by Sraman Sircar
The second part of The Saga of the Taj Committee takes the story forward by discussing the specific conservation practices that were undertaken at the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort. At the same time, it also sheds light on the corruption and delusions of grandeur of the colonial official in charge of the entire project. Read the Part 1 of the series, here.
The Ceremonial Visit of the Marquis of Hastings
The Taj Committee was formed in 1808, but its work did not begin in earnest until two years later. On 6 April 1810, a British officer named Lt. Joseph Taylor was made the superintendent of the conservation project planned by the committee. He was instructed to follow the guidelines originally laid out in the report presented by Colonel Alexander Kyd, Chief Engineer of Agra, while his work was supervised by Capt. Steel, the Garrison Engineer of the city. This initial effort to restore the Taj Mahal would last almost five years and primarily involved refurbishing various parts of the monument. For instance, ebony was brought from Bundelkhand to construct new doors for the Taj. When enough craftsmen could not be found in Agra, artisans were brought all the way from Calcutta to work on the copper mouldings and embellishments on the doors.
By the end of 1814, the restoration project was finished. Upon the insistence of Lt. Taylor, a Committee of Survey was created to inspect the results. It consisted of Lt. Col. Cuppage (Commanding Officer at Agra), Major D. Macleod (President of the Survey), Lt. I. Land of the 11th Native Infantry, Capt. A. Owen of the 13th Native Infantry, Artillery Capt. W. Tallemach and Lt. A. W. Fordyce. After a thorough inspection of the Taj Mahal, the committee officially declared the restoration project a success. The news was quickly conveyed to the administrators of the East India Company in Calcutta, who immediately decided that such a momentous occasion could not be allowed to go to waste. The completion of the restoration of the Taj Mahal called for a grand celebration that would both showcase and legitimize the imperial might of the British.
By this time, the conservation of India’s cultural heritage had become synonymous with the establishment of the British Empire in South Asia. It’s quite revealing that in 1815, it was the Secretary on Ceded and Conquered Provinces to the Governor General’s Council who first advised that the completion of the restoration project should be celebrated by a visit of the Marquis of Hastings, then the Governor-General of India, to the Taj, in person. This was all the more significant because Agra had been conquered by the Company’s forces little more than a decade before. Accordingly, between February and April of 1815, the Marquis travelled the 1300 km between Calcutta and Agra in a lavishly organized imperial procession just to personally inspect the Taj Mahal and express his satisfaction with the efforts of Lt. Taylor and his team. Such theatrical displays of power were essential to the survival of the British Empire in India.
The Report of Capt. Phipps
Pleased with the restoration of the Taj Mahal, the Marquis of Hastings now wanted the conservation project to focus on other historical sites located in its vicinity. According to Hastings, protection and repair of such ‘national monuments’ that could evoke the national pride of Indians would enable the British to keep justifying their imperial control over the subcontinent. For the next stage of the conservation process, he instructed Capt. Phipps, the Barrack Master of Agra, to draft a proposal on the restoration of the Moti Masjid within the Agra Fort. Lt. Taylor, who in the meantime had moved to Madras to take up his new posting at Fort St. George, was also summoned back to Agra by the Marquis, who was pleased with the initial work done by Taylor’s team. On 28 April 1815, Lt. Taylor was officially appointed once again to supervise the conservation of the Taj Mahal, and particularly of the Moti Masjid.
Towards the end of May 1815, Capt. Phipps submitted a report to the local agents of the Company in Agra about the exact nature of the repair work needed at the Moti Masjid. He mentioned that the stone wall surrounding the structure had completely collapsed due to disrepair. Almost 600 sq. ft of the outer courtyard beyond the walls of the mosque was also in need of urgent repair. Most frighteningly, rain had seeped through the walls and the brick masonry of the mosque and had damaged it so extensively that the structural integrity of the edifice itself was at stake! Alarmed by this report about the dismal condition of the Moti Masjid, the local agents made a detailed list of the repair works that had to be performed, which they gave to Lt. Taylor on 22 June, the day he arrived in Agra from Madras.
His team immediately began the repair work, following the instructions of the local agents. First, the Moti Masjid and its precincts were cleared of the roots of overgrown plants. Afterwards, the copper ornamentation on the mosque was repaired and burnished. The domes and the staircase were polished with marble chunam [a cement or plaster used earlier in India that was usually highly polished and decorated with paintings], while the old walls were rebuilt with slabs of marble. To reconstruct the collapsed outer wall, sandstone, marble, pewter, wood and paint were used. Despite the steady progress, by August 1816 Lt. Taylor’s team had run out of money and could no longer continue with the project. On 19 August, he petitioned the Governor General’s Council in Calcutta to ask for an additional sum of Rs. 9410; he had apparently incurred more expenses because the north face of the Moti Masjid had required more repairs than originally expected. Lt. Taylor also demanded Rs. 874 separately as his personal reimbursement for supervising the entire project.
The very next day, the Company’s local agents in Agra confronted him about discrepancies in his petition. They pointed out that Rs. 2500 had been separately sanctioned to clean the interiors and rooms of the Taj Mahal, and he had failed to mention whether this task had been completed. Furthermore, Rs. 2300 that had been originally allocated for procuring ornamental doors for the Moti Masjid had also gone unaccounted for in Lt. Taylor’s petition. The local agents strongly felt that such irregularities needed to be addressed first, before the Governor General’s Council could allocate any additional sums of money.
Lt. Taylor’s defensive and guarded explanation, submitted in a letter on 24 August 1816, was not very detailed, and he actually blamed the initial report by Capt. Phipps for providing an inaccurate estimate of the expenses. For example, he claimed that one of the requirements missed by Capt. Phipps was the need to repair the domes of the Moti Masjid. It was only when he had asked workers to erect scaffoldings around the mosque, he claimed, that they had realized the domes urgently needed to be repaired as well. These additional tasks had not been mentioned in the original report by Capt. Phipps, and as a result, it had given an incorrect estimate of the total cost of the project. Lt. Taylor further stated that, had he not been away in Madras when Capt. Phipps was preparing the report, he could have personally conducted a survey of the mosque and drafted a far more accurate estimate of the total expenses. Since he was not consulted for Capt. Phipps’ report, he added, he could not be held responsible for the fact that the ultimate expenses had far exceeded the original estimate of the cost of the project.
Corruption and Delusions of Grandeur
When Lt. Taylor’s petition eventually reached the Governor General’s Council in Calcutta, it was readily accepted, and all his demands were approved. The Marquis of Hastings regretted the fact that the original expenses had been exceeded, further observing that it was too late to revert to the original design and the repair must be finished in the style in which it had begun. As a result, Lt. Taylor was granted not only the Rs. 9410 that he had initially requested but was also offered an extra Rs. 6731 that included his personal reimbursement for conducting the project. However, the local agents of the Company in Agra were still not convinced by Lt. Taylor’s explanation, and decided to independently conduct an audit of the conservation project.
Between late 1817 and early 1818, the local agents undertook multiple inspections of the Taj Mahal and the Moti Masjid in Agra Fort. What they found was shocking. Lt. Taylor’s team had been using substandard materials to repair the Moti Masjid and the outer courtyard of the Taj Mahal! Instead of the finely polished marble that had been originally used to construct the edifices, his team had been using rough, ordinary stones that were entirely incongruous with the original form and aesthetic of the monuments. It was clear to the local agents that Lt. Taylor had simply embezzled much of the money that had originally been allocated for the purchase of expensive slabs of marble, sandstone, etc., and therefore had to conduct the restoration project with inferior materials.
But Lt. Taylor’s personal conduct was even more nefarious and bizarre than his corruption. While working within the Agra Fort, he had ventured into the Shahi Hamam (Imperial Bath), uprooted the royal bathtub that was once used by the Mughal Emperor, and placed it in the outer courtyard of the Taj Mahal. Not content with this casual act of vandalism, Lt. Taylor had further instructed his workers to build a thatched hut near the bathtub, and he had begun to live there alone. Informers sent by the local agents to spy on the conservation project incredulously narrated the shocking sight they had witnessed: at night, Lt. Taylor would take a bath in the royal bathtub and then stroll around the Taj Mahal pretending to be the Mughal Emperor, wearing only his nightgown! Clearly, he was not only corrupt, but was also suffering from delusions of grandeur!
The local agents of the Company were infuriated and ordered the immediate halt of the conservation project, particularly to prevent further degradation of the Taj Mahal and the Moti Masjid. But they discovered to their chagrin that their orders were rudely dismissed by Lt. Taylor, who was in no mood to rectify his outlandish behavior or curb his own corruption. In fact, in a letter written to the local agents in May 1818, he haughtily argued that he alone was responsible for supervising the repair work and, as a result, he was not bothered by any of their objections. He petulantly added that the local agents were free to lead the conservation project themselves if they thought that their judgement in such matters was superior to his own.
Enraged by such an arrogant response, the local agents complained about Lt. Taylor’s actions to both the Board of Commissioners of the East India Company and the Vice-President in the Governor General’s Council in Calcutta. However, they were merely asked to avoid future confrontations with Lt. Taylor’s team, while he received just a mild warning and was asked not to alter the original structure of the monuments. The controversy didn’t proceed any further and was quietly buried by the senior officers of the Company. Although existing records are silent about what happened next, it is safe to assume that the conservation project was allowed to continue, while Lt. Taylor probably went back to his delusion of being the Mughal Emperor and the lone squatter of the Taj Mahal!
To be continued in Part 3...
Cohn, B. 1996. Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Revenue Dept., 26 January 1815, File No. 66, National Archives of India, Delhi.
Revenue Dept., 28 April 1815, File No. 50 E and 50D, National Archives of India, Delhi.
Revenue Dept., 9 May 1817, File No. 35 - 38, 40 - 43 and 44, National Archives of India, Delhi.
Revenue Dept., 15 May 1818, File No. 60 and 61, National Archives of India, Delhi.