The Saga of the Taj Committee: Preserving the Taj: A Tale of Colonialism, Conservation & Conquest

Updated: Apr 7, 2020

by Sraman Sircar

This is a three-part blog series that will explore one of the most interesting aspects of the history of modern India by focusing on the first systematic conservation project undertaken in the subcontinent. The series is a part of the larger Heritage Walk Calcutta research project named ‘Heritage Policy as Colonial Legacy’ and will offer a glimpse of some of the facts and arguments that will be presented in the eventual project report.

The Taj Mahal was the site of the first conservation project undertaken in modern India. (Source: https://unsplash.com/photos/iWMfiInivp4)

The Taj Mahal is undeniably the most renowned historical monument in India. Regarded by scholars and laymen alike as the finest example of Mughal architecture, it has been recognized as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Every year, it attracts 7 to 8 million visitors, and during 2014 - 2015, it single-handedly generated a revenue of Rs. 21.23 Crores (USD $ 2.97 million). The Taj is not only one of the most lucrative monuments for the Ministry of Culture of the Government of India, but over the years, it has also become the most prominent symbol of the country’s cultural heritage.


However, what is much less known about the Taj Mahal is the fact that it was also the site of the first systematic conservation project undertaken in modern India. Dating back to the initial years of the 19th century, this conservation project was part of the larger efforts of the British East India Company to colonize the subcontinent and lay the foundations for its empire in South Asia. But the most fascinating aspect of this history of preserving the Taj is that the practices (or malpractices to be more accurate) that constituted this conservation project have continued to shape heritage policies and the preservation of monuments in India until the present day!


Earliest European Accounts of the Taj Mahal


The East India Company chose the Taj Mahal as the site of its first conservation project because the monument had been central to the European imagination and perception of the subcontinent’s culture for centuries. Built between 1632 and 1653 by the fifth Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, the Taj began to evoke wonder and fascination among Europeans soon after the completion of its construction. For instance, in Voyages dans les Etats du Grand Mogol (Travels in the Mughal Empire) published in Amsterdam in 1699, Francois Bernier (the French physician in the court of Shah Jahan) described the process of constructing the Taj Mahal, famously remarking -


“This monument deserves much more to be numbered among the wonders of the world than the pyramids of Egypt which, by comparison, appear as unshapen masses and heaps of stone!”

Such exuberant praise for the Taj was later echoed by Charles Malet, an 18th-century diplomat of the British East India Company and member of the Royal Society and Society of Arts, who visited the monument on 16 May 1785 and proclaimed -


“The Taje Mahal is most deservedly the wonder of the Eastern World!”

The British, the French and the Colonization of India


While in the 18th century the Taj Mahal was being visited and lauded by an increasing number of Europeans, this was also the era when the subcontinent became the site of an intense struggle for power between the French and British East India Companies. France and Britain had already become bitter rivals in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740 - 1748), and their hostility spilt over into both North America and South Asia, especially when the French and the British began to wage wars in these two regions of the world to build their respective colonial empires.


Benoit de Boigne was the French military commander of the Maratha Army of Mahadji Sindhia of Gwalior. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In South Asia, the middle of the 18th century had witnessed the collapse of the centralized rule of the Mughal Empire and the emergence of several smaller, regional kingdoms that were constantly embroiled in internecine warfare. The French and the British East India Companies began to take advantage of this state of disunity and fragmentation to gain as much political influence and territory for themselves as possible. For instance, Benoit de Boigne (1751 - 1830), a French military commander, helped the Maratha ruler Mahadji Sindhia of the central Indian kingdom of Gwalior raise an army of 100,000 men that came to dominate much of northern India. On the other hand, the Bengal Army of the British East India Company, led by Colonel John Murray Macgregor (1745 - 1822), frequently fought against de Boigne’s forces.