If it was not for the family tragedy that struck the Mughals in 1631, Burhanpur would have been the capital of Mughal India. But, 388 years after Mumtaz’s passing, this town in southern Madhya Pradesh is oblivious to its luminescent past, and chokes in the dust and sand whipped up by the endless caravan of trucks passing through the town.
Burhanpur was the capital of the Farooqi sultans, and later the de-facto capital and a favourite of the Mughals south of the Yamuna. A city famous for its textiles, Burhanpur had looms that provided huge revenue for the Mughal princess Jahanara and her younger brother Aurangzeb. But the atmosphere of romance probably ended when the royal family lost two of its princesses here in quick succession. One was Mumtaz Mahal, the other Bilqis Jahan.
Lying 121 kilometres away from the Omkareshwar Temple, you’re bound to make pitstops on the way to Burhanpur. I also stopped at the Asirgarh fort, which was about half an hour from the city. With mossy growth on its massive walls and rampart, and with its several deserted alleys, the structure is a must-see. Once in Burhanpur, I put myself up at the MPTDC-run Tapti Retreat. Though the guest house was not extraordinary, it was still the best that the location could offer, and as a plus point, was at the centre of the old town. I was already late for lunch, arriving close to 3pm, but was pleasantly surprised when the in-house restaurant whipped up a spicy chicken curry and hot rotis.
I had been waiting past the seven endless phases of the Election for months until I finally began planning my holiday. Burhanpur had been the raison d’être, and I knew that a long and winding trip across the heart of the country would have to be centred on this city.
Burhanpur was majorly nurtured by Abdur Rahim Khan-e-Khana, the son of the great general Bairam Khan and one of Emperor Akbar’s nine Navaratnas. Many architectural wonders in the city, such as the Kundi Bhandara, stemmed from his ideas. He was also the man behind the famous Rahim ke dohe, so such creativity was not surprising. The Kundi Bhandara was an ingenious underground network of water tunnels that collected and transported water in channels from the Satpura mountains to over 100 wells in the city—a feat of medieval engineering. But the network is currently under threat from unplanned urbanisation and the ignorance of heritage. The lift which used to take the tourists 80 feet into the tunnels has also been non-functional for the past three years. As a result, the visit can feel incomplete in the absence of this subterranean journey.
A visit to Burhanpur is bound to evoke mixed emotions. In 2019, Burhanpur is an unfortunate showcase of public apathy, administrative indifference, and the lack of basic civic and sanitary planning—as visible from the filth overflowing onto the road and sidewalk. Man and animal live in spite of it and the mosquitoes in it, all having made peace with the omnipresent garbage.
But blissfully chaotic is the phrase which may amply describe Burhanpur now. If the days here are marked by broken roads, heat, puddles and dusty air, the evenings are reserved for mouthwatering stalls of tangy kebabs, fish fry, gigantic rumali rotis and sweets. I think Burhanpur sells the largest rumali rotis I’ve ever seen in India, in the rows
of stalls near the Jai Stambh that churn out oven-hot piles that are stacked layer upon layer. And later in the night, when the town sleeps, caravans of trucks chug along the ancient trade route, ferrying goods from ‘Hindostan’ to ‘Deccan’.
Being a Mughal city, Burhanpur ought to have good non-vegetarian restaurants. Unfortunately, there were not too many sit-in ones, save for the Sattar Mutton Hotel near the Jai Stambh. The food there was deliciously hot, spicy, creamy and fresh, and after many, many years of gorging at KFC, reminded me of what the best desi chicken fry should taste like—or how good a freshly-made mutton curry is. Once a simple family joint, Sattar is today frequented by mostly errants, bachelors and labourers in search of cheap meals. You can get a small plate of biriyani for as little as INR 60.
Burhanpur feels like a fort-style town, yet in many places those old walls have been taken down to make way for newer buildings. I learned that newer owners had drilled massive holes in the extant fort walls to create ventilators through which stale air may pass by. In other cases, the walls had been demolished simply to let a road pass through, or to set up shops, temples or government offices.
Lying however, among all this pervasive disintegration and dilapidation, are the stages for some of Indian history’s most significant events. To understand the present-day situation of the city, I started at the Badshahi Fort. Set along the Tapti, it is where Shah Jahan—then known as Prince Khurram—had his blind elder brother Khusrau strangled to death in the middle of the night. In killing his elder brother, Khurram had committed an unthinkable act, one that no Timurid prince had attempted in the last four generations. In crossing this Rubicon, as Ira Mukhoty in Daughters of the Sun puts it, descendants would know that “the Mughal throne had become worthy of any sacrifice”.
In 1631, it was again Burhanpur that heard the last cry of Arjumand Bano Begum, famously known as Mumtaz Mahal. Shah Jahan’s unending grief for his favourite wife almost found earthly expression on the grounds of Ahukhana, a pleasure mansion and deer hunting lodge built by his opium-addicted elder brother Prince Pervez. The Ahukhana currently lies across the Tapti River in the village of Zainabad. The area even today is known by the same name, although a new village called Ahukhana has also sprung up, leading the occasional tourist to confusion. Here, uncared for and forgotten among the sugarcane fields lies the Mughal queen’s first burial place. Mumtaz’s quarters though, have somewhat escaped the wrath of time and can be seen on the right flank of the Badshahi fort.
If the mausoleum for Mumtaz had been built at the Ahukhana instead of Agra, it would have been easily visible from the Badshahi Fort. But two unexpected roadblocks sprung up in the plan: one, the undependable supply of Makrana marble to Burhanpur, and two, the soft Tapti soil.
Thus, one of the most enduring engineering and administrative decisions took place: building Mumtaz’s rauza-i munawwara (‘illustrious tomb in a garden’) on the banks of the Yamuna. As a collateral damage of sorts, Raja Jai Singh would have to give up his fruit-tree-laden ancestral property on the Yamuna at Agra for the mammoth project that future generations would come to know as the Taj Mahal.
Today, no proper road leads to the Ahukhana. Mumtaz’s original resting place lies beyond recall, uncared and lost in the blinding glory of the marble ensemble at Agra. Mud trails through fields, village garbage and buffalo sheds across the river in Zainabad end up at the gate of the Ahukhana. But the good thing is that Burhanpur has other important monuments of importance, such as the Tomb of Shahnawaz Khan, the Chhatri of Jai Singh I, the Jama Masjid built by the Farooqi dynasty, and Mahal Gulara. Shahnawaz Khan lies buried in a black mausoleum, locally known as the Black Taj, while Mahal Gulara was once a spot for moonlit rendezvous for the heir apparent to the throne of Hindustan.
The widespread destruction and disintegration of the monuments and the city leaves one fatigued, and this is when the cool walls of the Jama Masjid seem to invite you in. It is an unusual mosque, with a bilingual mihrab written in Sanskrit and Arabic that points towards the Kaaba. Sitting beside the mosque’s still pool, into which a neem tree leans over, I took a few quiet minutes to myself and contemplated how a city so cherished and loved by one generation could be degraded and deprived by another.
I came to Burhanpur with the enthusiasm and curiosity of a traveller. But what I beheld over a period of two days made me desolate. Here lies a town forgotten by time and people. Unloved, it has grown like the adolescent Aurangzeb, who when he did not receive care, turned his wounds outwards with waywardness and harsh acts. Burhanpur is breathed melancholy, a love lost, a world forgotten. A city of sand, dust, broken roads and ravaged walls. What remains with you after a visit is a mournful heart, a realisation of man and the miniscule, and the ephemeral nature of a mortal’s hands.
Will I muster the courage to go back, ever again to Burhanpur? It will be a difficult journey in terms of heart, but the reply will be a yes. I truly believe that perhaps someday all the garbage will be cleaned, the roads repaired, the drains cleared of the silt, public restrooms built and traffic regulated.
Some day, the tomb of Shah Nawaz Khan will get a proper road, and the Ahukhana will have a sign board, and I will return to soak in the romance and charm of the past. To soak in the pain of loss still reverberating at the Ahukhana. And to soak the last bit of roti in Sattar’s delicious mutton curry. Burhanpur serves as a poignant reminder to us, that in more ways than one, it was not at Shahjahanabad or Agra, nor by the conquests of Shivaji or Nadir Shah, but by the hands of the sons of Timur, that the seeds of disintegration in Mughal India were finally sown.
Burhanpur is around 180 kilometres from Indore, the nearest airport. Trains arrive at Burhanpur in Lalbagh, while buses are also available from nearby cities like Omkareshwar, Ujjain, Dhar and Bhopal.
However, the best option would be to rent a car from a nearby city. The historical sites in Burhanpur are scattered all over, with no public transport specifically catering to them. Thus, there’s nothing like having a car for comfortable navigation.
WHERE TO STAY
There are no luxury hotels in Burhanpur, but one can board in lodges and guesthouses. The Madhya Pradesh Tourism-run Hotel Tapti Retreat (from INR 1,690; 07325-242244; tapti@mpstdc. com) is six kilometres from the railway station, provides decent accommodation, and has a good in-house restaurant.
One could also opt for three-star hotels in nearby cities, such as the Hotel Castle Inn in Khandwa (from INR 2,500 for doubles including breakfast, plus taxes; 0733-2224116) or the Sailani Island Resort in Omkareshwar (from INR 6,990 for doubles, including three meals a day, plus taxes; +91-8349002393).
WHAT TO SEE & DO
>Try Burhanpur’s famous mawa jalebis, Khandeshi daraba, and mande (handkerchief-thin rumali rotis, a local speciality) with lip-smacking Mughlai curries.
>Enjoy the paintings and carvings at Shahi Qila, and see Mumtaz’s royal hammam.
>Visit the Ahukhana, the Black Taj, the Kundi Bhandara, and Burhanpur’s Jama Masjid.
>Take a short road trip and hike up to the top of the Asirgarh fort. Set in the Satpuras, it is surrounded by lush greenery and offers uninterrupted views.
>Take a stroll through the serene Dargah-e-Hakimi tomb complex, a pilgrimage site for the Dawoodi Bohra community.