New Delhi, Sept. 20 -- In 1922, a naval officer called Louis Mountbatten proposed to a fabulously wealthy woman called Edwina Ashley in Delhi. Both in their early 20s, they had known each other only a few months, but were determined to spend their lives together. The day after Edwina accepted, her fiance diarized how they had "motored out to King Humayun's enormous tomb, which we saw at 3am by moonlight". It was all "wonderful and romantic", and, a month later, they made another trip to the 16th century mausoleum. This time, however, the bride-to-be was less impressed. "Edwina having just.seen the Taj Mahal," wrote Mountbatten, "was full of scorn for this poor little tomb."

In some respects, the incident is reflective of the heady but al...