© 2024 WKNO FM
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Hindu Nationalists Stir Up Controversy Over Taj Mahal


The Taj Mahal, India's fabled temple of love, is now mired in bitter dispute. A lawmaker with the ruling Hindu nationalist party said the Muslim emperor who built India's iconic monument was a traitor. Critics say that claim is just an attempt to stir up hatred between religions. NPR's Julie McCarthy reports from Agra.

JULIE MCCARTHY: Three million visitors pass through the Taj Mahal each year. This morning, hundreds of schoolchildren, families and foreigners throng the arched entrance, straining to see the white marble tomb gleaming against a Titian blue sky.

The nearly 400-year-old monument was built by the Mogul emperor Shah Jahan to enshrine his favorite wife. But his labor of love has been dragged into an ugly political row.

SANGEET SOM: (Speaking in foreign language).

MCCARTHY: Controversial lawmaker Sangeet Som thunders that the Muslim King worked for the destruction of all Hindus and that Shah Jahan's Mogul dynasty was a blot on Indian culture that must be expunged.

Swapna Liddle is with the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage. She says the stone and marble architecture of the 300-year-long Mughal era is Indian at its core and that the Mughals were great patrons of the fine arts we equate with India today.

SWAPNA LIDDLE: Language - you're looking at literature. You're looking at painting or jewelry-making, carving and music. All these arts flourished under them. It really laid the groundwork for a lot of the reputation that India built up globally.

MCCARTHY: Som and other lawmakers who are disparaging India's most renowned building belong to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP party. Party spokesman Nalin Kohli says there is no doubt the Taj is part of incredible India - but adds, the BJP is not obliged to answer for the individual views of members because they in no way interfere with the government.

NALIN KOHLI: Our agenda of government - which is development for all, carrying everyone along - is clearly not related to this debate.

MCCARTHY: But Hartosh Singh Bal says the Taj dispute is very much related to the way the BJP governs. From rewriting history books to encouraging vigilantes to protect the Hindu sacred cow, he says members of the BJP have fueled religious enmity. Bal, who is the political editor of Caravan magazine, says suggestive terms, usually anti-Muslim in tone, help construct a history of grievance that supports the cause of Hindu nationalism.

HARTOSH SINGH BAL: And the belief is that there was some mythic Indian past where everything was perfect. All knowledge, whether it is modern scientific knowledge, was known to ancient Indians and there has been a decline and that decline is primarily the responsibility which is affixed to the advent of Islam in this country.

ANIL KUMAR: Taj Mahal one of the perfect symmetrical monument. From all four side, it look identical - size, design, color, pattern...

MCCARTHY: Anil Kumar (ph) guides tours of the Taj. And I ask what the Moghul dynasty means to him.

KUMAR: For me, they came as looters. And they come to collect all the gold or money from the India.

MCCARTHY: But Kumar is happy for the economic lifeline the Taj provides his city. Even the most ardent Hindu nationalists are coming around to the view that it is one of India's rare gems, the words of Hindu priest Yogi Adityanath.

He's the provocative chief minister of the Indian state that is home to the Taj Mahal and was dispatched here this week for some damage control. The Taj Mahal has been cleaned this morning - swept clean by the Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. The chief minister's own tourism ministry left the Taj Mahal off the state's list of attractions. Now he's come here to make amends.

After a furor erupted, the Taj has been put back into the state's tourism pamphlet. And at the close of his tour, the chief minister contritely said it didn't matter why, when or how the Taj Mahal was built. The important thing is the blood and sweat of Indians built it, and, he says, we'll protect it.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Agra. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.