What’s in a name? The journey from Aurangabad to Sambhaji Nagar 

A nursery of history, it has been ruled by the eccentric Mohammed Bin Tughlaq of the Delhi Sultanate, Mughals and Marathas, and is also home to the famous Ajanta-Ellora caves, now a UNESCO heritage site 

March 02, 2023 08:30 am | Updated 10:16 am IST

The Elllora caves near Aurangabad.

The Elllora caves near Aurangabad. | Photo Credit: The Hindu

A little over a thousand kilometres from the Taj in Agra rests a son of Mumtaz Mahal in Aurangabad. Not quite a mother’s darling, he failed to find his father’s love too, losing out to his brother Dara Shukoh. Not that he did much to earn it, as the events from 1658 to 1666 prove when Shah Jahan was imprisoned at Agra. Actually, the man who lies buried in Khuldabad was his own man, doing his own thing his own way. Enigma to most, Aurangzeb is depicted in history books by some historians as a pious Muslim, and a bigot by many others. In reality, Aurangzeb, as Audrey Truschke writes in Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth, organised his life as a ruler of Hindustan around a few key ideals and preoccupations. “He wanted to be a just king, a good Muslim, and a sustainer of Mughal culture and customs.”

 Audrey Truschke’s Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth

 Audrey Truschke’s Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth

As a child, he had read the Koran and Hadith and was said to be fond of Rumi’s Masnavi. Exposed to Persian translations of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, he was fluent in Hindi and is credited with some Braj Bhasha compositions. Amidst works of piety and literary registers of Hindi, Aurangzeb, who would go on to earn a living knitting caps, found time to fall in love with Hirabai, a dancer and singer, in 1653. The romance lasted Hirabai Zainabadi’s lifetime; her life ended a year later. She was buried in Aurangabad, not too far from Aurangzeb’s simple maqbara (tomb). As for the emperor, given as he was to a Sufi streak, he was buried in the company of his spiritual preceptor. His tomb was to have no marble, no Persian tiles, no embellishment.

Open to the sky

A New History of India.

A New History of India.

The simplicity of Aurangzeb’s tomb stems at least partially to his aversion to things his father did. As Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Shobita Punja and Toby Sinclair have written in the recently released, A New History of India, “Aurangzeb was critical of his father Shah Jahan’s lavish lifestyle, the building of extravagant building projects, and that he inherited empty coffers. He chose to live in accordance with Islamic teaching and his simple grave stands in the dargah of Shaikh Burhan al-din in Khuldabad near Aurangabad. The grave, open to the canopy of the sky, has few embellishments, in direct contrast to the opulence of his father’s final resting place in the Taj Mahal.”

.The tomb of Aurangzeb at Khuldabad.

.The tomb of Aurangzeb at Khuldabad. | Photo Credit: The Hindu

The emperor’s simplicity and frugality did not come in the way of building a beautiful tomb for his wife, Dilras Banu Begum in Aurangabad in 1660. She was a constant presence in his life, since the time they got married in 1637 when Aurangzeb was a teenager. Their long-lasting love and marriage fail to find similar enthusiasm from the common man and historians alike that they reserve for the tale of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz in Agra. Begum’s tomb or Bibi ka Maqbara is, as Mukherjee and his co-authors write, “though similar in plan to the Taj Mahal, is very different; it is half its size and looks more elongated, and it was covered, not in expensive marble, but in burnished stucco, that gives it a subtle sheen, thus introducing a new architectural style of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.”

The Bibi Ka Maqbara, located in Maharashtra.

The Bibi Ka Maqbara, located in Maharashtra.

For all the tales around these tombs, there is more, much more to Aurangabad, recently rechristened Chhatrapati Sambhaji Nagar.

The choice of the new name is interesting. Sambhaji was Shivaji’s son who was captured by Mughal forces in 1689. In his tussle with the emperor, he came out second best. Truschke writes, “Aurangzeb ordered Sambhaji, who had spent years fighting the Mughal state, along with his Brahmin adviser Kavi Kalash, to be publicly humiliated....He then had Sambhaji’s eyes stabbed out with nails, and, in one historian’s poetic words, ‘his shoulders were lightened of the load of his head’.” Interestingly, Aurangabad hosts the well-known Shivaji Museum which is an ode to the genius of the man who took on the mighty Mughal emperor with limited resources and astounding success.

Of kings and their follies

Much before the Mughals set foot here, there was a whimsical Sultan who not only came to Daulatabad or Deogir but also brought the entire population of Delhi along in 1327. He was Mohammed Bin Tughlaq, a Sultan so well meaning, also a king so married to eccentricity. Tired of threats of attacks on Delhi, he decided to shift his capital to safer Daulatabad, bag, baggage, nobles and commoners, all included.

As written by Barani, “This second project of Sultan Muhammad…was that of making Deogir his capital under the title of Daulatabad….Troops of the natives with their families and dependants, wives and children moved…Many from the toil of long journey, perished on the road.” The Sultan realised his folly and ordered a march back to Delhi, resulting in more casualties. The fort in Daulatabad was the capital of the Yadava dynasty till the 14th century, and later became a part of the Ahmednagar Sultanate.

Aurangabad’s history incorporates the Sultanate, Mughals and the Marathas, and goes back further in time — it is home to the famous Ajanta-Ellora caves, the former being 30 rock-cut Buddhist monuments from second century BC, the latter being the largest rock-cut Hindu temple, its hundred caves dating back to the Rashtrakuta and Yadava dynasties. The Ajanta-Ellora caves are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and turn the notion of the region being a Mughal-Maratha centrepiece on its head.

The view of the Ellora caves at Aurangabad.

The view of the Ellora caves at Aurangabad.

Indeed, Aurangabad or Sambhaji Nagar is a nursery of history.

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