Demolishing the Taj: Ending the Saga of the Taj Committee

by Sraman Sircar


The final part of The Saga of the Taj Committee explores the colonial government’s hare-brained, and fortunately unsuccessful, scheme of destroying the Taj Mahal. It concludes this blog series by once again highlighting the malpractices that emerged during the first conservation project undertaken in India, whose legacy persists in the present day. Also read Part 1 & Part 2 of the series.


A photograph of the Taj Mahal from 1900. (Source: Wellcome Collection)

Corruption and Vandalism in Sikandra


The plan to demolish the Taj Mahal, at first glance, seems to be entirely at odds with the conservation carried out by the Taj Committee. Why would the British want to destroy the monument they had themselves painstakingly restored for several years? More importantly, what compelled the colonial government to conceive such a hare-brained scheme in the first place? The answers to these questions lie in the events that unfolded in Sikandra, a non-descript village in the outskirts of Agra, a few years after the completion of the Taj Mahal’s restoration.


The village of Sikandra is the site of the tomb of Akbar, the third and most renowned Mughal emperor. In 1821, the British Raj decided to begin conserving the monument. An initial amount of Rs. 20,000 was sanctioned for the project by the government in Calcutta, and the Marquis of Hastings, the Governor-General, proclaimed:


“Our Government is called upon to make some sacrifices for the preservation of this grand Mausoleum of the Great Moghul …. No step that could be taken by the Government it is conceived will be felt more warmly by the natives than the attention to the tomb of Akbar.”

On 3 August 1821, the responsibility of supervising the project was officially given to none other than Captain Joseph Taylor - the infamous squatter of the Taj, who had earlier masqueraded as the Mughal emperor!


As per the instructions of the Marquis of Hastings, Capt. Taylor began the repair works at Sikandra on 12 February 1822. He was asked to report the progress of the project to Colonel Penson, the Superintendent of Buildings in the Upper Provinces, and Captain Cobbe, the Secretary of the Military Board. They were, in turn, under the supervision of C. Lushington, the Secretary to the Government of India based in Calcutta. The local agents of the East India Company in Agra also became involved with the project and were instructed to give an additional Rs. 10,000 to Capt. Taylor. However, he was also strictly warned that they would not tolerate the atrocious behavior he had earlier displayed at the Taj Mahal.

Capt. Taylor, however, was in no mood to redeem himself, and soon a new controversy erupted at Sikandra. On 4 May 1822, Shaikh Mohammad and Shaikh Munna, the khadim [caretakers of an Islamic tomb] of Akbar’s mausoleum, complained to the local agents that the baradari [a Mughal pavilion with twelve doors] of Begum Malika Jahan had been completely demolished upon the instructions of Capt. Taylor. Malika Jahan was the daughter-in-law of Akbar; her pavilion was an integral part of the complex at Sikandra. Taylor had apparently destroyed the building to utilize its materials in the repair of the façade of the emperor’s tomb!

This act of vandalism, quite understandably, created a furor among the local residents. On 8 May 1822, a businessman from Agra named Sajeewan Lal submitted a petition to the local agents of the East India Company in which he claimed that the people of the city were deeply upset by the demolition of the baradari on Taylor’s orders. Five days later, one of the mausoleum’s guards, Boodh Singh, refused to cooperate with Taylor’s team, and rumors began to circulate that an angry mob from Sikandra village might descend upon the site at any time. By 15 May, the situation had become so tense that the local agents asked Henry Graham, the Acting Magistrate of Agra, to send a heavily armed group of Indian sepoys to protect the monument and prevent Taylor’s team from inflicting any further damage.

Capt. Taylor, however, had no intention of backing down, and on 16 May, he complained directly to C. Lushington that the problem was entirely due to the excessive interference of the local agents. He further claimed that he had mentioned his intention to demolish the baradari of Malika Jahan in his initial estimate of the cost of the restoration project. He argued that reusing the materials from the razed building was simply a cost-cutting measure and would ensure that the colonial government would not have to buy expensive red sandstone and marble. Taylor even audaciously indicated that he was also willing to procure materials from other Mughal sites located close to Sikandra, should the government want to save even more money.


These explanations did not go down well with the Governor General’s Council in Calcutta. On 30 May, the Marquis of Hastings wrote a letter in which he strongly reprimanded Capt. Taylor and warned him against misusing his authority as the supervisor of the restoration project. The Governor-General described Taylor’s actions as “a reprehensible act” and forbade him from damaging any other buildings at the tomb of Akbar. The Marquis also reminded him that the emperor’s mausoleum functioned as a religious site as well, and under the Bengal Regulation XIX of 1810, the colonial government was obligated to maintain and repair it. Moreover, the government had no intention of inviting more trouble by hurting the sentiments of the local people. While this harsh warning ensured that no further structures were demolished at Sikandra, Capt. Taylor was never truly punished for his vandalism and continued to oversee the conservation of Akbar’s tomb.


A painting of the gateway to Akbar’s tomb in Sikandra, Thomas Daniell, 1795. The tomb was built between 1605 and 1613. However, by the time of this painting, the heads of the minarets had collapsed. (Source: Wellcome Collection)

A year later, on 1 August 1823, Lord Amherst became the new Governor-General. Taking advantage of the change in administration, Capt. Taylor again started to engage in vandalism and corruption. For instance, he stole marble from the Agra Fort instead of procuring newer building materials to repair the minarets of the gateway of Akbar’s tomb. Meanwhile, he roped in fellow members of the Military Board to constitute a “Special Committee of Officers” that promptly produced a report stating that all the repairs conducted by his team had been perfectly legal and well-executed.

This theft of marble from the Agra Fort did not go unnoticed, but it didn’t evoke the wrath of the new Governor-General. Lord Amherst was more concerned about saving money for the British Raj than preserving India’s historical sites, so the administration chose to simply turn a blind eye to these crimes. In fact, when Capt. Taylor demanded the hefty sum of Rs. 66,258 as compensation for his supervision of the restoration project, it was promptly approved by the Governor General’s Council in Calcutta. Vandalism, corruption, and wanton destruction of historical monuments had become institutionalized within the colonial government’s attempts to conserve India’s heritage.


The Plan to Demolish the Taj Mahal


In 1828, Lord William Bentinck became the new Governor-General. The East India Company had just won the First Anglo - Burmese War (1824 - 1826) and conquered vast territories in Assam, Manipur, and modern Myanmar. However, the coffers of the company had been almost depleted by this conflict, and the instructions given to Lord Bentinck by the Board of Directors were clear- reduce expenses and increase revenue. Without enough money, the company faced the serious risk of losing the mandate it had received from the British crown, which enabled it to conquer and rule India.

Two years after assuming office, Lord Bentinck visited the Agra Fort and saw the dilapidated condition of the Shahi Hamam [Imperial Bath]. This was the same part of the fort that had been vandalized by Capt. Taylor back in 1818, and the marble for rebuilding the minarets of Akbar’s tomb in Sikandra was also stolen from the bath. Since destroying this section of the Agra Fort had already become an institutionalized practice, Lord Bentinck did not hesitate to dismantle the rest of the marble columns and edifice of the Imperial Bath. Most pieces were sold to raise money for the government, while certain sections were sent to England by Lord Bentinck as a gift to the British monarchy. Some of these stolen marble columns are now proud exhibits in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.


Losing his marbles for the sake of marble. Lord William Bentinck, the man who wanted to demolish the Taj Mahal. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The rapacious destruction of the Agra Fort, originally initiated by Capt. Taylor and later institutionalized by Lord Amherst and Lord Bentinck, was the primary spark that led to the plan to demolish the Taj Mahal. When the sale of marble stolen from Agra Fort fetched good money, Lord Bentinck naturally assumed that the marble of the Taj would be worth even more! As a result, in 1831, the colonial government organized an auction in which a bid of two hundred thousand rupees was initially offered for the Taj. This was considered inadequate, and a second auction was launched in which the highest bid was seven hundred thousand rupees. On both occasions, the winning bid was offered by Laxmichand Jain, an upper-caste Hindu banker from Mathura who was so fabulously rich that he was known among the British as the Rothschild of India.


Part of the colonnade fronting the bathhouse in the fort at Agra, white marble, pietra dura, Mughal, 1628-58 (Source: V&A Collections)

However, this hare-brained scheme of Lord Bentinck naturally provoked cries of outrage and fury from all quarters. In her book Wanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque, the Welsh travel writer Fanny Parks summed up the popular reactions to Bentinck’s absurd proposal:

“By what authority does the Governor General offer the Taj for sale? Has he any right to molest the dead? To sell the tomb raised over an empress, which from its extraordinary beauty is the wonder of the world? It is impossible the Court of Directors can sanction the sale of the tomb for the sake of its marble and gems.”

There was also a distinct possibility that the demolition of the Taj Mahal would provoke the masses to revolt against British rule in India. On 26 July 1831, the Calcutta - based English newspaper John Bull (the predecessor to The Statesman) published a brief but ominous warning:

“The Taj has been offered for sale! But the price required has not been obtained. Two lacs, however, have been offered for it. Should the Taj be pulled down, it is rumoured that disturbances may take place amongst the natives.”

Fortunately, the massive public outcry and imminent prospects of a revolt helped better sense to prevail, and the plan to demolish the Taj Mahal was permanently abandoned.


A photograph of the Taj Mahal from 1858. It’s shocking to know that we were on the verge of losing one of the most iconic and priceless monuments of the world. (Source: Wellcome Collection)

Conclusion


The Taj Mahal continues to be a source of pride for Indians and wonder for the rest of the world. People will always be fascinated by its beauty, and the monument will never cease to be an enduring symbol of an emperor’s love for his queen. However, the Saga of the Taj Committee tells us that even a symbol of love can become an epicenter of colonial greed and exploitation. Moreover, the corruption and vandalism that intimately shaped the actions of the Taj Committee have not gone away and continue to plague the field of heritage conservation in India. The next time you visit the Taj in Agra, keep in mind that such historical monuments are always raised and razed to justify the quest for power. This uncomfortable, yet essential, truth is perhaps the most profound legacy of the Taj Mahal.


The research for this blog series was conducted as a part of the project known as Heritage Policy as Colonial Legacy launched by Heritage Walk Calcutta. The final project report will be published later this year.


Sources


Chavan, A. 2018. The Plan to Sell the Taj. Accessed from https://www.livehistoryindia.com/snapshort-histories/2018/04/01/the-plan-to-sell-the-taj- on 1 June 2020.

Home Dept., Public, 3 August 1821, File No. 56 - 58, National Archives of India, Delhi.

Home Dept., Public, 30 May 1822, File No. 37 - 50, National Archives of India, Delhi.

Home Dept., Public, 24 June 1824, File No. 34 and 35, National Archives of India, Delhi.

Home Dept., Public, 7 October 1824, File No. 10, National Archives of India, Delhi.

Home Dept., Public, 17 February 1825, File No. 7, National Archives of India, Delhi.

Home Dept., Public, 25 September 1825, File No. 12 and 13, National Archives of India, Delhi.

Home Dept., Political, 25 April 1829, File No. 16 - 22, National Archives of India, Delhi.

Home Dept., Public, 14 September 1836, File No. 20, National Archives of India, Delhi.

Parks, F. 1850. Wanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque. Vol. 1 and 2. London: P. Richardson.

Revenue Dept., 28 April 1815, File No. 50D, National Archives of India, Delhi.

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