Tuesday, December 2, 2008

"A Teardrop on the Cheek of Time"

Since Advent is the season where we contemplate second comings and final things, I thought it might be a good opportunity to look at something that is extra-Christian and perhaps a bit of a surprise, the Taj Mahal (the title of this post is from the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore's description of the Taj).

The Taj is famous the world over as a monument to a lost love. It is the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal, Shah Jahan's favorite wife, who died in childbirth. And yes, it is true that the Taj is indeed a tomb and a memorial, and that Mumtaz Mahal was much beloved by the famous Mughal Emperor. But it may be much more than that.

In 1979, Wayne Begley wrote a very famous (among scholars anyway) and controversial essay on the Taj arguing that it was a grand monument, not only to a lost love, but to the Muslim vision of the Apocalypse and Last Judgment (Begley, Wayne, "The Myth of the Taj Mahal and a New Theory of Its Symbolic Meaning," Art Bulletin, Vol. LXI, number 1, March 1979). So far as I know, his was the first Western scholarly article on the Taj to take into account the prominent and carefully selected, deliberately placed Quranic inscriptions on the monument. Far from being Persian love poetry, these are passages about the Last Judgment and about the reward of the faithful as described in the Quran. Around the south iwan or entrance arch of the Taj is the entire 36th Surah of the Quran describing the reward of righteous believers. The inscription around west iwan in the 82nd Surah of the Quran, the "Cleaving Asunder." Over the north iwan is the 84th Surah "The Rending Asunder." Over the east is the 81st Surah, "The Folding Up." All 3 of these chapters are descriptions of the Apocalypse, of the terrible calamities at the end of time. This is not exactly what we would expect on the tomb of a beloved concubine.

Begley argues that the Taj itself is supposed to be a vast marble image of the Throne of God at the Last Judgment. He notes that, most unusually, the Taj is not in the center of the paradise garden as is usual with Mughal royal tombs (like those of Emperors Akbar and Humayun), but on the riverside. He argues that the vast marble tomb is supposed to be a metaphor for God on His throne presiding over the earth on Judgment Day, and over the faithful in paradise.
Recently, some scholars have taken issue with this interpretation since so much of it is based on how the Taj is located in its garden. The gardens of the Taj across the Jumna river are now being excavated and restored, locating the Taj more conventionally in the center of a garden complex. Most scholars now believe that the old legend about Shah Jahan wanting to build a twin Taj out of black marble across the river is just that, an old legend.

Satellite photo of the Taj Mahal showing the remains of another garden across the Jumna river.

Mumtaz Mahal was no harem girl. She was arguably smarter and more decisive than Shah Jahan, and played a key role in the bloody struggle for his succession after the death of Emperor Jahangir. He depended on her as much as he loved her. She did not share the religious tolerance and syncretic views of Shah Jahan's famous grandfather, Emperor Akbar. She was a Muslim purist, unlike most in the Mughal court of that time, and began the tilt of the court toward the puritanical intolerance of Shah Jahan's successor, Aurangzeb. She advocated penalizing Hindus with taxes and liabilities, and she was an enthusiastic persecutor of India's Christians.

Traditionally among India's Muslims, all women who die in childbirth are saints. Mumtaz Mahal is doubly sainted in Muslim India, and the Taj is still regarded as an important holy site. The mosque built by Shah Jahan attached to the Taj still functions.


Grandmère Mimi said...

Excellent post, CL. Whatever the Taj Mahal is, it's beautiful.

Brian R said...

Yes, I remember being awe-struck way back in 1974. However the contrast with the pitiful beggars outside was also unsettling. Thanks for the information.

Scott Hankins said...

So...you're making the connection, too.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

India has a history of violence between the Religions, so a Sikh woman at my ex-work told me. So sad!