Rabindranath Tagore called the Taj Mahal “a teardrop on the cheek of time”. But spare a thought for the neglected land where the initial tears of a grieving husband and children first fell. It was this trail of tears that led me to the small town of Burhanpur in Madhya Pradesh.
When Khan Jahan Lodi rebelled against the Mughal empire, little did he know of its impact on the life of the emperor and eventually India. Shah Jahan moved to Burhanpur to quell the revolt, and as was her norm, Mumtaz Mahal, though pregnant with her fourteenth child, went with him.
She stayed in the Badshahi Qila, which had been built by the Faruqi rulers of Khandesh, who had ruled Burhanpur from the 14th to 16th century. Akbar’s army occupied Burhanpur in 1599 and it became the Mughal capital of Khandesh. Akbar’s son Daniyal was made the Subedar of the new province. The shikaar -loving, pleasure-seeking prince built an Aahukhana, or deer park, opposite the Badshahi Qila in the village of Zainabad on the banks of the river Tapti.
When Shah Jahan was the governor of the Deccan, he added various buildings within the Badshahi Qila, including a once-gorgeous and now deteriorating hammam, for his wife’s relaxation. The hammam is beautifully painted and one of the fading frescoes has a building which looks remarkably like the Taj Mahal. It was in this palace that Mumtaz Mahal died on the night of June 16-17, 1631, after giving birth to Gauhar Ara Begum.
In the middle of nowhere
Shah Jahan had least expected this complication and was inconsolable when his beloved wife left for the next world. Mumtaz Mahal was laid to rest in the Aahukhana. A week later, Shah Jahan came to the Aahukhana and recited the fateha for his wife’s soul and wept over her grave. As long as he stayed in Burhanpur, he came every Friday to recite the fateha .
Locals tell me that Shah Jahan had initially decided to build a grand mausoleum for Mumtaz Mahal on the banks of Tapti, but due to difficulties in transporting marble from Markana, and the composition of the soil which had termites, he selected Agra. One local heritage enthusiast even told me that the image of the mausoleum would not fall on the Tapti, so the idea was abandoned. Unfortunately, logistics stole Burhanpur’s place in history and bestowed it on Agra.
Whatever the reasons for building the Rauza-e-Munawwara (the original name of the Taj Mahal) in Agra, the Aahukhana beckoned me. It seemed like I was in the minority, though, with only a few heritage-lovers, who are fighting to preserve their city’s heritage, for company.
The Aahukhana, where Mumtaz Mahal’s body lay for six months before being transported to Agra, lies in the middle of nowhere with a dirt track leading to it.
The baradari , which by consensus is the original resting place, is within an enclosed compound. Its boundary wall and iron gates are worse for wear, with the walls breaking up in quite a number of places. There is wild overgrown grass and a dirty dry tank, which was once a source of delight to visitors to the garden. The pleasure palace built in front of it is now a place which brings displeasure: it is dirty, dank, smelly and covered with graffiti.
The baradari has long since lost its roof. Its beautiful columns sag under the burden of sorrow. They have been roughly propped up by bricks to prevent further destruction. It is a picture of desolation.
Bemoaning the state of heritage
I was taken by my guides to another ruinous building a little further away from the baradari complex that was also part of the original Aahukhana. It has a small tank and mosque. The guides told me that this was the site where Mumtaz Mahal was given her ritual funeral bath.
Burhanpur heritage enthusiasts claim this is the actual grave. I could not meet Shahzada Asif, a resident who is said to have identified this place and who observes Mumtaz Mahal’s urs , or death anniversary, every year on June 7 in this place, but Hoshang Havaldar, a local hotel owner and heritage enthusiast, told me about it. I stayed in his hotel and we spent the evenings bemoaning the state of Burhanpur’s deteriorating heritage.
This building has no boundary wall and cotton farming is being done on its grounds. A rusted, decrepit board with barely distinguishable letters outside it proclaims in Hindi that this is Begum Mumtaz Mahal ki Qabr.
On December 1, 1631, Mumtaz Mahal’s body was taken out of the baradari and sent in ceremony to Agra accompanied by her son Shah Shuja, her lady-in-waiting Satti-un-Nisa, and Hakim Alimuddin Wazir Khan. They arrived in Agra 20 days later.
There are many theories of how her body was embalmed. Some say it was kept in a sealed lead-and-copper coffin filled with natural embalming herbs as per Unani techniques. Since the coffin was never opened, one doesn’t know the state of decomposition or preservation of the queen’s body.
But whatever state she may be sleeping in her grave in Taj Mahal, I am sure her soul cries at the wilderness and neglect of her original resting place in Burhanpur.