The Curious Case of Multani Mitti and the Taj Mahal

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In 2001 Pakistan’s president General Pervez Musharraf came to Agra to hold a historic summit between India and Pakistan, with the aim of resolving some of the long-term fractious issues between the two nations. It has now been nearly 16 years since the two countries came close to finally resolving their enmity. As the talks collapsed it paved the way for the lost opportunities that both nations now lament at leisure. At the back of the Agra Summit, Musharraf also made a trip the Taj Mahal. In preparation for this trip the Taj Mahal got a face-lift, literally. Multani Mitti (mud from Multan, Pakistan where this lime-rich clay was originally found) was used to cleanse the Taj Mahal which was suffering from years of exposure to pollution and general wear and tear. Although it is less clear whether the Multani Mitti actually came from Multan. The Multani Mitti, which is effectively mud therapy and has been used for centuries as a beauty product, cleansed away the pollutants that gave the Taj Mahal more of a yellowish (dirty) appearance and now it gleams bright and white. In a recent visit to the Taj Mahal, the process of cleaning the historic site continues, slowly and painstakingly. Despite the hundreds of daily visitors looking for the perfect picture at the Taj Mahal, they have to suffice with the scaffolding.

For me a visit to Agra is incomplete without also paying homage to Fatehpur Sikri, the city founded in 1569 by the Mughal Emperor Akbar, which also served as the capital of the great empire from 1571-1585. Akbar choose the site to honour the Sufi Saint Salim Chishti (his shrine overlooks the capital city complex) and took great care in the vision and architecture of the capital, sadly once finished the complex was difficult to sustain due to the shortage of water into the city. One of the most architecturally rich pieces in the Diwan-i-Khas, hall of private audience, is the octagonal pillar, encompassing the secular, open and embracing vision that Akbar had for the new capital. The pillar brings together different architectural designs (see picture) highlighting his own interest in inter-faith dialogue. And it is here that Akbar apparently held his many theological discussions.

What was apparent in visiting the Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri in the same day was the way both sites are treated, the Taj Mahal is by far the superior site. It attracts hundreds of visitors and foreigners (and Indians if they fail to bring ID with them) pay a generous entry fee and it is a site which is promoted by the UP government extensively. Where would ‘Incredible India’ be without the presence of the Mughal built Taj Mahal. Yet for me the deserted city of Akbar is equally, if not more, significant. It is more spread out and beams with the beautifully craved red stone architecture with geometric patterns, and the extraordinary Tomb of Sheikh Salim Chisti who was a descendant of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti of Ajmer. The Sufi Saint foretold the birth of Akbar’s son, who is named after him, Prince Salim (later Emperor Jahangir).

What connects the Multani Mitti and Agra is the myopic and selective amnesia that ‘Incredible India’ has towards its Mughal/Muslim heritage. Fatehpur Sikri is visibly less attractive as a tourist destination and visibly more ‘Muslim’ as a lived city and the Taj Mahal in its glorious white marble beauty is entirely a commercial complex and less of a tomb to Emperor Shah Jahan’s favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. While the irony of using Multani Mitti on the Taj Mahal to sustain Indian tourism is not lost on many, there is at the same time a marginalisation of other sites. This is of course intrinsically linked to the wider politics of identity and more importantly in terms of how the Indian state is re-affirming and re-positioning its own identity which is increasingly ‘Hindutva’ in essence and less embracing, thus moving away from Akbar’s pillar of inter-faith and tolerance. With this the hopes that President Musharraf and the Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee once bought to the tables have all but disappeared; seventy years on and we are still unable to live amicably with each other but at least we are alright with using Multani Mitti to cleanse away the superficial dirt that accumulates around us.


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