Four centuries later, there’s a row over a simple question: Who really built the Taj Mahal?

Furore magnet.
Furore magnet.
Image: Reuters/Kamal Kishore
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What is it about the Taj Mahal that makes it such a magnet for furore?

The building’s upkeep and environment has always been a matter of outrage. And merely naming a public works project after the building seems to have cursed it beyond salvation. Then there was that mini-outrage about too many books on India featuring the Taj on its cover.

But these are all merely side-attractions for what has been the most enduring source of Taj Mahal-related controversy: its origin.

After four centuries, there is still a flaming row over a deceptively simple question: Who really built it?

Last month, Bharatiya Janata Party’s Uttar Pradesh chief Lakshmikant Bajpayee suggested that the Taj Mahal was originally part of a Hindu temple called Tejo Mahalaya. This prompted Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan to demand that the Taj Mahal be handed over to UP’s Waqf Board. As usual for most controversies associated with the Taj, closure has not been forthcoming.

This is the latest chapter in the controversial “Tejo Mahalaya” theory of historical revisionism that is perhaps three decades old but has really bloomed in the last 20 years or so, largely thanks to the Internet.

Truth hunting

Supporters of the theory cite it as a marquee issue in a many-pronged drive to purge Indian historical narrative of colonial, western-influenced and Marxist influences.

Detractors on the other hand, scoff at it, often using “Tejo Mahalaya” as a euphemism for uninformed, unscientific, “patriotic” conspiracy theorising that thrives in the viral form of email forwards and WhatsApp messages.

All this would lead you to believe that there has been a single “establishment view” of the Taj Mahal’s history that has remain unchallenged for centuries.

Nothing, in fact, could be further from the truth.

A century ago, well before the Tejo Mahalaya theory was postulated, many western observers had another theory about the Taj Mahal. Like many modern proponents of Tejo Mahalaya, this theory also claimed the Mughals “incapable” of such splendid architecture.

This 19th century theory credited the architecture of the Taj Mahal not to a Hindu temple or the palace of a Hindu king, but to an altogether more foreign source: an Italian architect or a French jeweller or, even, both.

The Italian job

On Christmas Eve 1640, Father Sebastien Manrique, a Portuguese missionary sent to the Far East, arrived in Agra. Manrique had spent eight years in Arakan in Burma, and was now wandering his way back to Europe, taking a long, meandering detour through in India. Manrique later wrote a history of his journeys in two volumes, first published in 1649. (Copies of the Itinerary De Las Missiones Orientales appear to be rare, and the most recent English translation this writer could procure was printed in 1927.)

Manrique’s writings appear to have been ignored for some two centuries until, in the late 1880s, one particular portion of it suddenly, as it were, “went viral”.

In a section on his stay in Agra, Manrique writes about the Taj Mahal that was then undergoing construction: “The architect of these works was a Venetian, by name Geronimo Veroneo, who had come to this part in a Portuguese ship and died in the City of Laor [Lahore] just before I reached it.”

This reference to the Taj’s European provenance was then slipped into a 1888 tourist handbook called Guide to Agra. Europeans readers lapped it up and spread the news with alacrity. Later, when Veroneo’s tomb was discovered in the Padres Santos Cemetery in Agra, conspiracy theorists celebrated.

So they had been right after all! There was no way these Orientals could have designed something so wonderful themselves! The Taj Mahal was a product of Italian renaissance architecture!

French connection

To muddy the waters further, around the same time another European camp suggested that it was not Veroneo who designed the Taj Mahal but the Frenchman Austin of Bordeaux, a jeweller who plied his trade for the Mughals around the same time as the Taj Mahal’s commissioning.

The argument between both camps appears to have been less than cordial. The 1927 translation of Manrique’s travels has an extended note by a co-author vouching for Veroneo over Austin. His tone is, shall we say, forceful.

Art historian Giles Tillotson’s 2008 book, Taj Mahal, has a lively section that tells the story of this European conspiracy theory and also how, almost immediately, scholars tried to intervene and bring historical accuracy to the story.

They were not completely successful. For years afterwards, references to Veroneo and Austin popped up in books about the Taj.

Today, this theory has been soundly discredited. (Except, of course, on some websites.) While European artists may well have been involved with the Taj Mahal’s construction and design, most experts agree that it is very much a product of the architecture and design of the time and place in which it was constructed.

Object of pride

Since then, the Veroneo-Austin theory has been thoroughly displaced by the Tejo Mahalaya debate, the latter spearheaded by the writings of PN Oak.

What fuels these debates and theories and arguments over provenance? Why did the Europeans find them so appealing?

In a 1903 essay titled The Taj and its Designers, E B Havell, once principal of the Government College of Art in Calcutta, put it down to a combination of pride and ignorance, “for every European who gazes at the ethereal beauty of the Taj must feel some pride if he can bring himself to believe that the crowning glory of one of the most brilliant epochs of Indian art owed its inspiration to Western minds”.

“No one will ever get further in his understanding and appreciation of Indian art,” Havell wrote, “without forsaking that stolid attitude of ignorant condescension with which the ordinary European, and more especially the Anglo-Saxon, treats everything Oriental which he does not understand.”

There is perhaps no greater testimony to the Taj Mahal’s enduring greatness than this relentless battle to take cultural credit for its provenance.

This post first appeared on Scroll.in