Middle kingdom: Madhya Pradesh

Middle kingdom: Madhya Pradesh
Horse-drawn carriages are a common sight on the streets of Burhanpur, Photo Credit: Krishna Angira

Tucked away in a quiet corner of central India, Burhanpur was once a strategic outpost of the Mughal Empire

Nandini Mehta
April 08 , 2014
13 Min Read

"You are going to Burhanpur to write a travel article?” the passenger sitting next to me on the flight to Indore looks incredulous. “There’s nothing to see there except kapas, kapra aur kela (cotton fields, cloth and bananas).” “Bilkul,” agrees his companion, also an Indore businessman. “But what about those famous monuments from the old days?” I protest. “Yes, yes,” he replies with a derisive laugh, “In the old days Burhanpur was famous for four things — gadha, garda, garmee aur goristan (donkeys, dust, heat and graveyards).” The rest of the flight passes in silence.

From Indore, it is a five-hour drive to the town of the three Ks and four Gs. Our first impression of Burhanpur is underwhelming: a grimy town that does indeed display an abundance of gadha, garda and garbage too. The medieval city wall, which once stretched unbroken for nearly eight kilometres, has been knocked down in many places to make way for shops, roadside stalls and parking lots. But the owner of our hotel, who bears the resplendent name of Hoshang Havaldar, is bursting with pride in his hometown which he describes as ‘the place of the Five Wonders’. There are five things in Burhanpur, he tells us, that you won’t find anywhere else in the world: a mosque with a Sanskrit inscription; an ingenious underground water-supply system that still works; Empress Mumtaz Mahal’s hammam; a tomb with perfectly-preserved Shah Jahan-period frescoes; and a Granth Sahib signed in gold by Guru Gobind Singh himself.

We’re armed with a long list of places to see, but you need a knowledgeable local guide to take you through Burhanpur’s nameless galis, chaotic mohallas and desolate outskirts to get to them. We are lucky to find just such a person in Mohammad Yaqub Boringwala, a genial civil works’ contractor. Yaqubbhai briskly starts us off with a visit to the Jami Masjid in the heart of town. There are many things to admire about the Jami Masjid — the solid black basalt stone of which it is constructed, its beautiful proportions, the perfect geometry with which its ninety-six pillars and seventy-five arched capitals join to form the roof, the fine carving on the mihrabs. And then there’s the Sanskrit inscription, deeply chiselled into the hard black stone, which states that the mosque was built by Sultan Adil Shah of the Faruqi dynasty in 1590, and extols him as a just ruler and humble servant of Allah.

So who were the Faruqis? The dynasty was founded by a feudal chieftain of Firuz Shah Tughlaq, who declared his independence in 1382 and established the Khandesh Sultanate, which he ruled from Asirgarh Fort, twenty-two kilometres north of Burhanpur. In 1399, Burhanpur became the capital of Khandesh and remained under the Faruqis until they were defeated by Akbar, who annexed Khandesh in 1601. Thereafter, Burhanpur and its great fort of Asirgarh became a key outpost of the Mughal Empire, from where they kept control of the Deccan. A succession of Mughal princes and trusted courtiers were sent there to earn their spurs. Akbar placed it under the care of Abdur Rahim Khan-e-Khana, one of the nine jewels of his court, and also stationed his black-sheep son, Prince Daniyal, there, to be whipped into shape under Khan-e-Khana’s tutelage. Emperor Jahangir sent his sons Shah Parvez and Khurram (later Shah Jahan) as governors of the region, and so in his turn did Emperor Shah Jahan who placed his son Shah Shuja as the guardian of this strategically important Dakkan ka Darwaza (gateway to the Deccan). Both Daniyal and Shah Parvez died in Burhanpur (Daniyal of delirium tremens brought on by alcoholism; Shah Parvez probably assassinated by one of his brothers) and both lie buried here in crumbling, neglected tombs.

The Mughal emperor who spent the most time at Burhanpur, and left his unmistakable imprint on the town, was Shah Jahan. He embellished the Shahi Qila built by the Faruqis on the banks of the Tapti river by adding a diwan-i-aam and a diwan-i-khas — both now roofless ruins — and a splendid hammam. A rectangular marble hall with honeycombed domes, the hammam’s ceilings and walls are studded with paintings. Four centuries have taken their toll, the paintings have faded and flaked in many places, but enough remains to reveal an exquisite colour palette of lapis blue, coral, deep red, yellow, green and turquoise; and a profusion of roses, peonies, tulips and irises. Many of these floral compositions have been replicated in pietra dura in the Taj Mahal. In the midst of the flowers is a tiny painting of a domed structure with minarets — Burhanpuris proudly claim it was the first model for the Taj Mahal. At either end of the hammam are little water cascades (“hot and cold showers of those days,” explains Yaqubbhai) and in the centre a bathing pool which would be filled with perfumed water (“Mumtaz Mahal Begum could choose from gulab, kewra or khus”).

On June 7, 1631, two years after Shah Jahan became emperor, Mumtaz Mahal Begum died in Burhanpur in the Shahi Qila at the age of forty, giving birth to her fourteenth child. Local lore has it that the grieving Shah Jahan decided to build a grand white marble tomb for her right there, on the banks of the Tapti, but once work started it was found that the black soil of the region could not support the weight of the structure he had planned; there were also logistical problems in transporting the marble from Makrana to Burhanpur. Until the site in Agra was located, Mumtaz Mahal’s body was kept in the village of Zainabad, on the opposite bank of the Tapti, in a Mughal pleasure retreat called the Ahukhana (deer park).

First built as a sharaab-shikaar lodge by the dissolute Prince Daniyal, the Ahukhana was later developed by Shah Jahan as a walled Mughal garden, with water channels flanked by rosebeds, and a baradari at the far end of the garden. We make our way there on rutted roads, through dusty hamlets, tramping through fields of cotton and arhar dal, to find a near-ruin on an arid, weed-choked patch of land. Here, in an underground chamber, Mumtaz Mahal’s body lay for six months, embalmed with camphor, acacia and sandalwood, until her son Shah Shuja, by now governor of Burhanpur, had it transported to Agra.

Not long after, Shah Shuja buried his own wife, Bilqis Jahan, in Burhanpur — she too died in childbirth — and her tomb is said to have been built under Shah Jahan’s personal supervision. Standing in a dusty, unkempt graveyard, this exquisite little tomb is built on a flower-shaped plinth, and is locally known as the Kharbuja Mahal, because of its round, ribbed dome. Peer through its narrow entrance and you glimpse a garden of paradise — the walls and arches of the tomb chamber are aglow with flowers and vines and cypress trees in jewel-like colours, all in a miraculous state of preservation. Reader, Shah Shuja Begum’s tomb has to be one of the great unsung treasures of India, hidden away in this forgotten corner of Madhya Pradesh.

From the Kharbuja Mahal, we crisscross Burhanpur’s labyrinthine streets, its old gateways and sarais, its outlying villages and fields, to take in more medieval monuments. The imposing tombs of two Faruqi rulers boast fine calligraphic carving and stone jaalis, but are in an alarming state of decay. Better preserved is the strikingly elegant garden-tomb of Shah Nawaz Khan, son of Abdur Rahim Khan-e-Khana, which is locally known as the Black Taj. Scenically located at the confluence of the Tapti and Mohana rivers is the many-pillared and domed chhatri of Raja Jai Singh of Amber, Aurangzeb’s general, who died in Burhanpur in 1666 on his way back from a campaign against the Marathas in the Deccan. A forty-minute drive from here, on the Amravati road, past fields of banana and cotton, brings us to Mahal Gulara, a charming garden retreat set amidst pools of water, built by Shah Jahan for a favourite courtesan and singer, Gulara. The pavilions here too bear traces of intricate painting, but the Mughal waterways now serve as a dhobi ghat for the nearby village.

Then on to the Kundi Bhandara, the underground water-supply system built by that brilliant renaissance man, Abdur Rahim Khan-e-Khana, who spent thirty years in Burhanpur and shone as an administrator, soldier, scholar and poet (of Rahim ke dohe fame). Tapping perennial springs from the Satpura hills nearby, he laid three kilometres of thick clay pipes, running eighty feet underground, which still supply water to many localities in Burhanpur. What you get to see, however, is just some deep dark holes exuding warm, humid air. We now head to the Gurdwara Bari Sangat to see the Fifth and final Wonder of Burhanpur: the handwritten Guru Granth Sahib commissioned by Guru Gobind Singh during his six-month stay here, with his insignia in gold. But it’s displayed only once a month, and we’ve come on the wrong day.

It’s the right day, however, to visit the great Dawoodi Bohra pilgrimage site, the Dargah-e-Hakimi, an oasis of calm, order and impeccable cleanliness. Muharram is just over, and the dargah is thronged with happy families from Maharashtra, Gujarat and as far away as Tanzania and Uganda. The hundred-acre grounds enclose white marble tombs, green lawns, topiaried hedges, 450 guest rooms and a helipad where the 102-year-old Syedna (head of the sect) descends from time to time. The meals are free — and lavish — we are told, with “meedish and sweedish” served at lunch and dinner every day.

On our last day, we drive twenty kilometres north of town, on the Indore road, to find that Burhanpur has a Sixth Wonder, the magnificent, rugged fort of Asirgarh. Three layers of massive, fortified walls spiral for 2,000 feet up to the top of the hill. You can see why this impregnable citadel, which divides the valley of the Narmada from the valley of the Tapti, and affords a panoramic view of the Nimar plains as far as the eye can see, was the Mughals’ prized Gateway to the Deccan. Once Asirgarh housed 50,000 soldiers and citizens; today it is deserted and enveloped in eerie silence. There are three large water reservoirs hewn out of the rock; a black stone Jami Masjid built by Adil Shah Faruqi, almost identical to the one he built in town, with the same Sanskrit inscription; and a Shiva temple said to date to the pre-Faruqi time when the fort was ruled by Ahir chieftains. And in one corner, the ruins of a nineteenth-century barracks, and an overgrown British graveyard, the last resting place of several infants and young soldiers, the tombs long robbed of their bronze plaques and marble ornaments. The earliest grave here is dated 1810.

After the silence and stillness of Asirgarh, it’s a bit of a culture shock to return to the din of Burhanpur, with the incessant clack-clack of power looms (this is kapas-kapra territory, remember?), the clip-clop of horse-drawn tongas and the honking of speeding buses. The quieter side lanes look like giant cats’ cradles, with yarn stretched from one end to the other to be twisted into rope — another local industry. Amid the ugly façades of recent construction are crumbling havelis with fine woodcarving and grand stuccoed mansions — vestiges of Burhanpur’s more recent past, in the first half of the twentieth century, when this was a thriving town of textile mills, cotton-ginning factories and prosperous merchants. As we peer into Zafar Sheikh’s sprawling mansion, we are invited into the sitting room where a stuffed leopard and a tiger head, shot by our host, take pride of place. Once Zafar Sheikh was the bidi king of Madhya Pradesh, his factories producing forty lakh bidis a day, but business and fortunes have sadly dwindled now. Still, the tradition of old-world hospitality remains — I leave with a salwar-kameez and a bottle of ittar, gifted by his beautiful daughter Shagufta. It’s the same warmth and graciousness that we experience at Hoshang Havaldar’s hotel — his is now the only Parsi family left in town, where once there were fifty, all wealthy cotton traders and mill owners.

Havaldar and his friend, M.K. Gupta, a retired army doctor, run a passionate two-man crusade to revive interest in Burhanpur’s rich historical heritage. A keen collector and connoisseur of antiquities, Major Gupta shows us an exquisitely carved Sunga-period stone disc from the third century BC, found in the town during digging for a house construction. But Burhanpur’s history goes back even further, says Major Gupta as he shows us a photograph of one of his prize finds. In a village house, three kilometres outside Burhanpur, a large terracotta urn being used as a plant pot caught his eye — one side is etched with the figure of a double-humped Bactrian camel, the other side covered with inscriptions in what seems to be a mixture of Brahmi and Kharosthi. The villager found it when ploughing his field. The inscription is still to be deciphered, but it probably dates from before Ashoka’s time. “So much else must lie buried beneath the soil here,” says Major Gupta, “because Burhanpur, whose ancient name was Bhrignapur, was an important place through thousands of years of our history.” Until, over the last seventy years, it slowly fell off the map.

The information

Getting there:
Burhanpur is located in south-west Madhya Pradesh, close to the border with Maharashtra. BY AIR The nearest airports are Indore (180km) and Aurangabad (210km). I flew JetKonnect, a non-stop 1hr20min flight from Delhi to Indore. From Indore, it is a 5hr car ride to Burhanpur. BY TRAIN A major junction on the Central Railways, Burhanpur is well-connected by train (Karnataka Express, Punjab Mail) to major cities.

Where to stay:
Hotel Ambar, efficiently run by the hospitable and knowledgeable Hoshang Havaldar, has small AC cottages set around a large garden (Rs 1,250; 9424024949, hotelambarburhanpur.com). Or try the Tapti Retreat, run by MP Tourism Development Corporation (from Rs 1,690; 07325-242244).

What to see & do:
The Jami Masjid for its Sanskrit inscriptions; the Shahi Qila for Mumtaz Mahal’s hammam; Shah Shuja’s begum’s tomb, also known as the Kharbuja Mahal; the Black Taj or the garden-tomb of Shah Nawaz Khan; the domed chhatri of Aurangzeb’s general, Raja Jai Singh of Amber; the Mahal Gulara, a garden retreat built by Shah Jahan; the Kundi Bhandara or the underground water-supply system; Asirgarh Fort; and the Gurdwara Bari Sangat for the Guru Granth Sahib, which carries Guru Gobind Singh’s insignia in gold. Also visit the Ahilyabai Temple and the Moti Mahal, a charming little palace built by Shah Jahan for a favourite courtesan — both are at the base of Asirgarh Fort. In Burhanpur town, the serene dargah of Hazrat Shah Bhikari, a Sufi pir of the Chishti order, is a major pilgrimage site.

In the neat bazaar outside the Dargah-e-Hakimi, you can buy excellent papad made in local Bohra homes, and be fitted out in a rida — that ankle-length frock-cum-hooded cape that Bohra women wear. I restricted my shopping to a beautiful tablet made of clay from Karbala, calligraphed with the words ‘Ya Hussain’. Recommended guide: M. Yaqub Boringwala (9826453574)

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