Saturday, April 12, 2003
M A I N   F E A T U R E

Tale of the tiny lamp at the Taj
Prakash khare

INSIDE the Taj, just above the false cenotaphs of the royal lovers in the upper mausoleum hangs a small bronze lamp. Only a few pay it any special attention and fewer still know the romantic tale behind this tiny lamp. It was a gift from Lord Curzon, a former Viceroy of India.

The Taj held a great fascination for Curzon. During one of his visits to the monument, he was pained to notice that the guides, who showed him round, carried country lanterns, some of which were quite worn out and emitted offensive smoke. So strongly did he feel about it that before leaving the place, he gave instructions that those lanterns should go and some artistic lights worthy of the great monument should be provided to the guides.

When the Viceroy left, no one cared to remember anything about his instructions. Only Curzon himself did. Several months later, when an official of the Archaeological Department called on Lord Curzon, the latter did not forget to enquire if those abominable lanterns at the Taj had been replaced. When he learnt that nothing had been done in the matter, he felt extremely sore about it and addressed a personal letter to Sir James La Touch, Governor of the then United Provinces, ordering him to see to it that his instructions were implemented promptly.


Later on, however, the Viceroy gave up the idea in favour of presenting a suspended lamp for the Taj. He personally examined several designs but none gave him full satisfaction. For a good suggestion, he wrote to Lord Cromer, his personal friend, who was the then Governor-General of Egypt: "I want to give a beautiful silver hanging lamp of Saracenic design to be hung above the cenotaphs of Shah Jehan and his queen in the upper mausoleum of the Taj..."

While returning to England in November 1905, Lord Curzon broke his journey at Cairo. After examining hundreds of designs, he approved the design of the lamp which had hung in the mosque of Sultan Beybars II. But the lamp itself suddenly disappeared and anxious enquiries in several countries could not help in locating the lamp. With little hope of its recovery, Curzon requested Herz Bey, Director of the Arab Museum at Cairo, for his help in making a replica of the original lamp.

Luckily, all details of its design were available. The work was entrusted to one of Egyptís most renowned artist, Todros Badir. Two years of labour produced the lamp of Curzonís dream. It was made from bronze and was artistically inlaid with silver and gold. It carried the following inscription in Persian: "Presented to the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal by Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, 1906." Curzon was very particular about the inscription being in Persian so that it would be in complete harmony with the great tomb it was intended to illuminate.

The installation ceremony was fixed for the evening of February 16,1908. A distinguished gathering of over 10,000 people witnessed the colourful function. As the last rays of the setting sun lingered on for the last moments on the minaret, the muezzin gave the call for prayer. "As it (the lamp) hangs above the graves of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jehan, it revives in spirit, if not in precise details, a ceremony performed in the old days, of lighting up the tomb once a year at the anniversary festival held in the Emperorís honour...," said in Urdu the President of the Anjuman-e-Islamia.

Lord Curzon, having retired as Viceroy, made it a point that every penny of the cost was paid from his personal account, as he insisted it to be his "last tribute of respect to the glories of Agra which float in memory like a constant vision of beauty." Since then, for almost a century, the lamp illuminates the mausoleum of the imperial lovers as they lie side by side in eternal sleep.