A piece of wonder, or what four fragments of the Taj Mahal can tell us about monuments in India 

8 minute read

‘What will happen to the stone?’ asked Ahmed, a tour guide I met during fieldwork for my doctoral research in Agra, a north Indian city, famous for its shoes, sweets, and monuments. Ahmed spends most of his day with his friends in an old mosque and earns his living by taking tourists on tours of an old tomb. For him, there is an order to this world of stone; a way of living with and caring for these buildings that does not require the interventions of professionally trained archaeologists and scientists, experts mandated by Indian authorities, to preserve the buildings in his neighbourhood. For Ahmed, his fate is tied up inextricably to the monument’s, and the constraining presence of well-meaning preservation means that the buildings in which he spent his childhood playing and praying are closed and walled-off. For him, this a sign of ruin that will make his life worse and that of the great building in his neighbourhood. Don’t buildings need oxygen too? He asks me. Don’t stones breathe?  

That great building is the Taj Mahal, the mausoleum of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan and his consort Mumtaz Mahal built over two decades in the 17th century on Agra’s riverfront and has for centuries captivated the attention of tourists and travellers, making it an icon among India’s historical sites and one of the world’s wonders. Tour guides at the Taj eagerly narrate stories of love and tragedy to tourists, who photograph themselves before the great monument, investing it with a sense of warmth and affection, making it their own. The great monument, firmly rooted in Agra, travels the world as an image, metaphor, and souvenir. It is striking, however, that there is in the galleries of MAA a curious fragment of this great Agra building. ‘A fragment of inlay from the Taj Mahal’ reads its label, telling us tantalisingly little about how and why this piece of the Taj shares space with a Sumerian tablet, an Ostrich shell necklace, and an amulet from ancient Egypt.

Figure 1. A fragment of the Taj Mahal. Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India. Collected and donated by Frederick Oscar Lechmere-Oertel. MAA 1930.1614.1

In sharp contrast to the Taj Mahal, which captivates those who glance on it by its grandeur and majesty, it is indeed quite unlikely that a visitor will pay attention to its fragment. No greater than the palm of my hand, this fragment includes a core of white marble surrounded by a strip of black marble. Together, they resemble the more familiar appearance of the Eye of Horus, than its likely origin, the loop of the Arabic letter sin. My interlocutors in Agra, artisans and masons expert at creating and repairing monuments would scarcely give it a second glance. For Taj Ganj, the historical neighborhood in close proximity to the Taj where they live, is scattered with the remains and ruins of medieval buildings. Indeed, great walls enclose the Taj Mahal more frequently, state institutions deeply concerned with preservation seek to isolate the monument, making it a strictly managed site of heritage.  

Stones continue to circulate across these boundaries. As the monument ages, teams of masons do the hard and unrewarding work of maintaining the site. The many stones they remove from the building are reincarnated as tethers for buffaloes, makeshift seats at teasellers’ stalls, and even speed breakers. These stones, according to Taj Ganj’s residents, have “retired” from the Taj Mahal. The monument, it seems, is then a great assemblage of fragments that have had their own careers. Stones weather with time and temperature, and masons excise them from the building, replacing them with freshly carved replicas. Work, a young mason tells me, continues in perpetuity. This is the order in the world of monuments. A monument, then, is not the product of the actions of its creators. The building requires the warm and caring attention of its caretakers, employees of India’s heritage institution, in the manner of an elderly, beloved relative. Many of the stones that fall off the building, damaged by tourists or intense winds and Agra’s intolerable heat, are collected by government employees, studied, and preserved for the future. This is the business of monuments: sites in the custody of the government. Why, then, should a fragment of the Taj Mahal which should have ended up in the backroom of a government office, or sent off for chemical analysis of its composition or cement for future conservation work, be here, in Cambridge? 

We know deceptively little about its journey to Cambridge. It belongs to a consignment brought to England by Frederick Oscar Oertel, the Hanoverian architect, archaeologist, and engineer, best known for his discovery of the lion capital at Sarnath and the restoration of Agra’s monuments during the viceroyalty of Lord Curzon in the early 20th century. This was the age of restoration. Curzon, who saw himself as a Mughal emperor reincarnate, sought to return India’s architectural sites to their lost glory, cementing his legacy, and casting the British Raj as a custodian of India’s history, for which its own residents were too reticent to care. Oertel worked for Curzon’s project, preparing Agra’s monuments for the visit of the Prince of Wales. It is likely at this time that he would have collected our fragment.  

Not all of Agra’s monuments are in Agra. As Mughal power waned in the 18th century, the Jats from neighbouring Bharatpur raided the city, plundering the Fort, dismantling and then, reassembling a couple of palaces in their capital. (A few decades later, an eager Governor-General would send Shah Jahan’s bathhouse to the South Kensington Museum.) In the tumult of the long 18th century when a series of successor states battled for Agra, its monuments, particularly the Taj, were looted and plundered. An especially profitable action for those passing through the Taj, visiting it with loved ones or camping in its sprawling gardens, was chiselling away its marble façade, inlaid with precious and semiprecious stones. Indeed, a traveller’s accounts that local people too plucked these stones from their marble cases and sold them in the bazaars near the Taj. These fragments circulated as tokens and souvenirs.  Yet, today, the Taj Mahal appears whole. Those flowers, once emptied of their colourful stones, are again in bloom. Strikingly, some stones bear on them combinations of numbers and letters. The whole, when fragmented, must be made whole again. The Taj Mahal, indeed, any Indian monument, is not merely the creation of its builders. It is a place produced through restoration and maintenance, work that goes on perpetually 

Our fragment could well be one that Oertel may have picked up when it fell off the building at night. The fragment is surprisingly heavy for its small size; and the black stone has retained its colour quite unlike its distant compatriots on Agra’s monuments, which bear a grey, faded look as they remain exposed to the city’s climate. For us, this shows that the fragment, despite being old – at least 300 years when Oertel encountered it – has remained protected from the elements for a century. Another indication of its age is the white marble, which has just begun to show signs of wear. Held together with limestone plaster, in the tradition of building monuments in the Mughal period, the fragment is cleaned for display, demonstrating that its intended purpose was to become an object for display.  

The fragment bears the monumental weight of its source: the Taj Mahal. It is this name that makes it significant as a component of one of the world’s most beautiful buildings. But instead of being a striking piece of red carnelian for blue lapis lazuli, our fragment composed of white and black marble, stands out for its monochromatic humility. It is, in this insignificance, where its greatest value lies: a testament to the transnational circulation of objects and ideas from which the Taj Mahal was created, the circulatory relationship between a monument and the people who work and live beside it, and the history of its continuous constitution. This fragment, however, importantly speaks to the oblivion stones – and their creators and caregivers – are destined to, when confronting the majesty of a site of preeminent commercial significance.  

It is the fragment’s new life in Cambridge that ensures its survival. The question of its authenticity matters little as another fragment already takes its place at the Taj Mahal. Indeed, as we have seen, there is little we can do to know what piece came to find its place in the building in the long history of the monument. As we shall see in the next blog in this series, the stones that compose this fragment are repositories of the labour and expertise of those who create and care for the building. The fragment, then, is testament to a different understanding of this site of history: it is a site of human action, skill, and knowledge.  

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