Mughal Emperor Shah Jehan’s most famed legacy, The Taj Mahal | Reuters
Mughal Emperor Shah Jehan’s most famed legacy, The Taj Mahal | Reuters

Bharatiya Janata Party leaders and a pro-Modi media have drawn a contrast between the popularised myth of Shah Jahan’s brutal act of chopping off the hands of Taj Mahal workers after the completion of the monument and Narendra Modi’s act of showering flower petals on sanitation workers as a gesture of gratitude on the inauguration of the first phase of the Kashi Vishwanath corridor [a project in Varanasi aimed at transforming pilgrims’ experience by connecting the temple there with the ghats along the Ganga].

Shah Jahan is supposed to have committed this ungrateful act so that the workers would not be able to build another monument like the Taj Mahal.

As the Alt News article has made it clear, there appears to be no evidence for this claim that Shah Jahan chopped off the hands of workers and as such it appears to be a tale that has been spun at some point of time in history.

Further, assuming for the sake of argument, that Shah Jahan’s purpose was that he did not want any another similar monument to come up, it does not make sense that such an act serves his presumed purpose. Why?

Legend goes that Shah Jahan chopped off the hands of those who built the Taj Mahal so they could not replicate its beauty. Lately the myth is being bandied about on Indian news channels to compare PM Modi with Muslim Mughal rulers, but how true can it be?

It is because the beauty and grandeur of the Taj Mahal are the outer manifestation of the architect’s conception, imagination and aesthetic sense. Therefore, his target should have been the architect.

The ingenuity of the architect lies in the originality of the plan, design and how much aesthetic sense coupled with imagination he can express through his plan and design. Once this is concretised as a structure of the Taj Mahal, a first of its kind, it is not difficult for other planners and designers with no such skill to bring about similar structures. Masons, artisans, craftsmen and others go by the plan of the architect (though this is not to marginalise the contribution of these workmen, as there are certain intricate skills required for workmanship).

Unesco also mentions that “the uniqueness of Taj Mahal lies in some truly remarkable innovations carried out by the horticulture planners and architects of Shah Jahan.” The arches and domes that are captured by the imagination of the architects enhance aesthetic sense. In fact, the Taj Mahal project had a board of architects, led by the chief architect Ustad Ahmad Lahuri.

If Shah Jahan wanted that a similar monument should not come up, his brutality would have been directed toward the architects as well.

Myths around monuments

Ebba Koch, the Austrian art and architecture historian and a leading authority on Mughal architecture, terms this story, “guides’ tales”, in her book The Complete Taj Mahal and the Riverfront Gardens of Agra. Further, she compares this story with similar myths that are classified by Stith Thompson who has authored the Motif-Index of Folk-Literature.

She mentions three similar myths (different from Shah Jahan’s) drawing upon Thompson’s work as follows:

1- “King kills architect after completion of a great building, so that he may never again build one so great.”

2- “Artisan who has built palace blinded so that he cannot build another like it.”

3- “Masons who build mausoleum of princess lose their right hand so they may never again construct so fine a building.”

A similar story is also associated with St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square. It was built to commemorate the fall of Kazan to Tsar Ivan the Terrible of Russia.

“Legend has it that Ivan the Terrible blinded the architect Posnik Yakovlev to prevent him from building another church as grand as this, although this is not confirmed by historians.”

Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow
Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow

Now the question is, did Shah Jahan extend the brutal act to the architects?

This would have been more important for him if he really did not want another similar structure to come up because it is the architect who has the primary role in the conception and design of the structure.

However, modern writers have done that job of extending the brutal act of Shah Jahan to include the architects also.

The initial story of brutality that was restricted to workers was further spiced up to include the chief architect, recently, lest some people start thinking why the architect had been left out of the act of Shah Jahan.

Justin Huggler [in his 2004 article for The Independent] makes the claim that Lahuri was blinded after the Taj’s completion.

As Koch rightly remarks, these were “presented as historical facts” and by including the architect the “journalists of renowned newspapers… garnish…” their reports.

Convenient legends

The Hindutva leaders and their supporters’ proclivities for Muslim- and Christian-bashing in their thoughts and acts have become increasingly pronounced. They look for such apocryphal tales to depict a certain monstrosity in the kings from these communities.

Meanwhile, a similar unproven legend is associated with the Konark temple. A brutal condition was apparently laid by its builder, the Eastern Ganga dynasty king Narasimhadeva I. He “had set a deadline for the completion of the temple and had threatened to behead all the workers if the deadline [were] not met.”

One would also be curious to know the right-wing Hindutva groups’ response to the Ekalavya story in the Mahabharata where Dronacharya demanded the right thumb of Ekalavya as a guru dakshina (a Hindu tradition of paying an honorarium to the teacher for having imparted knowledge), even though he never formally taught Ekalavya. He was worried that his disciple Arjun would lose the status of the supreme archer if Ekalavya came into prominence. His intention of extracting his dakshina in a cruel form was to make him (Ekalavya) incapable of exercising self-acquired archery skills.

Mythical tales and legends of brutal deeds of Hindu characters are not convenient. But tales like Shah Jahan chopping hands serves a communal purpose.

The writer taught philosophy at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Mohali, Punjab

By arrangement with The Wire

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 2nd, 2022

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