In the Shadow of the Taj
Agra

मेरी महबूब, कहीं और मिला कर मुझ से
Even so, my dearest, let us meet someplace else.

In the Shadow of the Taj

The alienation of humankind from Prakriti, therefore from our own selves. Inequality, the exploitation of man and woman by man. Irreversible technological change, the replacement of the human hand by machines. Themes that, increasingly gently, occupy my thoughts and actions. The city of Agra provided enough to ponder on each of these.

Sahir Ludhianvi’s nazm ‘Taj Mahal’, introduced to me by friend Sopan Joshi much after my return from Agra, was an epiphany. This instantaneously provided a new, yet strangely familiar, voice to these images of everyday life in the shadow of the Taj. I had often heard a lilting song from this poem in the 1964 movie Ghazal sung by Mohammad Rafi, lip synced by a handsome Sunil Dutt signing to his beloved Meena Kumari.  Representative of the evocative beauty of Persianised Urdu from Mumbai’s film industry of the magical Sixties, this nazm’s bitter edge was softened in this song by omitting Sahir’s hard-hitting words “These edifices and tombs, these battlements, these forts; Haughty relics of the conceit of emperors, left behind like resilient creepers on the face of the world, Seeped in the blood of our forefathers.” 

Sahir’s ‘Taj Mahal’ is an ode to the poor and oppressed, including the laborers and artisans who built this all-too-perfect monument dedicated to the love of an emperor. The foundation of every great monument are extractions of all kinds from common people, and Sahir closes with his memorable words “An emperor, buttressed by his wealth, mocks at our love, the love of the impoverished” and aligns the reader with those mocked.

Life goes on in the shadow of the Taj, as it has in India since millennia. Indians live in multiple centuries at the same time with inexplicable contradictions, multiple layers of ancient, sophisticated culture and, simultaneously, the lack of any. The Taj overshadows life in Agra specially with the hustle of modern day tourism, but regular people - farmers, wrestlers, fishermen, boatmen, shopkeepers, priests - live their lives in disregard of the omnipresence of an emperor’s grand monument. Birds manage to thrive in what is a terribly polluted city, with crows and stray dogs feeding off the refuse and polluted fish in the sewage-ridden Yamuna. Added to the social issue of exploitation of the masses of poor, which was once a deep concern of thinking people till the Seventies and now ignored by a globalised elite, we have today the ecological unsustainability of the dreams of India’s fast-paced urbanisation. The state of our cities is worse than any nightmare, and Agra is just one of many case studies of cities gone berserk. But it has the Taj.

For a few fleeting moments one forgets the exploitation, the pace of thoughtless change, and the pollution as the lotus that is the incredible Taj Mahal shines in its all-too-perfect beauty. In the august company of the people’s poet Sahir, I present a few sides and contradictions of the exquisite Taj Mahal and the city of Agra.

Taj Mahal

Taaj tere liye ek mazhar-e-ulfat hi sahi
Tumko is vaadi-e-rangeen se aquidat hi sahi
Meri Mehboob, kahin aur milaa kar mujhse

For you, my love, the Taj
may well be the essence
of ardour;
Full well may you regard
this exquisite vale.

Even so, my dearest, let us meet someplace else. 

As I stood on the terrace of a kothi in Taj Ganj, whose rear wall is the boundary of the Taj Mahal, I was informed by my energetic host (Udit Hooda of Ekaa Villa and Kitchen, a wonderfully different place to stay a short 10 minutes away)  that these were the rooms where the men who built the Taj lived. The walls are 3 feet thick, and the home was constructed as solid as a tank. The memory of these unknown men came to life through Sahir, lives dedicated to a life of toil for the Shahenshah-e-Hindustan.

Taj Ganj

Bazm-e-shaahi mein gareebon ka guzar kya maani
Sabt jis raah pe ho satwat-e-shaahi ke nishaan
Us pe ulfat bhari roohon ka safar kya maani

In the halls of kings,
what worth these loitering impoverished?
Where on every path lie etched
the remains of pomp and glory?
What worth, then, the passing
of lovelorn souls? 

On the West of the Taj Mahal, walking along the bank of the Yamuna at sunrise. I crossed sewage drains that pour human filth into the river. To an urban populace disconnected from nature, Taj is simply a source of livelihood. This drain, with pollutants foaming, leads the eye to the Taj Mahal. I cannot understand why constructing much ‘better’ villages is not at the centre of our planners mindsets, as it was in Mohandas Gandhi’s. Why bureaucrats and politicians residing in islands of prosperity do nothing to generate livelihoods in villages and, instead, they let people flee to cities that are in all cases always overwhelmed.

To the Taj

Mere mehboob paas-e-pardah-e-tasheer-e-wafaa
Tu ne satwat ke nishaanon ko to dekhaa hotaa
Murdaashaahon ke maqaabir se behelnewaali
Apne taareeq makaanon ko to dekhaa hotaa

My dearest, behind the veils
of love’s proud proclamations,
did you see the signs
of imperious grandeur?
You, who revel
in mausoleums of dead kings,
did you not heed the dark hovels
that fostered us? 

A landless peasant planting lauki, torai, tarbooza and kharbooz on the South bank of the Yamuna, patently illegal. The polluted water is the source of irrigation, and it’s impossible the police are not on the take to enable him eke out a livelihood. In the middle of urbanisation gone crazy, in the shadow of the Taj, he eats and feeds Agra poisoned fruits and vegetables. 

Farming

Anginat logon ne duniyaa mein muhabbat ki hai
Kaun kehtaa hai ki saadiq na the jazbe unke
Lekin unke liye tasheer ka saamaan nahin
Kyonki who log bhi apni hi tarah muflis the

Beyond count in this world are those
who have loved.
Who could deny the truth
of their passions?
But they were destitute, like us,
without any means
to erect monuments to their love. 

Framing the sunset from the mehraab of a chhatri on the East of the Taj Mahal, now the sole remnant of a once splendid house of a Mughal nobleman. In the deceptive rays of the setting sun, the thick waters of the Yamuna looks placid and gentle.

Chhatri mehraab

Yeh imaarat-o-maqaabir, yeh faseelein, yeh hisaar
Mutalqulhukm shahenshaahon ki azmat ke sutoon
Daaman-e-dehr pe us rang ki gulkaari hai
Jisme shaamil hain tere aur mere ajdaad ka khoon

These edifices, tombs,
these battlements, these forts,
Haughty relics
of the conceit of emperors
are left behind like resilient creepers
on the face of the world,
Seeped in the blood
of our forefathers.

Mehtab Bagh (moonlight orchard) is on the north bank of the Yamuna, facing the Taj Mahal. This is where Shahjahan had planted a Mughal orchard of many thousands of local fruit and shade trees, and where he must have sat looking at the monument to his wife Mumtaz. Today, the crows that make the Yamuna banks their home give voice to this image taken after sunrise.

Mehtab Bagh

Mere mehboob, unhe bhi to muhabbat hogi
Jinki sannaaee ne bakshi hai ise shakl-e-jameel
Unke pyaaron ke maqaabir rahe benaam-o-namood
Aaj tak un pe jalaayee na kisi ne qandeel

My dearest, those whose artful hands
created this beauteous visage
would too have loved;
But the graves of their lovers
remain nameless, gone without a trace.
To this day, not one has lit
a candle in their memory. 

Sunrise

Yeh chamanzaar, ye jamunaa ka kinaaraa, yeh mahal
Yeh munaqqash dar-o-deewaar, yeh mehraab, yeh taaq
Ik shahenshaah ne daulat kaa sahaaraa lekar
Hum gareebon ki muhabbat kaa udaayaa hai mazaaq

These lush gardens,  the bank of the Yamuna,
these palaces;
These exquisitely carved portals and walls,
these arches, these niches;
An emperor, buttressed by his wealth,
mocks at our love
the love of the impoverished.

Even so, my dearest, let us meet someplace else.  

Farmers plant crops (the green you encounter below is wheat) along the Yamuna in areas once inhabited by Mughal nobles, and populated by their graveyards. Tombstones, richly carved, are strewn across the fields as are other stone sculpture – I saw a full horse lying half covered on the bank. The irrigation of these crops of course is with the Yamuna water sucked up by diesel pumps.

Wheat Farm

Even so, my dearest, let us meet someplace else. 

The mallah, once impoverished boatmen (and now simply impoverished) eat the polluted catch. The fish are big, I was informed by two bright-eyed youth from this village to the East of the Taj. For good measure, one of them boasted he could swim across the river in 10 minutes flat. I shuddered at the thought of a swim in the black waters, but his eager face gave pause to my tongue.

Caught

Even so, my dearest, let us meet someplace else.  

Hanumanji looks benignly at the Taj Mahal, and he will certainly live longer in mythical India than any monument. Unlike the baleful Hanuman of the urban car sticker once sees increasingly in Delhi, this gentle giant yet defines the deep faith of the villagers around Agra. ‘Ram Ram Ji’ instantly breaks the ice, brings a smile, and a return greeting. There are increasingly strident voices from the more externally religious aiming to pull down the Taj Mahal from its exalted status; mix this with electoral politics and you have a dry forest ready to be put to the fire. 

Hanumanji

Even so, my dearest, let us meet someplace else. 

Women continue to do some heavy lifting, and have constructed these homes for upla (cattle dung ‘patties’) called Bitaura for time immemorial. What is the life of a monument in front of the longevity of this tradition? In the absence of lesser polluting and equally convenient and inexpensive sources of cooking food, the upla reigns supreme. Even the homes of the larger farmers who have petroleum gas use upla and that unique smoked flavour to make the chappatis.

The Old and the New

Even so, my dearest, let us meet someplace else.  

Tat Shah Baba’s grave looks to the Taj Mahal, on a small hilltop in a village many miles to the east. Legend has it a desperate Shahjahan called upon four men from Bukhara learned in the Quran and the Hadis to remove the bad omens over his monument, beset as it was with problems that came in the way of its completion. Tat Shah was the head follower of one of these Bukharis, said to be buried at the four corners of the Taj Mahal. Today, he brings barkat to the aid of those followers who find life’s burden too heavy to bear by themselves, with some help from the outspoken old lady descendant who runs the increasingly popular mazhaar.

Hafizji

Even so, my dearest, let us meet someplace else.  

A young boy and his friend the dog looked at the Taj Mahal, frozen in time. What goes through his mind, as he takes a  look at the Taj, one that he clearly sees every day, as he heads back to his village home?

Companions

Even so, my dearest, let us meet someplace else.  

It rained one afternoon, and the hazy sky cleared up and gave way to a beautiful blue. I was lucky to find the boatman who knew how to handle the police posted here (‘no foreigner’!) , and this ‘reflection photo’ was the result. It’s quite predictable, but oh well it was there to be taken as images usually are if one is patient enough. 

Boat

Even so, my dearest, let us meet someplace else.  

There is this pracheen (ancient) temple on the banks of the Taj Mahal, and like all temples the age of this one too is shrouded in myth making. There are dark rumblings in the province of Uttar Pradesh, where the chief executive is himself a Hindu bachelor-priest, about how this monument was built on land stolen by the Shahenshah from a Hindu king, or that it is built on the remains of a temple, or that it was a temple before it became a mausoleum. In this image, one of the faithful who come every morning to offer his services to clean the temple and pray has a bath under the neutral gaze of the Taj Mahal. They yet co-exist in proximity. 

Bath at the temple

Even so, my dearest, let us meet someplace else.  

The Shiv temple priest, also Balarama, is a striking figure in saffron as he completes the obligatory evening aarti on the Dushera Ghat of the holy Yamuna - Jamununaji to everybody along the river. I spent some early evenings and mornings with him, he is a busy man with innumerable rituals and tasks to undertake. With his position comes arrogance of a very specific kind, one can find this only in a youth of privilege born to the practicing priestly caste in India. He knows his power, and poses quite unhesitatingly for the camera. I capture him in an unconscious moment.

Evening Aarti

Even so, my dearest, let us meet someplace else. 

The akhara in the foot of the east wall of the Taj Mahal is one of the dying traditions of north west India, and what an unusual place for them to practice wrestling ! The sandy soil and proximity to the water gave rise to many such wrestling arenas over the past millennia, and this one prides itself on following traditions. Sundar Dubey runs this with an iron hand, and the thin whip in his hand met the back of many of these young men who make this arena their life. You don’t have to guess which one is Sundar. The little Hanuman mandir at one end is the source of their energies, and Sundar informed me only dharma is taught here and the caste of the students was of no relevance. 

Akhara

Even so, my dearest, let us meet someplace else. 

Holipura is an ancient village an hour from Agra, settled in 1500s and led by Brahmins who were both priests and warriors – ‘a Veda in one hand, and a sword in the other’, as Sanjay Chaturvedi proudly informed me. We were taken around by tall and strapping Sanjay built more like a sportsman that a priest, and he turned out to be a state volleyball player in his youth. Sanjay’s much elder cousin was J. N. Chaturvedi, once the top policeman of Uttar Pradesh in 1984 and the first Police Commissioner of Delhi – by serendipity, appointed by my grandfather and then Home Minister Chaudhary Charan Singh - in 1978. We had much to talk about, including the uprightness and high character of both these men from a world that now is only in our past.

They had no choice but to be warriors to fight off dakus who raided the area for rich plunder. The ancient Chaturvedis built a strong franchise, homes with 3-foot thick walls and mini-battlements in each mansion. Their descendants today are policeman, businessmen, lawyers, bureaucrats and the educated elite of urban India that manages the nation. These homes are wonderful places, some lived in and reasonably maintained. Many though are falling apart, but what character they possess even in their sunset years ! The architecture, the design, the hand crafted beauty is a sight to behold. Every older house, like the one with the two stoic farmers below, has deep beauty, not yet replaced by the sameness of urban concrete design.

Holipura Peasants

Raindrops

Even so, my dearest, let us meet someplace else. 

Our boatman sang two popular Hindi melodies from the Sixties on the majdhar, and how the rivers meet the ocean. For a full thirty minutes at dusk we were in a magical world as we floated on the river that reflected a Taj Mahal free of tourists and of pollution, and we forget the inconsistencies of life and living.  On getting back to land he got a heavy tip for his talent and trouble, and he whispered before he cycled away that we should leave before the police came to bother us.  

Majdhar

Even so, my dearest, let us meet someplace else. 

-------

Taj Mahal

by Sahir Ludhianvi

Taaj tere liye ek mazhar-e-ulfat hi sahi
Tumko is vaadi-e-rangeen se aquidat hi sahi
Meri Mehboob, kahin aur milaa kar mujhse

For you, my love, the Taj
may well be the essence
of ardour;
Full well may you regard
this exquisite vale.
Even then, my dearest, let us meet someplace else.

Bazm-e-shaahi mein gareebon ka guzar kya maani
Sabt jis raah pe ho satwat-e-shaahi ke nishaan
Us pe ulfat bhari roohon ka safar kya maani

In the halls of kings,
what worth these loitering impoverished?
Where on every path lie etched
the remains of pomp and glory?
What worth, then, the passing
of lovelorn souls?

Meri mehboob paas-e-pardah-e-tasheer-e-wafaa
Tu ne satwat ke nishaanon ko to dekhaa hotaa
Murdaashaahon ke maqaabir se behelnewaali
Apne taareeq makaanon ko to dekhaa hotaa

My dearest, behind the veils
of love’s proud proclamations,
did you see the signs
of imperious grandeur?
You, who revel
in mausoleums of dead kings,
did you not heed the dark hovels
that fostered us?

Anginat logon ne duniyaa mein muhabbat ki hai
Kaun kehtaa hai ki saadiq na the jazbe unke
Lekin unke liye tasheer ka saamaan nahin
Kyonki who log bhi apni hi tarah muflis the

Beyond count in this world are those
who have loved.
Who could deny the truth
of their passions?
But they were destitute, like us,
without any means
to erect monuments to their love.

Yeh imaarat-o-maqaabir, yeh faseelein, yeh hisaar
Mutalqulhukm shahenshaahon ki azmat ke sutoon
Daaman-e-dehr pe us rang ki gulkaari hai
Jisme shaamil hain tere aur mere ajdaad ka khoon

These edifices and tombs,
these battlements, these forts,
Haughty relics
of the conceit of emperors
are left behind like resilient creepers
on the face of the world,
Seeped in the blood
of our forefathers.

Meri mehboob, unhe bhi to muhabbat hogi
Jinki sannaaee ne bakshi hai ise shakl-e-jameel
Unke pyaaron ke maqaabir rahe benaam-o-namood
Aaj tak un pe jalaayee na kisi ne qandeel

My dearest, those whose artful hands
created this beauteous visage
would too have loved;
But the graves of their lovers
remain nameless, gone without a trace.
To this day, not one has lit
a candle in their memory.

Yeh chamanzaar, ye jamunaa ka kinaaraa, yeh mahal
Yeh munaqqash dar-o-deewaar, yeh mehraab, yeh taaq
Ik shahenshaah ne daulat kaa sahaaraa lekar
Hum gareebon ki muhabbat kaa udaayaa hai mazaaq
Meri Mehboob, kahin aur milaa kar mujhse

These lush gardens, the bank of the Yamuna,
these palaces;
These exquisitely carved portals and walls,
these arches, these niches;
An emperor, buttressed by his wealth,
mocks at our love,
the love of the impoverished.
Even then, my dearest, let us meet someplace else.

-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --

Originally translated from Urdu by Mustansir Dalvi. Mangled by my amateur interpretations
based on a lovely conversation with mother Nazni Naqvi