In the chaos of Agra and its many bridges, and overpowering alluring Taj Mahal, one could easily miss this elegant pavilion on the riverbank.
Though Nur Jahan was one of the most influential leaders in 17th century Asia, for centuries her legacy has been reduced to a love story that ends where her real adventure began – at her marriage to Emperor Jahangir.Ruby Lal, author of ‘Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan’
Most of us often believe that love is the only human constant, not only within the context of relationships but something that connects us with remotest eras, forgotten histories and lost cultures. But amongst the imperial regime, love is often defined in the context of conspiracy and political mayhem. As rank outsiders, it is much more difficult to gain such a foothold. Imagine the surprise when one queen emerges as a forerunner – a powerhouse and a master strategist. As the wife of the Emperor of India, she was responsible for making strategic decisions in the name of her husband, while her husband immersed himself as a prolific opiate drinker. In fact, her seal reads the following inscriptions: “With the grace of Allah, became in this world, Emperor Jahangir’s consort and confidant.” Many historians have claimed her personality to be that of manupulative. Probably this is the depiction that she tried to capture in her own tomb in her own words:
Bar mazar-e-ma ghareeban ne chiraghe ne gule
Ne par-e-parvana yabi ne sarayad bulbule.
Translation: On the resting place of lonely persons like us, not a lamp is lit, not a flower blossoms; no moth burns its wings here, nor the nightingale sing a song.On the tomb of Nur Jahan in Lahore
Beyond the professed love of her husband, the filial love is often captured less. Probably that’s the reason why one of the finest representation of filial love is often under-represented, both in history and within tourism industry.
When not running Jahangir’s empire, Nur Jahan patronised the making of buildings – the finest of which was Itimad-ud-daulah, the tomb of her father Ghiyaz Beg, across the Yamuna, north of the Taj Mahal. Built on a more human scale as compared to the tomb of Akbar or the Taj Mahal, this graceful structure inspires more fondness than awe, since its a tribute from a daughter to the memory of her father!
“I choose to believe that my father is still alive, that he has survived death, outlived us all, and possesses the soul that goes on and lives forever; We just cannot see him yet, for we have not caught up with him. our time will come just as his did. and no matter how woeful and lost I was when he passed away, I know I will be glad to go to a place where I can see him, and know he is okay and happy. It’s just not my time yet and there is no way of knowing if any of it is true.” – Jane Adams”Noorilhuda, The Governess
Niccilo Manucci, an Italian traveler in 1653, was fascinated with the stories and accomplishments of Nur Jahan. His narrative for the enigmatic Emperess goes on to say “The child who was born in miserable plight, came to be famous for Queen, The Nur Jahan.” Nothing describes the story of Nur Jahan more astutely than this narrative. At time when Mirza Ghiyaz Beg left his nativeland Persia, India was the destination of choice for many refugees, especially more so during Akbar’s reign. As such, Akbar’s court acquired the unique distinction of being dar-al-aman, the abode of peace and refuge. According to Khafi Khan, a 18th century account of Mehrunissa’s birth, the caravan in which Ghiyaz and Asmat Begum travelled was attacked and looted by brigands. Left with only two mules, Ghiyaz Beg, his pregnant wife, and their three children were forced to take turns riding on the backs of the animals for the rest of their journey. Soon after this, Asmat delivered her second daughter somewhere near Kandahar. The family was so impoverished, they feared they would be unable to take care of the newborn baby. The eccentric version of the story continues on to recount the despair of a poor father and his decision to abandon the newborn child. However, kismet stepped in and took the name of a merchant Malik Masud, who played a key role in arranging an introduction with the Emperor Akbar. Believing that the child had signaled a change in the family’s fate, she was named Mirza Mehrunnisa, meaning “sun among women”. Who knew the small step of kindness will later on pave way for a brilliant strategist and the Emperess of India!
Mirza Ghiyaz Beg started his role as the revenue minister in Kabul in the service of Akbar, and soon rose within the administrative ranks to become an important courtier in the Mughal court of both the father and the son – Akbar and Jahangir. Because of his capabilities, he was given the title of Itimad-ud-Daulah, meaning Pillar of the State, by Akbar.
Nur Jahan’s devotion to her parents Mirza Ghiyaz Beg and Asmat Begum remains undisputed within the pages of Mughal history. Its most tangible expression is this poetic tomb that was commissioned between 1622 and 1628 following the death of her parents who died one after the other, over a period of a few months, in 1622. The dome-less mausoleum is set on a sandstone platform, in the heart of a char bagh edged with magnificent gateways and a pavillion. Considering the fact that Mirza Ghiyaz Beg was also the grandfather of Mumtaz Mahal, the famed muse of Taj Mahal, it comes as no surprise that the Tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah paved the way for Shah Jahan’s masterpiece. The building is square in shape with octagonal towers, topped by chhatris. Unlike Taj, the towers are part of the main building.
From an aesthetics perspective, the Iranian-styled edifice built with white marble from Rajasthan is embedded with exquisite pietre-dura (or marble inlay) panels comprising of geometric patterns, cypress trees, bouquets and urns of flowers and wine bottles made of a mix of grey, brown, black and tan shades, which reveal fascinating swirls when viewed up close. What makes it particularly interesting are the detailed decorative elements throughout. Despite the profuse amount of work that can be abundantly appreciated, the decoration feels light and delicate. Beautiful panels bear polychromatic patterns against a white background which look as bright as they would have in 1628 when the building was completed. The Baby Taj was something of a prototype; many of the decorative techniques used here were later perfected in the Taj Mahal.
Ochre, and black on white are used to a great effect, creating mosaics of interlocked stars (some with twelve points), and other geometric patterns. The outer marble surfaces punctuated with delicate jaalis give way to a riot of colour through painted stucco lining a dark inner chamber. The cenotaph is another key feature of differentiation between the two “Taj” – While similar to Taj, both parents of Noor Jahan have been placed together in the middle of the complex. However, unlike the “minimalist” decor of the cenotaph in Taj, the decoration inside Baby Taj can be simply described as masterpiece! Most of the paintings are inspired by the findings of Ustad Mansoor Nakvash, a prominent botanist and painter in King’s court.
Taj has a way of overshadowing all it’s comrades because of its stature and grandeur. It is one of the seven wonders of the world afterall. But the Tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah is an equal, if not formidable, contender when it comes to comparing beauty of Mughal architecture. Declared as a source of inspiration for the making of Taj Mahal, the tomb is the first Mughal building that was completely constructed in white marble, a very distinct transition from the red sandstone characteristics from Akbar’s era. It is rather ironic that, what seems to be a precursor to the greatness of Taj — with its vaulted central chambers, networks of rooms leading from one to the other, the covered verandahs, use of marble, delicate ornamentation and the finesse of inlay work, it is the Tomb of Itimad-ud-daulah that is referred as a miniature offspring or the Baby Taj.
Pro Tip: For a smooth experience of exploring the monuments of Agra (and Delhi), I would recommend purchasing the tickets in advance (I have linked the payment portal for ease of reference!). How advance? Well, for the smaller buildings, you can just purchase the ticket while walking towards the entrance gate or even at the ticket counter. I started with Agra fort (since forts usually take a longer time to explore), and then to Baby Taj. But, for Taj Mahal, I would recommend one day prior booking. Go check out the Mausoleum I for more tips.
To explore my “version of Agra”, I will recommend booking for the Secret Taj Tour with Agra beat. They are incredible proactive within the community and are trying to make Agra, a city beyond Taj. You can connect with Amit Sisodia at +91 9897055383. I stayed at Ekaa Villa and Kitchen agra, a one of a kind boutique hotel in Agra.
Monument of Love series:
- Monument I: Emperor, Soldier, Master Builder
- Monument II: The Best Friend
- Monument III: Gift from a Daughter
- Monument IV: The Prince of Exile
- Monument V: The Poet-Warrior
- Monument VI: The Wazir and his son
- Monument VII: The Mercenary
- Monument VIII: The Affable Sultan
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