by Sraman Sircar
The second part of The Saga of the Taj Committee takes the story forward by discussing the specific conservation practices that were undertaken at the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort. At the same time, it also sheds light on the corruption and delusions of grandeur of the colonial official in charge of the entire project. Read the Part 1 of the series, here.
The Ceremonial Visit of the Marquis of Hastings
The Taj Committee was formed in 1808, but its work did not begin in earnest until two years later. On 6 April 1810, a British officer named Lt. Joseph Taylor was made the superintendent of the conservation project planned by the committee. He was instructed to follow the guidelines originally laid out in the report presented by Colonel Alexander Kyd, Chief Engineer of Agra, while his work was supervised by Capt. Steel, the Garrison Engineer of the city. This initial effort to restore the Taj Mahal would last almost five years and primarily involved refurbishing various parts of the monument. For instance, ebony was brought from Bundelkhand to construct new doors for the Taj. When enough craftsmen could not be found in Agra, artisans were brought all the way from Calcutta to work on the copper mouldings and embellishments on the doors.
By the end of 1814, the restoration project was finished. Upon the insistence of Lt. Taylor, a Committee of Survey was created to inspect the results. It consisted of Lt. Col. Cuppage (Commanding Officer at Agra), Major D. Macleod (President of the Survey), Lt. I. Land of the 11th Native Infantry, Capt. A. Owen of the 13th Native Infantry, Artillery Capt. W. Tallemach and Lt. A. W. Fordyce. After a thorough inspection of the Taj Mahal, the committee officially declared the restoration project a success. The news was quickly conveyed to the administrators of the East India Company in Calcutta, who immediately decided that such a momentous occasion could not be allowed to go to waste. The completion of the restoration of the Taj Mahal called for a grand celebration that would both showcase and legitimize the imperial might of the British.
By this time, the conservation of India’s cultural heritage had become synonymous with the establishment of the British Empire in South Asia. It’s quite revealing that in 1815, it was the Secretary on Ceded and Conquered Provinces to the Governor General’s Council who first advised that the completion of the restoration project should be celebrated by a visit of the Marquis of Hastings, then the Governor-General of India, to the Taj, in person. This was all the more significant because Agra had been conquered by the Company’s forces little more than a decade before. Accordingly, between February and April of 1815, the Marquis travelled the 1300 km between Calcutta and Agra in a lavishly organized imperial procession just to personally inspect the Taj Mahal and express his satisfaction with the efforts of Lt. Taylor and his team. Such theatrical displays of power were essential to the survival of the British Empire in India.
The Report of Capt. Phipps
Pleased with the restoration of the Taj Mahal, the Marquis of Hastings now wanted the conservation project to focus on other historical sites located in its vicinity. According to Hastings, protection and repair of such ‘national monuments’ that could evoke the national pride of Indians would enable the British to keep justifying their imperial control over the subcontinent. For the next stage of the conservation process, he instructed Capt. Phipps, the Barrack Master of Agra, to draft a proposal on the restoration of the Moti Masjid within the Agra Fort. Lt. Taylor, who in the meantime had moved to Madras to take up his new posting at Fort St. George, was also summoned back to Agra by the Marquis, who was pleased with the initial work done by Taylor’s team. On 28 April 1815, Lt. Taylor was officially appointed once again to supervise the conservation of the Taj Mahal, and particularly of the Moti Masjid.
Towards the end of May 1815, Capt. Phipps submitted a report to the local agents of the Company in Agra about the exact nature of the repair work needed at the Moti Masjid. He mentioned that the stone wall surrounding the structure had completely collapsed due to disrepair. Almost 600 sq. ft of the outer courtyard beyond the walls of the mosque was also in need of urgent repair. Most frighteningly, rain had seeped through the walls and the brick masonry of the mosque and had damaged it so extensively that the structural integrity of the edifice itself was at stake! Alarmed by this report about the dismal condition of the Moti Masjid, the local agents made a detailed list of the repair works that had to be performed, which they gave to Lt. Taylor on 22 June, the day he arrived in Agra from Madras.
His team immediately began the repair work, following the instructions of the local agents. First, the Moti Masjid and its precincts were cleared of the roots of overgrown plants. Afterwards, the copper ornamentation on the mosque was repaired and burnished. The domes and the staircase were polished with marble chunam [a cement or plaster used earlier in India that was usually highly polished and decorated with paintings], while the old walls were rebuilt with slabs of marble. To reconstruct the collapsed outer wall, sandstone, marble, pewter, wood and paint were used. Despite the steady progress, by August 1816 Lt. Taylor’s team had run out of money and could no longer continue with the project. On 19 August, he petitioned the Governor General’s Council in Calcutta to ask for an additional sum of Rs. 9410; he had apparently incurred more expenses because the north face of the Moti Masjid had required more repairs than originally expected. Lt. Taylor also demanded Rs. 874 separately as his personal reimbursement for supervising the entire project.