It may seem like a completely outlandish idea, but did you know that in the 1830s, the British East India Company was seriously contemplating dismantling the Taj Mahal and selling its marble in London! The man behind this unbelievably ridiculous idea was the then Governor-General Lord William Bentinck. Though famous in India as the man who abolished Sati, Bentinck also nearly became someone, who might have been called the most foolish man in history!
For the longest time, renowned (all British) historians have tried hard to say there is no evidence for this and this ‘tale’ was just hearsay. Sir Perceval Spear, Ernest Woodward and John Rosselli vehemently denied that there was any proposal to dismantle the Taj. They pointed to the unavailability of any official documents pointing to it, claiming that this was just a story propagated by Lord Bentinck’s detractors to defame him. However, circumstantial evidence and contemporary accounts lead us to believe that there was more to it than this. Unbelievable as it sounds, Bentinck really did have plans to bring down the Taj, and sell its marble!
Prof Kavita Singh, Professor of Art History at JNU, Delhi did extensive research on the events surrounding the proposed demolition of the Taj Mahal by British East India company. In 2017, in a series of public lectures in Mumbai and London, Prof Singh presented the evidence carefully pieced together from the archives across India and the United Kingdom. Presenting the evidence, she argued that the story cannot be dismissed as fiction, as claimed by many British writers.
The story begins in Agra not at the Taj, but inside the Agra Fort. As you enter the terrace where the Diwan-i-Khas is located, you are stuck by a distinct lack of symmetry and a sense that ‘something is missing’. On one side, you see a plain whitewashed wall with two doors that look like an unfinished construction, there is a reason for this. Here once stood the exquisitely inlaid marble Shahi hammam or bathhouse of the Mughal emperors. This was dismantled and sold as a ‘test run’ or ‘pilot’ in the run-up to the intended demolition and sale of the Taj Mahal!
In 1828, Lord William Bentinck was appointed the Governor-General of British India. One of his primary mandates was to reduce expenses and balance the finances of the East India Company, which were strained by the wars in Burma. In 1830, during a visit to Agra, when he saw the Shahi Hammam, which he claimed was in a 'dilapidated' state he ordered that the entire edifice of the bathhouse and numerous other inlaid marble colonnades in the Agra fort be dismantled, and sold to raise money for the government. This was promptly carried out.
Lord William Bentinck auctioned much of the marble from the Agra fort
This, it seems, was just a ‘test run’ for the eventual dismantling and sale of Taj Mahal. Thankfully, the auction of the marble from the Agra fort didn't go well and fetched very little money. Meanwhile, this vandalism created an uproar among the British community in India. The reasons varied. The British aristocrat and politician Lord Marcus Beresford, in his ‘Journal of My Life in India’, wrote -
‘The marble taken from these apartments is quite unsuited for modern residences and can only be used up for other purposes. A great deal was purchased by men who make paperweights and such trifles for Sahib log (as Englishmen are called) and the rich red sandstone was used for curry stones. I hear that the sum realized from the destruction of these apartments did not exceed five hundred pounds. We could hardly believe that such an order was given but a copy of it was procured and Sir H Fane [British Commander-in-chief] has it. It is said that he [Lord Bentinck] proposed to sell the Taj. He was proposed a sum under that it was worth. And standing out for a good bargain, has saved this noble monument of a monarch’s grief.’
Lord Beresford was not the only prominent Englishman to write about the proposed sale of Taj Mahal. The British Administrator Sir William Sleeman, famous for his suppression of thugs or dacoits in Central India, in his autobiography ‘Rambles and Recollections of an Indian Official’ expresses a similar outrage at the Agra marble sale. He writes ‘ Had these things (Agra fort marbles) fetched the price expected, it is probable that the whole of the palace and even the Taj itself would have been pulled down and sold in the same manner’.
Seth Laxmichand Jain (1810-1866) was in line to buy the Taj Mahal for a sum of Rs 2 lakhs
It’s not just Lord Beresford and WH Sleeman who give a passing reference to the proposed dismantling and sale of Taj Mahal’s marbles. Further details are found in the travelogue of Fanny Parks, a Welsh travel writer who wrote exhaustively of her travels in India. In her book, ‘Wanderings of a pilgrim in search of the Picturesque’ published in 1850, she quotes a newspaper article from the Calcutta based British Newspaper John Bull (which later became The Statesman), dated 26th July 1831 which states –
‘The Taj has also been offered for sale! but the price required has not been obtained. Two lacs, however, have been offered for it. Should the Taj be pulled down, it is rumoured that disturbances may take place amongst the natives.’
Like the other Britishers, Fanny Parks too was outraged and railed -
‘By what authority does the Governor-general offer the Taj for sale? Has he any right to molest the dead? To sell the tomb raised over an empress, which from its extraordinary beauty is the wonder of the world? It is impossible the Court of Directors can sanction the sale of the tomb for the sake of its marble and gems. They say that a Hindoo wishes to buy the Taj to carry away the marble, and erect a temple to his own idols at Bindrabund !’
The ‘Hindoo’ wishing to buy the Taj Mahal. was none other than Seth Laxmichand Jain (1810-1866) of Mathura, one of the richest bankers in North India. Originally from Malpura in Jaipur, he soon became a banker to the Indian Maharajas and was referred to as ‘The Rothschild of India’ by the London newspaper ‘The Times’.
Apparently, when in 1831, the British government invited bids for dismantling the Taj, Seth Laxmichand emerged as the highest bidder offering Rs 2 lakhs. However, this was rejected as too low. Hence a few months later, a second auction was done where Seth Laxmichand again emerged as the winner with an offer of Rs 7 lakhs. Thankfully, the outrage in the British community and the fear of communal riots on the ground meant that the actual sale was never carried out and the Taj Mahal was saved.
The bid to ‘sell’ the Taj has been corroborated by many literary accounts of the period
The events are further corroborated by Vijay Kumar Jain, a former UP legislator and a descendant of Seth Laxmichand in his book ‘Mathura Seth’. Evidence of the proposed sale of the Taj also came to light in 2005, during the course of a dispute between the UP Wakf Board and the Archaeological Survey of India on the formers’ claims on the Taj Mahal. The ASI presented an affidavit in the Supreme Court, which listed Taj Mahal’s history. This affidavit also mentioned the proposed sale and dismantling of Taj Mahal. One wonders, what documents still lie hidden in India and in London, that would throw up new facts on this curious chapter of Taj Mahal’s history.
Each year millions visit the Taj Mahal and no matter how many times you go there, one is still spellbound by the monument’s brilliance. It is unimaginable that someone almost destroyed it. Thank God he didn't succeed!
DID YOU KNOW?
Many of the dismantled marble pieces from the Shahi Hammam, including Shah Jahan’s bathtub, lie in the vaults of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.
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