Monument to eternal love casts a veil over her true age

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 September, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 September, 2004, 12:00am

Historians quibble over the correct date of the Taj Mahal's 350th birthday

India has launched celebrations to mark the 350th anniversary of the Taj Mahal, the country's famed monument to love, but historians say the festivities could be up to a decade too late.

Controversy over the anniversary of the onion-shaped white marble mausoleum has been sparked by contemporary accounts and inscriptions at the site. While there is debate among historians about the exact year of the anniversary, most say it was before this year.

'Someone, somewhere goofed up somewhat on the Taj Mahal's birthday dates,' said historian Ramesh Chand Sharma who taught Mughal history for 40 years at Agra's renowned St John's College.

'Shah Jahan's official chronicler, Abdul Hamid Lahori, writes the Taj Mahal was completed in 12 years at a cost of 5 million rupees, and construction began six months after Empress Mumtaz Mahal's death which was on June 17, 1631,' the historian said.

This would mean the Taj was ready by the end of 1643 or early 1644, so the Taj's 350th anniversary occurred a decade ago about 1994, he said.

The mausoleum for Queen Mumtaz was ordered built using 20,000 labourers by Jahan who was grief-stricken over her death during the birth of their 14th child. He vowed to build the world's greatest monument to love.

An inscription at the main gate says the majestic monument, India's biggest tourist draw, was finished in 1648 with the assistance of 'the Almighty'.

That would mean the 350th anniversary fell in 1998.

In addition, historians point to a letter written by Prince Aurangzeb to his father, Shah Jahan, saying the monument was leaking and needed repair.

He wrote the letter in 1652 and that would mean the monument is at least 352 years old.

Harban Mukhia, one of India's best-known historians, has also waded into the debate, noting that 'by 1654, the imperial power of Shah Jahan was on the decline and two years later there was a war for succession'.

'The Taj Mahal was built eight or 10 years earlier when he was at the height of power,' the New Delhi-based historian said. That would make the Taj up to 360 years old.

Historians and local media say the decision to make this year the anniversary year may be an attempt by the state government to draw more tourists to the ancient city, 200km south of New Delhi.

In any event, organisers say it is too late to call off the festivities.