Having grown up in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and lived in Agra, the Taj Mahal was a familiar sight to me. I had visited it innumerable times but I had never spared a thought for Burhanpur where Mumtaz Mahal had died and had been initially buried. It was in search of her first burial place that I went to Burhanpur and as someone whose spirit is in tune with ruins, was rewarded with riches beyond compare.
The word burhan means demonstration or proof and true to its meaning, Burhanpur stands witness to the initial tears and sorrow of the grief-stricken husband and children of Mumtaz Mahal.
But let’s take a tour of the city first. Once a thriving Mughal city known as the ‘Gateway to the Deccan’, it is now a sleepy town, which to me looks stuck in a time warp. Unlike most other walled cities, the city walls of Burhanpur, MP are still intact, as are the gateways. I drove through the Shanwara Gate, Itwara Gate and Shikarpura Gate. Other gateways are named Lohar Mandi Gate, Dilli Gate, Sindhipura Gate, Silampura Gate and Rajpura Gate. Beautiful wooden houses coexist with cement ones, though lack of heritage management is proving tough on the former. Tongas still ply as a regular means of transport. The earliest rulers of the area were the Rashtrakutas. In the fourteenth century, it was annexed by the Faruqi rulers who ruled here till the sixteenth century. In 1599, Akbar’s army occupied Burhanpur and it became the Mughal capital of Khandesh.
The city of Burhanpur was named after the famous Chisti saint Khwaja Burhanuddin Gharib (d. 1344 ce). Perhaps that is why there are many dargahs in the city. One of the most famous dargah is of Hazrat Nizamuddin Shah Bhikari. The dargah of Shah Bhikhari dates back to the reign of the Farooqi ruler Adil Khan II in the fifteenth century. Just like other dargahs, this is the resting place of many people. But the unique aspect of this dargah is that it sits on the riverbed of the Utawali River. More than a lakh devotees offer namaz on Barawafat—the Prophet’s birthday and also the day of Shah Bhikhari’s urs.
The other famous dargah is the luminous Dargah-e-Hakimi, an important pilgrimage for the Bohra community, the resting place of Syedna Abdul TayebZakiuddin (d. 1787). He was the forty-first Da’i al-Mutlaq (head) of the Dawoodi Bohra sect of Muslims. Another very important place of pilgrimage is the Gurudwara Badi Sangat. It marks the site where Guru Gobind Singh, travelling to the south with Emperor Bahadur Shah I, stayed in May–June 1708 and has a copy of Sri Guru Granth Sahib handwritten by the tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh Ji.
The Faruqi rulers have left many architectural gems in the city and the Jama Masjid is a glorious testimony to their legacy. This mosque is special for it is proof of our syncretic culture with its Sanskrit and Arabic inscription on the walls, detailing its building by the Farooqi rulers. The mosque has no roof and its soaring arches fuse together to form a ceiling. The Farooqi rulers also built a Shahi Qila or royal fort on the banks of the Tapti River. The Mughals used this Qila as their residence once Khandesh became a part of the Mughal Empire. The importance of the subah or province of Khandesh can be seen from the fact that Mughal princes, including Akbar’s son Daniyal, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb were its governors.
The shikaar-loving, pleasure-seeking Prince Daniyal built an Aahukhana, or deer park, opposite the Badshahi Qila in the village of Zainabad on the banks of the river Tapti. It was here that the young Aurangzeb met Zainabadi Bai and fell passionately in love with her. Unfortunately, their love story was doomed as Zainabadi Bai died soon after due to poisoning. When Shah Jahan was the governor of the Deccan, he added various buildings within the Badshahi Qila, including a once-gorgeous and now deteriorating hammam, for his wife’s
relaxation. The hammam is beautifully painted and one of the fading frescoes has a building which looks remarkably like the Taj Mahal. It was in this palace that Mumtaz Mahal died on the night of 16–17 June 1631, after giving birth to Gauhar Ara Begum.
Death plays a huge role in this city’s history, if the beautiful tombs dotting the city are anything to go by. I came here in search of Mumtaz Mahal’s original grave but was fascinated by the numerous other graves that dot the landscape. The tomb of Shahnawaz Khan, son of Abdur Rahim Khan-e-Khana, is called ‘Kala Taj Mahal’ or ‘Black Taj Mahal’ by the locals. It’s a beautiful monument, shaped like the Taj though built on a much smaller scale. And though it owes its name to the local black stones used for its construction, it has also been blackened by age. I visited another stunning mausoleum, the grave of Bilqis Begum—wife of Shah Shuja, son of Shah Jahan. Coincidently, she too died during childbirth, like Mumtaz Mahal.
It is very small but gorgeous, like the twelve-leaved, lotus-shaped platform it sits on. Its dome and walls are fluted which also gives it another name: Kharbooza Mahal or Kharbooze ka Gumbad. In a village, some 10 kilometres away from Burhanpur, there is the chhatri of Raja Jai Singh, the great Rajput general who was the commander of the Mughal forces in the Deccan. He died at Burhanpur, reportedly while returning from the Deccan, and Aurangzeb built a chhatri in commemoration, keeping with the custom among the Rajputs.
It is a rarely visited monument and I am not surprised since the road leading to it, which goes through villages, is rough and not metalled. The chhatri itself is of black stone and looks quite grand, standing all alone amongst the plantain fields. Coming back to the reason why I went to Burhanpur—in search of memories of Mumtaz Mahal. Mumtaz Mahal was the granddaughter of I’timad-ud-Daulah the famous Persian immigrant, who had entered Mughal services and achieved a high rank. Her father was Asaf Khan and her aunt was the famous empress, Nur Jahan. Her birth name was Arjumand Banu and she was engaged to be married to Prince Khurram, the favourite son of Emperor Jahangir, in April 1607 in Lahore. She was 14 years old at the time and the prince who ruled the Mughal Empire later as Shah Jahan was 15 years old. However, Khurram’s first marriage was a diplomatic alliance arranged by Emperor Jahangi to the daughter of a Safavid noble Mirza Muzaffar Husain in December 1609.
It was only in May 1612 that Khurram’s marriage was solemnized with Arjumand Bano. The Prince was very happy with his new wife and as his official biographer Qazwini writes, ‘finding her in appearance and character elect [Mumtaz] among all the women of the time, he gave her the title Mumtaz Mahal Begum (Chosen One of the Palace), on the one hand that it might be a source of pride for that Chosen One of the Age’.
Khurram himself got the title Shah Jahan from Jahangir only in 1617. Though Shah Jahan had remarried, he was only attached to Mumtaz Mahal and she was his true companion, mentally, emotionally and physically. Qazwini writes, "The mutual affection and harmony between the two had reached a degree never seen between a husband and wife of the class of rulers (sultan), or among the other people. And this was not merely out of sexual passion (hawa-yi-nafs): the excellent qualities, pleasing habits, outward and inward virtues, and spiritual and physical compatibility on both sides caused great love and affection, and extreme affinity and familiarity."
She accompanied him everywhere, so it was natural that when Khan Jahan Lodi rebelled against the Mughal Empire, though she was pregnant, she accompanied him to Burhanpur to the same qila where it is said an image of a mausoleum was painted on the ceiling. Recently, I saw a mirror case in the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington D.C., made in 1628 for Shah Jahan with a painting of a heavily pregnant Mumtaz Mahal. She is glowing in the painting and that testifies to smooth pregnancies and childbirth. As this was her fourteenth pregnancy, both husband and wife could not have anticipated the complications that occurred.
The Queen’s condition deteriorated after she gave birth to Gauhar Ara and contemporary sources like Qazwini and Kanbo describe the Emperor’s shock as she called him to bid farewell on the night of 16–17 June 1631. He wore white clothes, gave up listening to music, wearing jewellery and using perfumes for almost two years, and was perhaps one of the first Indians to wear spectacles because of constant weeping.
Mumtaz Mahal was laid to rest in the Aahukhana. A week later, Shah Jahan came to the Aahukhana and recited the fateha for his wife’s soul and wept over her grave. He would come there to recite the fateha every Friday till he stayed in Burhanpur. Locals tell me that Shah Jahan had initially decided to build a grand mausoleum for Mumtaz Mahal on the banks of the Tapti, but due to difficulties in transporting marble from Markana, Rajasthan, and the composition of the soil, he selected Agra. One local heritage enthusiast told me that the image of the mausoleum would not fall on the Tapti as the river was too narrow, so the idea was abandoned. Unfortunately, logistics stole Burhanpur’s place in history and bestowed it on Agra.
Whatever the reasons for building the Rauza-e-Munawwara (the original name of the Taj Mahal) in Agra, the Aahukhana beckoned me. It seemed like I was part of the minority though, with only a few heritage lovers, who are fighting to preserve their city’s heritage.
The Aahukhana, where Mumtaz Mahal’s body lay for six months before being transported to Agra, used to be a huge area on the banks of river Tapti which included the village of Zainabad. Today, it’s the name given to a small portion which lies in the middle of nowhere with a dirt track leading to it. There are two buildings in the Aahukhana that are supposed to have been the queen’s grave. One is the baradari in the fenced compound known today as Aahukhana and the other is a building with a tank in the centre and a mosque attached to it. The baradari is within an enclosed compound. Its boundary wall and iron gates are worse for wear, with the walls breaking up in quite a number of places. There is wild overgrown grass and a dirty dry tank, which was once a source of delight for visitors to the garden. The pleasure palace built in front of it is now a place which brings displeasure: it is dirty, dank, smelly and covered in graffiti. The baradari has long since lost its roof. Its beautiful columns sag under the burden of sorrow. They have been roughly propped up by bricks to prevent further destruction.
It is a picture of desolation. I was taken by my guides to another ruinous building a little further away from the baradari complex that was also a part of the original Aahukhana. It has a small tank and mosque. The guides told me that this was the site where Mumtaz Mahal was given her ritual funeral bath. Burhanpur heritage enthusiasts claim this is the actual grave. Shahzada Asif, a resident who is said to have identified this place, observes Mumtaz Mahal’s urs every year on 7 June in this place. Hoshang Havaldar, a local hotel owner and heritage enthusiast, described the urs to me. I stayed in his hotel and we spent the evenings bemoaning the state of Burhanpur’s deteriorating heritage.
This building has no boundary wall and cotton farming is being done on its grounds. A rusted, decrepit board with barely distinguishable letters outside it proclaims in Hindi that this is ‘Begum Mumtaz Mahal ki Qabr’. On 1 December 1631, Mumtaz Mahal’s body was taken out of the baradari and sent with ceremony to Agra, accompanied by her son Shah Shuja, her lady-in-waiting Sati-un-Nisa and Hakim Alimuddin Wazir Khan. They arrived in Agra 20 days later.
A special place was earmarked for her coffin in the grounds near the mosque area. It still exists. There were walls all around it so as to preserve her purdah even in death. There are many theories of how her body was embalmed. Some say it was kept in a sealed lead and copper coffin filled with natural embalming herbs as per Unani techniques. Since the coffin was never opened, one doesn’t know the state of decomposition or preservation of the queen’s body. But whatever state she may be sleeping in, in her grave in Taj Mahal, I am sure her soul cries at the wilderness that is the Aahukhana today.
Extract from the book A Saint, A Folktale, and Other Stories : Lesser-Known Monuments of India by Rana Safvi, published by Rupa Publications