The Taj Mahal is India’s pride and joy. It is cherished by people across South Asia as one of the region’s greatest architectural achievements. A stunning reminder of the wealth and might of the Mughal Empire, it was built by Emperor Shah Jahan (1592-1666) as a mausoleum for his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal (1593-1631) over two decades between 1632 and 1653. It attracts millions of visitors from across the globe, and has elicited reactions from poets and writers. One example is a poem by Sahir Ludhianvi (1921-1980), one of Hindi cinema’s finest lyricists whose impressive body of work (in North India’s closely related and most widely spoken languages – Hindi and Urdu) earned high praise from both critics and fans.

A progressive Muslim affiliated to socialist organizations and causes, he had to flee Lahore (now part of Pakistan) after the newly independent country cracked down on dissenting views. Sahir moved to Bombay (now Mumbai, in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, where the Hindi film industry is based) in 1949. This is where he would pen his soulful lyrics, including those which won him his first ‘Filmfare Award for Best Lyricist’ in 1963 (for the film ‘Taj Mahal’, directed by M. Sadiq). The film’s songs are still remembered by older audiences and played by public service broadcasters (such as All India Radio). Given below is Ludhianvi’s poem about the Taj Mahal (a departure from the normal expressions of amazement at the monument’s grandeur to the contrast it presents between the expressions of love by the rich and the poor):

The Taj, to you may seem, a mark of love supreme
You may hold this beauteous vale in great esteem;
Yet, my love, meet me hence at some other place!
How odd for the poor folk to frequent royal resorts;
‘Tis strange that the amorous souls should tread the regal paths
Trodden once by mighty kings and their proud consorts.
Behind the facade of love my dear, you had better see,
The marks of imperial might that herein lie screen’d
You who take delight in tombs of kings deceased,
Should have seen the hutments dark where you and I did wean.
Countless men in this world must have loved and gone,
Who would say their loves weren’t truthful or strong?
But in the name of their loves, no memorial is raised
For they too, like you and me, belonged to the common throng.

These structures and sepulchres, these ramparts and forts,
These relics of the mighty dead are, in fact, no more
Than the cancerous tumours on the face of earth,
Fattened on our ancestor’s very blood and bones.
They too must have loved, my love, whose hands had made,
This marble monument, nicely chiselled and shaped
But their dear ones lived and died, unhonoured, unknown,
None burnt even a taper on their lowly graves.

This bank of Jamuna, this edifice, these groves and lawns,
These carved walls and doors, arches and alcoves,
An emperor on the strength of wealth, has played with us a cruel joke.
Meet me hence, my love, at some other place.

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows an illustration of the Taj Mahal by Edwin Lord Weeks (1849 – 1903), an American artist born in Massachusetts to a family of spice and tea merchants. He traveled to France to learn painting from the likes of Léon Bonnat and Jean-Léon Gérôme and became famous for his illustrations of daily life from South America, Africa and Asia. Among those were paintings of India which he visited between 1882 and 1883. Weeks also published a book about his travels – ‘From the Black Sea through Persia and India’, in 1895.

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