The Derbyshire connections to the Taj Mahal
PUBLISHED: 12:14 14 February 2019
Peter Seddon considers the long-forgotten love affair of Lord Curzon with world-famous landmark the Taj Mahal
In February ‘the month of valentines’ there can be no more appropriate subject for our ‘Monumental Musings’ slot than the beautiful structure known as ‘the world’s greatest monument to love’ – India’s stunning Taj Mahal.
But hang on. It’s a long way from Derbyshire. In the interests of veracity we need a valid connection. Enter Lord Curzon of Kedleston – the Last Viceroy of India – for it was his passionate determination to preserve the monument for posterity that has enabled millions of wide-eyed visitors across the years to enjoy its splendour.
A running pet theme of ‘Monumental Musings’ is that a small part of Derbyshire awaits discovery almost anywhere in the world. So welcome to the shimmering Taj Mahal – in the illustrious company of an aristocratic statesman born amid the pastoral splendour of Kedleston Hall.
The Taj Mahal (meaning ‘Crown of the Palaces’) sits above the bank of the Yamuna River in the Indian city of Agra. The ivory-white marble mausoleum is exactly what the description suggests – a tomb complex. It was commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a magnificent final resting place for his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal after she died giving birth to their 14th child.
When Shah Jahan died in 1666 his own tomb was placed alongside that of his wife in the centrepiece of the 42 acre site. As a symbol of enduring love between partners it is considered without equal anywhere in the world. Construction of the principal structures took 11 years, but other phases of the project continued for a further ten. At its final completion in 1653 its cost was estimated at 33 million rupees – some £700 million in today’s sterling equivalent.
In 1983 the Taj was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site as ‘the jewel of Muslim art in India and one of the universally-admired masterpieces of the world’s architectural heritage.’ In 2007 it was declared a winner of the ‘New Seven Wonders of the World’ and today attracts some eight million visitors a year.
Yet it could so easily have become a crumbling ruin – looted for its valuable artefacts and building materials and ravaged by the elements. Over the passing centuries – long before formal agencies for conservation were widely-adopted – it fell into sorry disrepair. By the end of the 19th century it still stood – but like a precious piece of furniture riddled with woodworm, it needed urgent attention to ‘stop the rot’ lest it go ‘beyond repair’ for all time. Quite simply its future lay in the balance.
But no-one had stepped forward. As Queen Victoria’s reign as Empress of India drew towards its close, the fabric of the structure had been quite seriously damaged. And the once-tranquil surrounding gardens had become a pitching ground for squalid bazaars and sundry mendicants. Specimen ornamental trees had grown way beyond scale, obscuring planned architectural vistas, and traditional water features lay dirty and stagnant.
The complex did attract visitors, but without strict controls or attendant respect. The central mausoleum, intended to be sacrosanct, served as a theatrical backdrop for receptions and events – and adjacent buildings including a mosque were let out as ‘honeymoon cottages’. More akin to brash ‘love resort’ Niagara Falls than a tender ‘monument to romance’ – the magnificent Taj Mahal had become a tawdry shadow of its original conception.
The decline had occurred on the watch of many regimes embracing diverse and disparate rulers and contrasting political and religious ideas – latterly that of the British Empire. Had the Taj deteriorated into oblivion under British rule, the annals of history would undoubtedly have looked upon the sorry endgame as a shameful act of betrayal and neglect to India. But that didn’t happen – the Last Viceroy Lord Curzon halted the ravages of time.
George Nathaniel Curzon was born at Kedleston Hall on 11th January 1859. His childhood was said to be most unhappy, ruled by a brutal governess. As a young man, after studying at Oxford University he travelled extensively, in particular in the Far East and India.
He wrote a number of books on his experiences and cultivated a genuine passion for the history, art and architecture of the places he visited. Having also taken a keen interest in politics he was elected Conservative MP for Southport in 1886.
In 1891 he became Under Secretary at the India Office and took a similar role in the Foreign Office in 1895. In 1899 he was appointed Viceroy of India and stayed in post until 1905. The heavy responsibility of governing a population of 300 million was fully understood by Curzon: ‘A ruler’s throne,’ he once said, ‘is not intended to be a divan of indulgence, but the stern seat of duty.’
By great coincidence his Government House residence in Calcutta proved something of a ‘home from home’. Erected in 1803 it was closely-modelled on Robert Adam’s 1763 design for Kedleston Hall.
In the course of his duties Curzon visited many ancient sites, and was often perturbed at the neglected state he found them in. After one such visit to the run-down Taj Mahal he determined to return it to its former glory. Between 1900 and 1908 some £50,000 was spent on the work – both the government’s and his own money. Curzon’s most personal gesture from his own pocket was the commissioning of two huge hanging lanterns to illuminate dark interior areas. One carried an inscription in Persian – ‘Presented to the Tomb of Mumtaz Mahal by Lord Curzon, Viceroy, 1906.’ There’s that small piece of unexpected Derbyshire….
Curzon also remodelled the gardens, introducing the British-style lawns which remain a vivid trademark of the Taj today. One of his smaller legacies later became the focus of world attention – he designed the bench on which Lady Diana was famously photographed sitting alone in 1992.
The Taj was just one of a number of sites restored under Curzon’s tenure. Prominent among the others was the Mughal palace-city of Fatehpur-Sikri, now an integral part of the ‘Golden Triangle’ itinerary experienced by legions of tourists.
After returning to England Curzon filled a number of key offices. In 1917 he served in Lloyd-George’s war cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in 1919. Twice married, he died at his London home in Carlton Terrace on 20th March 1925, aged 66.
When his body in its coffin of Kedleston oak was carried through the streets of Derby, after a spectacular funeral at Westminster Abbey, shops closed, curtains were drawn, and people fell respectfully silent – a spontaneous tribute to one of Britain’s most able diplomats and one of Derbyshire’s favourite sons.
Lord Curzon was buried inside All Saints’ parish church adjacent to Kedleston Hall – the tomb topped by white marble effigies of both Curzon and his beloved first wife Lady Mary. It sits in a small memorial chapel which Curzon had specially commissioned in her honour after she died in 1906 aged just 36. He joined her after his own death and they now lie there together for posterity.
The poignant serendipity with the much grander Taj thousands of miles distant is hard to deny. This was not lost on the sculptor of the effigies Sir Bertram Mackennal, who explained the tomb’s ethos: ‘My task was to express as might be possible in marble, the pathos of his wife’s premature death, and to make the sculpture emblematic of the deepest emotion.’ Among other fine monuments to Lord Curzon’s memory are striking statues in Calcutta and London.
Yet today his legacy divides opinion. Perhaps most remarkably – given the universally-accepted beauty of the Taj Mahal and the diversity of its admiring visitors – Curzon’s very act of preservation has been sometimes denigrated.
Writing after her own visit, controversial television classicist Mary Beard suggested the Viceroy’s ‘love of conservation’ was disingenuous: ‘No doubt Curzon’s restoration was inspired solely by an imperialist vision of the Indian past, and therefore “bad” for that reason.’ But evidently not all ‘bad’, for Beard concluded – having ‘experienced the most wonderful view from the best hotel there is’ – that she enjoyed her visit immensely.
Others are quite willing to accept that Curzon’s act of restoration was inherently ‘a good thing’. And they consider he had a genuine passion for Indian art and architecture, citing many examples of his personal correspondence as evidence.
Another telling perspective emerged from key voices in India. Jawaharlal Nehru – the first leader of independent India – proved particularly fulsome: ‘After every other Viceroy has been forgotten, Curzon will be remembered because he restored all that is beautiful in India.’
But irrespective of the contrasting narratives one thing is unequivocal – the Taj Mahal did survive, and has since brought a great deal of pleasure to countless millions. If Lord Curzon had garnered even a meagre ‘fiver’ for every satisfied visitor to the glimmering edifice he saved, he would be a very much richer man in death than he ever was in life. As it is, the richness of his love affair with the Taj has devolved to the world at large.