Taj Mahal and the Planning Commission

By Anjum Altaf

The Taj Mahal was the nub of the argument in a recent opinion by Dr. Nadeem ul Haque on the Planning Commission (Should we have a planning commission? The News, November 3, 2015). I feel both sides of the argument were misplaced and am elaborating my view in keeping with the exhortation of the author to “let the debate go on.”  

Dr. Haque quoted Khawaja Asif as saying that “If there had been a Planning Commission the Taj Mahal would not have been built!” He then retorted by writing: “First, let us tell Khawaja Asif that he is very right. Taj Mahal, an ageing emperor’s whim, should not have been built in any case. The Planning Commission was built to keep such whims in check.”

There are two questions at issue: Should the Taj Mahal have been built? And: What is the role of the Planning Commission? In addressing these questions both sides have lost sight of the most crucial ingredient in any debate – the context.

I suppose what one would like to see across time is the avoidance of outlandish projects. In the context of its time, that of the age of monarchy, the Taj Mahal was not at all outlandish. In fact, it was quite the norm – from the time of the Pharaohs, kings and emperors built mausoleums for themselves. The only difference as far as the Taj Mahal was concerned was that it was particularly elegant – truly a marvel of aesthetics and architecture.

It is also misleading to say that there was no planning commission in the age of monarchy – the advisory body just assumed different forms. In fact, the caliber of the nauratans in Akbar’s court far exceeded that of those who pass as ministers these days. There is little doubt that emperors sought the guidance of their advisors but it is more relevant to recall that in those times all wealth and property belonged to the monarch who ruled by divine right – the monarch was not answerable to anyone for his or her choices.

Under the norms of monarchy, it was perfectly acceptable to build the Taj Mahal. Ironically, even if a Planning Commission had been present, it would have congratulated itself for approving the construction. Over its lifetime, it has generated far more in tourism revenues than its cost – something a Planning Commission is intended to ensure. Not just that, it has become an iconic symbol of India, making the country known in the farthest corners of the world. The payoff to the project has been huge.

In that light, similar investments in pyramids, cathedrals, mosques, palaces, and forts during the age of monarchy are what constitute the cultural heritage that is a huge draw for modern-day pride and pleasure. To write them off as whimsical is to be both ahistorical and short-sighted.

The above notwithstanding, we have moved on to the era of representative governance in which the wealth of the nation belongs not to the state but to the people to whom the state is accountable. So, contrary to what Khawaja Asif implies, the state is not entitled to build a Taj Mahal today without the consent of the taxpayers.

This is not to say that a Taj Mahal cannot be built in our time. It can, as long as the builder is using his or her own money to do so. For example, Donald Trump can quite lawfully build the Trump Taj Mahal (note the value of the name) in Atlantic City, Ahsanullah Moni can build one in Sonargaon, Mukesh Ambani can build an Antilia in Mumbai, and our own rulers can construct palaces with gold-plated faucets in various places. No one can object except to question the taste and the sources of wealth in some instances.

But the state or representatives of the state cannot make such edifices using the money of taxpayer. In our times, these would be outlandish projects and the Planning Commission is intended to prevent them by keeping the monarchical proclivities of our rulers under control.

And that brings us to the real issue – the fact that under a representative cloak our rulers continue to harbor monarchical tendencies and ambitions. It is very hard for them to submit to the control and accountability of citizens or of institutions designed to act as watchdogs on behalf of citizens.

The fact that the state controls the appointment of officials to such institutions renders the latter ineffectual. The further fact that most officials appointed to such institutions themselves aspire to become part of the darbar puts paid to any remaining institutional effectiveness. Given this contextual reality, there is really no point in having the kind of hobbled and crippled planning commission that we have today.

Dr. Haque is also quite right in his observations about the foreign donors who are supposed to assist with projects in Pakistan. Most of their representatives assume the mentality of colonial governors who know better than the natives what the natives should get. They are just as impatient with watchdog institutions as the native rulers.

In order to keep in check the anachronistic tendencies of our native rulers and foreign benefactors, a planning commission acting on behalf of citizens is essential. However, expecting the one we have to fulfil that function is to be completely unrealistic. What we need is a People’s Planning Commission, a set of experts appointed by civil society, to rigorously evaluate and critique all projects proposed by the state. In our neo-monarchical era citizens have to strive for creative ways to protect their interests.

This opinion appeared in The News on March 25, 2016 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

  • sohailkizilbash
    Posted at 17:39h, 25 March Reply

    Good suggestion though it will fall on deaf ears.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 23:52h, 26 March Reply

    The logic put forth for the Taj Mahal being a useful investment is questionable. The Taj Mahal’s specific fame is driven more by the the love story said to be behind its construction and the Anglo encounter with it, which made it popular in the dominant English speaking world.

    There are many other buildings from the Persian school, like Naqsh-e-Jahan, which have architectural splendor matching or even exceeding that of the Taj Mahal, but lack the other two factors. So the fact that the Taj Mahal today makes a net profit for India is mostly coincidence, many other similarly elegant buildings are lying in neglect.

    It is also interesting that the ‘Taj Mahal’ is seen as a ‘symbol’ of India, even though the philosophy behind its architecture is very different to traditional Indian schools which emphasize infinite self symmetry and diversity.

    “In Hindu architecture and folk paintings from many regions, there is an attempt like in Islamic [and Christian] architecture to convey the monistic all encompassing nature of the divine. What makes the Hindu concept different is that monism is always expressed through an incredible diversity of densely clustered, infinitely repeating forms rather than the stark, open geometry of a Mosque. It is by being overwhelmed by an unfathomably vast array of stimuli that you see the monistic whole, which encompasses all of them. This is the aesthetic expression of the Hindu view of the universe. It is difficult to find it in many Westernized Hindu art, architecture, or interior design, which have adopted “sophisticated,” clean, European aesthetics, in which paradigm Hindu aesthetics is cluttered, outdated, and gaudy.”


    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 17:37h, 27 March


      1. What of India would have been known without the Anglo encounter?
      2. I am eager to know about the other more elegant buildings that are lying in neglect and to learn why they are lying in neglect.
      3. The Taj Mahal may not be Hindu architecture but it is still Indian, isn’t it?

    • Vikram
      Posted at 15:15h, 07 April

      1. Since Europeans were the first to get their hands on the scientific method and systematic knowledge production, your argument would hold for virtually any non-European society. Almost everything that we think we know about China, Indonesia, Japan and Iran is shaped by their contact with Europeans.

      2. Till recently, Humayun’s tomb was in a bad condition, until renovated due to a grant by the Aga Khan foundation.

      3. The Taj Mahal is owned by Indians because it was built by Indian hands, with Indian money, and most importantly the story behind it was Indian. The kind of love that the Taj Mahal is based on is one of devotion, along the lines of Ram-Sita, and Parvati-Shiv. Shah Jahan had a Rajput mother, so he would have been familiar with these stories. This is most likely the reason there is no such building (in terms of the story behind it) in Central or West Asia, despite the similarity of architectural traditions with Mughal ones.

    • Kabir Altaf Mir
      Posted at 12:16h, 08 April

      The Taj Mahal is “owned” by Indians only because it is located on the territory of the current day Republic of India. Otherwise it is a Mughal monument (Not an “Indian” monument). It is exactly like the Shahi Kila or Noor Jahan ka makbara in Lahore, which are also not “Pakistani” monuments but Mughal monuments. Let’s be accurate about history. The Mughals were the apex of the high culture of India and Pakistan. That is just the fact.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 15:39h, 08 April

      Mughals were simply a Central Asian clan who happened to constitute a major chunk of the ruling family of of late medieval North India. But the Taj Mahal was built with Indian money, and is currently maintained by Indian money, so yes it is owned by Indians. I am sure people in America dont classify certain bridges and dams ‘Obama monuments’ or ‘Bush monuments’, simply because they were the president when they were built.

      Also your ideas about ‘apex of the high culture’ are simplistic. A culture does not become ‘high’ simply because it is adhered to by the wealthy and powerful.

      High culture of India can be found in the Ramayana, Upanishads, life of the Buddha, Sikh kirtans, Bauls of Bengal and so on …

    • Vikram
      Posted at 16:32h, 08 April

      In any case, this is a silly argument for us to get into. It doesnt really matter if the Taj Mahal belongs to Indians or not.

      The basic point is that, in terms of its architecture, I dont think it qualifies to really be a symbol of India.

    • Kabir Altaf Mir
      Posted at 18:12h, 08 April

      What you are saying is that the “high culture” of India is essentially Hindu culture and therefore the Taj cannot qualify as a symbol of India. I am sure that view is held by some but there are also others who do not subscribe to it. Note the title of Professor Harbans Mukhia’s book published by Blackwell in 2004 – The Mughals of India – which lays ownership to the Mughals. There have been many great periods in Indian history and the Mughal period is generally included among them by a lot of people.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 16:28h, 12 April

      Well, my point about the Taj is that it is not Indian architecture, it is Persian architecture. What is wrong in acknowledging this ?

      Insisting that the Taj or the Victoria memorial are ‘Indian’, just because Europeans think they are pretty, takes our focus away from understanding and thinking about actual Indian architecture.

      I dont see how Sikh kirtans are part of ‘Hindu culture’, although they are certainly Indic. In any case, I include qawallis like ‘Bhar do Jholi’ by Purnam Allahabadi as Indian high culture, shared with other South Asian countries.

    • Kabir Altaf Mir
      Posted at 02:13h, 13 April

      There is such a thing as Indo-Persian architecture or Indo-Islamic architecture. Whatever you want to call it.

      Qawaali is hardly high culture. High culture is Hindustani Classical (khayal), Urdu shayairi, kathak dance, and Mughlai cuisine. High culture has always been defined as that of the elites (or those who were cultured). So in Europe, it is opera, ballet, etc. Hindu high culture would be Bharatnatyam etc.

      Things like Qawaali and other folk religious genres are mass culture.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 04:42h, 13 April

      “There is such a thing as Indo-Persian architecture or Indo-Islamic architecture.”

      There might be. But the Taj Mahal is not an example of it. Its design principles are overwhelmingly Persian, and the Indian accruements minimal.

      Acknowledging this is not communalism or anything like that. It merely frees one from being bound to a particular understanding of beauty, and pay attention to other expressions, which in this case are more local. Then instead of trying to prove that this building is Indian, we can think about why actual Indian buildings were built they way they were.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 08:16h, 28 March Reply

    You need to visit Lucknow to know if accountability stops people from making Taj Mahal like monuments, Mayawati had no probem at all. She shifted a prison from prime location, turned it in to Ambedkar monument of mind boggling scale. You might have come across pictures of hundreds of life size elephant sculptures in another park. Now two state governments are in competition viz Gujarat and Maharashtra each building a statue of Sardar Patel and Shivaji respectively of gigantic scale costing about Rs 2000 crore each.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 15:03h, 28 March

      Anil: You raise a valid point. I have heard of these modern-day monuments. A few thoughts come to mind and I would like you to identify which one is more plausible.

      It is possible that the instruments of accountability are not working so that our modern political representatives are no different from the monarchs of old. They do what they please – some good and some horrible things.

      Or, the instruments of accountability are working and these are the kinds of monuments that the majority of citizens want for reasons beyond our comprehension.

      I suppose electoral verdicts might be able to provide one answer. If this is not what people want they should vote the leader out of power. If so, we have to decide whether our electoral processes are flawed or whether they are more complex than we believe.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 18:46h, 12 April Reply

    Kabir, let me try and express my contention through an analogy.

    Wealthy Gujarati Hindus in the US are funding the construction of this temple in New Jersey, http://tinyurl.com/gofh5zu

    Suppose the world starts believing the Hindu norm of beauty as the ‘standard’. Will we then say that this temple is an American building that is a symbol of American architecture ?

    I hope you can see how absurd that is. Yet, the same claim made with respect to the Taj Mahal and India sounds completely reasonable to many people.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 10:55h, 13 April

      Vikram: I find your criterion of local versus foreign to be very problematic and I think you will realize it if you push your Gujarati temple analogy further. The Empire State building is considered an iconic American building but it is the creation of white Europeans who arrived in America less than 500 years ago. By your logic it cannot be local. The claim to American buildings can only be made on behalf of the architecture of native Americans.

      This way of creating an artificial time divide between ‘actual’ and ‘non-actual’is favored by purists. In real life, architecture and aesthetics evolve by mixing. In that sense the Taj is an Indian building in the Persian style.

    • Kabir Altaf Mir
      Posted at 19:19h, 13 April

      I don’t see why we are discussing the “Hindu” norm of beauty. This is about national origin, not religion. The Taj Mahal is a Mughal monument located in Agra, which happens to be currently in the Republic of India. Thus it is an “Indian” monument. As far as art historians go, they refer to things by their era. In which case the Taj is a “Mughal” monument in the Indo-Persian style. You yourself made the point that Shah Jahan’s mother was Rajput. So he was at least 50% genetically Indian. Just because his father was of Turkic stock, you are going to refuse to accept him as an Indian monarch? Does Indian only mean Hindu? I think that is the crucial question.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 15:28h, 15 April Reply

    I am not denying whether Indo-Persian, or Indo-Muslim architecture exists. I am just not sure why art historians are classifying the Taj Mahal as Indo-Persian.

    “Does Indian only mean Hindu ?”

    Politically, not at all, and this is quite clear. In terms of culture and expression, I would say this is mostly true.

    If you took Indo-Islamic culture, and placed it in the context of the Muslim world, what would make it distinctive are the elements derived from Hindu traditions.

    This is of course, also true for other major Muslim groups such as, Persian Muslims, Indonesian Muslims and Turkish Muslims. But in most of these major Muslim groups, almost the entire population has become Muslim, and so claiming the ancestral culture has become a simpler task. The only serious obstacle to overcome is Muslim conquest, or the period of rejection of the old culture, which is not too hard. Look at how strongly Persians cling to the memory of the Achamenids and the Sassanids.

    But in India, the situation is different. There is already a claimant to the ancient culture, who is also more demographically preponderant. This also means that the ancient culture is not dead or fossilized, but constantly evolving. All this complicates the situation considerably.

    • Kabir Altaf Mir
      Posted at 21:04h, 15 April

      The shalwar kameez is an “Indian” dress right? So is the sherwani and the achkan. Yet, these are actually Indo-Muslim clothes. Prior to the arrival of Islam, the “natives” of the Indian subcontinent were wearing un-stitched clothes like dhotis and saris. So any time that Indians wear shalwar kameez, it is because of Muslim influence. In many ways, one could argue that North India’s culture is an Indo-Islamic culture. Perhaps not so much in the south, excluding Hyderabad Deccan. I think trying to go back to some pristine “ancient'” culture prior to Muslim arrival is futile. Even Modiji’s outfits are basically Muslim (kurta pajama).

      I think it was you that pointed out that most Indian Muslims are descendants of converts. In that case, isn’t the “ancient” culture their own culture anyway? Certain rituals have been replaced by rituals based on Islam, but that is it. This idea of “purifiying” a pristine culture seems like the mirror image of Pakistanis trying to de-Indianize ourselves and become more “authentically” Muslim (i.e. Arab).

    • Vikram
      Posted at 03:32h, 18 April

      “Prior to the arrival of Islam, the “natives” of the Indian subcontinent were wearing un-stitched clothes like dhotis and saris.”

      Kabir, the Sanskrit term for tailor is saucika, ‘one who lives by his needle’. Both Arabic and Chinese sources attest to Indians wearing stitched clothes ( including Sanskrit ‘kurtaka’: from which modern day kurta is derived ). In addition, we have pictorial evidence of Indian women wearing cholis (see here: ) long before Mohamed was even born.

      The pyjama was worn by Central Asians, who were the political masters of India for nearly 700 years. Often subject populations, especially those in close proximity to the masters adopt their clothing habits. This is why some urban Indians adopted the pyjama. Note that the vast majority in the country side, still wears dhotis and lungis, which is the natural clothing for the hot weather of India.

      Note that the same trend was followed again when India was colonized by Westerners, and urban Indians started wearing pants, wearing which in hot, humid India makes no sense at all. So the things that you are calling ‘influences’ are more properly described as aping the group in power, which is a characteristic found throughout subjugated societies.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 03:44h, 18 April

      “Certain rituals have been replaced by rituals based on Islam, but that is it.”

      This is certainly not the case. Because it coincided with political domination, conversion to a non-Indic faith has been accompanied by a progressively large cultural shift away from Indic culture to a Persian/West Asian one. In a nutshell,
      Sita becomes Humaira, Sitapur becomes Fatimabad, and so on. The whole psychological, cultural and philosophical orientation changes. Historical reference points change dramatically.

      Think about the role of the Shahnameh in the lives of modern Iranians, and Mahabharata in that of Indian Muslims, and you will see my point.

    • Kabir Altaf Mir
      Posted at 17:41h, 18 April

      Why should the Mahabharata have any role in the lives of Indian Muslims? It is a specifically Hindu religious epic. The Shahnameh in contrast is a book of stories of kings and princes. There is no religious aspect to the Shahnameh, as far as I am aware.

      Punjabis on both sides of Wagah still hold dearly to Heer/Ranjha. Sindhis on both sides still hold dearly to Sassi Pannu. I don’t think the change of religion is really as significant as you make it out to be. Our Pakistani Muslim shaadis are still like North Indian shaadis. Except we don’t do saath pheras, we have an imam conduct a nikah. But all the mehndi/ dholki stuff is straight out of a Bollywood movie.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 15:48h, 21 April

      Kabir, Zoroastrian beliefs are an important part of the Shahnameh: http://richardfrye.org/files/Continuity_of_Zoroastrian_Beliefs_in_Iran_as_Expressed_in_the_Shahnameh6.pdf

      It is widely accepted that the traditions of pre-Islamic Iran are central to Persian identity, and there is a lot of scholarly work how the adoption and construction of Shia Iran was to recenter the Iranian worldview away from an Islamic identity to a Persian one.

      I dont think weddings and Bollywood movies (which Pakistanis in any case consider ‘Urdu’ and not Indian) are merely events and entertainment, and not deep indicators of civilizational affinity.

      Much more central are the names people keep for their children, the literary and poetic traditions they draw inspiration from, the script they write in and their vocabulary. Please see here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urdu#Vocabulary

      And all these point to a Persianate ethos among North Indian and Pakistani Muslims. And I am in no way saying this is bad or wrong or anything like that, only that it should be ackonwledged and we should stop insisting that the Arab and Persian are somehow also Indian.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 15:51h, 21 April

      Also, note that there are Jain and Buddhist versions of the Mahabharata. The Mahabharata was simply a collection of historical tales, and all religions adopted it to propagate their ideas.

      And the Mahabharata is central to the culture of Indonesian Muslims, they actually search for it more than Indians.

    • Kabir Altaf Mir
      Posted at 19:52h, 21 April


      You say weddings are merely “events”. I disagree. There is deep significance for many people in the mehndi and haldi rituals. These are Indian rituals and not based in Islam. Islam only requires a nikaah, not the mehndi ceremony or the rukhsaati/bidaai etc. Deep down, Pakistanis and North Indians are still basically the same people. Certainly, Punjabis on both sides are the same people.

      I don’t understand why you expect Indian Muslims to care deeply about the Mahabharata or the Ramayana. They have seen it on TV like other Indians. They know who Ram and Sita are. That’s enough. Why should they be deeply involved with stories that have zero to do with their Islamic faith? The Ramayana is just as significant as Harry Potter to Muslims.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 13:37h, 26 April

      “Deep down, Pakistanis and North Indians are still basically the same people. Certainly, Punjabis on both sides are the same people.”

      This might be true in many important ways. But the sharing of culture among Hindus and Muslims is not uniform. The shared traditions arose mainly at the peasantry level. For rural societies, marriages would be the key event in social life. But things change as we move up the social ladder or into an urban milieu.

      This is when questions of language, script, historical reference points become much more salient. And the divisions that these questions produce, is quite clear.

      “I don’t understand why you expect Indian Muslims to care deeply about the Mahabharata or the Ramayana.”

      I never said I expect them to. I was only pointing out that they dont, and was contrasting this to the attitude of Persian Muslims (who do care deeply about the Zoroastrian Shahnameh) and the Indonesians (who care deeply about the Hindu Mahabharata). Why do you think this difference exists ?

    • Kabir Altaf Mir
      Posted at 17:06h, 26 April


      I think Indian Muslims and Pakistani Muslims don’t care about the Hindu religious epics because of the political developments over the last century. Certainly, post Partition, there is a tendency in Pakistan to re-write history and make us out to be much more Arab/Middle Eastern than we are in reality. This is the school of thought that believes such absurd things as Pakistan was created the day Muhammad Bin Qasim conquered Sindh. In India (from what I can observe as a non-Indian), there is a growing tendency to “otherise” Muslims and minimize our contribution to (North) Indian culture. This will provoke a reaction in Indian Muslims.

      Also as a counterpoint, Indian Hindus don’t care deeply about Hazart Umar, Hazrat Ayesha, or the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). If they don’t identify with the important figures of Islam, Indian Muslims have no need to identify with Ram and Sita either.

      This doesn’t mean that we don’t appreciate the Ramayana as literature. But for us, it’s just a good story. It has no other significance.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 11:51h, 16 April

      Vikram: The model you seem to have in mind is that of a prior culture and a later culture. The point you are making is that in India the prior culture is not dead or fossilized but constantly evolving. The implication seems to be that the two cultures are evolving separately in isolation from each other. I doubt if any scholar would support this model. Cultures evolve not in isolation but in interaction with each other.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 04:04h, 18 April

      The model is of a foreign, politically dominant culture, and a native, subjugated culture. There is interaction, however the role of the native culture in this interaction is merely one of a supplicant. Consider the amount of Sanskrit vocabulary in Urdu (bare essentials) versus Arabic and Persian, more than 50% (all words carrying deep, significant meaning).

      And this carries on to the question of script as well. Consider this para from the linguist Robert King’s paper on the Hindu-Urdu script controversy, http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/myl/llog/King2001.pdf :

      “While the graphemic fit of the Devanagari script to the phonemics of Hindi-Urdu is very good, that of the Perso-Arabic script in either of its variants is poor. The script is extremely deficient in the vowel category – no surprise, since Arabic has no graphemes for vowels. The same symbol
      is used to spell /a/, /i/, /u/, /e/, /o/, /E/, and /c/. Diacritics are available to dif€ferentiate the vowel qualities, but they are not often used except for children and beginners in the language. As for the consonants, Urdu “has an overabundance of consonant symbols” (Kachru 1987: 475). This is
      true provided the full set of diacritic marks normatively specified for writing Urdu is employed, which is not always the case. For example, the same basic symbol is used to denote the phonemes /p/, /b/, /t/, and /.t/, and diacritics are added to di€fferentiate them. The same is true for other sets
      of sounds such as /s/, /sÏ/, /sv/, /z/, the stops /k/, /q/, and /3Ï /, /cÏ/, /h/, /x/. If the diacritics are omitted, then the writing system is under-diff€erentiated almost to the point of unreadability except for the most adept.”

      And this unnaturalness of Arabic script for Indian sounds is manifest in the lower literacy rates for Pakistani Punjab, lower than even that of UP, despite the former being much wealthier.

      Arabic script apologists will no doubt point to the various changes in the script for Urdu versus that for Persian and Arabic as an ‘interaction’. But this ignores the elephant in the room, the profound number of native scripts that could do the job much, much better.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 12:52h, 19 April

      Vikram: In India today, what do you consider the dominant culture and what the subjugated one?

      Your association of literacy rates with script is unscientific. There are many other inputs that determine literacy levels. Take simple examples: literacy rates in rural Punjab are lower than those in urban Punjab; literacy rates among women in urban Punjab are lower than among men. Why, when the script for all categories is the same? Countries with very difficult scripts like Chinese have achieved full literacy. I am surprised you believe that a script can prevent attainment of full literacy.

      What is the job that native scripts can do much, much better? Which native script can do it best? Why not select that native script for all purposes?

      Scripts can always be adapted to convey sounds. Even Devanagari has been adapted to do so for the now very Indian sounds like ‘z’,’gh’ and ‘f’.

      By the way, English has one of the most idiosyncratic writing systems. Consider the following words – rough, bough, through, thorough – and yet there is full literacy in England and it is the dominant language in the world many countries going to the extent of replacing their own scripts with the Roman script.

      Also, I feel you should break down the monolith of culture a little. For example, there are differences between cultures in India that are both horizontal and vertical. This will help answer questions about the dominant and subjugated cultures reflected, for example, in the change of name of Gurgaon to Gurugram.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 15:57h, 21 April

      “For example, there are differences between cultures in India that are both horizontal and vertical.”

      Are these differences only found in India ? Or is it essential that one reduce native Indic traditions to hierarchy and suppression to legitimize their replacement by Western and Islamic ones ?

      Regarding Gurugram, I am afraid that we are lapsing into the absurdness pointed out by Sufiya Pathan that I referred to earlier. And by the way, there are many villages named after Eklavya in India, he is after all a character from Indian mythology, with good and bad sides, just like Drona.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 18:54h, 21 April

      Some time ago you had pointed out that the game of cricket clearly delineates the South Asian region from other regions.

      In the same way, the preponderance of Brahmic writing systems clearly marks the Indic world from other civilizational systems.

      Writing systems are much more stable that spoken languages. Unlike vocabulary, where an individual may choose a mixture of words from Sanskrit, Prakrit and Perso-Arabic to give rise to a diffuse class of spoken forms, the distinction between Arabic and Indic scripts is sharp.

      In the 1800s, North Indian Muslim elites insisted that Urdu in the Arabic script be the sole official language of UP. This can be seen as a strategy to ensure that their economic and social status remained above that of the natives. Rafia Zakaria says,
      “The statistics told the story: “while Hindus and Muslims represented respectively 24.1 and 63.9 per cent of the clerks in the subordinate executive and judicial services in the United Provinces in 1857, the share of the former rose to 50.3pc in 1886-7 and 60pc in 1913 while that of the latter [dropped to] 45.1 and 24.7pc in the same period.” The numbers, quite simply, tell the story, a strain of the narrative that Jaffrelot correctly identifies as crucial to the separatist movements that would eventually lead to the creation of Pakistan.”

      This view however overlooks an important point, more than 85% of the population of UP was Hindu. Does it make sense to demand that a majority population be denied the right to use its scripts and languages, and a small minority group be privileged ?

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 09:59h, 21 April

      This book should be worth reading: Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court by Audrey Trushke, Penguin

      A review is here: http://onlineepaper.asianage.com/articledetailpage.aspx?id=5238274#

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 09:25h, 25 April

      Vikram: When I read this article (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/05/12/was-there-always-an-england/) I wondered how you would interpret it with your model of “a foreign, politically dominant culture, and a native, subjugated culture. There is interaction, however the role of the native culture in this interaction is merely one of a supplicant.”

    • Vikram
      Posted at 13:25h, 26 April

      The article is pay walled.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 13:02h, 27 April

      Vikram: It should be readily accessible at your university or public library. It is worth reading.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 03:55h, 24 April Reply

    About Urdu having plethora of Persian/Arabic power words, I have to say this, if this had not happened then both Hindi and Urdu would have remained KhaRi Boli and would NOT have acquired classical language status that they have today. A classical language needs power words to express ideas and thoughts with clarity and precision. Fiction and poetry, to some extent, can do without power words but critical writings and essays need mint condition words to make an impression and express thoughts with clarity. Commonly used words have multiple meanings therefore ideas expressed through them lack precision. We should be happy that both Hindi and Urdu borrow heavily from Sanskrit and Farsi so that they are both now classical languages.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 18:34h, 24 April

      Bengali has classical language status, and as much, if not more literature than Hindi and Urdu, yet its borrowings from Persian and Arabic are minimal. Listen to any modern Bengali song, movie or television show, and you will see how frequently Sanskrit words occur.

      Urdu does not borrow heavily from Sanskrit in a deliberate sense. Only 25% of its words come from Sanskrit, and these are mostly for grammatical reasons, words like ‘kar’ (Skt karma), ‘aap’ (Skt aatma), ‘jaanta’ (Skt gyaan) and so forth.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 10:16h, 25 April

      I didn’t mean Urdu borrowed from Sanskrit and Hindi borrowed from Farsi. The point I was making is that without borrowing power words both would be one language and it would NOT be a classical language. The trajectory followed by Urdu and Hindi ( Urdu borrowing from Farsi and Hindi from Sanskrit) was inevitable for them to become two classical languages.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 14:14h, 27 April Reply

    “Also as a counterpoint, Indian Hindus don’t care deeply about Hazart Umar, Hazrat Ayesha, or the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). If they don’t identify with the important figures of Islam, Indian Muslims have no need to identify with Ram and Sita either.”

    Kabir, I understand what you are saying. But I would still be interested in understanding the spiritual and moral inadequacies in Ram, Sita, Kali and Buddha that have led to their replacement by Muhammad, Umar and Ayesha by Indian Muslims.

    Also, I would be interested if you could point me to figures like that of Karna, Gandhari and Meghnad in the Muslim tradition.

    • Kabir Altaf Mir
      Posted at 16:43h, 27 April

      Why do there need to be “spiritual and moral inadequacies” in Ram, Sita etc? It is enough that they are figures alien to the tradition of Islam. They may be interesting mythological figures for Muslims but they are only as interesting as Hamlet, Ophelia, Lear etc. Basically, fictional characters.

      Hazrat Ayesha, Hazrat Umar, and the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) were, on the other hand, actual historical human beings as well as the founding figures of our religion.

      I think we have said what needed to be said. I don’t understand this need to insist that the figures that are revered by you should be revered by the minority community as well. We have our own revered figures which clearly don’t matter to you. Let’s live and let live.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 22:28h, 27 April

      “I think we have said what needed to be said. I don’t understand this need to insist that the figures that are revered by you should be revered by the minority community as well.”

      Never meant to say this. I was just trying to understand how the loss of reference points occurred in the first place. Think Dr. Altaf has answered my question below.

      And the objective of asking about Karna and Gandhari like figures was that I feel that it is these characters that are really interesting. And I would like to see how other civilizations dealt with the situations that these characters were put in.

    • Kabir Waheed Altaf
      Posted at 22:16h, 30 April


      I don’t know enough about Karna and Gandhari to be able to identify similar characters in Persian or Arabic literature. I have a vague understanding of the story of the Mahabharata, though I have read the Ramayana.

      You may find this piece from Scroll.in to be of interest:

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 15:08h, 01 May

      Kabir: The second illustration in the text shows Gandhari. Hopefully Vikram can inform us of her significance in the Mahabharata.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 17:01h, 27 April

      Vikram: I find the following statement puzzling: “But I would still be interested in understanding the spiritual and moral inadequacies in Ram, Sita, Kali and Buddha that have led to their replacement by Muhammad, Umar and Ayesha by Indian Muslims.”

      Islam emerged in Arabia amongst people who probably had no idea of Ram, Sita, Kali or Buddha. They were much more familiar with Judaism and Christianity and that is reflected in Islamic texts. I am reasonably sure Muslims arrived in India without any real knowledge about Ram, Sita, etc. During the subsequent centuries a part of the native population accepted Islam but, seeing the strata of society in which most conversion took place, I would doubt this was on the basis of some deep study about the adequacies or inadequacies of Ram, Sita, etc. That question could be asked more validly about the conversion to Buddhism of an educated intellectual like Dr. Ambedkar. In any case, a large component of the conversion from Hinduism to Islam took place during the British period in the peripheral regions of the Empire which strengthens the argument that the reasons for conversion were not some theological comparisons but more complex politico-economic ones.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 22:31h, 27 April

      “the reasons for conversion were not some theological comparisons but more complex politico-economic ones.”

      Dr. Altaf, I agree with this. I think there will be a lot easier to make peace if all parties accept this reality.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 02:50h, 28 April

      Vikram: Here is one interesting perspective on the issues of conversion by Richard Eaton: http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/sj6/eatonapproachconversion.pdf

    • Vikram
      Posted at 06:56h, 29 April

      Thank you for sharing this. Eaton’s approach seems entirely reasonable, and for the case of East Bengal, I think he has a very good explanation.

      For Western Punjab and the Saraiki region, his explanation seems less satisfactory. There is considerable evidence that these areas were integrated into the Hindu literary world. Perhaps, the strongest piece of evidence is the Multan sun temple, which was an important place of pilgrimage for Hindus from all regions well into the 2nd millennium CE.

      Eaton operates in a Dumontian view of caste, and hence Hinduism, and therefore neglects the fact that integration into the Bhakti traditions was much more important for sustaining Hinduism than Brahminical ones.

      I feel it is the weak impact of the Bhakti movement in these regions that explains the later religious demography.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 17:43h, 05 May Reply

    Kabir, since you have mentioned that Pakistanis enjoy Bollywood and we have been talking about Gandhari, I thought it would be worthwhile how one of the defining ideas in Bollywood is rooted in her story.

    Iconic Hindi movies like ‘Mother India’ and ‘Deewar’ revolve around a mother-son relationship, where at a critical moment, despite the mother’s deep affection for her son, she either kills him or condemns him to death because he disobeys the law.

    Gandhari had a similar relationship with Duryodhana. He was her eldest son, and she loved him dearly. Due to her selflessness and virtue (displayed in her relationships with her husband and others), Shiva grants her the power to give anyone the boon of victory in the Mahabharata war (vijaye-bhav). But she never gives him this blessing or aashirwad, practically ensuring his defeat (if not death) in the war.

    The parallel with Radha and Sumitra is clear.

    Hope Pakistanis realize that Hindi cinema is much more than a few Farsi inflected songs and Punjabi wedding dances.

    • Kabir Waheed Altaf
      Posted at 20:31h, 05 May


      That is very interesting. I feel, however, that such stories can probably be found in all cultures around the world.

      As for Hindi cinema, I think we Pakistanis appreciate it because so much of our own culture is reflected in it (the joint family system, the food, the clothes, etc). And yes, as you mentioned, the Punjabi wedding dances.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 11:17h, 06 May

      Kabir, that is certainly true. All long standing traditions contain narratives of sacrifice, virtue and other qualities.

      It is however, up to the leaders to emphasize these values, especially in times of stress.

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