Tasveer Ghar: A Digital Archive of South Asian Popular Visual Culture

Fantasizing the Mughals and
Popular Perceptions of the Taj Mahal

The Historic Taj Mahal and Popular Perceptions Through the 19th Century

It is well-documented that the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan commenced the Taj Mahal in 1632 upon the death of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who had died in childbirth. Although even scholarly books and articles tend to give a disproportionate amount of attention to this tomb over other Indian monuments, suggesting its tremendous significance on the development of Indian architecture, in fact the structure essentially marks the end of a long tradition in tomb construction. Since the tomb complex was largely inaccessible to most people until the nineteenth century, it was only seen by the average person from the river. It is not until the nineteenth century that with the exception of seventeenth-century imperial Mughal texts, we have significant Indian opinion on the Taj Mahal.9 Europeans, however, did comment on the Taj Mahal as they wrote about their impressions of the subcontinent, often with an eye to published fame. Of all the Europeans who recorded their thoughts on the Taj Mahal shortly after its construction, only the Frenchman Francois Bernier, who lived in India from 1658 to 1669, can be considered a reliable witness. This is because he gained access to the complex through his connections with the royal family serving as the emperor Aurangzeb’s personal physician, something most foreigners lacked. Bernier writes about the tomb in a way that underscores his own uncertainty on how to appreciate Indian architecture, an attitude, I argue, that persisted among British scholars into the early twentieth century. Bernier writes:

Last time I visited Tage Mehale’s mausoleum I was in the company of a French merchant, who, as well as myself, thought that this extraordinary fabric could not be sufficiently admired. I did not venture to express my opinion, fearing that my taste might have been corrupted by my long residence in the Indies; and as my companion was come recently from France, it was quite a relief to my mind to hear him say that he had seen nothing in Europe so bold and majestic.10


The Taj’s harmoniously balanced composition appealed to western sensibilities as early as the 17th century. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the Taj Mahal was immortalized by a number of European artists. Throughout the nineteenth century, Europeans continued to admire the Taj, and for the British its compound was the favored picnic spot. At the turn of the twentieth century, Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, had the monument restored, thus giving it even greater fame.11 This enthusiasm for the Taj Mahal by the British resulted in the production of popular imagery which was purchased as souvenirs, for example, the ivory painting placed in an ornately carved wood frame for display purposes shown here as fig. 05.

While a few Indian authors penned histories of the Taj Mahal in Persian for European patrons and wrote poetry in Urdu praising the buildings, it was not until 1860 that Bholanauth Chunder, a Bengali gentleman educated in British-sponsored institutions, recorded his impressions of the Taj Mahal in English for a wide readership.12 His first visit to the monument covers sixteen printed pages as he waxes eloquently on the complex echoing the sentiments of many English subjects before him. Chunder, however, departs from the typical commentary on the tomb by expressing dismay over the common European belief that the structure was designed by a Frenchman, not an Indian.13 While the belief that the Taj Mahal was designed by a European persisted in some European and American literature well into the twentieth century, a number of Indian and other authors have dispelled this view.14

9 Koch, 34, 256-57.

10 Wayne E. Begley and Z.A. Desai, Taj Mahal: the Illumined Tomb: An Anthology of Seventeenth-Century Mughal and European Documentary Sources (Cambridge and Seattle: Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture and University of Washington Press, 1989), 296-98.

11 Tillotson, 91. Koch, 440-41.

12 Koch, 34, 231. Originally Bholanauth Chunder’s writings were published for a newspaper and then compiled as The Travels of a Hindoo to Various Parts of Bengal and Upper India, 2 vols. (London: Trubner & Co., 1869).

13 Chunder, I: 415-17. He mentions a Frenchman, but others argue that an Italian designed the Taj Mahal.

14 For example, see Begley and Desai 1989, 261-87.

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