Wednesday, May 7, 2014

THE GHOST OF TAJ MAHAL


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.

3 comments:

  1. Very informative... the arguement continues....

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  2. For someone like me who had no interest in history while in school, your post was interesting enough to make me want to read it till the end. Whoever built the tomb, it definitely has quite a lot of resemblance to the original Taj.

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  3. Good write-up, with lots of information. I was there at the Bibi ka Maqbara a few years ago, it is no comparison to the real Taj, the father as you say :)

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