Baby Taj – Memories of the “Cushion-cover” Empress

My trip to Agra sat on the shelf for several years. More exotic destinations won over the beauty of the Taj and the benefits of proximity. The trip finally got fixed, goaded by a desire to get away from truckloads of work and also to spend time with my 6 month old nephew on his first ever holiday!

A 2 hour drive on the flawless Yamuna Expressway, the lush green fields anchored by tall, brick chimneys and a hearty meal of rajma chawal at a highway hotel set the right pace for Agra.

The visit to Agra had many highlights. Looking up to the soaring sandstone walls of the Agra Fort and imagining the bejewelled splendours of the Mughal zenanas. Recreating the spring colours of the Mughal baghs now bereft of their old beauty which in their heydays were a footprint of “Jannat” on earth. Waking up to a sunrise view of the Taj Mahal from the balcony of my hotel room. Having to prove to the Taj Security that we are not foreigners and therefore eligible for Indian entrance rates. Discovering that Shah Jahan had more than 1 wife buried in the Taj complex – I had always believed that Shah Jahan loved Mumtaz Mahal so much that he didn’t feel the need for any more! Seeing the Kalash-shaped Tamga finial topping the dome of the Taj – a symbol of Hindus used in the traditional tribal stamp of the Mongols. Getting lost in the legend of the Black Taj – what a beautiful companion it would have made to the Taj Mahal! Listening to the story of the 20,000 murdered artisans of the Taj. Peering into the intricate jallis of derelict houses in the old mohallas of the quaintly named “Yamuna Kinare”. Counting the super clones of the “Panchi Petha”walla – an IP lawyer’s delight! Getting lost in the little gullies and markets of Agra on our way to Fatehpur Sikri and getting stuck at what I thought was a thing of the past – a railway crossing! First battling the car-chasing touts at the Fatehpur Sikri gate and then battling the heat and picnicking crowds to snatch a moment of peace at Sheikh Salim Chisti’s Mazar. Basking in the borrowed glory of my cute nephew. Passing through the towering Buland Darwaza and feeling dwarfed by its majesty. Feeling amazed that such a grand city and such a mighty emperor (Akbar) had to stoop and accept defeat to the Water God as the city laid abandoned due to shortage of water. And of course, I want to write about the white beauty of the Taj, but can barely hope to do justice either to its beauty or to the several tomes that have already been written about it.

But while all of these memories will no doubt be cherished for long years to come, the biggest draw for me was Itimad-ud-Daula’s tomb – also colloquially and to my mind, rather disrespectfully called the “Baby Taj”. The tomb has been on my travel list for a long time.

The entrance gate to the Baby Taj
The entrance gate to the Baby Taj

As I walk into the gardens that form the frame for the tomb, I am greeted by soul-stirring notes of Hindustani songs. I look left and right for the group which is playing this within the tomb complex (perhaps an initiative to improve the tourist experience?), but find no one in sight. I soon realise that this is music floating in from a group of women practicing in a nearby mohalla. A pleasant surprise that takes me back in time to the mughal women finding new ways of entertaining themselves in the royal zenanas.

The tomb seems small and compact from a distance and also unusually dome-less. But as I climb up the platform of the tomb, I am dazzled by the intricate inlay work – a profusion of trees of life, flower-vases and flowers, wine bottles and birds in colours of ochre, amber yellow, slate grey, black and caramel that creep all over the tomb facade and take it from the ordinary to the extra-ordinary. This tomb is believed to be the first monument in marble built by Mughal India and is also supposed to be the inspiration for the Taj. It is also supposed to have formed the template for extensive use of inlay work with precious stones. The façade work is well-maintained and bright. While age has ravaged and dulled the interiors of the main tomb chamber as well as the smaller sarcophagi, there are enough flashes of colour visible on the walls and the ceilings to give a glimpse of its old glory. Having paid my homage to the tomb’s beauty, I walk towards the sandstone pleasure-pavilion that lines the banks of the Yamuna and perhaps acted as the river-side entrance to the tomb. Standing here in the cool breeze of the Yamuna, I imagine the purdah’ed Empress Nur Jehan being rowed in a royal boat to this spot, paying respects to her father, Itimad-ud-Daula, and then quietly sitting in this gazebo reminiscing about good days gone by.

For me, the charm lies less in the tomb’s architectural beauty and more for my fascination with its builder, Empress Nur Jahan who built this architectural marvel for her father.

Itimad-ud-Daula, a poor nobleman from Persia, gained his title and his riches in India through his daughter, Empress Nur Jahan. Itimad-ud-Daula, to mind, was the “father in law” of Mughal India like Maria Theresa, the Empress of Austria, was the mother in law of Europe. He eventually gave the Mughals 2 empresses – Nur Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, his daughter and grand-daughter respectively. And also an able great grand-daughter. Jahanara, the Padishah Begum, empress of princesses – Mumtaz Mahal’s daughter who stepped into the role of a trusted advisor for her brother, Emperor Aurangzeb.

Itimad-ud-Daula’s tomb is a testimony to the power of a woman who could immortalise her father and raise him way beyond his ranks and deeds.

Nur Jahan is a woman I admire tremendously, though there is a lot more that I would like to learn about her. Everything about her fascinates me. From being a baby nearly abandoned by her parents on the treacherous mountains of Afghanistan, she rose to the mighty levels of Empress of India. She brought good fortune and fame to her entire family – her father, her brother and her ungrateful niece, Arjumand Bano (later Mumtaz Mahal, whose match she made with her step-son, Shah Jehan) – all of whom abandoned her when the wheels of fortune turned against her. A rare instance of a mature love story – a 32 year old widow with a grown child who wins the heart of Emperor Jehangir, a man who could have any woman in his empire. She finds his way to his bed, not as a lowly harem member, but as the Empress of India, quite easily dislodging the politically well connected first wife, Jagat Gosseni. A woman who despite the barricades of purdah, takes over the responsibilities of ruling the empire as the Baadshah Begum and goes down in history as the only Mughal Empress to mint coins in her own name. [“By order of Shah Jehangir Gained a Hundred Beauties Gold by Name of Noor Jahan Badshah Begum”]. She buys ships, runs her own trading business and negotiates trade agreements. A tiger-slaying huntress and a trend-setting fashionista, all rolled in one. A woman who is breathtakingly beautiful, yet intelligent; ambitious, yet family-oriented. A shining example of womanhood. Yet, history remembers her not in these glowing terms but as a manipulative woman who assumed powers that no woman should wield. But no surprises there – history is written by men.

What’s ironical is that the niece who betrayed her, Mumtaz Mahal, is now known more that she is. Celebrated in death for a lacklustre life, which perhaps made no impact to anyone beyond her immediate family. While the real empress lies disturbed in a lonely, unassuming grave in Lahore and is now sadly remembered only in cushion covers! To me, Itimad-ud-Daula’s Tomb is that silent tribute to Nur Jahan.

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