Demolishing the Taj: Ending the Saga of the Taj Committee

by Sraman Sircar

The final part of The Saga of the Taj Committee explores the colonial government’s hare-brained, and fortunately unsuccessful, scheme of destroying the Taj Mahal. It concludes this blog series by once again highlighting the malpractices that emerged during the first conservation project undertaken in India, whose legacy persists in the present day. Also read Part 1 & Part 2 of the series.

A photograph of the Taj Mahal from 1900. (Source: Wellcome Collection)

Corruption and Vandalism in Sikandra

The plan to demolish the Taj Mahal, at first glance, seems to be entirely at odds with the conservation carried out by the Taj Committee. Why would the British want to destroy the monument they had themselves painstakingly restored for several years? More importantly, what compelled the colonial government to conceive such a hare-brained scheme in the first place? The answers to these questions lie in the events that unfolded in Sikandra, a non-descript village in the outskirts of Agra, a few years after the completion of the Taj Mahal’s restoration.

The village of Sikandra is the site of the tomb of Akbar, the third and most renowned Mughal emperor. In 1821, the British Raj decided to begin conserving the monument. An initial amount of Rs. 20,000 was sanctioned for the project by the government in Calcutta, and the Marquis of Hastings, the Governor-General, proclaimed:

“Our Government is called upon to make some sacrifices for the preservation of this grand Mausoleum of the Great Moghul …. No step that could be taken by the Government it is conceived will be felt more warmly by the natives than the attention to the tomb of Akbar.”

On 3 August 1821, the responsibility of supervising the project was officially given to none other than Captain Joseph Taylor - the infamous squatter of the Taj, who had earlier masqueraded as the Mughal emperor!

As per the instructions of the Marquis of Hastings, Capt. Taylor began the repair works at Sikandra on 12 February 1822. He was asked to report the progress of the project to Colonel Penson, the Superintendent of Buildings in the Upper Provinces, and Captain Cobbe, the Secretary of the Military Board. They were, in turn, under the supervision of C. Lushington, the Secretary to the Government of India based in Calcutta. The local agents of the East India Company in Agra also became involved with the project and were instructed to give an additional Rs. 10,000 to Capt. Taylor. However, he was also strictly warned that they would not tolerate the atrocious behavior he had earlier displayed at the Taj Mahal.

Capt. Taylor, however, was in no mood to redeem himself, and soon a new controversy erupted at Sikandra. On 4 May 1822, Shaikh Mohammad and Shaikh Munna, the khadim [caretakers of an Islamic tomb] of Akbar’s mausoleum, complained to the local agents that the baradari [a Mughal pavilion with twelve doors] of Begum Malika Jahan had been completely demolished upon the instructions of Capt. Taylor. Malika Jahan was the daughter-in-law of Akbar; her pavilion was an integral part of the complex at Sikandra. Taylor had apparently destroyed the building to utilize its materials in the repair of the façade of the emperor’s tomb!

This act of vandalism, quite understandably, created a furor among the local residents. On 8 May 1822, a businessman from Agra named Sajeewan Lal submitted a petition to the local agents of the East India Company in which he claimed that the people of the city were deeply upset by the demolition of the baradari on Taylor’s orders. Five days later, one of the mausoleum’s guards, Boodh Singh, refused to cooperate with Taylor’s team, and rumors began to circulate that an angry mob from Sikandra village might descend upon the site at any time. By 15 May, the situation had become so tense that the local agents asked Henry Graham, the Acting Magistrate of Agra, to send a heavily armed group of Indian sepoys to protect the monument and prevent Taylor’s team from inflicting any further damage.

Capt. Taylor, however, had no intention of backing down, and on 16 May, he complained directly to C. Lushington that the problem was entirely due to the excessive interference of the local agents. He further claimed that he had mentioned his intention to demolish the baradari of Malika Jahan in his initial estimate of the cost of the restoration project. He argued that reusing the materials from the razed building was simply a cost-cutting measure and would ensure that the colonial government would not have to buy expensive red sandstone and marble. Taylor even audaciously indicated that he was also willing to procure materials from other Mughal sites located close to Sikandra, should the government want to save even more money.

These explanations did not go down well with the Governor General’s Council in Calcutta. On 30 May, the Marquis of Hastings wrote a letter in which he strongly reprimanded Capt. Taylor and warned him against misusing his authority as the supervisor of the restoration project. The Governor-General described Taylor’s actions as “a reprehensible act” and forbade him from damaging any other buildings at the tomb of Akbar. The Marquis also reminded him that the emperor’s mausoleum functioned as a religious site as well, and under the Bengal Regulation XIX of 1810, the colonial government was obligated to maintain and repair it. Moreover, the government had no intention of inviting more trouble by hurting the sentiments of the local people. While this harsh warning ensured that no further structures were demolished at Sikandra, Capt. Taylor was never truly punished for his vandalism and continued to oversee the conservation of Akbar’s tomb.