Rosy-cheeked Hoshang Havaldar welcomed us to Hotel Ambar with a rose and a perfumed cotton garland. “This simple ‘soot ka haar’ represents Burhanpur’s glorious past as a trading centre of cotton,” he said. “It is scented with three kinds of attar—khus, kewda and gulab, symbolic of the perfumed ponds that Mumtaz Begum would dip into after her bath in Burhanpur’s Shahi hammam. The rose was a gift she presented to Shah Jahan every day.” Hoshangji belongs to the city’s sole Parsi family, that has lived here for seven generations. The 62-year-old’s passion and pride for his illustrious city makes him the ideal local convener of INTACH. “Between 1600 and 1720, Burhanpur served as the second Mughal capital of India and was a cradle of culture. Tehzeeb (etiquette), tameez (manners), taakat (power), tareeka-e-ilmaat (ways of learning); it was a training centre for Mughal princes and princesses and the Farooqis. Shah Jahan spent 40 years in Burhanpur, Aurangzeb spent 44. Whoever became a sipahsalar (governor) here was destined for greatness,” he continued.

Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy
One of the finest examples of Burhanpur’s secular spirit can be seen at the Jama Masjid, which has a beautifully carved mirhab (niche) with inscriptions in both Arabic and Sanskrit
One of the finest examples of Burhanpur’s secular spirit can be seen at the Jama Masjid, which has a beautifully carved mirhab (niche) with inscriptions in both Arabic and Sanskrit

For a first-time visitor, Burhanpur may seem underwhelming. Dismissing it as just another crowded, grubby Indian town with friendly folk and a smidgen of beautiful medieval buildings, would be a travesty. It took an insider like Hoshangji to help us discover this little-known jewel. 

According to the Shruti and Smriti puranas, this was once Bhrignapur, the place of penance (tapobhumi) of Bhrigu rishi, who wrote the Bhrigu Samhita on the banks of the Tapti. Burhanpur is a 600-year-old name given by the Farooqi dynasty, after Sufi saint Sheikh Burhan-ud-din. With the weakening of the Delhi Sultanate, Nasir Khan (son of Malik Raja) claimed independence from the Mohammedan Sultans of Malwa, conquered Asirgarh Fort. He made Burhanpur the capital of Khandesh, where subsequently 11 Farooqis ruled for 200 years. They created a secular state where Sanskrit shared space alongside Arabic and Farsi. “Even today, Hindus and Muslims are like the tana (warp) and bana (weft) of one weave,” Hoshangji elaborated.

Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy
The elaborate painted ceiling inside the Swaminarayan temple at Burhanpur shows scenes from Lord Krishna’s life
The elaborate painted ceiling inside the Swaminarayan temple at Burhanpur shows scenes from Lord Krishna’s life

“Today, Burhanpur is famous for three things—kela (banana), kapda (cloth), aur kapaas (cotton),” he continued. In his memoirs, French chronicler Tavernier noted that Burhanpur was the biggest yarn market of Asia. In 1933, when Mahatma Gandhi visited Burhanpur during the Quit India movement, a charkha (spinning wheel) was gifted to him, which went on to become a symbol of swadeshi. Today, Burhanpur has a thriving textile industry and its power looms employ a large population of the city. Banana farming too, is big business in this district.   

Abhinandita Mathur
– A man offers prayers at the Jama Masjid at Burhanpur. It is also called the “roofless mosque” as the intersecting arches themselves create a roof-like ceiling
– A man offers prayers at the Jama Masjid at Burhanpur. It is also called the “roofless mosque” as the intersecting arches themselves create a roof-like ceiling

But, Burhanpur’s true wealth is surely its monuments—126 at last count. Of these, 35 are noteworthy and five absolutely unique. These are: the hybrid inscription at the Jama Masjid; the tunnels of Kundi Bhandara; the Dargah-e-Hakimi; Gurdwara Bari Sangat and Mumtaz Mahal’s hammam.

Abhinandita Mathur
Burhanpur is home to the Kala Taj Mahal, which holds the remains of 17th-century warrior Shah Nawaz Khan
Burhanpur is home to the Kala Taj Mahal, which holds the remains of 17th-century warrior Shah Nawaz Khan

We walked around the ruins of Mughalbagh Palace or Shahi Kila, a seven-storey palace complex built by Adil Shah Farooqi II. Gazing at the Mughal Char Bagh garden in the courtyard, we were surprised to find that we were standing on the fourth floor, with three levels underground.

Abhinandita Mathur
The horse-drawn tonga or shahi sawari is a living relic of transport in Burhanpur’s streets, dating back to the time of Shah Jahan
The horse-drawn tonga or shahi sawari is a living relic of transport in Burhanpur’s streets, dating back to the time of Shah Jahan

The best-preserved structure in the fort is the zenana hammam (ladies bath), built in 1612, with facilities that put a modern spa to shame: hot and cold running water, fountains for showers, aquatic massagers, and a trio of perfumed tanks. It had a diamond-studded ceiling to reflect light from an oil lamp.

After Shah Jahan became emperor in 1627, the honeycomb roof was suffused with frescoes for his wife Mumtaz Mahal. We were delighted with what Hoshangji’s pocket torch revealed: elaborate patterns, Iranian designs in brilliant shades of turquoise, coral, emerald, and lapis, multi-pointed stars, jalis, arches, lotus flowers, Shah Jahan’s ruby-studded turban, Mumtaz Begum’s crescent headgear studded with sapphires, kaleidoscopic patterns… even the distinct image of the Taj Mahal!

“Yahan ki ek-ek cheez copy ki gayi hai,” Hoshangji’s voice echoed in the chamber. He explained that many motifs found at the Taj Mahal have been replicated from this hammam: From the blue bands on Mumtaz’s grave, to the five-flowerpot (guldaan) design on her tomb’s corners. The hammam’s four unique arches have been used too. They let light fall on her grave at sunrise, sunset, and during full moon, while a fourth hexagonal arch is featured in Agra’s Moti Masjid.

It was twilight when we stepped out of the hammam. The cacophony of screeching parakeets was overpowered by the calls for azan reverberating over the Tapti.

Two beautiful mosques in the palace complex, Longi Masjid and Ilaichi Masjid, are named after their clove- and cardamom-shaped domes. A gaping hole revealed Mumtaz Mahal’s bedroom, where she passed away giving birth to Gauhar Begum, her fourteenth child. We continued along the terrace of the Qila to Shah Jahan’s Diwan-e-Khas, where he met his esteemed guests and the public Audience Hall that inspired the Diwan-e-Aam at Delhi’s Lal Qila. We saw the Pigeon Tower, built by Aurangzeb on the fort’s external wall, with nooks for the winged messengers of the Mughal Empire. Today, nearly 1.75 lakh people still live within the four-by-one-kilometre fort, making it one of the largest living forts in India.

As we made our way back from the fort palace, Hoshangji explained the city’s planning. Burhanpur’s construction reflects the Quranic description of bahisht (heaven)—a place with eight gates and four windows. The walled city’s three-storeyed main entrance Shanivara Gate, blends Hindu and Muslim motifs. Like the Shaniwara Gate, Itwara and Budhwara Gates too were named after weekly markets. Lohar Mandi Gate was where ironsmiths traded, while Shikarpura Gate marked the route taken by Prince Daniyal, third son of Emperor Akbar when he went hinting.

We continue our exploration of Burhanpur’s rare architectural treasures the next day. At Gandhi Chowk, we visit the Jama Masjid with its 130-foot-high minars. It was built so that 15 rows of arches intersect to form a roofless mosque. Of particular significance is a hybrid inscription found here in Arabic, Farsi, and Sanskrit.

A short distance away, we visit the tomb of the great warrior Shah Nawaz Khan, son of Abdul Rahim Khan-i-khana, Governor of Burhanpur for 37 years. Known to locals as Kala Taj Mahal or Black Taj Mahal, it is smaller but strikingly similar to its famous counterpart in Agra, but built with locally sourced black stone.

A short walk away is the tomb of Begum Shah Shuja, wife of Shah Jahan’s fourth son. Set on a flower shaped plinth, it has delicate, astonishingly well-preserved frescos on its walls and niches.

Burhanpur’s local “soot ki mandi” is the leading cotton market in Madhya Pradesh, with nearly 30,000 power looms churning out dhoti cloth and Khandeshi saris. For nearly six centuries, merchants and traders have flocked to Burhanpur’s cotton market Tana Gujri mandi where a serai, hammam, and masjid were built for visitors. What took us aback was the spectacular underground bath for men at Chowk Mohalla. Emperor Jahangir constructed this massive mardana Turkish hammam where 125 men could bathe at the same time. Deliberately subterranean, perhaps to keep nudity hidden from the gaze of passing women, it lay buried, until it was unearthed 25 years ago. The Akbari Sarai built by Abdul Rahim Khan-i-khana, poet in the court of Akbar, is in shambles, but another old Mughal tradition is still alive in Burhanpur. The tonga or shahi sawari used by begums in Shah Jahan’s time, is very popular even today.

Dawoodi Bohras love taking a tonga from Shahdara Road to Dargah-e-Hakimi, resting place of Bohra saint Syedi Abdul Qadir Hakimuddin, outside the walled city. This dargah is so highly revered that a ziyarat (pilgrimage) to Mecca, Medina, and Karbala is considered incomplete until you visit it as well.

Abhinandita Mathur
The main hall at Zakvi Haveli, a Dawoodi Bohra mansion in Burhanpur, exhibits gorgeous carvings on polished wood
The main hall at Zakvi Haveli, a Dawoodi Bohra mansion in Burhanpur, exhibits gorgeous carvings on polished wood

About a kilometre to the south, we visit Gurdwara Bari Sangat, one of the 10 most important gurudwaras for the Sikh community. It is sometimes argued that the last Sikh Guru Gobind Singh wrote the Guru Granth Sahib here. A signed handwritten copy displayed here is attributed to him.

Unfortunately, we skipped Neher-e-Khair-Zari or Kundi Bhandara, the last remaining example of a unique 17th-century subterranean waterworks that channeled groundwater from 3 km away to the surface using capillary action.

Across the Tapti, we could make out the crumbling walled compound of Ahukhana, an erstwhile hunting lodge. Mumtaz Begum had lovingly converted the 28-acre deer park into a rose garden, and after she died in 1631, her embalmed body was kept in a pavilion there for six months.

It is said that Shah Jahan wanted to build her memorial on the banks of the Tapti. However, architectural calculations indicated that the loamy black cotton soil couldn’t bear the weight of the proposed building. The logistics of transporting white marble from Makrana in Rajasthan further tilted the decision in Agra’s favour, and the rest is history.

Six months after Mumtaz Begum’s death, her son Shah Shuja led a procession with his mother’s body in a golden casket, to Agra, 900 km north. We drove part of this historic route towards Dilli Darwaza. Sadly, while the whole world flocks to that eternal monument of love at Agra, Burhanpur’s fate is like that of the abandoned Ahukhana, forgotten by the wayside.

THE INFORMATION

Getting there: Burhanpur lies on the Madhya Pradesh-Maharasthra border,181 km/4 hrs south of Indore via SH27.

Where to Stay

Hotel Ambar & Holiday Resort

Address: NH27, Rastipura Colony, Opp. Bus Stand, Burhanpur.
Tel: 07325-251197, 94240 24949
Website: hotelambarburhanpur.com

Tariff: Double room ₹2,100.

Where to Eat

Milan Mithai

Address: Main Branch, Gandhi Chowk, Burhanpur
Tel: 07325-252315, 252295

Burhanpur Jalebi Centre

Address: Subhash Chowk, Burhanpur
Tel: +91 98262 72490

Rahmania Restaurant

Address: Jaistambh Chauraha, Burhanpur

Tel: 07325-257291

Visit MP Tourism