the Taj Mahal as wholly Indian. See S.K. Saraswati, “Mughal Architecture,” in The History and Culture of the Indian People, Vol. VII, ed. R.C. Majumdar (Bombay” Bharatiya Vidha Bhava, 1974), 793-99.

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