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Miss Universe Taj Mahal controversy points to India's varied views of the icon

Posted by Your Town  October 11, 2013 11:04 AM

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When it comes to pageants, more storms are brewing in that tea cup called business of beauty.

Miss Universe, Olivia Culpo, is facing charges for “disrespecting” the Taj Mahal. Culpo posed for photographers with branded shoes while sitting on the Diana Seat, a marble ledge in front of the white mausoleum named after the late British princess who visited in 1992.

Something that happened in 1992 is only recent history -- and by Indian standards, that is not even counted as history but a significant date a few decades ago. The latest research has put the date of the origin of the Indus Valley Civilization at 6,000 years before Christ, which contests the current theory that the settlements around the Indus began around 3750 BC. The monuments or physical structures of historical significance remain identifying markers of culture and is very much a part of life in India.

To talk a bit about the Taj Mahal: In 1612, Mumtaz Mahal was married to Shah Jahan, the fifth Mughal emperor. Mumtaz her husband were inseparable and accompanied him on his journeys and military expeditions. She was his comrade, his counselor, and inspired him to acts of charity and benevolence towards the weak and the needy. She bore him fourteen children, and died in childbirth in 1630.

The grief-stricken Shah Jahan was determined to perpetuate her memory for immortality and decided to build his beloved wife the finest sepulcher ever - a monument of eternal love. It was Shah Jahan's everlasting love for Mumtaz that led to the genesis of the Taj Mahal. The sad circumstances which attended the early death of the empress who had endeared herself to the people inspired all his subjects to join in the emperor's pious intentions. After twenty-two laborious years, and the combined effort of over twenty thousand workmen and master craftsmen, the complex was finally completed in 1648 on the banks on the river Yamuna in Agra, the capital of Mughal monarchs.

UNESCO declared it a World Heritage site in 1983. Today The Taj Mahal attracts from 2 to 4 million visitors annually, with more than 200,000 from overseas. Polluting traffic is not allowed near the complex and tourists must either walk from car parks or catch an electric bus.

From the Indian point of view the Taj Mahal is part of Mughal history. As an imposing historical structure it evokes the ideology and what academics call the constructed collective memory and the life style that has been proposed to the public. People form connections between themselves and the city through shared memory and this serves as a reminder of culture and place identity. This goes for any historical structure and defacing or destroying any historical structure anywhere in the world results in public outcry. Remember when the Lincoln Memorial was vandalized with green paint in July this year? When the perpetrator was finally in custody questions were raised about her immigration status and mental health.

Coming back to Culpo, the question is how the team that supports the Miss Universe franchise not be cognizant of the rules and regulations that ought to be followed in another country? Olivia Culpo was brought there on assignment and my understanding is that she was visiting India on work not leisure. Visitors must take off their shoes while visiting this mausoleum. Shoes are however allowed where Olivia Culpo was sitting but placing them on the seat which allegedly was done tantamounts to sacrilege.

Over the years the Taj Mahal has featured in many announcements or advertisements that have to do with India. It became the symbol of what India has to offer. To increase tourism India has also opened doors through relaxing visas for some countries at least. And foreign investment and brands have been let into the country which was not the case some years ago.

Photo shoots for different products have included the Taj, but according to the Archaeological Survey of India, “there are strict guidelines against any sort of branding and promotion at Taj Mahal” and Culpo’s photo shoot conducted was without prior permission.

Indian culture now struggles with varied perceptions of what life should look like - on the one hand is the space of a global, cosmopolitan culture and, on the other, the space of what is local. The need to be identified by a sense of belonging to a specific place sometimes wins over the global identity. And yet undoubtedly there is constant communication between each of the identities.

Culpo who through social media has expressed her awe and happiness of being in India has perhaps now opened her eyes to cultural norms different that are new to her. And India rejoices and cherishes every visitor as they step into the country. While she struggles to respectfully get out of this glitch, for Indian and Indians the struggle is to preserve historical markers of identity and re-representing them as public places for the world to enjoy. Struggles of different kinds – both have somehow to do with place, yours and mine.

Rajashree Ghosh is a resident scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University in Waltham.

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