A tale of two cities… and one woman

Luminous Agra and unkempt Burhanpur. Syed Amir on the ties that bind

A tale of two cities… and one woman
In one of his celebrated poems, Nobel-Prize winning poet Rabindranath Tagore referred metaphorically to the Taj Mahal as “a teardrop glistening spotlessly bright on the cheek of time.” Over three-and-a-half centuries have passed since this majestic monument to love was built by Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his beloved wife, Arjumand Banu Begum (Mumtaz Mahal), who died giving birth to their fourteenth child.

The Taj Mahal was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1983 and draws an estimated three million visitors a year. Despite constant care and repairs by the Indian Department of Archaeology, its translucent marble floors and spacious pavilions have been showing signs of wear and tear, losing some of their former pearl-like radiance. Apart from the heavy human traffic, some blame also goes to the toxic industrial fumes that emanate from industries in the vicinity, although this has reportedly abated.

Francois Bernier, the French physician who visited India in 1658–1669, during the reign of Aurangzeb, was amazed by the grandeur of the mausoleum and the abundance of inlaid precious stones he observed. In his book, Travels in the Mogul Empire, he effused, “Everywhere are seen the jasper gemstone, and Jachen or jade as well as similar stones that enrich the walls of Grand Duke’s palace at Florence.” However, this felicitous situation did not last long. In the prevailing anarchy that followed the collapse of the Mughal authority in the eighteenth century, the Taj was plundered by marauding militias who prised precious and semiprecious stones from the walls and, according to some reports, carried away the silver gates that once adorned its entrance.
East India Company officials rented out the two buildings flanking the Taj to newlywed couples for their honeymoons

In 1803, the East India Company, then under the command of General Lake, occupied Agra, but officials found no trace of the expensive drapes, carpets and other precious objects reputed to have bedecked the Taj Mahal. The jurisdiction of “John Company” over Agra, however, proved only marginally better than that of its previous unruly occupiers. Company officials, clearly indifferent to its exquisite beauty, rented out the two buildings flanking the Taj (the mosque and guest house) to newlywed couples for their honeymoons. And, occasionally, late-night dances were organized on the marble terraces, while a military band played at the lower levels of the building.

Lord Curzon, who served as the viceroy of India from 1899 to 1905, was a great admirer of the country’s historical monuments and is credited with their restoration and preservation. His letters are revealing: “At an earlier date when picnic parties were held in the gardens of the Taj, it was not an uncommon thing for the revellers to arm themselves with hammer and chisel with which they whiled away the afternoons by chipping out fragments of agate and carnelian from the cenotaphs.” He went on to proudly claim, “Every building in the garden enclosure of Taj has been scrupulously repaired and the discovery of the old plans has enabled us to restore the water channels and flower beds more exactly to their original state.”

Mumtaz Mahal, beloved of kings
Mumtaz Mahal, beloved of kings

Lord Curzon visited the mausoleum every year during his viceroyalty. As a token of his abiding admiration, he ordered the construction of a replica of an antique lamp he had seen hanging in a Cairo mosque for the Taj Mahal. The oriental brass lamp crafted by skilled artisans in Agra still hangs from the ceiling over the tombs of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan in the lower chamber. In one of his final speeches from the terrace of the Taj Mahal before leaving India, Curzon declared: “If I had never done anything else in India, I have written my name here and the letters are a living joy.”

While the story of the Taj Mahal is widely known and celebrated, what is less commonly noted is that the Taj was not Mumtaz Mahal’s original burial place and the site was not the first choice for her mausoleum. She was first buried in Burhanpur, now a midsize city on the Tapti River in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, where Shah Jahan considered building her tomb by the river. The idea was abandoned as unfeasible, based on doubts about the stability of the riverbed. Nevertheless, the story of how Burhanpur missed out as the final burial place of Mumtaz Mahal is fascinating.

After being captured by Akbar in 1601, Burhanpur became a regional Mughal capital and, during their numerous campaigns against the Deccan sultanates, it served as the headquarters and staging ground for military operations. During his reign, Shah Jahan spent considerable time here, always accompanied by Mumtaz Mahal. On one such occasion in 1631, he was camping in Burhanpur, mobilizing forces against a rebel chieftain, Khan Jahan Lodhi. The empress was as usual lodged in her three-storey, luxurious royal apartment, adjacent to a lake on which she liked to be rowed. Mumtaz Mahal was also expecting her fourteenth child.

In the intense heat of June, unexpectedly, she went into a thirty-hour-long labour. She died in the arms of her husband with her beautiful, eighteen-year-old daughter, Jahanara Begum, by her side. Shah Jahan was devastated. In an account cited by Annemarie Schimmel in The Empire of the Great Mughals, “His beard turned grey. He could not stop weeping for two years, so that his eyes grew weak. He wore mourning clothes all the time at first and then, later on, every Wednesday, the day of her death.” Mumtaz Mahal was initially interred in a rose pavilion in a garden by the Tapti River while a decision was made about where to bury her. After six months, her remains were transferred amid great pageantry to Agra, where she now reposes by the Yamuna River.

The fortunes of the Mughal Empire and Burhanpur were closely intertwined. As Mughal power waned, Burhanpur sank into obscurity and, in barely two centuries, the memory of its former glory receded from public consciousness. With crumbling buildings and rundown infrastructure, today it is a sleepy little town, forgotten in the mists of history, where few tourists ever come to visit.

Yet, there is still evidence of Burhanpur’s luminous past hidden behind its derelict façade. Recently, in an article published in the New York Times, a tourist described what he saw in the old Mughal capital of South India: “Behind its dirty, unpaved streets and open garbage dumps, Burhanpur hides an abundance of magnificent Islamic monuments dating back to the 15th century. We found in Burhanpur the ruins of a riverside palace; airy pavilions with intricately carved pillars; grand stone mausoleums with lattice windows that throw filtered beams of dusty light.” Today, the park where Mumtaz Mahal’s body was temporarily buried is in an especially sorry state, its grounds overtaken by shrubs and weeds “where wild goats and cows roam freely.” The first burial place of Shah Jahan’s beloved empress, the resplendent pink pavilion that might have been the location of the Taj Mahal, is now devoid even of a ceiling. Much like those of mighty empires, the fortunes of cities are also ephemeral.