(Hiren K Bose is a senior journalist with one of India's leading national newspapers. Nearly two decades in the profession, he has written extensively on various subjects. History has always fascinated him, which explains why he chose to reside in the vicinity of a 400-year-old Portuguese fort in Bassein, a distant suburb of Mumbai. This article was previously published by Newtopiamagazine and 2005 being the ‘Year of the Taj,’ this piece becomes highly relevant again.)

Next Column:......................................................................................................................................Back to Columns Index

The Mughal Empire

Eleanor Roosevelt following a visit to the Taj Mahal was asked by newspersons what she thought about the marble mausoleum. "If Frankie promises that he will build a memorial like that on my tomb," the US president's wife is reported to have said, "I am willing to commit suicide tonight." (qtd in Sanyal).

Most folks who visit the Taj, a showcase monument of the Mughals, and referred to by chroniclers as an edifice of love, either return overpowered by its ethereal beauty, or are touched by the aged emperor Shah Jehan's love for his wife, quite unlike Aldous Huxley who considered the four minarets standing on the corners of the Taj "among the ugliest structures ever built" (qtd in Carol). Taj does different things to different people – be it heads of state, diplomats or the handy cam-carrying tourist - they all return with a keepsake picture, sitting in the foreground with the bulbous umbrella-like dome 'looming large' over their heads.

Taj is the ultimate example of the fruition of a political philosophy which witnessed its heyday in medieval India during the rule of Akbar the Great [1556-1605], and as historian E. B. Havel conclusively writes in Indian Architecture, "The Taj belongs to India, not to Islam" (Havel 71). In fact, it brings together a synthesis, a successful marriage of Hindu and Islamic architecture.

Much has been written about the Islamic influence, but just two examples of Hindu inspiration will suffice: Taj's bulbous dome is encouraged by the Tanjore style of temple architecture, topped by a characteristically Hindu icon – a lotus-shaped base from which rises the golden crest. This is followed by the use of black (which represents mourning among Christian and Muslims traditions) and saffron (typically Hindu color, representing renunciation) – the only colors (symbolized) in the opus sectile work in the design of the four white marble minarets. Interestingly, green, considered the color of Islam, is missing. Maybe because, it represents youth? Possibly!

Incidentally, the spade work of bringing together of two ancient cultures was made possible by the conquest of Hindustan by Babur, a descendant of Timur Leng from his father's side, and Changez Khan from his mother's, who unlike his ancestors decided to stay, though he wrote: "Hindustan is a country of few charms" (See Beveridge). It was Hindustan's charms and its bounteous riches that brought invaders from all lands, including Timur. The Mongol ransacked Delhi in 1398; laid it to waste, only to return to Samarkand by the Khyber Pass with 90 elephants loaded with riches and the best craftsmen his men could lay their hands upon, with the wish to raise a masjid, which planet Earth had not yet been witness to!

His chronicler narrates: "And so Delhi, like the ancient Babylon, no craftsmen of whatever craft he be, shall be found any more in thee" (Fischel). Sadly, history had destined something else. Timur's wish remained a dream. Interestingly, a Timur descendant, separated from him by nearly two-and-a-half centuries, presented to the world not a house of worship but a mausoleum which Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore eulogised as, “...teardrop, the Taj Mahal, glistens spotlessly bright on the cheek of time for ever and ever" (Tagore “Shahjehan” Poem No 7 Balaka).

Much water has flowed down the River Yamuna, on whose banks the mausoleum came up – a noteworthy symbol of the three-century long Mughal reign, which began with Babur, who belied his Tatar and Mongol blood. Babur was a poet-philosopher, a calligrapher, and a nature lover who pursued a policy of tolerance for his Hindu subjects. But it was his grandson, Akbar, who besides consolidating the Mughal rule, integrated it too. He made the country a cohesive whole with his attempt to bring in administrative reforms. What is astounding is that this boy-king who ascended the throne at the tender age of 13 was unlettered. But till he died at the ripe age of 75, he continued to educate himself, be it on matters of faith, music, literature or administrative policy. He even made an attempt to found a secular faith, at a time when bloody religious wars were being waged in Europe.

While his contemporaries like Elizabeth I of England and Henry IV of France were struggling with their individual faith, to be Protestant or Catholic, the Great Mughal was far ahead of them. He abolished Islam as state religion and even replaced the Muslim era of Hegira with the Ilahi era of Persian adherence, whose months bore Zoroastrian names. Akbar's religious policy was not to consider the Hindus as 'infidels,' but just 'other worshippers.' Unlike his predecessors who were tolerant, Akbar was much more than that— he refused to distinguish between 'true' and 'wrong' religions.

Here's what Abul Fazal, Akbar's biographer writes in Ain-i-Akbari: "If the doctrine of an enemy be in itself good, why should hands be stained in the blood of its professors? And even were it otherwise, the sufferer from the malady of folly deserves commiseration" (trans. Blochmann). Simply stated, Akbar sowed the seeds of a political thought according to which no religion was able to claim superiority over any other way of worshipping God, and nobody could be considered an 'infidel' for pursuing his/her own way to the deity.

Consider with what an enlightened mind and leading humanist like Erasmus of Rotterdam thought. His pamphlet, The Lamentations of Peace, Banished from Everywhere and Ruined considered a passionate cry against wars for peace and friendship among nations and championed war against Turks because they happened to be non-Christians. What a paradox! Sixteenth century's most elevated mind was unwilling to acknowledge the right of non-Christian people to worship God in their own way! Not only that, Akbar really succeeded in strengthening the empire, and in consolidating the social base of his power through his refusal to discriminate against non-Muslims, like the abolition of ‘jaziya’, and through his administrative and fiscal reforms. Akbar's mind was also not in consonance with contemporary European political tradition, in which the king was considered the protector of a privileged community of his co-believers, while others could only hope for tolerance as a reward for loyalty and submission.

A galaxy of poets, scholars, musicians and artists 'encircled' Akbar's durbar. As Persian became the official language, it opened the doors for educated Hindus to the poetry of Khayam, Firdausi, Rudaki, Jami, and to the wisdom and insight of Muslim scholars. It is to this interaction of two cultures that Indian literature owes such jewels as Amir Khusrau, Faizi, Rahim, Bedil, Jayasi, Muhammad Quli, Miyan Wali Muhammad, Mir, Said and so on, who stand shoulder to shoulder with the Bard of Avon's achievements.

It was due to Akbar's encouragement too that we are heirs to famous medieval historical texts like Maulla Daud's Tehrik-I-Alphi, Abul Fazal's Ain-I-Akbari and Akbarnama; translation of the Mahabharata into Persian, Rajme-Namah, Persian translation of Ramayana and Atharva Veda, Lilavati's mathematical equations; Rahim Khan-I-Khanan's translation of Babur's autobiography into Persian from Chughtai and others. The Hindus, thanks to Babur's breadth of vision and Akbar's religious tolerance, brought out works like Krishna Kabiraj's Chaitanya Charitaamrit, Brindavan Das' Chaitanya Bhagwat, Tulsidas' Ramcharitmanas, Kashiram Das' Mahabharata, Mukund Ram's Kavikankar Chandi and so on. Though these works had no support of the Mughals, it would not have been possible for them to see the light of the day, if atrocities against non-Muslims had continued.

The Mughals have left behind mausoleums and masjids - many of them scattered as they are in different parts of India – contrary to the majestic mindset of Hindu kings of the past, who, despite their belief in afterbirth, refrained from raising a memorial in their beloved one's memory. Surprisingly however, a secular and democratic India has raised scores of memorials in honor of its favorite leaders a la Mughal style – incidentally all of them in the country's capital city. They form a 'must-see' component on the itinerary card of every visiting head of state today, more than anytime before.

Isn't this a monumental tribute to an empire's cultural synthesis long gone – one that has withstood the test of time and will continue to bid fair to that noble prospect for a long time to come?




Works Cited

Sanyal. Narayan. Lajawab Dehli Aprupa Agra (in Bangla). Bharati Book Stall: Calcutta, 1985.

Carol, David. “The Taj Mahal”. Newsweek, New York, 1972.
(Original citation in Jesting Pilate by Aldous Huxley 1926)

Havel, E. B. Indian Architecture. S. Chand and Co: Delhi, 1913.

Beveridge, Annette S. Trans. “Life and Writings of Gulbadan Begum” Calcutta Review, Vol 106: 345-71. 1892.

Fischel, Walter J. Ibn Khaldun and Tamerlane: Their Historic Meeting in Damascus, 1401 A.D. Univ. of California: Berkeley, 1952.

Tagore, Rabindranath. Balaka: Shahjehan, poem number seven (in Bangla).
Blochmann, Henry. Trans. The Ain-i Akbari, Abul Fazl 'Allami, vol. I. Aadesh Book Depot: Delhi, 1978.


Next Column: ........................................................................................................................................... ......... Top

Web Graphics and design by Smita Maitra * Background graphic by Kabir Kashyap* concept by Amrita Ghosh * Please read the disclaimer

This web journal is sponsored by The Caspersen School of graduate studies, Drew University