TAJ MAHAL, FACTS AND FANCY

TAJ MAHAL, FACTS AND FANCY

Navaratna Rajaram

Background:

            The Taj Mahal is claimed by its admirers to be the most beautiful building in India if not the world. While this is open to dispute since beauty is subjective, and as the old saying goes, beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. But there is no disputing the fact that it is a top to the tourist attraction. No visitor to India would miss visiting it. Its great celebrity (or notoriety) has made it a magnet for idiosyncratic theories in which the late P.N. Oak has been notably prominent, claiming variously that it used to be a Shiva Temple that was commandeered by Shah Jahan, and more plausibly it was Raja Jai Singh’s palace converted into a Mausoleum.

 

Humayun’s Tomb in East Nizamuddin (Delhi)         

  For a building so prominent, there is a surprising paucity of records. This has led to much speculation and unsupportable conjectures. Some claim that the architectural style is not Mogul. This is easily refuted by looking at Humayun’s Tomb located east of Delhi (see above) built by Humayun’s wife Hamida Banu (Akbar’s mother). Even a non-expert can recognize it as a possible proto-type for the Taj Mahal. Many regard it as a better building than the more famous Taj. 

            The following study by a professional architect might will put many of the myths to rest. It is in the nature of a detailed review of a book on the Taj Mahal by two historians who have surveyed nearly all records available. One is again struck by the paucity of records for such a major undertaking.

 

AN ARCHITECT LOOKS AT THE TAJ MAHAL LEGEND

by

Professor Marvin H. Mills

Pratt Institute, New York

(Edited by N.S. Rajaram)

 

In their book TAJ MAHAL-THE ILLUMINED TOMB, Wayne Edison Begley and Ziyaud-Din Ahmad Desai have put together a very commendable body of data and information derived from contemporary sources and augmented with numerous photo illustrations, chroniclers’ descriptions, imperial directives plus letters, plans, elevations and diagrams. They have performed a valuable service to the community of scholars and laymen concerned with the circumstances surrounding the origin and development of the Taj Mahal.

 

But these positive contributions exist within a framework of analysis and interpretation that distorts a potential source of enlightenment into support for fantasy and misinformation that has plagued scholarship in this field for hundreds of years, thus obscuring the true origin of the Taj Mahal complex. The two basic procedural errors that they make are to assume that the dated inscriptions are accurate and that court chroniclers are behaving like objective historians.

 

As an architect, my principal argument with the authors is their facile acceptance of the compact time frame that they uncritically accept for the coming into being of the Taj from conception to its first Urs (anniversary) of the death of Mumtaz and the completion of the main building. Construction processes that had to consume substantial blocks of time are condensed into a few months. They feel justified in relying on what evidence is available, but fail to consider the objective needs of construction. They regret the loss of what, they say, must have been millions of Mughal state records and documents produced each year on all aspects of the Taj’s construction. They do not consider that the lack of drawings, specifications and records of payment may be due to their not being generated at the time. Nor do they consider Shahjahan’s potential for deception as to when and by whom it was built. Yet they point out Shahjahan’s careful monitoring of the contents of court history:

 

“Shajahan himself was probably responsible for this twisting of historical truth. The truth would have shown him to be inconsistent and this could not be tolerated. For this reason also, the histories contain no statements of any kind that are critical of the Emperor or his policies, and even military defeats are rationalized so that no blame could be attached to him. … effusive praise of the Emperor is carried to such extremes that he seems more a divinity than a mortal man.” (p. xxvi)

 

(Editor’s comment: Shajahan was notorious for this. Even his defeats that led the loss of parts of Afghanistan, including Kandahar to Abbasid Persia are presented as triumphs. NSR)

 

With the court chroniclers’ histories carefully edited, and with the great scarcity of documents we are fortunate to have four surviving farmans or directives issued by Shahjahan to Raja Jai Singh of Amber-the very same local ruler from whom the Emperor acquired the Taj property. On the basis of these farmans, the court chroniclers and a visiting European traveler, we learn that: (i) Mumtaz died and was buried temporarily at Burhanpur on June 17, 1631; (ii) her body was exhumed and taken to Agra on December 11, 1631; (iii) she was reburied somewhere on the Taj grounds on January 8, 1632; and (iv) European traveler Peter Mundy witnessed Shahjahan’s return to Agra with his cavalcade on June 11, 1632.

 

The first farman was issued on September 20, 1632 in which the Emperor urges Raja Jai Singh to hasten the shipment of marble for the facing of the interior walls of the mausoleum, i.e., the Taj main building. Naturally a building had to be there to receive the finish. How much time was needed to put that basic building in place?

 

Every successful new building construction follows what we call in modern-day construction a “critical path”. There is a normal sequence of steps requiring a minimum time before other processes follow. Since Mumtaz died unexpectedly and relatively young (having survived thirteen previous child-births), we can assume that Shahjahan was unprepared for her sudden demise. He had to conceive, in the midst of his trauma, of a world class tomb dedicated to her, select an architect (whose identity is still debated), work out a design program with the architect, and have the architect prepare designs, engineer the structure and mechanical systems, detail the drawings, organize the contractors and thousands of workers, and prepare a complex construction schedule. Mysteriously, no documents relating to this elaborate procedure, other than the four farmans have survived.

 

Jai Singh’s palace?

We cannot assume that the Taj complex was built additively with the buildings and landscaping built as needed. It was designed as a unified whole. Begley and Desai make this clear by their analysis of the grid system that was employed by the designer to unite the complex horizontally and vertically to into a three-dimensional whole. If one did not “know” that it was a solemn burial grounds, one would believe that it was designed as a palace with a delightful air of fantasy and secular delights of waterways and flowering plants. Could it be that this is Raja Jai Singh’s palace, never destroyed, converted by decree and some minimum face-lifting to a Mughal tomb?

 

Assuming that Shahjahan was galvanized into prompt action to initiate the project on behalf of his deceased beloved, we can safely assume that he needed one year minimum between conception and ground-breaking. Since Mumtaz died in June 1631, that would take us to June 1632. But construction is said to have begun in January 1632.

 

Excavation must have presented a formidable task. First, the demolition of Raja Jai Singh’s palace would have had to occur. We know that the property had a palace on it from the chronicles of Mirza Qazini and Abd al-Hamid Lahori. Lahori writes:

 

“As there was a tract of land (zamini) of great eminence and pleasantness towards the south of that large city, on which before there was this mansion (manzil) of Raja Man Singh, and which now belongs to his grandson Raja Jai Singh, it was selected for the burial place (madfan) of that tenant of paradise.[Mumtaz]” (p. 43)

 

Measures would have to be taken during excavation of this main building and the other buildings to the north to retain the Jumna River from inundating the excavation. The next steps would have been to sink the massive foundation piers, put in the footings, retaining the walls and the plinth or podium to support the Taj and its two accompanying buildings to the east and west plus the foundations for the corner towers, the well house, the underground rooms, and assuming the complex was done at one time, all the supports for the remainder of the buildings throughout the complex. To be conservative in our estimate, we need at least another year of construction which takes us up to January 1634.

 

But here is the problem. On the anniversary of the death of Mumtaz, each year Shahjahan would stage the Urs celebration at the Taj. The first Urs occurred on June 22, 1632. Though construction had allegedly begun only six months earlier, the great plinth of red sandstone over brick, 374 yards long, 140 yards wide, and 14 yards high was already in place! Even Begley and Desai are somewhat amazed.

 

Where was all the construction debris, the piles of materials, the marble, the brick scaffolding, the temporary housing for thousands of workers, the numerous animals needed to haul materials? If “heaven was surpassed by the magnificence of the rituals”, as one chronicler puts it, then nothing should have been visible to mar the exquisite panorama that the occasion called for.

 

But by June 1632, it was not physically possible that construction could have progressed to completion of excavation, construction of all the footings and foundations, completion of the immense platform and clearing of all the debris and eyesores in preparation for the first Urs.

 

Begley and Desai have little use for the testimony of the European travelers to the court of Shahjahan. But they consider Peter Mundy, an agent of the British East India Company, to be the most important source on the Taj because he was there shortly before the first Urs at the new grave site, and one year later at the second Urs.

 

Missing gold railing

It was Mundy who said that he saw the installation of the enameled gold railing surrounding Mumtaz’s cenotaph at the time of the second Urs on May 26, 1633. But there is no way that construction could have moved ahead so vigorously from January 1632 to May 1633 as to be ready to receive the railing. After all, the railing could not have stood forth in open air. It means that the Taj building had to be already there. It must have been immensely valuable since the cost of the Taj complex was reported to be fifty lakhs, while the cost of the gold railing was six lakhs of rupees. The gold railing was removed by Shahjahan on February 6, 1643 when it was replaced by the inlaid white marble screen one sees now.

 

An alternate interpretation of events regarding the railing is that Shahjahan revealed the gold railing of Raja Jai Singh at the first or second Urs. In 1643 he appropriated it for himself and put in its place the very fine marble screen with its inlaid semi-precious stones, a screen that was not nearly as valuable as the gold railing.

 

If Shahjahan’s construction and interior adornment of the Taj are in question, what rework of the Taj can we attribute to him? The inscriptions were undoubtedly among the few rework tasks that he was obliged to do. He may also have removed any obvious references to Hinduism in the form of symbolic decor that existed.

 

The book’s plate illustrations show that the inscriptions are almost always in a discrete rectangular frame which renders them capable of being modified or added to without damaging the adjascent material. In my judgement the black script on the white marble background seems inappropriate esthetically in the midst of the soft beige marble that surrounds it. By adding the inscriptions Shahjahan probably sought to establish the credibility of its having been his creation as a sacred mausoleum instead of the Hindu palace that time will undoubtedly prove that it was.

 

Insuficient time

Based on the latest inscriptions dated 1638-39, which appear on the tomb, the authors estimate a construction period of six years. Six years in my judgement is simply not enough time. As reasonable approximation of the total time required to build the Taj complex, we can consider Tavernier’s estimate of twenty-two years. Although he first arrived in Agra in 1640, he probably witnessed some rework or repair. The time frame of twenty-two years may have been passed on to him by local people as part of the collective memory from some previous century when the Taj was actually built.

 

Early repairs

The issue of repairs is taken up by the authors in their translation of the original letter of Aurangazeb to his father dated December 9, 1652. He reports serious leaks on the north side, the four arched portals, the four small domes, the four northern vestibules, subchambers of the plinth, plus leaks from the previous rainy season. The question the authors do not raise is: Would the Taj, being at most only thirteen years old, already have shown symptoms of decay? Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to believe that by 1652 it was already hundreds of years old and was showing normal wear and tear.

 

Who built the Taj? The authors say it was Ahmad Ustad Lahori, chief architect for Shahjahan. They base this belief mainly on the assertion by Luft Allah, the son of Lahori, in a collection of verses, that Shahjahan commanded Lahori to build both the Taj and the Red Fort at Delhi. As evidence this is quite weak.

 

The court historians are unfailing in their praise for the Emperor’s personal participation in his massive architectuaral projects and they are never lacking in glorifying his sterling character. But the European travelers have other things to say about his personality and his inability to focus on anything for long except his lust for women. Nor is the object of his supposed great love either tender or compassionate. It seems that both “lovers” were cruel, self-centred and vicious. To believe that out of this relationship, with the support of Shahjahan’s alleged great architectural skills, came what many consider to be the most beautiful building complex in the world, is sheer romantic nonsense.

 

While Begley and Desai are sceptical of the Taj Mahal’s being a consequence of romantic devotion, they yield not an inch in asserting its Mughal origin. They support this traditional view by overlooking some key problems:

 

  1. Consider the identical character of the two buildings on either side of the Taj main building. If they had different functions-one a mosque, the other a guest residence-then, they should have been designed differently to reflect their individual functions.

 

  1. Why does the perimeter wall of the complex have a Medieval, pre-artillery, defense character when artillery (cannons) was already in use in the Mughal invasions of India? [Why does a mausoleum need a protective wall in the first place? For a palace it is understadable.]

 

  1. Why are there some twenty rooms below the terrace level on the north side of the Taj facing the Jumna River? Why does a mausoleum need these rooms? A palace could put them to good use. The authors do not even mention their existence.

 

  1. What is in the sealed-up rooms on the south side of the long corridor opposite the twenty contiguous rooms? Who filled in the doorway with masonry? Why are scholars not allowed to enter and study whatever objects or decor are within? (Comment: The archaeologist in charge of the Taj personally informed this editor, he found nothing in those rooms. NSR)

 

  1. Why does the “mosque” face due west instead of facing Meccah? Certainly, by the seventeenth century there was no problem in orienting a building precisely!

 

  1. Why has the Archaeological Survey of India blocked any dating of the Taj by means of Carbon-14 or thermo-luminiscnece? Any controversy over which century the Taj was built could easily be resolved. [Radiocarbon dating of a piece of wood surreptiously taken from one of the doors gave 13th century as a possible date. But more data is needed.]

 

If Shajahan did not build the Taj for the love of Mumtaz, then why did he want it? His love for Mumtaz was evidently a convenient subterfuge. He actually wanted the existing palace for himself. He appropriated it from Raja Jai Singh by making him an offer he could not refuse, the gift of other properties in exchange. He also acquired whatever was precious within the building including the immensely valuable gold railing.

 

By converting the complex into a sacred Moslem mausoleum he insured that the Hindus would never want it back. Shahjahan converted the residential quarters to the west of the main building to a mosque simply by modifying the interior of the west wall to create a mihrab niche. He added Islamic inscriptions around many doorways and entries to give the impression that the Taj had always been Islamic. Sure enough, the scholars have been silent or deceived ever since.

 

Yet, we must thank Begley and Desai for having assembled so much useful data and translated contemporary writings and inscriptions. Where they failed is in accepting an apocryphal legend of the Taj for an absolute fact. Their interpretations and analyses have been forced into the mold of their bias. It would be well to take advantage of their work by scholars and laymen interested in deepening their knowledge of the Taj Mahal to read the book while keeping an open mind as to when and by whom it was built.

 

Added note:

A leading Indian architect, former professor of architecture at Mysore University adds:

There are fundamental problems with the current theory of Islamic Architecture in India of which the following may be noted.

 

(1) Unlike in the case of Hindu architecture, where there are literally hundreds of works on Vastu in several Indian languages, there seem to be almost no texts or manuals on Islamic architecture. It is difficult to see how a great school of architecture lasting 600 years could flourish without any technical literature.

 

(2) Hindu architectural practices and traditions are maintained by thousands of mason families, especially in South India. These are known as Vishwakarmas or Vishwa Brahmanas. They are greatly in demand all over the world. No such Muslim families are known.

 

(3) There are no standards of units and measurements for Islamic architecture in India. It is inconceivable that great works of architecture could come up without them. This is an objective requirement.

TAJ MAHAL-The Illumined Tomb, an anthology of seventeenth century Mughal and European documentary sources, by W.E. Begley and Z.A. Desai: Published by the University of Washington Press, Seattle and London, 1989 (The Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture).

The reviewer Marvin Mills is a leading New York architect and professor of architecture at the Pratt Institute.

PAGAN SACREDNESS

PAGANISM AND THE IDEA OF THE SACRED

Pagans’ idea of the sacred is rooted in nature and not necessarily in a book or a founder. Also  divinity of the female is integral to paganism, which is not acknowledged in Abrahamaic creeds.

 Navaratna Rajaram

 

Sacredness

            The distinguishing feature of pagan beliefs and cultures is their sense of the sacred— of sacredness as something that pervades the universe, its every nook and cranny, its every creation. Krishna in the Bhagavadgita (4.11) says: “All creatures great and small— I am equal to all; I hate none nor have I any favorites.” And this, as we shall soon see, extends to all creation, animate and inanimate.

In contrast, revealed faiths like Christianity and Islam cannot exist without favorites: sacredness is confined to an anthropomorphic icon called the Messenger of God, Son of God, the Prophet or any of the sundry intermediaries that block or control access to an anthropomorphic God who created man “his own image.” As a consequence nothing else is sacred. This means the world, with all its creations was created for man’s exploitation. Here is how the Bible (Genesis 9.2 – 3) puts it:

 

“…the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast on the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes in the sea; into your hand they are delivered.

“Every moving thing that moveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given all things.”

 

The pagan view is totally different. The celebrated Isa Upanishad opens with the injunction: Isavasyamidam sarvam, yat kincit jagatyam jagat; tena tyaktena bhunjitva ma gridhah kasyavaitdhanam.

 

            This may be summarized as: “The divine lives in everything, in the minutest creation in the universe. Enjoy what is rightfully yours, covet not that which belongs to another.”

This accounts for the worship of female deities in paganism. Even nationalistic slogans like “Bharat Mata ki Jai” (Glory to mother India) are found offensive by Indian Muslims whose God and prophet are both severely masculine.

 The pagan idea holds two ideas— divinity resides everywhere and in everything, in every nook and cranny. See left above for a pre-Christian Celtic pagan icon from Denmark

And one should take no more than what one needs. As the Isha Upanishd says,”Divinity resides in everything, in every nook and cranny. Covet not that which belongs to another,” includes nature also, for nature too owns its share. This means nature with all its creations is sacred. So, with pagan traditions God is not necessarily anthropomorphic— an idea by no means limited to Hinduism. Pagans have sacred plants like the ashvattah and the mistletoe (of the Druids), sacred animals like the Hindu cow and the bull of the ancient Egyptians, and any number of them among the natives of pre-Columbian America.

This idea of the sacred in animals gives rise to the interesting phenomenon of composite creatures and even human-animal combinations. (See above left) In Hinduism this is well known: the elephant-headed Ganesha, half-man half-lion Narasimha and many more. Similarly, the Egyptians had the Sphinx, pagan Greeks Pan (goat-man), and any number of such creatures among the Incas, the Aztecs and other peoples of pre-Columbian America. The idea in all this is man’s oneness with nature. Unlike in the revealed (Semitic) religions, which look down upon creations other than man, the pagans exalted both the animal and the human by combining them. They are all part of the same creation.

The assault on pagan civilizations by imperial movements let loose by revealed religions like Christianity and Islam involved to a great degree the destruction of this sense of the sacred— the sense of divinity everywhere and in everything. This is part of what is called “conversion.” It makes one shift allegiance from one’s culture rooted in nature and the surroundings to an alien anthropomorphic God and his intermediary who claims to speak for God. AS V.S. Naipaul observed (see below). Conversion goes further: it makes imperial demands. It is not enough to shift allegiance; the convert has to destroy everything, including the history of his former self. And this is what the imperial ‘jealous’ God ultimately demands.

Since God in revealed religions is knowable only through the intermediary, conversion entails a change from worship of nature and all of God’s creation to the worship of man. To understand the pagan sense of sacredness, and the cataclysmic impact of conversion, is it is necessary to understand what the revealed creeds like Christianity and Islam demand of their flock. This is what we may examine next.

 

God or Man-God as substitute?

            The idea of the divine in everything in pagan traditions, especially in Hinduism, introduces a profound concept— of religion, or more properly spirituality as a-paurusheya. A-paurusheya in Sanskrit means “not of human origin.” (From purusha, human in Sanskrit.) This has many dimensions, but mainly that spirituality must be in harmony with the cosmos. It is not for any human to claim any special privilege in creation. All are equal in the eyes of God— or “I hate none, nor have I any favorites,” in Krishna’s simple words. Any teaching like the Vedas simply exposes cosmic principles discovered by human sages, but the principles themselves, like scientific laws are eternal and owe nothing to human existence.

For this reason, A Vedic seer like Vasishta or Vishwamitra is simply a drashtara— or one who ‘sees’ the truth of the cosmic order. The same is true of scientific seers like Newton and Einstein. They perceived cosmic truths like the Law of Gravitation and the Mass-Energy Equivalence. But these truths existed without them as part of the cosmos; they are eternal. Even Krishna in his Bhagavadgita makes no claim to originality. In his words:

“I taught this imperishable Yoga to Vivswan, who taught it to Manu. Manu then bequeathed it to King Ikshwaku. This ancient wisdom transmitted through generations of royal sages became lost in the tides of time. I have taught to you, my friend and best disciple, this best and most mystical knowledge.”

 

‘Semitic’ exclusivism

            In contrast, revealed religions like Christianity and Islam cannot exist without a privileged human claiming exclusive access to God. This makes them paurusheya— or ‘man originated.’ Jesus is the purusha of Christianity while Mohammed is the purusha of Islam. Without these purushas, neither Christianity nor Islam can exist. Pagan beliefs like Hinduism have no such human founder or purusha. In the words of philosopher Ram Swarup below left):

“The spiritual equippage of Islam and Christianity is similar; their spiritual contents, both in quality and quantum are about the same. The central piece of the two creeds is “one true God” of masculine gender who makes himself known to his believers through an equally single, favored individual. … (Emphasis added.)

“The whole prophetic spirituality whether found in the Bible or the Quran, is mediumistic in essence. Here everything takes place through a proxy, through an intermediary. Here man knows God through a proxy; and probably God too knows man through the same proxy.

“In fact, to these religions, the chosen individual is not merely an intermediary, he is also a savior, a mediator. He intercedes on behalf of his flock with God. He can even delegate his authority to his disciples, who, in turn, appoint their own officials who too have the power to ‘bind and loose.’ As a result, these religions tend to deal not with God but with God-substitutes.”

The chosen intermediary cannot tolerate a rival for he is the sole intermediary. Such a religion demands a single God— a jealous God (of the Old Testament), who, like his spokesman, brooks no rivals. This is what is behind the Only Son of God and the Final Prophet. The authority for this proxy spiritualism is found in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 18.18):

“I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, …, and will put my word in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him.”

This virtually defines exclusivism, which implies that the intermediary is authorized to be the exclusive spokesman of God, and there can be none other. It means that man cannot know God save through the intermediary, there can be no direct access. This exclusion of direct access to God shuts out alternative paths of exploration. As a result, any mystical exploration is treated as heretical and open to persecution.

The pagan approach to spirituality and mysticism is the antithesis of this. Here, there is no intermediary to bar access to the divine. This leads to freedom of choice in experiencing the divine. God resides within the soul of every individual, accessible to anyone through mystical seeking. As a result, pluralism is the rule in pagan cultures. And God being individual to the seeker, there are as many Gods — and as varied — as there are souls that seek. There is no intermediary to enforce any belief in the name of God. Socrates expressed it in this fashion (Dialogues of Plato, Cratallus 400-1):

 

“Of the Gods we know nothing, either of their natures or of the names by which they call themselves. …but we are enquiring about the meaning of men in giving them these names.” (Socrates, above left)

That is to say God (or Gods) is the result of spiritual seeking, the mystical search for cosmic reality. This is as varied and as manifold as the human experience and capacity. Dirghatamas, probably the most mystical of the Vedic poets (above left) recognized this truth when he said (Rigveda I.164.48):

“Cosmic reality is one, but the wise perceive it in many ways: as Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni, the mighty Garutman, Yama, and Matarishvan— the giver of breath.”

Renaissance was re-paganization

This links the diverse pathways of the search for cosmic truth to the pluralistic pantheon that adorns every pagan culture. ‘Conversion’ to a revealed creed involves a wrenching from such a free-spirited mystical milieu to be cast among a throng whose spiritual life is regulated by God-substitutes. It entails a total uprooting from the land and culture of oneself and one’s ancestors. The spiritual loss is immense.

As a result, one can think of the European Renaissance as a movement of re-paganization, an attempt to recapture the freedom of spirit characteristic of their pagan Greek ancestors. This was followed by the Reformation and the Enlightenment.

V.S. Naipaul: the sacred place

            It is not easy for a human to give up everything, from the soul to the sacred land in which one was born and raised and surrender to a remote land and an unfamiliar Man-God— or God-substitute in Ram Swarup’s picturesque phrase. This must wreak havoc on the psyche. In the case of conversion to Islam it means, as Nobel Prize winning author V.S. Naipaul puts it: “A convert’s world view alters. His holy places are in Arab lands; his sacred language is Arabic. His idea of history alters.”

Naipaul might also have said that this is accompanied by an inveterate hatred of one’s ancestors and the culture into which they were born. A hatred deep enough to want to destroy one’s own land and join the ranks of the violators of ancestral land and culture, at least in spirit. Pakistan is an example. Its heroes are not the Vedic kings and sages who walked the land, but invading vandals like Ghaznavi and Ghori who ravaged them. Again as Naipaul puts it: “Only the sands of Arabia are sacred.”

This idea of the destruction of the sense of the sacred is not widely recognized. The pagan spirit, including the Hindu, attaches great significance to his sense of punya-bhumi, to tirthas made sacred by association with heroes and sages from the hoary past. Conversion entails giving up this attachment to one’s sacred land and symbols and even turning against it with destructive zeal. This is movingly chronicled in Naipaul’s Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples. Naipaul, whose ancestors were from India, was born and grew up in Trinidad. Its original pagan inhabitants along with their sacred places had been obliterated by European invaders. It was only after he had left the island, some forty years later, that he began to notice this lack. What brought this realization was his coming into contact with India, the punya-bhumi. As he wrote:

“… it was much later, in India, in Bombay, in a crowded industrial area — which was yet full of unexpected holy spots, a rock, a tree — that I understood that, whatever the similarities of climate and vegetation and formal belief and poverty and crowd, the people who lived so intimately with the idea of the sacredness of the earth were different from us. …Perhaps it is this absence of the sense of sacredness — which is more than the idea of the ‘environment’ — that is the curse of the New World, and is the curse especially of Argentina and ravaged places like Brazil. And perhaps it is this sense of sacredness — rather than history and the past — that we of the New World travel to the Old to rediscover.”

And Europeans of the Renaissance traveled to Greece, at least in spirit. Some like Poet Byron gave their lives to recover the sacredness of Greece.

It is this sense of sacredness that Christianity and Islam have destroyed wherever they have gone. This anti-sacred feeling is particularly virulent in lands converted to Islam. Again, as Naipaul observes: “…in the converted Muslim countries — Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia — the fundamentalist rage is against the past, against history, and the impossible dream is of true faith growing out of a spiritual vacancy.”

I have noticed the same rage, though perhaps more subdued and certainly less violent, among the converted Christians in India, many of who have never reconciled to the loss of colonial patronage. They are blind to sacredness around them, still clinging to the impossible dream of Western ‘Christendom’ coming to their aid in their hopeless, unnecessary struggle against the pagan Hindus.

In my travels in Central America, I had noticed that this sense of sacredness is not altogether lost among the converts, especially Native American tribes. Though nominally Christian, they retain their ancient beliefs and practices. They even paganize Christianity by identifying Christian figures with pagan gods and goddesses; in parts of Mexico, Virgin Mary becomes Our Lady of the Guadalope and Aztec sacred symbols take the place of the cross.

Similar pagan remains with its sense of the sacred can be found among some Muslims of Indonesia. Naipaul found that among some of the people of Sumatra, there was great reverence for nature— a most un-Islamic idea. They believed that certain trees and springs had spirits. Speaking of her childhood in the village, an Indonesian woman told Naipaul: “We always have to ask permission when we cut down a big tree, or drain a spring, or build a house. We have to follow certain rituals, ceremonies, to appease guardian spirits.”

This of course is a throwback to their Hindu past, before the coming of Islam. Naipaul later visited the village, an enchanting place where rice had been cultivated in the same way, in the same place for time immemorial. So were the practices and the rituals. In his words:

“And yet very little was known of this immense history. There were no documents, no texts; there were only inscriptions. Writing itself was one of the things that came from India with religion. All the Hindu and Buddhist past had been swallowed up. …People’s memories could go back only to their grandparents or great-grandparents. The passing of time could not be gauged; events a hundred years old would be like events a thousand years old. All that remained of two thousand years of great social organization here, of a culture, were the taboos and earth rites…”

 

All this ancient tradition, with its sacred land and guardian spirits were uprooted by the coming of Islam with its tribal Arab God and his Prophet who brooks no rivals, brought by an army of God-substitutes. As Naipaul sees it: “The cruelty of Islamic fundamentalism is that it allows only one people — the Arabs, the original people of the Prophet — a past, and sacred places, pilgrimages and earth reverences. These sacred Arab places have to the sacred places of all the converted peoples. Converted peoples have to strip themselves of their past. …It is the most uncompromising kind of imperialism.”

 

The result is rage without end. Having lost one’s own identity, the convert must destroy everyone else’s. The convert can never be at peace with himself or with the world.

 

References

Naipaul, V.S. (1998) Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples.

            Viking-Penguin, New Delhi.

Rajaram, N.S. (2003) A Hindu View of the World: Essays in the Intellectual Kshatriya

Tradition. Voice of India: New Delhi.