by Sraman Sircar
This is a three-part blog series that will explore one of the most interesting aspects of the history of modern India by focusing on the first systematic conservation project undertaken in the subcontinent. The series is a part of the larger Heritage Walk Calcutta research project named ‘Heritage Policy as Colonial Legacy’ and will offer a glimpse of some of the facts and arguments that will be presented in the eventual project report.
The Taj Mahal is undeniably the most renowned historical monument in India. Regarded by scholars and laymen alike as the finest example of Mughal architecture, it has been recognized as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Every year, it attracts 7 to 8 million visitors, and during 2014 - 2015, it single-handedly generated a revenue of Rs. 21.23 Crores (USD $ 2.97 million). The Taj is not only one of the most lucrative monuments for the Ministry of Culture of the Government of India, but over the years, it has also become the most prominent symbol of the country’s cultural heritage.
However, what is much less known about the Taj Mahal is the fact that it was also the site of the first systematic conservation project undertaken in modern India. Dating back to the initial years of the 19th century, this conservation project was part of the larger efforts of the British East India Company to colonize the subcontinent and lay the foundations for its empire in South Asia. But the most fascinating aspect of this history of preserving the Taj is that the practices (or malpractices to be more accurate) that constituted this conservation project have continued to shape heritage policies and the preservation of monuments in India until the present day!
Earliest European Accounts of the Taj Mahal
The East India Company chose the Taj Mahal as the site of its first conservation project because the monument had been central to the European imagination and perception of the subcontinent’s culture for centuries. Built between 1632 and 1653 by the fifth Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, the Taj began to evoke wonder and fascination among Europeans soon after the completion of its construction. For instance, in Voyages dans les Etats du Grand Mogol (Travels in the Mughal Empire) published in Amsterdam in 1699, Francois Bernier (the French physician in the court of Shah Jahan) described the process of constructing the Taj Mahal, famously remarking -
“This monument deserves much more to be numbered among the wonders of the world than the pyramids of Egypt which, by comparison, appear as unshapen masses and heaps of stone!”
Such exuberant praise for the Taj was later echoed by Charles Malet, an 18th-century diplomat of the British East India Company and member of the Royal Society and Society of Arts, who visited the monument on 16 May 1785 and proclaimed -
“The Taje Mahal is most deservedly the wonder of the Eastern World!”
The British, the French and the Colonization of India
While in the 18th century the Taj Mahal was being visited and lauded by an increasing number of Europeans, this was also the era when the subcontinent became the site of an intense struggle for power between the French and British East India Companies. France and Britain had already become bitter rivals in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740 - 1748), and their hostility spilt over into both North America and South Asia, especially when the French and the British began to wage wars in these two regions of the world to build their respective colonial empires.
In South Asia, the middle of the 18th century had witnessed the collapse of the centralized rule of the Mughal Empire and the emergence of several smaller, regional kingdoms that were constantly embroiled in internecine warfare. The French and the British East India Companies began to take advantage of this state of disunity and fragmentation to gain as much political influence and territory for themselves as possible. For instance, Benoit de Boigne (1751 - 1830), a French military commander, helped the Maratha ruler Mahadji Sindhia of the central Indian kingdom of Gwalior raise an army of 100,000 men that came to dominate much of northern India. On the other hand, the Bengal Army of the British East India Company, led by Colonel John Murray Macgregor (1745 - 1822), frequently fought against de Boigne’s forces.
Interestingly, although de Boigne and Macgregor were military rivals, their mutual appreciation of the beauty of the Taj Mahal united them when they were no longer engaging in hostilities on the battlefield. In 1794, Macgregor visited Agra and was alarmed by the state of decay of the monument. Being an admirer of Indian culture (he had become a member of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in February 1784 and later its first Vice President in 1796), he immediately wrote a letter to de Boigne officially requesting the French commander to have a word with Mahadji Sindhia about financing the preservation of the Taj Mahal, since at the time Agra was under the control of the kingdom of Gwalior.
On 26 February 1794, de Boigne replied to Macgregor and informed him that the Maratha ruler had already appointed a group of servants to look after the monument and had also set aside an annual allowance for the maintenance of the structure and its surrounding gardens. However, the money was often misappropriated due to a lack of proper supervision and that was probably the reason why some parts of the Taj had fallen into disrepair. But, he eventually assured Macgregor, he would personally ensure the proper utilization of the fund including all of the necessary repairs. Little did de Boigne know that over the course of time such misappropriation of funds would become an endemic problem in every major conservation project in India!
Macgregor’s next letter to de Boigne on 10 October 1794 is even more fascinating, since it reveals how European colonizers had begun to perceive and implement the politics of preservation of historical sites in the subcontinent. By this time, Mahadji Sindhia had died and Daulat Rao Sindhia had ascended to the throne of the kingdom of Gwalior. In his letter, Macgregor again urged de Boigne that the new ruler should specially focus on the preservation of the Taj Mahal since it would be an effective way for the Hindu Maratha king to legitimize his rule among his Muslim subjects. According to Macgregor, this would be a politically expedient move that would enable the Sindhia to further consolidate and reinforce his authority.
The preservation of the Taj Mahal, therefore, was not only a common goal pursued by both the British and the French in 18th century India, but it had also become a part of the schemes through which the two had begun to interfere in the local politics of the subcontinent with the ultimate aim of incorporating the region into their respective colonial empires.
The Formation of the Taj Committee
Less than a decade after the correspondence between Macgregor and de Boigne, Daulat Rao Sindhia and the French undertook a military expedition to conquer Delhi and the Red Fort. The decrepit Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II did not have the means to oppose their combined forces, and, out of desperation, he turned to the British for assistance. The British realized that this was an excellent opportunity for them to establish indirect control over Delhi and agreed to come to the rescue of the enfeebled Mughal ruler. During the Battle of Delhi that ensued in 1803, the British general Lord Lake dealt a crushing defeat to the French and the Marathas. As a result, Agra became a part of the territories conquered by the British East India Company, while a British Resident - Archibald Seton - was granted the right to supervise the proceedings of the Mughal court in Delhi.
The British now began to view themselves as the legitimate successor of the Mughal Empire in India. More importantly, Macgregor’s idea of utilizing the preservation of the Taj Mahal as a political means of exerting authority became institutionalized into the logic and practice of the colonial governance of the British East India Company. For instance, in April 1808, Richard Waite Cox (a bureaucrat in the Bengal Civil Service) and Henry Tucker (a member of the Asiatic Society of Bengal since 1788 and the private secretary of William Jones) were appointed as commissioners of the Ceded and Conquered Provinces. They submitted a report emphasizing the pressing need to preserve the Taj Mahal -
“The beautiful Mausoleum erected by the Emperor Shah Jehan (the Taje, as it is called), long the pride and boast of Hindoostan, and still a solitary Monument of the splendor of its former rulers, is hastening to decay, and will soon become an object of reproach to the British Government.”
Accordingly, on 9 May 1808, the Taj Committee was formed to exclusively focus on the preservation of the monument, and was initially composed of the magistrate, the collector and the commanding officer stationed in Agra. On 15 September 1808, the Governor General’s council sent a dispatch to the East India Company’s Board of Directors stating that the Taj Committee would undertake a systematic preservation and repair of the monument, frame rules regarding the number of visitors allowed into the site to prevent any further damage to the structure, and appoint a permanent group of native servants to maintain the entire site.
On 24 November 1808, Colonel Alexander Kyd (the Chief Engineer of Agra) presented a report to the Company in which he estimated that Rs. 83,500 would be required to repair the Taj Mahal, the Moti Masjid, and the main gate of the complex. On 21 November 1809, the Governor General’s council in Calcutta sanctioned this amount, and on 6 April 1810, Lt. Joseph Taylor was made the superintendent of the preservation project and was asked to report the progress of the work to Capt. Steel, the Garrison Engineer of Agra. Soon after the commencement of the preservation project, it was discovered that the initial amount would prove insufficient, so an additional Rs. 19,648 was sanctioned for it by October 1813. Therefore, between November 1809 and October 1813, a staggering sum of Rs. 1,03,148 had been allotted for the first systematic conservation project conducted in modern India.
The raison d’etre of this conservation project was the British East India Company’s need to legitimize its colonial conquest of India and establish itself as the successor of the Mughal Empire. For instance, in a letter to the Governor General’s council on 27 February 1810, the Board of Directors of the Company wrote that -
“The character of our Government throughout India is concerned in the adoption of proper rules for preventing injury or dilapidations to the celebrated Building at Agra denominated the Taaj Mehaul, the Mausoleum of the Emperor Shah Jehan.”
Moreover, in a letter of 23 February 1813, the Board of Directors further claimed the following -
“We admit that the credit of our administration is, in some degree, connected with the preservation of these Memorials of the former splendour and majesty of the Indian Empire.”
The message that the British East India Company wished to convey to its Indian subjects was clear - unlike the Mughals, who had been unable to maintain the glorious monuments of the country, the British possessed the money, expertise, and political will to preserve the historical structures of the subcontinent. The conservation of the cultural heritage of India was, therefore, one of the primary building blocks of the colonial empire of the British in South Asia.
Bandyopadhyay, S. 2004. From Plassey to Partition: A History of Modern India. Delhi: Orient Blackswan.
Etter, A. 2011. Antiquarian Knowledge and Preservation of Indian Monuments at the Beginning of the Nineteenth Century. In D. Ali and I. Sengupta (eds.) Knowledge Production, Pedagogy, and Institutions in Colonial India. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Forbes, J. 1834. Oriental Memoirs: A Narrative of Seventeen Years’ Residence in India, Volume 2. London: R. Bentley.
Giles, T. 2010. Taj Mahal. London: Profile Books.
Gupta, N. 2002. Delhi Between Two Empires, 1803 - 1931: Society, Government and Urban Growth. In The Delhi Omnibus. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Spear. P. 2002. Twilight of the Mughuls: Studies in Late Mughul Delhi. In The Delhi Omnibus. Delhi: Oxford University Press.