The past is prologue to the present. The tragic events that occurred over three hundred years ago still
reverberate in modern India. The continuing conflict between Hindu and Muslim - and the creation of
Pakistan-can be attributed to the actions of Aurangzeb, the son of Shah Jahan and Arjumand.
All the characters in this novel-except for Murthi, Sita and their children-lived three
centuries ago, but I am sure that a man like Murthi lived and died building the Taj Mahal, along with
twenty-two thousand others.
There was a man named Isa who walked in the shadow of the great Mughal Shah Jahan.
Other than his name, nothing else about him is recorded.
When it was built, the great tomb in Agra was called the Mumtaz Mahal, but over the
centuries, with the erosion of time and memory, it has come to be known simply as the Taj Mahal.
The jail (screen) which surrounds the sarcophagi of Arjumand and Shah Jahan is considered to be
one of the finest works of sculpture in all India.
In my novel, the odd-numbered chapters cover the years 1607-30, and concern the lives
of Shah Jahan and Arjumand: their love, their marriage, and Shah Jahan’s eventual accession to the
throne. The even-humbered chapters take the story on from 1632-66 and describe the later years of
Shah Jahan’s reign: the building of the Taj Mahal, Murthis story, and Aurangzeb’s rebellion against
his father. Dates are also given according to the traditional Islamic system of dating from the
Prologue 1150/AD 1740
The world was thick with rain and it was not possible to tell night from day; they came and went
unmarked as if blindness had struck men and beasts. Nothing could be heard except the river,
roaring and thrashing like Siva’s monstrous serpent. The earth broke under its might and gave up
men, beasts, trees, homes almost gratefully, as if it could not bear their burden any more.
From under the great archway the ancient monkey stared out at the curtain of water that
fell. He had never witnessed such rage in his life, and in his squeezed cynical face, there was a gleam
of awe. His fur lay flat, streaks of dark rusty brown touched with grey, and where it had been torn
away revealing black patches of skin; teeth marks, old and healed, puckered the flesh into a grimace.
Huddled against the wall was his tribe of fifteen langours. He was not one of them. They were
elegant, slim and silvery; he was squat and ugly, but he had killed their leader and now they
worshipped him. He looked on them with contempt, and they accepted his authority submissively.
On all fours, he stalked out. The rain broke on his back, as if angry at his defiance, but instead of
retreating he moved down the steps into the neglected garden. His tribe, frightened of the storm,
frightened too of being abandoned, screamed and then, miserably, followed him. the old monkey
seemed unaware of the fury, examining the flooded fountains and the paving lying beneath the dense
undergrowth; he tugged at a shattered piece and tossed it into the fountain. His companions were
sullenly indifferent to their surroundings.
Under the wall, he sat back on his haunches and squinted up at the pure expanse of
whiteness that he’d noticed through the darkness. It rose, cliff-like, in defiance of the all-veiling night.
It seemed not merely to hold the blackness at bay, but to push it away so that there appeared an
aura between the walls and the night. He did not mount the steps but circled around, wary from old
habit. Reassured finally, he found a foothold in the marble and vaulted up onto the plinth.
There was an opening in the cliff, where the darkness had slipped in, and he followed it,
stepping daintily over the shattered marble that littered the floor. The rain too had entered, leaving
pools of water. He sniffed the damp and the desolation, caught too the sweet cloying of incense-he
did not like that-and then the smell of man, sour, distasteful. He was curious and unafraid. He walked
further, treading on crisp leaves and, seeing the carved screen convenient with holds, leapt nimbly to
the top, avoiding the gaps ripped in the fabric of marble. ‘Who goes!’ a voice called.
The monkey stiffened, listening to the mad tapping of the cane. A man emerged from the
lower chamber, emaciated, old, blind.
‘Ah, it is you. I can smell you. Come, you do not need to fear me.’ The tomb. The
monkey watched the man, knowing him to be blind and harmless, and his companions scuttled
around, shaking water from their soaked fur.
‘There is no food here. Only stone, and who can eat that? I have touched it all, and it is
cold and smooth, like the surface of icy water. I do not know what this place is, or why it was built.
Can you tell me, Hanuman?
The monkey scratched his chest and ignored the man. ‘You do not know yourself. For
you, like me, it is only shelter from the rain.
‘Murari has fashioned a stylish novel that brings to life the politics and intrigues of Mughal
When his queen Arjumand Banu-Mumtaz-i-Mahal, the Chosen One of the Palace-died,
Shah Jahan wanted to build a monument that was the image of his perfect love for her. For
twenty-two years, twenty thousand men laboured day and night to fulfil the emperor’s obsession.
The result was the Taj Mahal, a marble mausoleum lined with gold, silver and precious jewels.
This powerful novel narrates the story of the Taj on two parallel levels. The first one tells
the passionate love story of Shah Jahan and Arjumand till her death through the voices of three main
characters-Arjumand, Shah Jahan and Isa, Arjumand’s favourite eunuch. The second recounts the
later years of Shah Jahan’s reign, the building of the Taj Mahal and the bloody pursuit of the fabulous
peacock throne by his sons. Intertwined with the narrative about the building of the Taj is the story of
Murthi, the Hindu master craftsman sent as a gift to the emperor to carve the famous marble jail
around Arjumand’s sarcophagus.
In this complex and fascinating book, Murari has written much more than a historical
romance. He has skillfully recreated the period against which the story is set: the sensual opulence of
the palace and the grinding poverty of seventeenth-century India, the vicissitudes of Shah Jahan’s
reign and the often bitter conflict between men of different faiths.
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