General Views of Agra In India...AGRA, INDIA - MAY 29: Indian and foreign tourists visit the Taj Mahal on May 29, 2013 in Agra, India. Completed in 1643, the mausoleum was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who is buried there alongside Jahan.(Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)
Taj Mahal: the graceful marble mausoleum draws millions of visitors annually, including most foreign dignitaries and tourists passing through Delhi © Getty

The Taj Mahal is India’s best-known, most internationally recognisable monument, as indelibly linked to the country as the Great Wall is to China.

Commissioned in 1632 by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a tomb for his wife, the graceful marble mausoleum draws millions of visitors annually, including most foreign dignitaries and tourists passing through Delhi. 

It was described by the Nobel Prize-winning writer Rabindranath Tagore as “a teardrop on the cheek of time”, and was where Diana, Princess of Wales posed alone in 1992 on a visit to India with Prince Charles — an image that hinted at her loneliness shortly before their formal separation. 

I first glimpsed the Taj in a high school slideshow, and my first visit — the day after I arrived in India in 1994 — was as stunning as I imagined. So I did not think much of it when India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh — now governed by the rabble-rousing Hindu priest Yogi Adityanath and the Bharatiya Janata party — left the Taj out of an official brochure to promote its tourist sites.

While a media kerfuffle erupted over the omission in October, just ahead of the peak tourist season, I figured it hardly mattered, as the mausoleum is on the itinerary of nearly every foreign tour group visiting north India. The idea that one of the country’s most backward states might try to boost tourist traffic to less famous sites seemed reasonable, too. 

Yet my interpretation of the exclusion as a surprising but benign oversight was naive. 

A few weeks later, Sangeet Som, a controversial BJP state legislator, made clear what really lay behind the Taj’s omission: rightwing Hindu nationalists’ deep antipathy towards a monument built by India’s erstwhile Muslim rulers. 

At a rally, Mr Som called the Taj “a blot on Indian culture” saying it was “built by traitors” who persecuted Hindus and whose memories should be erased from history. Mr Adityanath had expressed similar sentiments, criticising previous Indian governments for presenting Taj replicas to foreign dignitaries. 

Ali Khan Mahmudabad, a history professor at Ashoka University, told me rightwing animus towards the Taj stems from the view that India’s Mughal rulers were as alien to the subcontinent as the British colonisers who followed. “The issue over the Taj is symptomatic of the wider issue of India’s Muslim past, and whether India’s Muslim past is Indian, or the remnants of a foreign occupation,” Mr Mahmudabad said. “It is about what is Indian and what is not.” 

The Mughal dynasty was founded in 1526 by Babur, from central Asia. His descendants intermarried with local notables, including other high-caste Hindus. Highly influenced by Persian culture, the Mughal court was also shaped by subcontinental beliefs and customs, and drew talented individuals from many faiths. 

When the last Mughal was deposed by the British East India Company in 1857, he was seen as an indigenous ruler, and the rallying point for the failed anti-British mutiny by an army that included many Hindus. Since India’s independence movement, the Mughals have been widely extolled as symbols of religious harmony and tolerance — whose approach to diversity offers a template for a contemporary, secular India. 

But Hindu nationalists see history differently. They characterise the Mughals as invaders, who interrupted a Hindu golden age and suppressed indigenous culture. They want the Mughals scrubbed from school history books. Some claim the Taj was originally a Shiva temple stolen by the Mughals, though historians — and the Archaeological Survey of India — say there is no credible evidence. But the idea of a cover-up is being propagated in internet videos. 

By challenging the “Indian-ness” of the Mughals and their monuments, Hindu nationalists challenge the claim of India’s 180m Muslims to a say in the country’s future. To them, Muslims are “at best guests and at worst foreigners”, says Mr Mahmudabad. 

For now, Mr Adityanath has tried to draw a line under the Taj furore. Visiting the monument for the first time, he declared all controversy was unwarranted, as the structure had been “built by the labourers of India”. But the debate over what constitutes Indian-ness — and who is a genuine Indian — is unlikely to end so quickly.

Letter in response to this column:

Adityanath has delivered on a number of promises / From Vijay Dandapani, New York, NY, US

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