Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Weekend at Agra

I love to travel. And I love history. So when I got a night's stay at a hotel in Agra as the prize for winning a quiz, I was ecstatic. While I had been to Agra before, this would be my wife's first visit. Obviously then, she was as excited as I was. For me it was an opportunity to get a 'refresher course' in Mughal history, while for her it was the excitement to finally get to see the Taj.

Anyhow, we went to Agra over the weekend. Needless to say, we had a great time. My intent here is not to give a description of our itinerary or to go gaga over the beauty of Mughal architecture. There are two things that I want to write about - one quite serious, and the other quite funny actually.

Let me start with the funny bit. I found the tourist guides in Agra quite amusing. Forget the fact that they try to impose themselves upon you (they're notorious for that anyway). What is truly amusing is their twisted version of history, which they narrate with truly remarkable conviction. In their accounts, history seamlessly integrates with folklore, myth, and even outright lie. This can be a cause of concern when they dish this khichdi out to unsuspecting foreigners, but I take great delight in it. When we visited any of the historical places at Agra, I made it a point to hire a guide just to get a thrill out of it - to compare my version of history with theirs, and at the same time have a good laugh!

Somehow these guides have the uncanny knack of getting into the minds of their 'preys' and presenting a version that would be most appealing to them. If you appear to be someone who loves drama, you will get just that. If you want straightforward facts, you'll get them plain and dry. Only, the facts, in most cases, can hardly be called facts. Sometimes, two guides can present the same fact in diametrically opposite contexts.

Sample this - it's a fact that Akbar had a wife called Mariam. Now let's see how this was told to us by two guides. Guide-1 - Akbar respected all religions; he had a Hindu wife, a Muslim wife and a Christian wife (Mariam). Great...the guide was talking about Din-i-Ilahi, the religion propounded by Akbar, and this fact perfectly exemplified his secular beliefs. Now let's see what Guide-2 tells us - Akbar didn't have a Christian wife; Mariam was another name given to his Hindu wife - Jodha Bai, Jahangir's mother. The point here being that Akbar's Rajput wife also embraced Islam. It's interesting to note that whether 'Jodha Bai' was indeed Jahangir's mother has always been a point of dispute among historians, but that Jahangir's mother was a Rajput (possibly given the name of Mariam-uz-Zamani) and a practicing Hindu is a well accepted fact.

At the Taj, the guide 'informed' us that the Koh-i-noor was broken by the British - one piece adorning the queen's crown, and the other kept in a museum. Again, a preposterously twisted fact. Actually, it is the queen mother's crown, adorned by the Koh-i-noor, that is on display at the museum at the Tower of London - there simply aren't two separate pieces, the original stone was 'cut' to increase its brilliance.

Interacting with these guides also reinforced my belief that history is all about interpretation. We've had enormous debates about how historians have tried to promote their own ideologies through their versions of history. To a certain extent it is plausible, it just depends on how you portray a particular fact.

The Mughal history I know portrays Aurangzeb as a tyrant, anti-Hindu, and a plunderer. My guide at the Taj 'enlightened' me to the fact that Aurangzeb actually cared a lot for his people and didn't want to waste money on expensive monuments. Facts can be emphasized or underplayed to present any of these two contrasting pictures. I don't think it's ever possible for historians to completely divorce their personal biases and ideologies while interpreting history. A good historian, in my opinion, is one who does not let personal agenda hijack the interpretation.

Abraham Eraly, in the preface to his book Emperors of the Peacock Throne - The Saga of the Great Mughals, observes:

"Every retelling of history, if it is anything more than a banal catalogue of events, involves ideation, if only because, even at the primary level, a process of selection and evealuation of data, a pattern-making, is invloved. The historian might not be overtly judgmental, but judgement is implicit in the very telling of the story."

Now let me come to the more serious observation. Looking at these priceless gems of our heritage, I felt quite sorry at the state of the various monuments. All the monuments in Agra are either World Heritage Sites or come under the aegis of the Archeological Survey of India. Yet, their maintenance and upkeep is seriously sub-standard. I wonder where all the money pumped in by the government goes! I was particularly saddened by state of affairs at Akbar's tomb at Sikandra and Itimad-ud-daulah's tomb. These monuments have been around for almost 400 years, but if the current sorry state of maintenance (rather the lack of it) continues, I seriously doubt if they will survive another 100 years. The blame for this lies not only with the authorities, but also with us, the common people.

When will we learn to respect our heritage and stop defacing our monuments? Missing stones, graffiti on the walls and everywhere else, pollution everywhere, trash all over the place - I find all this quite revolting. The signage on the Taj lawns say "Walking and photography on grass prohibited", yet that's exactly what I found people doing there. And there was no one around to stop them. I even saw a family enjoying a min-picnic, with food stuff and all, on the lawns. The waterways of the garden had mineral water bottles and polythene bags floating all over And there was no one to stop the people from doing that. Agreed that the Taj is the 'monument of love', but why do people have to use the walls and benches to profess their love in the form of graffiti?