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India’s complex relationship with Gandhi and the Taj Mahal

Mahatma Gandhi and the Taj Mahal are probably India’s most famous exports. But as Hindu nationalism gathers pace, both of these once unimpeachable Indian icons are coming under threat. Nick Dall explores how this came to be.

In recent years, hardline Hindu nationalists have championed the work of a fringe historian who claims, with zero evidence, that the Taj Mahal “was originally a Shiva temple built by the maharajah of Jaipur, and initially named the ‘Tejo Mahalaya’.” His theories – which include the belief that Westminster Abbey is a temple to the Hindu deity Shiva – have long been dismissed as bunkum. But in the current political climate in India, members of the leading Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are trying to rewrite the history of India’s most famous building.

Even more shockingly, some Hindu nationalists have labeled Nathuram Godse – the Hindu fanatic who assassinated Gandhi for being too accommodating of Muslims – a “patriot”.

Narendra Modi – the country’s prime minister and leader of the BJP – has not championed either of these conspiracy theories. But he hasn’t gone out of his way to quash them either. As Professor Muqtedar Khan writes in South Asian Voices, under Modi, “two pillars of Indian identity are in jeopardy: India’s diversity, embodied in Gandhi’s inclusive Hinduism, and its love, beauty, and acceptance, symbolized by the Taj Mahal.”

What they mean to me

People walking towards the Taj Mahal in Agra, India

Both the Taj Mahal and Gandhi made a great impression on me. When I first visited the Taj Mahal in 1999, it was the most beautiful building I had ever seen. As I wrote at the time:

When I’ve been to other world famous landmarks like the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty, I’ve found it hard to distinguish the real thing from the thousands of pictures I’ve already seen of it. But the Taj Mahal was different. Very different.

The glittering mausoleum which Emperor Shah Jahan had built in the 1630s to house his wife’s body was so pulsating and alive that it was impossible to confuse with a postcard. The combination of the ivory-hued Makrana marble, the shimmering lotus ponds, and the extremely boring backdrop conspired to make it the most memorable and captivating building I had ever seen.

Seen from afar the Taj Mahal is magical, but up close it is even more dizzying. Every inch of its colossal structure is decorated with intricate patterns and designs comprised of inlaid jewels … Every one of them painstakingly carved and inserted by hand.

Since 1999 I’ve been wowed by other buildings. Machu Picchu in Peru. The Jesuit Missions of Bolivia and Paraguay. And the temples of Angkor in Cambodia. But the Taj Mahal is still right up there.

As a South African, Gandhi has also been important in my life. For those who don’t know, Gandhi spent 20 years in South Africa – during which time he developed his philosophy of non-violence and . When he first arrived in South Africa, Gandhi expressed some shockingly racist views, but by the time he left, he believed fervently in multiculturalism. South Africa owes a lot to Gandhi: the African National Congress, the party of Nelson Mandela, was inspired by his Indian National Congress. But India also has a lot to thank South Africa for: it’s unlikely that Gandhi would have led India to independence if he hadn’t honed his anti-colonial politics in South Africa.

What they mean for India and the rest of the world

But, of course, this is not about me. Anyone who has visited the Taj Mahal can attest to its beauty. And the fact that it is a monument to an emperor’s undying love for his wife makes it all the more powerful. As Shah Jahan himself said, the Taj is so gorgeous it makes “the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes”. Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore described it as a “teardrop on the cheek of eternity”.

Mahatma Gandhi leading the famous Salt March, satyagraha in March 1930
Gandhi leading the famous Salt March (or Salt Satyagraha) in March 1930.

Gandhi, meanwhile, is one of the greatest leaders in history. His philosophy of non-violent protest has inspired Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and billions of downtrodden people around the globe. Without so much as lifting a finger, through a series of satyagraha protests in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, he was able to convince Britain that Indian independence was inevitable.

A multicultural melting pot

Hindu nationalism is a relatively recent invention. As William Dalrymple, one of the leading historians of India, explains in this excellent New Yorker article, “the first Islamic conquests of India happened in the eleventh century, with the capture of Lahore, in 1021.” But these invaders were not defined by their religion: instead it was their “linguistic and ethnic affiliation” which set them apart. And besides, Dalrymple continues,

India soon embraced and transformed the new arrivals. Within a few centuries, a hybrid Indo-Islamic civilization emerged … Eventually, around a fifth of South Asia’s population came to identify itself as Muslim. The Sufi mystics associated with the spread of Islam often regarded the Hindu scriptures as divinely inspired. Some even took on the yogic practices of Hindu sadhus, rubbing their bodies with ashes, or hanging upside down while praying. In village folk traditions, the practice of the two faiths came close to blending into one.

Kevda Masjid, Kevada Mosque at Pavagadh Archeological Park in Champaner, India
In India, you’ll find many magnificent buildings and monuments that showcase exquisite Indo-Islamic architecture, such as the Kevada Mosque.

For almost a thousand years, India was a place where, wars and conquests notwithstanding, people of many different faiths lived in relative harmony. Despite being Hindu by birth, Gandhi championed this tradition.

After World War II, as Britain realized it could no longer maintain control of India, Lord Louis Mountbatten was tasked with deciding what would happen to the former colony after independence. To Gandhi’s immense sadness, he was unable to prevent the partition of India into two states along religious lines: India and Pakistan (which later split again, leading to the formation of Bangladesh in 1971).

In the weeks before and after partition, more than 15 million people were uprooted (ethnic Muslims flocked to Pakistan while Hindis went the other way) and between one and two million people were killed. The acclaimed Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal has called partition “the central historical event in twentieth century South Asia”. Dalrymple writes that “partition is central to modern identity in the Indian subcontinent, as the Holocaust is to identity among Jews, branded painfully onto the regional consciousness by memories of almost unimaginable violence.”

Once the dust had settled (if it has settled at all: India and Pakistan remain at loggerheads), the two new nations took decidedly different paths: Pakistan was 97% Muslim and the country was to be run according to Islamic law. India, despite being around 80% Hindu, also had sizeable Muslim (15%), Christian, and Sikh populations and would be run as a secular republic.

The ‘Butcher of Gujarat’

Babri Masjid, or Babri Mosque, in Ayodhya before demolished, 1863–1887
Babri Masjid, or Babri Mosque, in 19th century before demolition.

Technically, India is still a secular society, but the rise of Hindu nationalism has made life increasingly tricky for Indians from other religions. Modi’s BJP was founded in 1980, but it really rose to prominence in 1992 when its supporters demolished a 16th century mosque in Ayodhya. In echoes of the current baseless Taj Mahal conspiracy theory, writes Cherian George:

The Babri Mosque had allegedly been erected on the site of an ancient Hindu temple believed to have marked the birthplace of Rama, an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu and the hero of the epic Ramayana. In 1990, BJP president L. K. Advani embarked on a 10,000-kilometer journey across northern India to Ayodhya, where he said he would build a new temple. He and his entourage were arrested before they could do any damage. In December 1992, however, the authorities felt they had no choice but to step aside when up to 200,000 activists descended on the sacred site. Although the attackers were initially characterized as a frenzied mob, journalists later revealed that [BJP] leaders coordinated the group and the attack.

As the Times of India reported: “Volunteers were trained, logistics painstakingly put in place, and the assault on the disputed shrine launched using large surging crowds with volunteers skilled in demolishing structures embedded in it.” (In 2020, the Indian Supreme Court acquitted all BJP members involved in the mosque’s destruction while approving the construction of a Hindu temple in its place.)

A decade later, Modi had just been appointed Chief Minister of Gujarat when at least 1,000 Muslims were massacred in response to an attack on Hindu pilgrims. While he’s never been found guilty of wrongdoing, many accuse him of “allowing or even abetting the pogrom”, according to The Economist, which added: “Dog-whistle politics is deplorable in any country. But in India violence between Hindus and Muslims is never far from the surface. By refusing to put Muslim fears to rest, Mr Modi feeds them. By clinging to the anti-Muslim vote, he nurtures it.”

Buildings and shops set on fire during Gujarat riots in Ahmedabad, 2002
Photo taken in 2002 as buildings and shops are set on fire during communal riots in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. (Photo: Aksi great, Ahmedabad riots1, CC BY-SA 3.0)

George is even more critical: “Modi has never been able to live down his association with the 2002 pogrom. Not that he has tried to. For a significant section of his core constituency, the Gujarat pogrom was about finally teaching Muslims a lesson, a long-overdue turning of the tables against a dangerous minority. Moderates in the Hindu population were horrified, but – as politicians around the world understand – moderates don’t make the most effective army for an election campaign.”

India at a crossroads

Historically, Hindus in India never voted as a block, but under Modi this has changed. He has managed to strike a delicate balance between economic reform and improving India’s international relations on the one hand, and appeasing his hardcore Hindu nationalist voter base on the other by supporting symbolic issues such as opposing the slaughter of cows.

While he’s not an absolute shoo-in, Modi appears set to win a third consecutive term in 2024. The Taj Mahal and Gandhi’s legacy are probably big enough to survive another Modi presidency, but India’s proud history inclusivity is on shaky ground.

About the Author: Based in Cape Town, South Africa, Nick is a cultured travel journalist and explorer that works closely with SA Expeditions. With his remarkable ability to capture decades of personal, literary, and historical exploration in various destinations worldwide through words, he has contributed to hundreds of moving and inspirational pieces for our blog – many of which you may have read.

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