In 1899, when Lord Curzon sailed to India as viceroy, he lugged along not only his famously imperious temper but also a catalogue of administrative proposals. “The government of India," he sniffed disdainfully, “is a mighty and miraculous machine for doing nothing"—and so everything, from railway networks to telegraph rates, found itself on his corrective desiderata. A committed votary of Britain’s “civilizing mission", the man was certainly determined to leave his mark. But what made Curzon unusual even by his own overzealous standards was his concern for a subject otherwise low on the imperial programme. “In the past we have scandalously neglected this (particular) duty," complained the viceroy, “and are now only tardily awaking to it." And so, he would take a personal interest in the matter and ensure that this state of affairs was promptly rectified.
It was the state of India’s monuments that so vexed Curzon, and he allocated not only money and physical resources to their repair but also much of his viceregal energy. Indeed, admiration for his tenacity emerged from unlikely quarters. “After every other Viceroy has been forgotten," Jawaharlal Nehru declared, for instance, “Curzon will be remembered because he restored all that was beautiful in India." Curzon stood out even among his fellow Englishmen, though it was not always approval that he received from the latter. But the viceroy’s resolve was firm. “If there be anyone who says to me that there is no duty devolving upon a Christian Government to preserve the monuments of a pagan art or the sanctuaries of an alien faith, I cannot pause to argue with such a man," he announced. To Curzon, art and architecture were “independent of creeds". They were marks of human genius and born of the “common religion of all mankind". That alone was enough to justify his actions.
While the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), till then desperately starved of funds, was at last provided a respectable place in the official scheme of business, there was one particular monument that captured Curzon’s fullest attention: the Taj Mahal. To be fair, he was not the first British governor general to be seduced by Shahjahan’s creation. As early as 1834, Lord Bentinck had devoted attention to this structure, noting how “in a country where we have erected no monuments, it is a satisfaction to see that the Taj is at least cared for".
Curzon himself beheld the Taj long before he was installed as viceroy. Visiting Agra at the end of the 1880s, he was transfixed. He studied the mausoleum at dawn and gazed upon it in moonlight. “The Taj," he wrote ecstatically thereafter, was “the most beautiful building raised by human hands in the world". When he looked upon this “entrancing spectacle", it overwhelmed him so much that he had to “shut my eyes" and take some moments to compose himself.
In general, Curzon could get violently furious when he saw the condition of some of India’s monuments. One contemporary recorded his “untiring activities, in spite of sun and heat", and “long climbs among the ruins". One day, they came across “one of the most beautiful Moslem buildings", somewhere in the north. In it they found, of all things, a post office, and “the Viceroy in his indignation ordered the whole staff to quit on the spot". But despite such episodes, nothing received the budgetary largesse Curzon allocated for Agra—about £50,000, which was nearly half the total earmarked for the subcontinent as a whole. Some of his “reforms" could even be eccentric. In the Taj, for instance, he had all the attendants dress up in “Mogul" uniform, and even as he was on his way back to Britain (in relative disgrace after the fiasco that was the partition of Bengal), he stopped in Cairo to commission an ornate lamp to hang over the grave of Mumtaz Mahal.
But Curzon was also all about order and efficiency; a certain geometric exactness that was as rigid as the steel girdle that kept his damaged back straight. The British never possessed riches that would allow them to construct in India anything surpassing the Taj—instead, they left their mark on the existing structure by stamping as many changes as were possible. For Curzon, this came in the form of redesigning the gardens. From his palatial residence in Kolkata, he barked orders at the local authorities. “I think the removal of the flowers and the substitution of simple grass in the plots bordering the water-channel…is an improvement; but I think the cypresses are planted too thickly." The British had already removed the traditional fruit trees and started replacing them with plants of botanical and aesthetic appeal. But Curzon went further so that even in the 1930s there were complaints about his innovations. Indeed, the viceroy was so possessive that Sir Herbert Baker couldn’t make up his mind whether Curzon cared for the Taj as a “lover or a child".
In general though, as Eugenia W. Herbert notes, the viceroy’s principle was simply: “When in doubt, plant grassy lawns, then decide whether shrubs or flowers should be added." He did seek a certain continuity with Mughal styles (of which, incidentally, he knew little) and at one time had a number of “garish English flowers" removed. But, all the same, he transformed the Indian gardens around the Taj—with its large apple, guava and other trees, whose produce was sold in local markets—into a park that was more in consonance with European tastes. In this, he was guided entirely by his own conviction, and the fact that he did not trust local hands: “I have supervised and given orders upon every single detail myself," he noted on one occasion. Local talent was “destitute of the faintest artistic perception; and if left to themselves, will perform horrors that make one alternately laugh and weep."
Thanks to Curzon, many of India’s monuments received a new lease of life. But while it won the villain of Bengal unlikely adulation from nationalists, he himself saw only the Taj as his beloved. Even “if I had never done anything else in India," he recorded in 1905, “I have written my name here (in Agra)"—a quite literal claim since the Cairo lamp was inscribed with his name. And these letters, he finished, were to him “a living joy".
Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015) and Rebel Sultans (2018).