Magnificence in marble
R. L. Singal

Taj Mahal
by Giles Tillotson.
Pages 200. Rs 399.

Internationally acclaimed by architects and aesthetes as the most beautiful monument of love, the Taj Mahal at Agra has almost become a legend in India’s artistic and cultural history. Built by the Mughal Emperor, Shah Jehan, in memory of his beloved wife Arjumund Banu Begum (widely known as Mumtaz Mahal) who died in 1631. The construction of the complex began immediately thereafter. Her grave is placed centrally within the building, and that of Shah Jehan was added later, alongside. It took 22 years to complete this magnificent tomb and it cost the public exchequer
Rs 50 lakh.

The material that encases all parts of the tomb is white marble, from the mines of Makrana in Rajasthan. We may legitimately ask: How could the empire withstand this huge cost of the Taj Mahal? The annual revenue received by the imperial treasury in the early 17th century was approximately a hundred million rupees.

Of this, 80 per cent was spent on the salaries of the officials and bureaucrats of the empire, five per cent on the imperial household, including its building projects. This means that the cost of Taj Mahal is roughly comparable to one year’s expenditure on the household budgets though actually, of course, spread out over several years.

Poets, writers and aesthetes have waxed eloquent while describing the details of the Taj’s deign and beauty.

Sahir Ludhianvi, the famous Urdu poet of Punjab asks his beloved to meet him at a place other than the Taj as by building that mausoleum, the emperor has mocked at the love of poor people:

"Ik shahenshah ne daulat ka sahara lekar

Hum garibon ki mohabbat ka udaya hai mazak

Meri mehboob kahin aur mila kar mujhse"

Aldous Huxley, in a travelogue, describing his journey through India, found fault with the Taj and complained that buildings such as the Taj were the products of a deficiency of fancy, a poverty of

The author Giles Tillotson rightly comments towards the end of the third chapter that this smacks a little too much of an attempt to be original. Lord Curzon saw the Taj on his first visit to India in 1887 and fell in love immediately with this gem of man’s handiwork, the most devotional of temples, the most solemn of sepulchers, the peerless and incomparable Taj.

He described it as designed and finished like a jewel, a snow white emanation, starting from a bed of cypresses — pure perfect and utterly lovely. If we forget all other descriptions of the beauty of the monument of love and remember only these peerless epithets uttered by Lord Curson in his sincere and passionate admiration, we shall be relishing all that is worth relishing.

A century on from Curson, the author believes the Taj is not only a building of unrivalled beauty, it is also a major source of revenue through ticket-sales and souvenirs. Its popularity may be gauged from the fact that on an average 8,000 tourists visit it every day. That is why at issue is the people’s concern for its custody and care including, of course, its safety against real or perceived threats of terrorists to blow it up.

The Government of India or the Archeological Survey of India has to devise methods to contend with all these threats to the safety of the Taj — one of the original Seven Wonders of the World.

Giles Tillotson deploys his formidable knowledge of India’s history to create a kaleidoscopic interpretation of the monument — revealing what it meant to the Mughals who conceived and built it, to the British who saw some thing unique in it and hence set about to preserve it and the many millions who throng it every day and savour its beauty and both its fact and fiction.