The Taj Mahal
As idiotic righting of historical wrongs go, the one started by an Indian state government minister must rank among the best.
Mohammad Azam Khan, the Parliamentary Affairs and Urban Development Minister of Uttar Pradesh, has said that perhaps the Taj Mahal should be demolished. Incidentally, although Uttar Pradesh is just one of the Indian states, with a population of close to 200 million people it could be the world’s fifth most populous country.
"Shah Jahan had no right to spend crores (millions) from the public coffers on his sweetheart," Khan has been quoted as saying by the IANS wire. He went to the extent saying that he would have led it if there was any popular movement to bring down the Taj.
Once you get past the immediate insanity and shock value of what he is saying, you would discover that at the very least it has the merit of sound academic argument. The Mughal emperor Shah Jahan is unlikely to have paid for its construction from a personal checking account or his personal credit card. One good thing about being a post-medieval emperor is that not only could one draw limitlessly from the state exchequer but you were in fact the exchequer and the currency and the image on the currency.
It has been estimated that the Taj, built between 1632 and 1653, cost an equivalent of 32 million rupees. To put it in today’s perspective, that would not be very much more than what Shah Rukh Khan might spend on a car. Or look at it this way. At that price, Mukesh Ambani could buy it cash down on his way from his billion dollar high-rise home in Mumbai to his office.
It is logical to conclude that Shah Jahan used the state exchequer to finance his dream project to memorialize his love Mumtaz Mahal, who died because of child birth complications during her 14th child in 1631. I am not even going to ask why he thought it wise to subject her to 14 pregnancies.
Since he used the public coffers for an entirely personal whim it is fair to at least question the monument’s legitimacy. To the extent Khan is saying that Shah Jahan misused public money, he is on solid ground. The problem arises when he advocates its demolition. There is nothing to be gained by bringing it down.
Even if one disregards that the public debt of a post-medieval empire is non-transferrable to a modern day nation-state, it is reasonable to assume that India has more than recovered 32 million rupees in tourism fees over the past few decades from those visiting it. Let us not even quantify in financial and cultural terms the enormous global brand equity that the Taj has given India and continues to do so. One should not be surprised if millions of tourists come to India every year are primarily drawn by the allure of the Taj. So as serious economists might say it’s all good.
Quite apart from the fact that it is a UNESCO World Heritage monument, demolishing it would damage so much more than just destroying a dream monument. It would irreparably damage India’s reputation as a civilized society. It would be somewhat akin to the Taliban destroying the giant Buddha statues of Bamiyan, Afghanistan except that here the motivation would not be religious but economic and social wrong.
As the IANS story points out with some irony Khan was advocating the demolition on the same day as his boss, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav was praising it to foreign delegates at the Jaypee Palace hotel in Agra.
So on balance, I would request Mr. Khan to spare the monument. If not for anything else, to save the world from thinking post its demolition that the Taj was, in fact, built by Emperor Donald Trump in Atlantic City.