Why the Taj Mahal is at the center of India's cultural wars

Construction of the Taj Mahal was completed in 1643.

Story highlights

  • A controversy is raging over the monument's place within Indian culture
  • Critics allege Hindu nationalists are trying to revise history

New Delhi (CNN)The Taj Mahal is India's most popular tourist attraction and its most recognizable architectural icon.

To outsiders, the building is an emblem of India, an impossibly romantic structure that stands alongside Peru's Machu Picchu and China's Great Wall as a true wonder of the world.
But within the country itself, a controversy is currently raging over the monument's place within Indian culture, after it was excluded from an official government tourism brochure.
The recently published 32-page glossy booklet, the title of which translates as "Uttar Pradesh Tourism: Unlimited Possibilities," highlights numerous landmarks throughout the northern Indian state. Yet the Taj Mahal, famously built in the 17th century by Muslim Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, is conspicuous by its absence.
Initial attempts by the state government, which is controlled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to downplay the decision as a "non-issue" has done little to quell concerns.
Indian Tourism Minister Alphons Kannanthanam has also dismissed the controversy, stating that the Taj Mahal was "India's pride."
For many, the monument's exclusion is evidence of a creeping Hindu nationalism intent on revising the South Asian nation's cultural history.
"(The omission of the Taj Mahal) is pathetic and petty, but also depressingly characteristic of the party in power," prominent Indian historian Ramchandra Guha told CNN.
"Their xenophobia and chauvinism have damaged the plural, accommodative traditions of the Indian Republic. Acts such as this deepen the damage while further shaming India in the eyes of the world."
Muslims pray during the Eid al-Adha festival at the mosque inside the Taj Mahal in Agra on September 13, 2016.

What is Indian culture?

For the BJP's critics, the fact that the Taj is located in Uttar Pradesh (UP) state is instructive.
In March this year, the BJP named hardline Hindu priest Yogi Adityanath as UP's chief minister, after the party won state polls held earlier in 2017.
Since assuming power, Adityanath has repeatedly derided the importance of the famous monument, noting in June that "(the Taj Mahal) did not represent Indian culture," while in July, the monument was excluded from the state's heritage plan budget, with funding instead being allocated to various Hindu pilgrimage sites.
At an event in Bihar in June this year, he annou