Monument of Love VII: The Mercenary

Does the name create an image of a mill and boon cover page in your head, like it did for me? Maybe this series has been a romaticising endeavour for me overall, and hence the outlook!

After ever failed “romantic” relationship of my life, there comes this brief moment of solitude where I found myself struggling to return to ground zero from the euphoria of love-induced high. I start with the obvious negativitiy of being a fool to let optimism lead the way especially knowing my fatalist attitude of believing that all relationships ends one way or the other. And then I will start comparing notes on the extent of grief that was the outcome of this “heartbreak”. And can it even be called a heartbreak, if the resounding thought in your head is “There you go Ishita! Another colourful past added to your history of existence!” I wonder if this is the reason why I am so attracted to history. Perhaps the most painful kind of love will be grief, when the object of a person’s love is taken away with no hope for return. Doesn’t matter if its time, space or the conundrum of circumstances. Grief strangely feels like an over-achieving child of love’s frustration, bitterness, anger, and resentment. Is this why the mausoleums that I have explored so far resonates so strongly with this series of mine?

Since the day Taj Mahal has been constructed, it has been immortalised as a symbol of love, dedication and mostly grief and loneliness. So, it comes as no surprise that there are many contenders and replicas to further add-on to the romanticism of Taj Mahal. Afterall, the Mughal court historian Qazwini himself remarked during the construction of Taj Mahal:

“And a dome of high foundation and a building of great magnificence was founded..… it will be the masterpiece of the days to come, and that which adds to the astonishment of humanity at large.”

Muhammad Amin Qazwini, Shah Jahan’s Mughal court historian. Translation by Ebba Koch.

One such structure that holds a strong resemblance to the grand white mausoleum is the Red Taj. Known as the John Hessing’s Tomb, this red coloured replica was commissioned by Ann Hessing while she was grieving the untimely death of her husband. Hessing’s tomb, standing tall within the centre of a Catholic cemetry, interestingly reflects the interactions of different cultures that occurred prior to British imperial rule.

John Hessing was a Dutch trader and a mercenary who was in the services of the Maratha Empire belonging to the Scindia dynasty in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as a powerful military officer. It is said that, his repute was of such fame that despite being injured on several occassions, he never faltered in his services to the Scindia dynasty. He was appointed as the head of his “Khas Risala” or personal bodyguard by Mahadji Scindia, a position that he held until Mahadji’s death in 1794 and continued under his successor, Daulat Rao. Some of the noteworthy battles to Hessing’s name were – the battle of Kardha where he commanded 3000 Maratha troops against the Nizam of Hyderabad, and the second Anglo-Maratha war where he commanded four battalions against the British forces. Hessing attained the rank of Colonel in 1798 and became the commandant of the Agra Fort, where he remained until his death on 21 July 1803. 

Ann Hessing was not an Empress, so obviously the red mausoleum cannot be compared with the famed white mausoleum. She had very little money (around one lakh rupees) which was used to build this structure. This smaller, red sandstone replica retains much of the common elements of Islamic tomb architecture that was the famed highlight of its predecessor — symmetry, domes, arches, Mughal-style decorative engravings. Unlike the original, the monument is much more compact in size and shape, planned in a simple square layout, and lacks the traditional Mughal inlay work. At its entrance, are two Persian inscriptions — an epitaph and a chronogram: the former expresses Ann Hessing’s grief and the latter marks the year of his death. The grave of John Hessing is located inside the central hall and decorated with a few English inscriptions.

Today, the Red Taj is not more than a forgotten tomb, part of a remote cemetery in Agra which is a hotspot for Mughal legacy, but it’s certainly a reminder of an era when European adventurers and mercenaries visited the country, adopted many of the Indian customs, and earned a name for themselves in the local Indian troops. Strangely, the man who has inspired the greatest romantic structure and its replica, was also responsible for causing great persecution of over 4000 Catholic prisoners in 1634?! Yes, that’s right! I found it very ironic that the “man of romance”, Shah Jahan, who inspired this mini Red Taj, was the reason why this Catholic Cemetry is also known by an alternate moniker – “Martyrs’ Cemetery“, named so after Fr. Manuel Garcia and Fr. Manuel Danhaya who died in prison for their faith under Shah Jahan’s reign of persecution and were burried in unmarked graves within the grounds of the cemetery. Well, we do blame Aurangzeb for a great deal of damage to many of our history and heritage. But was the dreamer of Taj any less guilty? I wonder..!!

Monument of Love series:

Related (and not-so related) Posts:

New Delhi, Uttar Pradesh


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