One fine recent morning, the Taj Mahal, wonder of the world, India’s pride of prides, a UNESCO heritage site and one of the few spots in Uttar Pradesh visited by foreign tourists in droves, went missing. It did not figure in the tourist map issued by the Uttar Pradesh government. Heated denials, accusations and counter accusations followed — UP’s Tourism minister Rita Bahuguna Joshi said the BJP government had spent crores in maintaining the Taj, while bureaucrats close to the government reaffirmed that the Taj is, indeed, a world-renowned site, but that the Tourism booklet was really about “local” spots. Then just as the brouhaha was settling, another minister in Yogi Adityanath’s government proclaimed that instead of the Taj, Hindu religious shrines should figure on UP’S tourist map.
Meanwhile, the BJP MLA from Sardhana in western UP, Sangeet Som, seems to have jumped right into the sizzling controversy, saying that Shahjahan’s beautiful memento of love to his wife is a “blot” on Indian culture because it was built by “traitors” who killed many Hindus.
But the truth is that something has been simmering in the state of Uttar Pradesh for some time. Soon after Yogi Adityanath took power, the BJP government made the Taj Mahal an issue. It figured in one of the Mahant-turned-politician-turned-UP CM’s early statements, when he said that the Taj is not a part of “Bhartiya sanskriti,” or Indian culture.
Since assuming power, in fact, the Chief Minister has frequently attacked several so-called “Muslim” historical symbols. First of all, the shrine of Ghazi Babi, the 11th century warrior-Sufi-acsetic in Bahraich, was targeted. This is a shrine that Hindus and Muslims have venerated for centuries. Ghazi Baba was a fighter who, aided by Yadavs and Pasis, cleared forest land in and around Bahraich and in alliance with Hindu castes fought against local tribes then inhabiting the region.
Then the UP chief minister turned to Akbar. The Mughal emperor, Yogi said, had gone to meet Tulsidas — who wrote Valmiki’s Sanskrit Ramayana in Awadhi, which is known as Ram Charit Manas – who told him that “Ram is my only Badshah” and refused to meet him.
But what’s a little history between a state and its elected chief minister, who may not like facts to come in the way of people’s beliefs, especially when the selfsame people are most important. Still, if you read the history books, they do point out that Akbar and Tulsidas did, indeed, meet, that too in Kashi, or Varanasi. A painting preserved in the Tulsi Museum in Jaipur, said to have been made in 1590, attests the meeting. In this, Akbar and Tulsidas are seen in separate boats, having a conversation.
Now here is another set of facts. It seems that Kashi’s orthodox Brahmin Pandits were furious at Tulsidas for daring to write Lord Ram’s story, originally written by Valmiki in Sanskrit, a Dev Bhasha, in Awadhi, which is a language of the masses.
In fact, Tulsidas’ experience was quite similar to the hostility faced by Martin Luther, the European reformer, who translated the Bible from Latin to German, thereby making it immediately accessible to thousands of people. Led by the Pope, the orthodox clergy so vehemently opposed Martin Luther that Luther ultimately broke free from the Catholic church to establish the Protestant faith.
Abdul Rahim Khan-e-Khana, another devotional poet and one of Akbar’s ‘navratnas,’ mediated between Akbar and Tulsidas. Fed up by the incessant attacks on him, Tulsidas even threatened to write the ‘Ram Charit Manas’ inside a mosque, it is said, because unlike a ‘Mandir’, a mosque gives sanctuary to all and sundry.
In UP and across the rest of North India, places of worship, religious structures, folk culture etc are eclectic in character. Hindu temples have had a ‘Muslim’ touch and vice-versa. An Islamic crescent adorns a major Hanuman temple in Lucknow, Aliganj. Built by Bahu Begum, the mother of the Nawab wazir of Avadh, Asif-ud-Daula (who reigned from 1775-1797), who was a Begum of Avadh herself, the 18th century temple is still functioning. Over the decades and centuries, Hindu officials built Masjids and Imambaras. Muslim rulers donated land to temples.
Truth is, all major temples in Ayodhya were made on grants given by Muslims. In Yogi Adityanath’s case, the Gorakhmath land of which he is the Mahant, was donated by Nawab Asif-ud-Daula who visited Gorakhpur around 1790. Since Asif-ud-Daula was a Shia, he wanted to meet Roshan Ali, the pir of an Imambara in the region. Roshan Ali asked Asif-ud-Daula to donate land to Gorakh Math. In the 19th century, it was said that half of Gorakhpur belonged to Roshan Ali’s Imambara and the other half to the Gorakh Math.
Asif-ud-Daula’s ‘firman’ granting land to the Gorakh Math is preserved in the temple.
The ‘Indian Express’ reported this in 2007. In 1994, Mahant Avaidyanath, Adityanath’s predecessor, announced in a public meeting in Gorakhpur, held to felicitate Late Prince Anjum Qadar, a direct descendant of Asif-ud-Daula, that the whole stretch of Gorakh temple land was donated by Anjum Qadar’s ancestors. Digvijay Nath, Avaidyanath’s predecessor, during his dialogue with Swami Karpatri ji maharaj of the Hindu Mahasabha, admitted that the Gorakh Math land was donated by a Muslim Nawab. As for the Taj Mahal, Digvijay Nath had said that it is part of “Bhartiya sanskriti.”
Adityanath has built his politics on a virulent anti-Muslim plank. But readers will be surprised to note that the Nath Sampradaya, the order initiated by Guru Gorakhnath which Adityanath follows, actually venerates the teachings of Prophet Muhammad. Gorakhnath was a heterodox religious reformer and advocated reason in place of blind faith, a healthy scepticism towards the Vedas, and egalitarianism among castes by questioning the birth-given caste hierarchy. The Nath Sampradaya welcomed Muslims and low caste Hindus with open arms. Prophet Muhammad was so central to the Nath Sampradaya that its curricula includes Muhammad Bodh, or the Orientation of Muhammad, as a standalone chapter.
Tourism minister Rita Joshi, who crossed over to BJP from Congress on the eve of the elections, is the grand-daughter of Dr R P Tripathi, a doyen of the Allahabad school of history. In contravention to the colonial and Bengal schools of history, and along with Dr Tara Chand, Prof Satish Chandra and Prof Beni Prasad, Dr Tripathi established the Mughals as secular rulers.
In 1988, as a teacher in Allahabad University’s Medieval and Modern History department, Rita Joshi supervised a thesis by Akhilesh Jaiswal on Aurangzeb, titled “Aurangzeb’s relations with Hindus’, and wrote a preface to it. The thesis is now a book. In it, Joshi writes about how Aurangzeb donated land to temples but remains much misunderstood.
BJP MLA Sangeet Som needs to be told that the renowned Dr Tripathi also wrote a book on Shahjahan, but there is no mention in it at all of the Mughal ruler and builder of the Taj as a killer of Hindus. In fact, Shahjahan comes across as a proponent of Hindustan’s composite, syncretic culture. Given Dr Tripathi’s relationship with Rita Joshi, and Ms Joshi’s own views regarding Aurangzeb, will Sangeet Som now demand the resignation of his party’s cabinet minister?