My father has yet again discovered a hobby fast turning into an obsession– downloading BBC documentaries, and burning them in DVDs – titles and dates of burning et all. Just the other day, bored in the lull-humid Assam heat, I flipped through his “collection” to come across a film titled “The Mystery of the Taj Mahal”.
As I sat through the somewhat-dull monologue, I began to wonder “What is it about the Taj anyway?” No doubt, it is an architectural-marvel, and a most-refined specimen of Mughal taste and elegance. One may call it the cultural-symbol of our country, and a visit to India is incomplete if one does not have a “visit to the Taj Mahal” in one’s itinerary.
However, hidden in the many nooks and crannies of the country, overshadowed by the popularity of such “rich” monuments, lies a vast plethora of myriad lesser known buildings and architectural accomplishments. Unnoticed and ignored, they wait and wait, for some heritage-crazy backpacker to bump into them and unravel the mysterious beauty they hide.
The mausoleum of Itimad-ud-Daulah, located in the busy town of Agra is one such example. What was once the rich capital city of the Mughals, and the nerve-centre to usher in the “Golden Age” of Muslim Rule in India, Agra has now diminished to a crowded, chaotic trade town.
Yet, the buildings from that glorious era remain – telling stories about days gone by.
The tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah, built in the years from 1622 – 1628 CE, tells a similar story of honour, success, and fate. The story also involves some of the most influential people of Mughal history – people who made and marred destinies and dynasties.
Mir Ghiyas Beg (later honoured with the title of Itimad-ud-Daulah), father of Noor Jehan, and Wazir to the Emperor of Hindustan, lies in eternal sleep in this mausoleum, along with his wife, Azmat Begum.
The rags-to-riches story of Ghiyas Beg began in Persia where he was a wretched merchant, to end in Agra where he rose to unprecedented success finally becoming the Wazir of the Emperor. All this happened because Jehangir, the then ruler of India, fell in love with his widowed daughter, who was later to become known as the most gifted and beautiful woman of her times, Noor Jahan.
Noor Jahan’s life itself calls for another interesting study. But the focus here is on the tomb she commissioned on the death of her parents.
On one of my umpteenth visits to Agra, I chanced upon this monument.
As I entered the main complex, it took me no time to recognise the Indo-Islamic style of architecture employed in the construction of this building. A practice initiated by Akbar, this style combined both Islamic and Indian architectural elements in constructions. While the octagonal towers, arched entrances and ornamentation all pointed to Persian borrowings, the canopies, the terrace topped with a barahdari roof (a kiosk-shape structure on a flat roof), and kalasha-finials that crowned the roof and the canopies were definitely of Indian origin.
The first of its kind in India, built completely out of marble (yes, the Taj Mahal isn’t the only one), the structure overlooks the river Yamuna and is flanked by an imposing gateway and two pleasure pavilions by the riverside. I walked towards the central building (constructed on the usual char-bagh order) and wondered “How could I have missed this one?” The chaos of the traffic and crowd of the present world vanished, as I entered the complex and stared at the building from a corner. With hardly five more visitors, excluding the number of parrots and squirrels that jumped around my feet, this tranquil and calm spot was just the perfect place to be.
I was mesmerised especially by the precise and faultless ornamentation of the buildings. The decorative aspect seemed to have superseded the structure of the tomb. Detailed to its core, the technique of pietra dura inlay was employed (a generation prior to the Taj Mahal), and raw materials such as porphyry was imported from distant lands on special requests by Noor Jahan. The entire exterior bears lavish ornamentation of mosaics and inlay. Massive octagonal towers attached to each side of the central building end in circular canopies with kalasha (pot) and padma-kosha (inverted lotus) finials. The entire façade is topped with a chajja (parapet) and a jailed balustrade. Exquisite mastery of craftsmanship is again witnessed in the jalis that cover the arches on the façade – composed of sinuous creepers and foliage motifs.
The central building houses two cenotaphs built completely out of yellow porphyry stone, the floor being inlayed with natural stones in varying designs. The vaulted ceilings were also decorated with floral and arabesque motifs – almost as a rule the stalactites in the vaults were inlayed in deep blue, crimson and gold colours. Persian influence is again noticed in the motifs of wine vases, cups and guldastas being used in the wall decorations. Very interestingly, animals, birds and human figures were profusely displayed too – a significant characteristic of the age of Jehangir, marking an evolution of the artistic canon. Chinese clouds abounded as space-fillers in alcoves, and as continuous border bands in ceilings. A very interesting feature was the cartouches in the ceilings of the side halls and the riverside pavilions copied from Persian embroidery designs, including the edge-threads making them as realistic as possible.
Interior view with cenotaphs of Mir Ghiyas Beg and Azmat Begum made of porphyry stone.
It is said that one is pulled back to the Taj three more times after their first visit. I can safely count five visits on my list. And yet, nothing pulls me to that building as much as the tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah did. When one tracks back the history of Mughal architectural evolution, one realises how the Taj Mahal was the end result of generations of experimentations and discoveries. From the earliest Mughal graves of Babur (Lahore), passing through the one of Humayun (Delhi) and Akbar (Sikandera), to this one of Itimad-ud-Daulah, the architects of the Taj Mahal borrowed the best from all and combined them in a masterful manner to create, what is established as, the grandest Mughal accomplishment in architecture till date.
However, this quite, little mausoleum imagined and commissioned by Noor Jahan had a special charm for me. Perhaps not as massive as the Taj, perhaps not as popular, yet it attracted me for reasons unknown.
As I sat there for hours, silently looking at the tomb, I rose up and left somewhere. Somewhere far away from the honking cars, from the overcrowded footpaths, from the madness that is the 21st century, this was my little venture into time-travel.
Art historian and Writer at ARTINFO India