Did Mughal emperor Shah Jahan cut off the hands of those who built Taj Mahal? The age old myth has resurfaced yet again. Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar praised the impact Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership has had on India’s international image. Speaking at the National Summit of Food and Agro in Gujarat, Tomar compared the current leadership to the Mughal rule. He said, “On the one hand, workers’ hands were chopped off after building the Taj Mahal, and then there is PM Modi who showered flowers on the workers behind the development of the Kashi Vishwanath corridor.”
The full statement reported by ANI can be seen here.
The agriculture minister’s comments, that Shah Jahan cut off the hands of those who built Taj Mahal, were in light of the recent construction of the Kashi Vishwanath Dham Corridor in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. Inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 13th December 2021, the corridor connects the temple to the banks of river Ganga. Earlier devotees had to navigate crowds and busy streets of Varanasi for a ritual involving carrying water from the river to the Temple. The construction of the corridor attempts to give easier access to devotees who wish to perform this ritual. Before the inauguration of the first phase of the corridor, PM Narendra Modi greeted the labourers and showered petals to felicitate those involved in the construction of the project.
The first phase of the project involves 23 buildings to aid the tens of thousands of pilgrims that seek blessing at the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir every day. These buildings will house tourist facilitation centres, a city museum, a viewing gallery, and a food court among others.
Tomar’s latest comment made at the summit in Gujarat feeds into the many myths surrounding the Taj Mahal, including that after the Taj was finished, Shah Jahan ordered to ‘cut off’ the hands of the artisans and blinded the master masons so that the beauty of the Taj Mahal could not be replicated.
To check if the age-old claim, that Shah Jahan cut off the hands of those who built Taj Mahal held water, Newschecker began by conducting a keyword search.
On looking up the words ‘taj mahal’, ‘hands’, ‘cut off’ led the Newschecker team to an article published by the Times of India on 22nd October 2017. The article debunks various myths around the Taj Mahal in the past few years.
According to the article, there is no evidence to suggest that Shah Jahan cut off the hands of those who built Taj Mahal. The article also states that after finishing the Taj, the same artisans built the city of Shahjahanabad in Delhi – a feat impossible to achieve without hands.
Newschecker also found an article by Scroll which aims to debunk this and similar myths surrounding the Taj Mahal. Talking about the myth about cutting off the hands the article states “It’s a story that got attached to the Taj Mahal at some point, as if something so beautiful could not exist without a dreadful shadow, and has made its way into the popular conception of Mumtaz Mahal’s mausoleum.”
The article also mentions that “had an outrage like this occurred, we would have heard it from European chroniclers.” The article concludes that Shah Jahan commissioned many projects in various cities, which employed the best artisans of the time. It is likely that the artisans moved to one construction site after another. It goes on to say “Chopping off their hands would have meant having to find a huge number of craftspeople proficient in the same techniques. And good workers weren’t any easier to come by in those days than they are today.”
To further investigate the claim that Shah Jahan cut off the hands of those who built Taj Mahal, Newschecker team reached out to historian Najaf Haider, Professor, Centre for Historical Studies at JNU and an expert on medieval Asian history.
Prof Haider rubbished the claim that Shah Jahan cut off the hands of those who built Taj Mahal or blinded the masons and artisans involved in making the monument. He said, “Shah Jahan had a great love for architecture and there is no evidence or logic to support this claim.” He added “the Taj Mahal was considered a holy place for Shah Jahan where he wished to be buried after his death. He would not have desecrated a holy place cutting off the hands of the artisans.” He further added that “there is no historical evidence to support this claim. Even after the death of Shah Jahan, there is no written record of such a claim.”
Newschecker also contacted Manimugdha Sharma, journalist, academic and author of ‘Allahu Akbar: Understanding the Great Mughal in Today’s India’. Regarding the myth he stated “Imagine the disgrace something like that would have brought the emperor who wanted to be seen as greater than his Safavid and Ottoman contemporaries.
Who would have worked for the Mughals again? But we know for a fact that the best of masons, calligraphists, jewellers, artists from Central Asia, Iran, the Ottoman Empire and even Europe came seeking employment in the Mughal court and were involved in various art and architecture projects.” He further added “Another similar tale that is being repeated now is that Shah Jahan imposed a moral code on his workers, never to work for anybody else again. This is patently false too. No other kingdom had the kind of wealth and resources that the Mughal Empire had, and nobody had so many building projects like them. So, where do you think artisans would have found the most number of jobs?.”
In his book Delhi, Agra Fatehpur Sikri: Monuments, Cities and Connected Histories (Pan Macmillan, New Delhi, 2021) author Shashank Shekhar Sinha, who is an independent researcher and trained historian who has earlier taught history at the University of Delhi, writes:
“Another popular myth is that Shah Jahan killed the architects and workers who built the Taj. Other versions mention that the emperor got their hands chopped off
and their eyes gouged out or had them thrown into the dungeons of Agra fort, so that no one would be left to build a second monument like that. Other non-violent versions of this myth say that the emperor paid them handsomely and signed an agreement with them that they will never build a monument like that again. Taking away someone’s ability to work in future also means ‘chopping off the hands’ in
popular usage – this is how some [tourist] guides explain the story. This story again has no historical basis and such tales are a part of folklore surrounding monuments in many cultures, including England, Ireland, Russia and parts of Asia.”
According to our investigation, the age-old perception that Shah Jahan cut off hands of those who built Taj Mahal is not backed by evidence. The statement made by Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar is based on a myth and not evidence.
Historian, Najaf Haider
Author, Shashank Shekhar Sinha
Author, Manimugdha Sharma
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