The Outrageous Life of P.N. Oak: The Teacher, Soldier, and Conspiracy Theorist Behind The Taj Mahal Row
Earlier today, the Allahabad High Court rejected a petition seeking to determine the history of the Taj Mahal
Earlier today, the Allahabad High Court rejected a petition seeking to determine the history of the Taj Mahal, one of the seven wonders of the world.
Filed by Rajneesh Singh, a BJP-youth media leader, the petition asked for 22 doors, which are shut, within the monument to be opened, on account of there being proof that the Taj Mahal was in fact erected on the grounds of a Hindu temple.
The court dismissed the plea, stating that “The issues lie outside court and should be done by various methodology and should be left with the historians.”
“Tomorrow you’ll come and ask us to go to chambers of Hon’ble judges? Please, don’t make a mockery of the PIL system,” the court concluded.
As far as the historians go, the Archaeological Survey of India also responded in kind:
“Various records and reports that have been reviewed till now haven’t shown the existence of any idols,” said a senior official. “The petitioner’s claim of 22 rooms being permanently locked is factually incorrect as conservation work – including filling of cracks, re-plastering and anti-ageing treatments – are periodically done.”
Constructed nearly 400 years ago, the marble structure of the Taj Mahal certainly comes with its own storied history; it is a royal tomb, after all. So where exactly did Singh find the claims that found their way into this petition?
There’s a small hint in the actual document — the name P.N. Oak — which found itself into a courtroom after 22 years.
Who Is P.N. Oak?
In Singh’s petition, there’s a paragraph that cites P.N. Oak as a ‘historian’ to back up his claims.
The real Purushottam Nagesh Oak was quite an interesting character. Born in 1917, in Indore, Oak’s autobiography is full of odd contradictions that warrant a certain degree of cautious skepticism.
Firstly, there’s the odd claim of him being spoken to in various languages by various people. According to Oak, his father – an upper-caste Marathi Brahmin — only spoke to him in Sanskrit, while his mother stuck to English, his relatives Marathi, and his townsfolk Hindi. Raised in this self-claimed multilingual environment, he then went to achieve a B.A. from Agra University and M.A. LL.B courses at Bombay University, before working as an English tutor at Fergusson College, Pune.
Oak Joins the INA
Oak clearly had a deep sense of patriotism. After one year of working at Fergusson, he signed up with the Indian National Army and was posted in Singapore at the age of 24, where the INA skirmished against British forces, joined by Japanese allies.
This was a particularly interesting time for Oak, who wrote an infamous play that captured a whole deal of attention on both sides of the conflict, titled Rani of Zanshi: A Play in Three Acts to commemorate the founding of Bose’s Rani of Jhansi women’s regiment.
According to accounts from a captured INA member named Dharam Chand Bhandari, plays were a massively popular way of drumming up support and enlistments for the INA – Bhandari himself divulged details about his own works Ekhi Rasta, Milaap, and Balidan, which spoke of British Raj brutality against Indians, Hindu-Muslim unity, and stirred hope in the INA’s cause.
When pressed for more by his British captors, Bhandari simply turned over a single document – a tattered copy of P.N. Oak’s play. While we’ll never know why exactly Bhandari sold out Oak, historian Dr. Gajendra Singh surmises two interpretations:
For one, Oak himself was on the run. As per his own account, he had skillfully evaded capture by skirting the border jungles of various countries on his way home to Calcutta. Perhaps Bhandari simply believed that Oak would manage to successfully slip past the British.
In contrast, however, is Gajendra Singh’s second idea — that Bhandari and other INA members were beginning to see problems with Oak. Later in his life – as we’ll soon come to see, Oak published various pro-Hindutva books and pamphlets that attempted to revise history.
While his arguments will come to range from arguing that the Taj Mahal was originally a Hindu Rajput palace to even claiming that Christianity was derived from Hinduism — the highly-secular INA would have certainly had issues with Oak’s views if they were shared earlier in his life.
Oak’s Return to India
Either way, Oak managed to resurface in India eventually – working primarily as a journalist between 1947 and 1974. He had joined the editorial staff of the Hindustan Times and the Statesman, as a Class I officer in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, and as editor in the American Embassy Information Service, all in New Delhi.
It was during this period that Oak began to publish his radical revisionist history ideas, starting with his lifelong obsession — the Taj Mahal.
While the book itself is very hard to find, Oak had definitively published The Taj Mahal was a Rajput Palace in 1965, which the above court petition was referring to. The book has, in fact, inspired several petitions in its favor ever since it was published, with Oak himself approaching the Supreme Court in 2000, who dismissed his request as ‘misconcieved’.
In the book, Oak constructs a theory that the Taj Mahal was originally built in 1155 AD by a Raja Parmar Dev’s Chief Minister, Salakshan. Several historians and architectural scholars, such as Giles Tillotson, have called Oak’s first book a work of ‘pseudo-scholarship’ filled with unsubstantiated claims and weak evidence. This is backed by the Indian Archaeological Survey, which has confirmed (now and in 2017) that no such theory is valid.
One of the interesting characteristics of Oak’s many theories is the abuse of comparative philology — the study of common patterns between languages to establish historical links.
In his Taj Mahal thesis, the original name of the structure was ‘Tejomahalaya’. This pattern was followed in many other works, such as when he argued that Christianity had roots in Hinduism, and was originally called ‘Krisna-ity’, a theory he published in 1979.
What Do the Experts Think?
Largely, Oak’s works have been described as ‘desperate’ historians have labeled the man everything from a ‘mythstorian’ to a ‘crack-pot’. Amusingly enough, art historian Rebecca Brown brought up the film Lagaan while critiquing Oak, saying that his ‘revisionist history [was] as subtle as Captain Russell’s smirk’.
Largely, Oak’s work serves as a poorly veiled method to incite cultural conflict by imposing Hindutva ideals over the faiths of Christianity and Islam. Despite years of honest, academically supported work by serious historians, Oak’s personal fictions continue to worm their way into courts – over half a century after they were written.
Oak, who passed away in 2007, at the age of 90, is survived by his wife, a son, two daughters and grandchildren.
(Featured Image Credits: Darsh Nishar, Public Domaina)