Article By Mr. Deepak Dan For An International English News Paper
HOW AGRA GOT THE TAJ
It is early morning in Burhanpur, a small and ancient historic city between Khandwa and Bhusawal town in southern Madhya Pradesh, near the Maharashtra border, Not many would have heard of Burhanpur today, but it occupied a prominent place in the empire during Mughal times, since it was a strategic point from which to control the Deccan region. Burhanpur used to provide hospitality to Hindu royals proceeding north or south on pilgrimage & weddings or military expeditions. Burhanpur has many magnificent mansions which are currently being described as mosques and tombs of Islamic invaders.
It was here that Shahjahan spent a considerable number of years as governor of the Deccan region, before his ascension to the throne. And, it was in Burhanpur, on June 17, 1631, to be precise, that his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal passed away, while giving birth to her 14th child.
This building is one such ancient Hindu royal palace (Ahoo Mahal) captured by the Moghuls. Mumtaz died here during her 14th delivery in 1631 A.D. while she and Shahjahan were camping here. She is said to be buried in front of this palace.
Mumtaz is supposed to be buried in this garden pavilion of the ancient Hindu palace (Ahu Mahal) 600 miles from Agra, in Burhanpur. A grief stricken emperor had her laid to rest here near the banks of the Tapti River and a monument was build, where her remains were kept. Simultaneously, work also started on a grand monument near the grave. Shahjahan wanted it to be a monument of unparallel beauty, conceptualized in white marble, whose reflection in the Tapti River would increase its beauty manifold. Yes, the Taj Mahal was initially planned to be built at Burhanpur. However, destiny had other plans. Today, the vast stretches of open land on the banks of Tapti River, near Mumtaz's grave in Burhanpur, stand mute testimony to what could have been.
By the time I reached this place, located almost 10 km away from the town of Burhanpur, the sun was brightly shining overhead, the road gave way to a wobbly dust track that finally led to a monument now largely a ruin. A signboard next to it proclaims it to be Mumtaz Mahal's grave and claims that it is ostensibly protected by the state archaeology department. Two boys, playing cricket nearby, offered to show me around the ruins. We go down a flight of stairs to a small chamber, where Mumtaz Mahal's body was presumably buried. Debris and rubble now covers the floor. Sometime back, the ground here was leveled. So, any sign of a grave has now disappeared. The ruins of a Masjid, built in her memory, lie nearby. This state of disrepair is a little ironical because almost 400 years ago – during Shahjahan time – this complex would have been one of the most important buildings of the Mughal Empire. One can almost visualize the scenes that must have unfolded there.
Shahjahan was devotedly attached to Mumtaz Mahal, to a degree rarely seen in polygamous households, especially royal ones. Her death, therefore, had a profound impact on him, with one account suggesting that because of the shock, his hair turned completely grey. His grief found other expressions too. Every Friday, it is believed that he would come to the grave and light a lamp in his wife's memory, even as maulvis (Muslim Priests) recited verses from the Quran near the burial chamber. Infact, the alcoves where the lamps were lit, known as chiraagdaan, can still be seen in the walls around the complex. Much of the surrounding landscape has also not changed, with the Tapti River flowing placidly nearby, as it would have, during those times.
No wonder then, that Shahjahan wanted to have his Taj built here. Three things, however, prevented this from happening. First, there were logistical problems in transporting marble from the quarries in Makrana in Rajasthan to Burhanpur. Then, when the builders evacuated the site, they found that the black soil along the Tapti could not support the weight of a structure of magnitude that they were planning. They advised Shahjahan to shift the mausoleum away from the river, but Shahjahan was adamant that it should be built along the river, so that he could see its reflection. Therefore the hunt began for a better location and finally, the project was shifted to Agra. Being the capital of the empire it was felt to be a more practical choice, since the emperor could then visit the mausoleum more frequently. Furthermore, its proximity to marble quarries and the presence of better soil along the Yamuna also went in its favour.
While the location of Taj was being decided, Mumtaz Mahal's body remained at the grave at Burhanpur. It is generally believed that it was kept here for six months, and a temporary burial, known as amanat was performed, although there is no clear account of whether the body was preserved. However, according to a research on this subject some years ago, Mumtaz's body would have been preserved according to Unani techniques and the body was probably kept in an air tight box, filled with herbs like camphor, acacia, sandalwood, ash etc., which created a vacuum and prevented it from decaying. Since Islam prohibits cutting a body after death, these herbs were packed tightly in layers around the body.
However, it is highly unlikely that the body could have been preserved for long. By the time it would have been taken to Agra, only the skeleton would have remained.
Nevertheless, it is fascinating to know that Mumtaz Mahal's was buried at three different places various times. First the body was kept at the royal hunting palace, the Ahu Mahal, located near the grave in Burhanpur. Here, the ceremony of tafkeen or wrapping it in a kafan was performed, before it was taken to the grave, where it was interred for six months. It was then taken to Agra where it was buried for a few years, while the Taj Mahal was being built, before finally being shifted to its ultimate resting place in the monuments basement.
The Taj, of course, has been associated with Mumtaz Mahal for centuries and has got its due recognition. But perhaps, it's time the other monuments that have played their part in this saga, like the grave and the Ahu Mahal in Burhanpur, also get their due. For, Agra may have got the Taj, but the story behind it, still reverberates in these monuments in Burhanpur.