The magnificent 17th-century structure built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan as a tomb for his beloved queen, Mumtaz Mahal, is owned and managed by the Archaeological Survey of India as a national monument.
But the Sunni Waqf Board, which oversees Sunni Muslim graveyards and mosques throughout India, has staked a claim to the white-marbled tomb, saying that because the monument houses Muslim graves, the Taj belongs to it.
The Taj in Agra in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh contains the tombs of Shah Jahan and his queen along with other tombs.
Contesting the Muslim claim, a hardline Hindu group, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Hindu Council), says the Taj Mahal’s builders constructed it after demolishing a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva, one of the most important gods in the Hindu pantheon.
The Hindu group says the monument should be declared a temple and adds the key to the mystery lies in a sealed basement in the Taj that the group says contains the “pillars and artefact of a temple”.
On either side of the massive platform on which the Taj stands are steps down to the basement that has been locked for as long as people can remember.
“If the basement is opened, it’ll reveal the truth. I know it contains Hindu pillars and temple artefacts,” said Agra VHP leader Raghvendra, who goes by only one name.
Former legislator Subramanian Swamy, head of the regional Janata Party, recalled he was not allowed to see the basement when he visited the Taj in 1978.
“If the basement is opened, it’ll reveal the truth. I know it contains Hindu pillars and temple artefacts”
“I was later called by (former prime minister) Morarji Desai who said I should not press the matter as it was in the national interest that the basement be kept sealed,” he told AFP. “The government has something to hide and the issue should be thoroughly investigated.”
The Waqf board, which under powers granted to it under India‘s 1950 constitution can summon witnesses and decide cases involving its interests, is to hold a hearing on Friday to which it has summoned the Archaeological Survey.
The survey is to present its response to the board asking why the Taj cannot be handed over to the Waqf board.
If the two sides cannot agree, the case will go before the courts.
Archaeological Survey officials did not return calls for comment. But Archaeological Survey administrator Ghulam Ali Qamar, the custodian in charge of the Taj between 1958 and 1976, says no one knows what is in the basement.
“We once tried to drill a hole to see what’s inside but the walls are so thick we couldn’t even make a dent,” he said.
Waqf chairman Hafiz Usman said the body would do everything it could to establish its claim to the Taj and says “we will go all the way to the Supreme Court to get the Taj”.
“These people can say anything, but the fact remains the Taj was built by Shah Jahan and it has graves. Therefore, it is Waqf property,” Usman said.
The Waqf is also laying claim to 7% of the about $3 million paid annually by the 2.3 million tourists the Taj draws each year.
Usman said if the issue was not resolved amicably, it could turn into another flashpoint like the demolished Babri mosque in Ayodhya, also in Uttar Pradesh.
The Sunni Waqf Board claims the
“Some aggressive elements in the VHP will begin praying at the Taj and we could have another Babri,” he said.
The mosque was razed in 1992 by thousands of Hindus, most of whom belonged to the VHP and claimed it was built by the Mughal emperor Babur after demolishing a temple of Lord Ram, another important Hindu god.
The mosque’s destruction sparked nationwide riots in which at least 2000 people, mainly Muslims, were killed.
Historian Akhilesh Mithal, an expert in Indian historical monuments, said there was no truth to Hindu claims that a temple preceded the Taj.
“There’s clear evidence the land to build the Taj was purchased from the Maharajah of Jaipur,” Mithal said. “I’ve seen a map which clearly shows there was only a garden on the land where the Taj stands. There was no temple.”
Mithal said the Waqf had no claim to the Taj as it was only set up after India‘s independence in 1947.