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  Opinion   Oped  21 Oct 2017  Stop this travesty, protect our heritage

Stop this travesty, protect our heritage

Irreverent, provocative, opinionated... Shobhaa De has been challenging status quo for four decades... and is at her best when she punctures inflated egoes. Readers can send feedback to
Published : Oct 21, 2017, 12:57 am IST
Updated : Oct 21, 2017, 12:57 am IST

Evil elements can destroy historical monuments through their callous acts of ‘cleansing and purifying culture’.

Taj Mahal (Photo: PTI)
 Taj Mahal (Photo: PTI)

A few nights ago, I was enjoying an elegant Diwali party hosted by Taljinder Singh, the affable GM of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, here in Mumbai. Yes. The very one that became a symbol of the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008. It was a particularly sultry night, with unseasonal rain expected and mercury levels refusing to climb down. Over scrumptious biryani and jalebis, the invitees were in a mellow mood, and the conversation was genteel, civilised — and fake! As it tends to be at such impossibly polite gatherings. Just as the evening was winding down, a prominent businessman we know walked up to say “Happy Diwali”. I smiled back and there it should have ended. But he decided to offer advice, in that well-meaning tone that actually means nothing. “Please be careful about what you say and write... my friend received a call last week from them to warn him to stop criticising the government... or else.” “Them”? Who’s them? He shrugged. “Why doesn’t your husband stop you? I will speak to him.” Arrey? What the hell!

I told him I was perfectly capable of taking my own decisions. In any case, there was no need for him to get into this space with me and offer unsolicited advice. I was not engaged in any illegal activity. He looked affronted and turned helplessly to my husband with a look that said, “I tried... but your wife...!” I sent him off saying: “My husband knows the woman he married. Don’t worry. Relax! It’s Diwali. Let’s enjoy the fireworks.”

Part of the evening’s entertainment was a music performance by Aabha Hanjura, a talented Sufi singer from Bengaluru. I listened to her rendition of Naina Milaike, and sent her a request for Mast Qalandar. She sang both with fervour and passion. I was in a semi-trance. Across us, the magnificent Gateway of India was all aglow in orange lighting. I shut my eyes briefly. A shudder ran down my spine. What if...? Surely, this magnificent monument, completed in 1924, had also been built by the blood and sweat and tears of Indians? That too, to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary? How utterly disgraceful! Why should this historic structure — a ghastly, cruel reminder of India’s colonial past, be featured so prominently in travel brochures? Do we have no self-respect? If this was not a blot on our precious Indian culture, I don’t know what is. Ha!

I was amazed some politician in Maharashtra had not raised this issue so far, and demanded the Gateway of India be erased from all textbooks and publicity material henceforth. If they could do that in Uttar Pradesh, with one of the Wonders of the World, the splendorous Taj Mahal in Agra, Mumbai’s Gateway of India is nothing! Unless, of course, some self-styled historian, as brilliant and capable as Sangeet Som, BJP’s Rajya Sabha MP, digs deep into the Gateway’s history and discovers an ancient Hindu temple. Like Vinay Katiyar has found in Agra.

Mr Katiyar’s latest, undoubtedly well-researched and impeccably documented, finding insists the Taj Mahal is not what it appears at all. It is actually an old Shiv temple, which was originally known as Tejo Mahal. Mr Katiyar has urged patriotic Indians to go inside the Taj Mahal and see several “Hindu signs” for themselves. According to this scholar, in our magnanimity, we were gracious enough to “gift” this breathtakingly beautiful 17th century monument to Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, who passed it off as a mausoleum, built in the memory of his beloved wife. Get it? While Mr Som continued his out-of-tune sangeet and raises a war cry (“erase Mughal history”), the saner, more educated voices in the party hierarchy kept characteristically mum. The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, has promised to stroll through the Taj Mahal next week. He has been told by party flunkies to look out for representations of Hindu goddesses, while he is scrutinising the inlay work and other architectural details. Fortunately, the good CM has done a major rethink on the original “blot on Indian culture and history” positioning. He now calls the Taj Mahal “the pride of India”. Taking a cue from the learned man, his tourism minister has disassociated from MLA Mr Som, and the Taj is back again where it rightfully belongs — in the calendar for 2018 brought out by the UP government. But my sense of anxiety persists.

One of the most traumatic and barbaric acts of cultural destruction took place in recent memory when the Taliban used tonnes of dynamite to blow up the magnificent Bamiyan Buddhas in Kandahar (2001). Such wanton and perverse acts of violence are a “blot on humanity and global cultures”. Evil elements can destroy historical monuments through their callous acts of “cleansing and purifying culture”. But history is history. You can eliminate monuments. But how do you erase collective memory? It is hoped Yogi will see better sense and stop this emotional carnage. Let him focus on making Ayodhya clean and beautiful. That is the wish of every Indian. If he can also provide schools, colleges and hospitals while he is at it, so much the better.

Meanwhile, I will hang on the memory of Aabha’s mellifluous voice singing well loved Sufi compositions, in a city that is and shall always remain open, liberal, tolerant and accepting of all cultures.

Tags: sangeet som, diwali festival, yogi adityanath