Monday, May 26, 2014


She had to pass through fire to prove her chastity. That was Sita’s trial. At first, having followed her husband Prince Ram to exile for fourteen years, she was condemned to a life of austerity in the jungle. Then she was abducted by the demon King Ravan, and was incarcerated in the fortified capital of Lanka. Later, following the fateful battle when she was rescued, her husband publicly asks her to prove to the world that she was untainted while in enemy custody! Consequently she undergoes Agni-Pariksha, the ordeal of fire, to prove her chastity. In the Hindu canon, this event from the celebrated epic Ramayana presents one of the most deprecating and unkind examples in the annals of sexual bigotry. This is also perhaps the first instance you sincerely frown upon the instincts of Ram, the virtuous hero of the story, for his perpetual urge to demonstrate his impeccable righteousness to the world even when it came at the cost of openly humiliating his traumatized wife who was just salvaged from capture. That Sita agreed to undergo Agni-Pariksha, and that she walked out of fire unscathed as a proof to her purity still does not underplay the sheer callousness of his demand, and no justifications can make it go. But what if it was all a part of a divine plot? What if the fire stunt was to cover up an elaborate hoax by the gods? What if the lady who went into the fire was not the one that came out? It could be quite an unsettling detail, but the many versions of Ramayana that have divinified the characters and events of the epic tale over time, features a mysterious figure called Maya Sita, the illusory Sita, who replaces the original one during the ordeal of the kidnapping through the humiliation of the fire test!

Apparently, foreseeing the event of the kidnapping, Sita was replaced in time with a divine body double that was seized and imprisoned by Ravan. So it was this substitute called Maya Sita who suffered the teases, and the taunts, and the relentless love overtures of Ravan while in captivity, not Sita. This shadowy alter ego was allegedly created by the fire god, Agni, who subsequently also provides the real Sita a hiding place in the refuge of his flames. After the bloody battle of Lanka and the rescue thereof, Sita emerges from hiding and switches place with Maya Sita in the pretext of the ordeal of fire. So the infamous Agni-Pariksha actually provides the required smokescreen for the return of the original untainted Sita going by these versions!

When it was originally written, Ram, a mere human hero, refuses to accept Sita, “the property of another man”, as he was afraid of the gossips. He wished to satisfy his followers who he assumed wouldn’t be pleased if he accepted the “maligned lady”, which is why he mentions that he had waged the war in the name of righteousness and not to reclaim her. He gives her options to marry any other prince, or do what she liked. Here his actions are defended only in terms of the duties of an ideal leader, and there is no mention of a stunt-double whatsoever to clean up the mess.

It is well known that unlike Valmiki Ramayana, the acknowledged original, many of the epic’s diverse adaptations including the canonical Adhyatma Ramayana, emphasize on the divine undertones of the story in varying degrees thereby justifying the actions of the principle characters in the name of the higher purpose set by the gods. The events in the epic, as portrayed in these various divinified versions, become a mere execution of the conspiracy of the gods to rid the world of the atrocities caused by the ten-headed demon king Ravan. Here, Ram and Sita are heavenly incarnations sent to offer, in merely human terms, first the pretext and later the solution to end this evil force. Taking all the baits set for him, when Ravan seizes Sita and imprisons her, he was in fact facilitating a motive for the final clash in which his end was preplanned. The kidnapping was an integral part of the scheme, without which there would not have been a question of any altercation between Ram and Ravan (read Good and Evil) to begin with. But in the process of the hijack when Sita, the mother goddess, was going to be ‘defiled’ by the touch of Ravan, things did not seem all that divine. It also made the goddess look too powerless. This is the place where the motif of Maya Sita gains significance. She was annexed to both save Sita of the shame of violation as well as later justify Ram’s insensitive demand for the fire trial as a comeback vehicle for the divine fugitive. According to some versions, Maya Sita, the providential scapegoat, is an incarnation of Swaha, wife of Agni, whom he offers for the greater cause of the destruction of evil. In some other versions she is the rebirth of Vedavati, who, before self-immolation and death, had sworn to be the cause of Ravan’s destruction for violating her in a previous life. Both had ample reasons to be associated with Fire, the former being his consort and the latter’s soul having ended up inside his flames after she ended her life in it.

In addition to many versions of Ramayana, Maya Sita also occurs in various other Hindu texts including Kurma Purana, Skanda Purana, Brahma-Vedanta Purana, and Devi Bhagavata Purana. Here, an elaborate plot unravels to embrace the plausibility of this phantom character. It starts with the life of Vedavati, who according to some versions is an incarnation of Goddess Laxmi while in some other accounts she is Agni’s wife Goddess Swaha. She was born to Sage Kusadhwaja and his wife Malavati. During a penance to win Lord Vishnu as her husband she was taunted by the demon king Ravan, which resulted in her taking vow to be the cause of his death in her next birth, and her eventual suicide in the fire. Then as we know, during her term as Maya Sita in the next life, she emerges from fire, replaces Sita, and achieves her life goal of being the cause of Ravan’s end. Then she retreats into fire. What happens after that, also seem to have a few different versions. In Kurma Purana during the Agni-Pariksha, having done her job, she is destroyed in the fire, and it ends there. According to Brahma Vedanta Purana, there occurs a much more fascinating and interwoven sequence of events that connects Maya Sita to Draupadi, the firebrand heroin of the epic Mahabharata. Having retrieved her through the ordeal of fire, Agni takes Maya Sita to Pushkar where she performs penance for the rest of the eon. She is reborn as Draupadi from the sacrificial fire of King Drupad of Panchala, and marries the five Pandavas, the princely quintet of Hastinapur. Therefore the cult of Maya Sita is not just confined to providing a glorified surrogate to the consort of Ram, but ends up encroaching the events of neighboring stories adding layers to the complex network of lives in the Hindu canon.

The addition of Maya Sita is undoubtedly the highest order of any add-on that ever materialized in Ramayana, a book that has been subjected over time to innumerable and often tasteless modifications to glorify the virtues of the protagonists highlighting the iniquities of their adversary. Here, at the same time as providing a clever alternative to the thinness of the divine façade, it also offers a remarkable twist in the plot. The ambiguity regarding this enigmatic figure also opens up a plethora of imaginary possibilities within this epic poem that in its current shape is otherwise crowded with merely characters that are ideal human beings making trite statements about duties and virtues in every step.
Also from the Ramayana series:


Sunday, May 18, 2014


Like many others around him, he had special powers. It was not just his golden teeth, or the horns, or the overall radiance. He could turn into ashes anything at will. Perhaps that is where the scandal started. That when he was born he consumed his parents for not being able to provide for him, however ridiculous it may sound. But that was to speak of his fury alone. He was the supreme cleanser of them all, blaze and heat fueling his powers. He was all-consuming. He could also see over the darkness of night, and he was the youngest of them all.

They were eight of them, the cosmic octet, attending to the Lord who was also his twin brother. But that was only going by one of the many versions about his origin. Across the vast unbound space he grew up in, everyone had a different story to tell about his birth, and in each of it, oddly enough, his parents were different! His birth was special, repeatedly implied the ballads of ‘the gifted ones’ who composed and performed music for the very best, but out of fear for him they remained vague about the versions not knowing which one pleased him more. They couldn’t mess with him, as he was the spirit of fire. In fact he was fire itself. He could destroy with a mere thought, let alone look. He was also equal in supremacy and might to his twin, their king.  

Of course, his birth was special. He rid the universe of its nebulous darkness after all. They could see finally, their world supported by pillars of smoke above the three stories of sky, the mesmerizing beauty of the celestial nymphs who danced to the tunes of ‘the gifted ones’, and the direction of every step they took to move away from the cosmic authority. But even at the end of it all, he was still the one with many fathers! As appalling as it was to stomach, he refused to claim out loud, like everybody else, his share of the great grand sire’s pedigree. His reputation as the infant who devoured his own parents at birth also remained uncorrected. How much ever truth there was in the allegations, it mostly came from rumors than reasoning. So deaf ears served them well.

The incessant wags took the tales far and wide across the space, and some to even the other world- a world he more than any of them was closely associated with – and where lived the humans, the descendants of the first mortal. He was the only immortal to coexist in their world as the singular link between the two worlds, as the messenger. There, his standing was unparalleled. He was their righteous protector who never discriminated the subjects. He was a part of their very essence, and he accepted their sacrifices. But if it was fear more than respect that made them bow in front of him, only the mottled lore of his origin was to blame. In one of the many versions they sang, he was born from the union of Sky and Earth. His origin from the mouth of the Cosmic Man also had orators. It was also widely assumed that he had ten unwed mothers, who were sisters. While many believed his father to be one of the seven great seers, the guardians of the divine law, some also called him ‘Son of Water’. There was absolutely no dearth to the variations how much ever mutually contradicting they were.

His birth was kept a secret, which explains the many assumptions. In fact he was born twice, and it was covertly dealt with both times. Right from when he was cuddled in the warmth of his mother’s womb coiled on his twin brother like a snug handclasp, they knew of the danger awaiting them, so did their parents, which is why nobody could know.

His great grandfather, the Wise One, was the creator, who amongst nine others had created the Lord of the Womb- the new master of creation and the first-born who was his grandfather. Sky and his love Earth were his creations- the siblings who were eternal lovers, always joined in a tight embrace, inseparable- a sinful but necessary union. They remained united even after they conceived the twins by which time, lurking in the dark was Evil in the form of a creation gone rogue with supernatural powers who already knew direction. Further creation could not stop, so their mother had to save them. But they were still not fully developed. Earth decided to carry them within her till the enemy left, and she did for many autumns. But he was not the one to give up. He had already imprisoned the waters of the world by then, and eagerly awaited the arrival of the progenies of incest. 

Meanwhile on the other side of the walls of Earth’s womb, they grew more vigilant by the day. Even though they both sensed danger, his brother was the intuitive of the two. He knew the usual exit was doom as evil waited at the gateway to strike on release. So he asked their mother to free him sideways. But even after discharge, the two undeveloped embryos were trapped in the embrace of their love-blind parents which, fairly enough, baffled the creators who were looking forward to the destruction of the rogue force in the hands of these two powerful successors.

It was the grandfather who provided the brothers with the cosmic nectar of immortality. At the same time as the release of his two grandchildren, he also wanted to separate Sky and Earth, hopelessly intertwined, slowing progress. His brother, the smarter and quicker of the two, drank the elixir and emptied the urn in a blink- the first blow of treachery before he was even born! When he still yawned and stretched in the primitive state, his brother expanded in size and strength widening the gap between their parents finally separating them. Excessive consumption of the elixir had made him so powerful and, Sky and Earth, torn form each other were hurled with great force in diametrically opposite directions to the far ends, and they never met ever again. In the process he, footless and headless, still not fully formed, was thrown out into the space while his brother stepped out into the dark amidst hails and applause.

His grandfather, the Lord of the Womb, got hold of his propelling embryo, carried him in his two hands, and nursed him with his ten fingers- his ten unwedded daughters. These sisters who were also his aunts in the role of foster mothers, nurtured him till he was relocated to what would be his first birthplace. His flaming embryo was still inside the membrane when he was submerged in the waters of the world that by then were freed from the confines of the Evil force, killed by his mighty brother, in the ecstasy of the elixir, at the request of the immortals, in return of his position as their king. Back then nobody knew his part in the killing; it was only his brother. The Lightning was made with the heat form his fiery embryo, and that was the weapon, which his grandfather granted to his brother that eventually culled the enemy. Treachery struck again, and the smart one left with the name, fame and recognition while he unhurriedly matured in the waters.

In the meantime more creations had begun to crowd the realms, and his two sisters, Dawn and Dusk, were also born. By the time he was born from the womb of the Waters, the great grandsire had already let his imagination run wild, and Ii was given more color by the visuals of his birth- his splendid emergence from the water as the blazing ball of fire. Before he took shape with two heads, three legs, four horns and seven hands, the idea of Sun as the giver of light was fully in motion. It was he who was born from the collective forces of Sky, Earth and Water that used his flames to fuel the new life-nourishing idea called Sun, who would in the due course become the chief of the celestial planets as well as the husband to his two sisters, Dawn and Dusk, the quarrelsome siblings who refused to see eye to eye all their lives. To date, Sun remained one of his eternally grandiose contributions to the wheels of progress.

Now, not counting his original dynamic form, he was already in two of his illustrious apotheosis, Sun and Lightning. The third was due, and to go by the prophesies of the fortunetelling seers, it was to happen in the other world that had no fire- in the land of his mother. This was because it was his essence that was used for the spark inside the mortals sent to that world. That is when the eternal debate started- a debate headed by his twin brother who was already King - to appoint him the messenger between the two worlds. He was unanimously elected. He who by then was assigned to guard the southeast direction, panicked and fled for life. He was unsure about being the channel between two worlds, as the receiver of the sacrifices of the mortals, and having to carry it to the destination amongst the immortals in his realm. It took a great deal from the faceless patrons of his brother to coax him out of his hiding in the womb of the waters. This time, without the protective membrane, he was holed up inside the stalk of a water lily.  But ultimately he agreed to the arrangement- to live in both worlds. That is when they blessed him to be forever youthful, and forever pure no matter what he consumed, and to be the supreme cleanser of all.

The draft of the Chosen One carried him to the other world, to the first wise mortal and the writer of the big book of astrology who chose two sticks to be his new parents. He was born again at the union of these two, but ended up burning them up. The dishonor of having killed his parents at birth clung to his name and refused to leave him ever since. He who was to have countless rebirths at innumerable hearths would kill that many more parents in times to come, but that came with deal. Whoever spoke about it did that behind his back when his second head, turned that way, was not listening. He was the most powerful of them all. So nobody messed with him. Depraved of the celestial nectar at birth, he had an insatiable thirst for it, and apart from the King, he was the heaviest consumer of the elixir in all the worlds, and with his strengths constantly powered by it, he unreservedly rode his ram wherever he wished, leaving his mark as charred trail behind him. He was not just immortal like the others, but was eternally young as well, which is why despite being one of the firstborns he remained youngest of them all. He, the purest of the pure, the first proof of the existence of energy in the universe, related to all three parts of the cosmos, self created and unchanging, could turn into ashes anything at will. Nothing ever created, in any form could render him impure, and despite wanting to, nobody could offend or defeat him as even when directed downwards, he never falls. He, the spirit of fire, in fact, fire itself, had special powers like many others around him, but the shame of many fathers and many births was there to stay, and they never stopped singing about it, but when was the universe a kind place to begin with!
COMMENTARY: In the Hindu pantheon, going by the scriptures, even though Fire-God Agni and the God-King Indra are numerously cited as twins, the details surrounding their births are only dealt with separately, and are associated with different episodes of creation. The polytomic lineage of Agni and the ambiguous parentage of Indra, is united here in a single event involving the separation of the two halves of the golden egg formed by Sky Father, Dyaus Pita, and Earth mother, Prithvi Mata, who are their parents. To enable an easy flow of the story, many such instances, textually jumbled and isolated, are articulated into a single narrative. The sequence of events is also streamlined to fit in those several events that from the texts could sound to have happened at the same time.

Sunday, May 11, 2014


Blue and swollen like a blowfish, when he woke up with a gigantic migraine, he was still swinging down from the ceiling face down. He could only see through one eye. But that didn’t matter with the door and window shut. All that he saw in the dusty glow of the tube of sun that came in through the tiny skylight in the roof lighting the back of his head, was the trail of blood that dripped from his naked bulk all night, dried up in an abstract burst on the floor below. His whole body ached. The gag had hardened with the swellings in his mouth. The cuts and bruises were wide open, and the ceaseless buzz of flies feeding on it made him dizzy. His tormentor was not around. She must be taking a break. He couldn’t remember as to when exactly it ended because he had passed out somewhere in the middle of all the torture. His hands and legs were tied. When he tried to move even a little bit, the cuts tore up even more, and the pain was ineffable. Tears burned down his nose and trickled off the tip. He hung there for a long time, perhaps for a whole day.
Then somewhere in between his unsteady wakefulness his ears caught a gnawing from the sidewall. It wouldn’t be surprising to see a few rats around the place, but it was from the other side of the wall and it slowly got louder like somebody was clawing on it. Suddenly there was a clatter and a snap, and then a thin slit of light cracked open in the wall. A window swung ajar, and holding on the grill stood a silhouette of a little girl who must have been about nine or ten years old. There was only a skylight in that room as well, and it was behind her, which is why her face was still incomprehensible in the shadow of her lush dark hair. She stood there getting used to the darkness staring at him for some time. Then as if detecting a movement hesitantly said in Spanish, “Hey, are you awake? When did you wake up?” She spoke with a strong eastern Andalusian accent.
He couldn’t reply with the ball of rag in his mouth, but managed to grunt in response.
“You were asleep for long,” she said, ”I tried a lot, but you wouldn’t wake up. You were crying in your sleep, you know. I was here much before you. I’ve been locked in for over a year!”
He felt a bolt of shock moving through his inside. If she was trying to cheer him up, she was doing a lousy job at it.
“Where are your clothes?” she said staring intensely. Stifling a giggle, she then produced an unpleasant noise.
“I’m not going to give my clothes away,” she continued rather haughtily, “So that puta won’t let me go! El payo ese no se puede portar como si fuera el jefe de todo el mundo. He’s just a few years older than me, you know. At first he kissed me. He said he was going to show a trick with the birthmark on my cheek. Can you see it? Aquí está. It’s the shape of a banana, and it’s big. I’m not sure if I want it there. I didn’t tell anybody about what he did. This time when I get out I’m going to tell everybody. This is the longest he’s locked me in. His sister must be looking for me all over the place. She is the only friend I have in this whole world. She will come rescue me. She gave me this, you know.”
She raised a large wax doll with glass eyes and a shock of tangled mane, worn from overuse.
“What did you do?” she said, “Why did he lock you in?”
He? It’s not ‘he’ it’s ‘she’- a grown woman, not some twelve-year-old boy. He said rather loudly, but it all came out in incoherent retches with the gag blocking the wind. Suddenly there was a ruffle from the outside. The girl watchfully froze. A distant sound of footsteps slowly got closer. Even in the faint light he saw her eyes bulging in fret in the split second she took to gather the shutters and slam it shut. Darkness returned. The light shaft from the skylight was slowly dying out. Frightening silence and solitude consumed him once again. And once again it went on for long with no sound from outside, or the other side. Was she still there? Did the ‘monster’ get her already? Or was it her friend who found her first? And if she did, well, he started to dream of his release. The girl would certainly bring in help! Then he fell asleep.

Hours later when he woke up, the door to the room was wide open and blocking the dim light from what seemed to be a dingy hallway was the menacingly familiar outline of his merciless persecutor who was already advancing towards him in unhurried pace! He hadn’t seen a shapelier figure his whole life, but still his heart sank at the sight. The door was already closed and bolted up. She walked across the room and opened the window letting in the cool evening breeze and stood there adapting to the gloom for some time before approaching him and lowering him to the floor. She took her clothes off. Then the torture began- the whipping and the pounding, and finally the callous sex all over again. It wouldn’t have occurred to him in his wildest dreams that a woman’s body could cause so much pain.
Subsequent to the harrowing cruelty, she discarded him once again to further starvation and decay, back up in the air. She left the windows open, or was it by mistake? Anyway, the breeze was not strong enough to shoo away the flies that at leisure consumed, defecated and laid eggs on his sores. The whole night passed without interrupting the ceaseless pain. And sleep showed no mercy. The girl with the banana shaped birthmark did not emerge the entire time. The soul-numbing pain had eternally suppressed his hunger and thirst. He hallucinated all this time. He started seeing people, some familiar, some not, and yet some others hard to place in memory. He tried interacting, but in vain with the gag still in place. But they came and went as and when they pleased. He regained his senses only at daybreak when he heard a loud commotion in the next room. There was a shrill cry. He felt a plunge in the stomach. The little girl! He trembled in fear and helplessness. Loud noise of a frenzied tug could be heard from the other side. He quaked violently. Rattled flies burst out and circled around him in thousands. They continued to do so till he naturally slowed down. By then the din had also died out in the next room. The brightness of dawn had illuminated the inside of the room. Now stripped of darkness he suddenly felt exposed, and a crushing wrench of shame gripped him. From the view of the trees through the open window, he could say he was on the second or third floor of the building. What was this place? Some kind of torture chamber? Or was he dead, and waiting for judgment day already?
When the window on the sidewall opened this time, it broke his heart. The girl stood there with her beheaded doll, all beaten and bruised. From the generous light in his room, the blood on her face and her tattered clothes were clearly visible. With eyes swollen shut, she stared at the floor all this time. He was only grateful about that part, as he did not want to be seen in full light. But soon she looked up, and he cringed. She did too. A moment of terror passed in silence. “Oh my god, it’s you! You’ve grown old now!” she shrieked, “You are the monster! It was you all this time!”
It made no sense at all. But before he got time enough to process, she banged the window shut, and the last he heard her say out loud with that swift classified rage was, “Puta!”
Right then the door to the room flung open and the bully walked in, her olive colored face in full light for the first time. He instantly identified her piercing green eyes.  His newly hired housekeeper! She was just a month old in the mansion- an exceptionally pretty woman, except of course her birthmark, which he was only seeing then. Spread on her left cheek was the large brown moon-shaped blemish that stretched from the side of her mouth to almost below the temple in a jagged contour. Or was it the shape of banana like the little girl had said?
He froze that second.
Was it all beginning to make sense finally?
The housekeeper. The girl. The incarceration. The torture. The hallucinations.
Or Mahala, was it?
No, Mirela sounds more like it.
Eve though he was confused with her name, the face of the little girl came to his mind in full view. Well, almost!
It was at least twenty-five years ago. He must have been barely fifteen at the time. The little gypsy girl left behind by the tinker gang from Montefrio after the old servant ran away with the postman. The feisty one who followed his sister around all the time, and was given her clothes and toys. The one he fooled around with. The one he picked on and regularly threatened for kicks. And the one he locked away in the deserted top floor of the mansion whenever she defied him. That one time, he only wanted to teach her a lesson. Nobody knew as usual. But with her resistance, it went on for some time… but did it last a whole year like she said earlier? He couldn’t remember that well. All that came back was, she did run away eventually. Perhaps it must have hurt her! All those crazy things he did! They were almost the same age. So how did it really count! But it was too late for reasoning anyway. And the pain was killing.
He knew it, but just to establish that he was not delusional anymore, he shot a passing glance at the sidewall. There was no window there. It had disappeared. And Mirela was gone, only to return as this fiendishly attractive lunatic years later, to take his case. He was already on the floor and she, on top of her, and the ponding had begun. He was only half conscious. In the middle of splitting agony he remembered there was something very mysterious about her from the beginning. She barely talked with anybody. And that scarf around her face like Arabian women- it was probably to hide her scar, or whatever that was. Smart bitch! It took only a month to drug him and get him out of the family. Or from the look of it, it could still be one of the rooms in the top floor of his own mansion, where once long ago he had locked in the little gypsy girl from Montefrio.
When she was finished, she put her clothes back on and hoisted him back up. She did not speak a word. But unlike before, she turned around one final time and spat on his face before closing the window and taking leave. She locked the door and walked away. Even before her footsteps became inaudible he passed out, and the fleet of flies that lived in his wounds returned to check on the eggs.
.Many thanks to my good friend Anton Goenechea Caballos who helped me do this... 

Wednesday, May 7, 2014


It was an extremely difficult and bloody labor, and the Queen died within a month. It was puerperal fever. Queen Dilras Banu Begum was not just the leader of the harem, but Emperor Aurangzeb’s first and principle consort whom he took seriously unlike the other two. So her loss shook him to the very essence. His eldest son Prince Azam Shah who was also affected badly buckled in a nervous breakdown. The eldest princess Zeb-un-Nissa had to assume charge of nurturing her newborn brother from that day on. It was total disarray of duties in the royal household. The Mughal court grieved with the imperial family as they bade farewell to their dear departed. Slowly they started acknowledging the death in the open, and the idea of a mausoleum in her name was floated in the court. There was already the definitive example set by the spellbinding tomb of her mother-in-law in Agra- the incomparable Taj Mahal built by Emperor Shah Jahan in loving memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal who also passed away owing to complications that arose with the delivery of her fourteenth child. Whether to build it or not was obviously a heated debate in the Mughal court as Aurangazeb was famously against the splurging of royal treasury by his father Emperor Shah Jahan on what he belligerently considered as unwanted expenses on countless architectural edifices in the name of immortalizing one’s reign and name. But it has to be taken that he who was crestfallen at the loss of his beloved wife ultimately bought into the idea and commissioned the building. Ata Ulla, son of Ustad Ahamed Lahauri the principal designer of Taj Mahal, was brought in to do the job. Engineer Hanspat Rai was to assist him.
Dilras Banu Begam
Emperor Aurangzeb
Prince Azam Shah
Consequently a beautiful mausoleum called Bibi ka Maqbara was erected in Aurangabad. Albeit stunning and monumental in its own right, the most remarkable part about the building sadly remained its striking resemblance to the Taj Mahal! There began the plague of comparison that hounded the building with a reputation that could not be exorcised of the label of being an inferior copy till date.
Bibi Ka Maqbara, Aurangabad, Mahrashtra, India
Now as to who built the structure, Emperor Aurangzeb or his son Prince Azam Shah, and as to when exactly was it built seem to hold gaping discrepancies going by all available texts. If one goes by the details given by the Archeological Survey of India, it was “constructed by Prince Azam Shah in memory of his mother between 1651 and 1661 A.D”. If that was true, the idea of a tomb for Dilras Banu Begam who died in 1657 was in motion at least six years prior to her death! And that is rather bizarre, as Azam Shah who was only four years old at the time of his mother’s untimely death was not even born at the time work began on the tomb he supposedly constructed. Moreover, in 1651, although the work was completed on the primary structure of Taj Mahal, which was said to have been the inspiration for Bibi ka Maqbara, the work on the external courtyards and its cloisters went on till 1653. Above all Aurangzeb was crowned as Emperor only in 1658, a year after the death of his wife. There is another version that suggests a four-year construction period to the mausoleum starting 1657 to 1661 in which case, the version that claims Price Azam Shah as the one who built it still goes out of the window as he was only ten years old at the time.
Taj Mahal, Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India
Given the general attitude of Emperor Aurangzeb towards art and architecture in general and his resentment to expend the imperial coffers in its name, it is highly likely that the tomb was indeed built by his son with the limited budget set by his father as most sources say, but the dates are still at loose. If the construction began in 1651 according to the claims of these sources and was completed in Hijri 1071 (1660-1661 A.D.) as inscribed on its main entrance, the tomb was conceptualized when Dilras Banu Begum was still alive. It is only further strengthened by the many claims that associate the tomb construction to the 17th century French traveller and gem merchant Jean Baptist Tavernier’s travelogue where he mentions how when “he was travelling from Surat to Golconda, he witnessed more than 300 wagons of marble loaded on a cart driven by 12 bullocks, near Aurangabad on 17th March, 1653 A.D”. To go by palace gossips and legends, Dilras (posthumously called Rabia-ud-Durani) was a strong willed woman who had her way of dealing with things independent from the judgments of her Emperor husband who lead an austere and simple life. It is always likely that, enamored by the effect that Taj Mahal had on immortalizing the love of her in-laws, Dilras who was also certain about her husband’s sturdy ambivalence towards the subject, conceived the idea of a grand tomb in her own name. She also had access to considerable fund comprising of her valuable jewelry, the dower (Rs.4 lakh at the time) and the recurrent jagir. Only that if she actually did order the construction of her mausoleum herself, she did not live to see it through.

Another claim, this time by the Maharashtra tourism webpage, has it that Bibi ka Maqbara was completed in 1678, which will have to rationalize the date it was “erected in” mentioned on the main entrance (1660-61 A.D.) as the time the construction commenced. This is possibly the only claim that could have Price Azam Shah as the head behind the Tomb of the Lady. But this of course rubbishes the statement connecting Jean Baptist Tavernier’s travelogue to its construction along with many other theories.

The budget constraint was a key element that jaded the quality of the finishing on the structure. While the cost of construction of Taj Mahal was a whooping 32 million Rupees at the time, Bibi ka Maqbara was finished in a shockingly low budget of less than 7 lakh Rupees! When compared to the exclusive marble construction of Taj Mahal, Bibi ka Maqbara had to be content with marble to barely finish the main structure and the domes. Limestone and stucco was extensively used which explains the unclean white on the overall edifice. While Taj Mahal is known for its magical proportions, Bibi ka Maqbara, much smaller in size, loses it somewhere with its verticality, and the bulkiness of the minarets. 

With all its likeness and differences, the mausoleum of Dilras Banu Begum also known as the Deccani Taj (Taj of Deccan), is still inferiorly compared to its magnificent forbearer, the Taj Mahal despite being a noteworthy piece of architecture in the Mughal canon in its own right. Well, some children are destined to be eclipsed by the greatness of their fathers, aren’t they? Likewise, in all it’s glory, Bibi ka Maqbara will always be known as a mediocre cousin to Taj Mahal, and it perhaps has already learned to be satisfied with the reasonable nature of its phantom existence in that shadowy area, as some things are simply not meant to be, no matter how good they are.

Thursday, May 1, 2014


There were only two other people in the compartment- a middle-aged man who sat on the other side of the aisle from me, passionately reading a Chitralekha weekly through his soda-bottle glasses, and a dressed up woman seated on the far end next to the exit doors, near the toilets, doing what I couldn’t tell from the distance. I was traveling alone at that time of night without Madhur for the first time. He was going to pick me up at the station. It was mostly just the racket of the wheels till we crossed Jogeshwari. Then a bunch of drunkards swayed their way in from the next carriage and sat near the woman, and in no time started a discordant Qawwali number about “a lady in the night time”. She sat there resisting the tease for some time squinting angry glances at them, but soon had to give up. She got up and walked towards me, her heavy jewelry rattling all the way, and sat on the opposite side at the window, facing me. She did not say a word except fleetingly make a face indicating the drunkards. The pack of jasmine garland stacked on her head coupled with the harsh smell of some bad perfume and the jingle made the man across the aisle pause and peep over the journal. He uninterestedly went back to his reading right away.

I could say she was shorter than me, and somewhat on the fatter side. She must have been in her late thirties but looked much older. Remains of bygone beauty shadowed around her face that now was jaded with what looked like the stress of everyday toil, which she futilely tried to mask with a thick layer of makeup. The lipstick and the bindi were blood red that gutsily rebelled against her dark green sari with broad golden hem. There was an excess of golden color about her. The golden nose ring, a pair of heavy golden ear rings, a bulky golden necklace and golden bangles alternating glass ones on the arrays on both her hands bunched up till almost elbow- all of them gleaming with an added sheen like that of the fake ones. All in all, she looked like an inferior, plumper version of ‘Manjula’ in the Balbir Pasha ads for AIDS prevention, displayed all over Mumbai. There was also a kind of omnipresent negligence about her overall person. Madhur called her types Phoolwantis- ‘flower girls’- a term he often used rather derogatorily on these tastelessly overdressed traditional looking women in the city!

I keenly studied her, but only when she was not looking. Even then she did notice once, and I looked away immediately. She was fiddling with a pink cellphone, occasionally dialing and keenly listening for an answer. Apparently nobody picked. When she caught me staring a second time she smiled.
“Where to?” she said in Marathi.
“Vasai Road.” I tired to smile.
“Me too. It’s a friend’s wedding.”
For some reason, I did not buy that. 
Then she propped her feet up on my seat, and I noticed her stark white platform heels on the floor. That should complete the get up, I thought.
“Why you wearing it at night?” she said pointing at my shades, “You’ll trip and fall, and with those heels, you might even hurt yourself.” She had a predominant but fading Konkani lilt that was hard to miss.
“My eyes water a lot in the wind otherwise.” I restrained from rolling my eyes since she obviously could see through the shades.
“Don’t you feel hot?”
Now she was talking about my headscarf.
I only smiled this time. I did not feel like educating her about the filth in public transport in our city.
“You live there? Vasai?”
“No, I’m meeting a friend.”
“Not afraid to travel alone at this time? I mean there’ll not be many to even catch a howl around here after nine. And you never miss the likes of those ones.” She said eying at the boozehounds in the rear, who by then had broken off their Qawwali and was arguing on some point none of them agreed with.
“What about you?” I said with a grin.
“My husband works in Vasai. It’s actually his friend’s wedding. He’ll meet me there.”
Then she went on and on about his job and how his long absence at home has started to affect the studies of their kids, and his general ambivalence towards family matters, and his midlife crisis. Twice almost I asked her what she did for a living. She might have come up with a clever answer like she did with everything else. But I restrained from asking. How was that any of my business!
“It’s a headache to manage kids these days, especially when you have to stay away like this at night,“ she said, “Two of mine are criminals. The neighbors have given up watching them for me. So I had to take them to my sister. That’s how I got late. Prabal’s going to skin me alive. He is very image conscious with his friends. He wouldn’t even want to know. Now he’s not picking the phone.”
Then she flashed that pink phone in my face. There was something very fabricated about her openness. It also had a slight tone of boasting. The jerky bounces of English in between her Marathi only enhanced it. Even if her husband-and-kids story was true, she surely seemed to stay out at nighttime a lot.
Then her phone rang.
“No I hadn’t switched off,” she said loudly over the phone, “It’s the train, no? I was also trying you… yeah, they’re with Deepali… no, no, I will tell you when I reach… I think we just left Bhayandar station… okay… okay… yeah!”
Then she turned to me.
“We might stay back. At another friend’s house. Most of Prabal’s friends are in Vasai. Are you going back today itself?”
“Only if my friend’s ready to drive me back.”
Over and over her mannerisms reminded me of Utkala Aunty, my neighbor, who had worked with the Rang Sai Theatre group and was a rather respected theatre tragedienne of her time, but a full-time phony in real life.

When the train finally arrived at Vasai Road, I felt like l was stepping out of the cinema with my ears still buzzing from her jabber over the din of the train. She stood up, leaned over and gently touched on my arm above the elbow and said with a friendly smile that looked somewhat genuine this time, “It was nice meeting you. Myself, Manjula. I’ll see you.”
My gasp was not completely subtle, I’m pretty sure.
“Padmini.” I introduced myself hiding the buzz that her name sparked in my eyes. It was possibly an alias inspired by the lady from the Balbir Pasha ads, I thought.
The man with the soda-bottle glasses arose and looked at the two of us rather strangely, like he was noticing us for the first time that evening. Or our odd pairing probably amused him. Upon being caught staring, he looked away and started to peek through the corner of his eyes up until he finally took a dive out onto the platform while the train was still moving.

Right before she stepped out, Manjula turned around, and with an embarrassed grin, said, “By the way, I thought I shouldn’t tell you this, but you look a lot like Raveena Tandon.”
I smiled trying to avoid looking flattered as if that was not a big deal.
“I initially thought you were she. But then she must have gotten old after all these years away from films, no?” Then she laughed out loud and stepped down to the platform. She walked up to a tall man standing in the shadow of the pillars and walked away further into the dark. They had already started squabbling in Konkani and the echo rang out loud, long after they were gone.

Madhur was waiting out in the lobby next to the ticket counter. I had insisted. The guy never bought a platform ticket in his life! I couldn’t walk very fast as I was trying those knee-high boots for the first time and the folds in the back of the knee hurt in every stride. “Hurry, “ he said when I reached him, “Bhonsale has called me for the hundredth time.”
We climbed into the car and headed towards Gokhivare Road, and it was quarter to twelve by the time we reached Hotel Paradise Fort. That’s where Madhur made the men wait, in Vasai. There we have an arrangement with a guy who sat behind the desk. On our way to the lift, Madhur waved at him. The room was on the third floor, and as I stood knocking on the door, Madhur opened the door to the neighboring room and said, “I’ll wait”. He went in and shut the door behind him right before mine opened.
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