A Visit to Mughal India

January 20th, 2009 Rohini Chowdhury Posted in Agra, Delhi, India, The Mughals 1 Comment »

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The story of the Mughals of India is a story so exciting that it is difficult to know how to tell it. How should I begin? Should I begin with Babur’s invasion, the two great battles that he fought and won against all odds and which led to the establishment of one of the greatest empires in history? Or should I begin with Babur himself, soldier, statesman, conqueror, emperor, and, in the words of the historian Percival Spear, ‘a poet and man of letters, of sensibility and taste and humour as well.’

The Mughal period in India is characterised by superlative achievement in all fields of human endeavour - in empire-building, in statesmanship, politics and administration, in trade and commerce, in art and music and architecture, in literature and poetry. It is a period that is made even more fascinating by the richness of its personalities - the emperors Babur, Humayun, Akbar; the queens and princesses, Hamida Banu, Maryam, Nur Jahan, Jahanara, who held their own with the emperors even in that age of seclusion and purdah; the courtiers, ministers, poets, musicians, Birbal, Todar Mal, Abul Fazl, Tansen, whose stories are told to children even today.

Interestingly, the term ‘Mughal’ is a term the emperors would have shuddered to have applied to them. The Persian term, pronounced ‘Mughul’ in Persia and ‘Mughal’ in India, referred broadly to people of Central Asia who spoke the Mongol languages. Babur never considered himself to be one of ‘the Mughal (Mongol) hordes’, whom he looked upon as barbarians. He traced his descent from Timur on his father’s side, and Chingiz Khan on his mother’s, and in Uzbekistan, Babur’s home, the dynasty called themselves Chaghtai, descended from Chaghta, the son of Chingiz - which made them the elite among the Mongols. Though the term was in use to describe the dynasty from as early as the sixteenth century, it was made popular only with the advent of the Europeans, who felt no great need to be aware of the nuances of the term or the sensibilities of the emperors.

It is impossible to tell the full story of Mughal India here. Instead, let me take you on the journey I took through Delhi and Agra this winter with my family, visiting the landmarks of Mughal history. I will attempt to tell it in order - that is, not in the order in which we visited the tombs and gardens of the great Mughals, but in the order in which these great monuments were built by the emperors and their queens.

Babur, the first Mughal Emperor, though the architect who laid the foundations of the Mughal Empire in India, did not leave behind any remarkable architectural creation, except for the many Persian gardens that he commissioned around the country. (He is also said to have commissioned the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, which was destroyed in 1992 in one of the most shameful acts of sectarian violence in India).

So let me begin with Humayun, Babur’s son and successor, the second Mughal emperor of India, whose magnificent tomb stands in spreading, sunlit gardens, which form a quiet oasis amidst hustle and noise of crowded Delhi.

Humayun was a tragic king. Twenty-three years old at the time of his father’s death, he faced hostility on all fronts - within his family, in the court, in the army. Kind-hearted, tolerant, intellectual and cultured, he was ill suited to rule a fledgeling empire, and, in 1540, lost his throne to the Afghan Sher Shah Suri. Humayun somehow escaped to Persia where he sought, and was given, asylum by Shah Ismail. It was during this period of exile, in 1542, that his son Akbar was born.

With Humayun’s defeat, it seemed that the days of the Mughals in India were over. Sher Shah Suri was not only a brilliant general, but also a talented ruler. He gave the empire an efficient administrative sytem, established a strong and vigorous centre, and embarked upon a reassessment of land-tax. Unfortunately for Afghan rule, and luckily for Humayun, Sher Shah was killed in 1545, during an attack on the Rajput fortress of Kalanjar. He lies buried at Sasaram in Bihar, in a three-storeyed octagonal tomb, once richly decorated.

Sher Shah’s tomb is considered to be the finest example of Afghan Pathan architecture in existence today. Though we could not visit Sher Shah’s tomb in Bihar on this trip, we did see another example of Pathan architecture: within the garden complex of Humayun’s tomb, in a little enclosure of its own to the left of the main entrance, stands the tomb of Isa Khan, one of the nobles in Sher Shah Suri’s court.

The tomb of Isa Khan in Delhi, within the garden complex of Humayun's tomb
Isa Khan’s tomb, Delhi

We walk up the steps and through the sandstone doorway that leads to the tomb and its surrounding sward of green. The tomb is a small, octagonal building, characteristically Afghan in design, perfectly proportioned, elegant and beautiful. Built in 1547, it was once richly decorated, its dome covered with blue tiles, all of which have now fallen off. Bare and unadorned today, it nevertheless holds me spellbound.

Coming back to Humayun. After Sher Shah’s untimely death, his second son Jalal Khan was proclaimed king under the title of Sultan Islam Shah. He held the empire together, mainatined the efficiency of the army and kept in place his father’s reforms. But he died in 1554 and disorder followed his death. His maternal uncle seized the throne and assumed the title of Muhammad Adil Shah. Adil Shah proved to be a lazy and inefficient ruler. His Prime Minister Himu tried to manage the affairs of the kingdom, but was frustrated by the foolishness of the king, whose authority was also challenged by two nephews of Sher Shah.

The resultant chaos encouraged Humayun to make a bid to recover his throne, some fifteen years after he had lost it. This time luck was on Humayun’s side: in February 1555, he succeeded in capturing Lahore and then, in July of the same year, Delhi and Agra. But Humayun did not live long enough to enjoy the throne he had reclaimed - he died in January 1556 as the result of a fall down the staircase of his library in Delhi. The building that is said to have housed the library  - an octagonal sandstone building, built by Sher Shah Suri and known as Sher Mandal - still stands in the Purana Kila (Old Fort) in Delhi.

Humayun lies buried in a red sandstone and marble mausoleum not very far from the Purana Kila.

Humayun's tomb, front view, Delhi
Humayun’s tomb, Delhi

A sign outside the tomb explains that Hamida Banu Begum, his queen and widow, built the Emperor’s mausoleum between 1565 and 1572. The sign continues: ‘Precursor to the Taj Mahal, it [Humayun’s tomb] stands on a platform of 12000 sq m and reaches a height of 47 m. The earliest example of Persian influence in Indian architecture, the tomb has within it over 100 graves, earning it the name, ‘Dormitory of the Mughals’. Built of rubble masonry, the structure is the first to use red sandstone and white marble in such quantities. The small canopies on the terrace were originally covered in glazed blue tiles, and the brass finial over the white marble dome is itself 6m high.’

Green lawns stretch in all directions from the tomb. We walk in the surrounding gardens, the immense bulk of the mausoleum behind us. Emerald green parakeets fly screeching across the pale winter sky to perch upon the domes of the smaller tombs and mosques in the complex. Delhi, with its chaotic, swirling traffic, recedes into the background, and I am transported to an age that was quieter, slower, yet majestic and glorious, where men and women lived their lives on a scale larger than most of us can imagine today.

From the serene glory of Humayun’s tomb, let me take you to Agra, the capital city of Akbar, Humayun’s son and successor, and the greatest of the Mughal emperors of India.

We leave for Agra on a cold, foggy morning. The fog is so dense that we cannot see more than a few metres ahead as we drive to New Delhi Railway Station. Hazard lights flashing, we somehow make it through the fog and reach the station with five minutes to spare. Surprisingly, our train has not been cancelled despite the almost impenetrable fog and it leaves on time.

We crawl towards Agra at little more than walking pace. No one knows what time the train will get there - the fog is unpredictable, and visibility is just a few metres. I gaze out of the window - suddenly a tree, bare and stark, looms out of the fog, and disappears just as quickly. I can see nothing else, not even the tracks running alongside. The two-hour journey seems set to become much longer.

After almost five hours of this slow and excruciating crawl, the fog lifted and a pale, watery sun began to shine. I saw that we had reached Mathura. Mathura is small, congested, a mess, definitely not my favourite place on earth. But it is the birthplace of Krishna, and therefore an important pilgrimage centre for Hindus. I think of the stories of Krishna’s birth and childhood, the grand palaces of Mathura, the leafy glades of Brindavan, and I find it hard to reconcile those with the busy squalor of Mathura today.

Our train is now moving at the ‘superfast’ speed that it was meant to, and in minutes we have left Mathura behind. Within the hour the train draws in to Agra Cantt. - our stop.

We are in a hurry to make up lost time, and stopping only to deposit our bags in our room, we leave to see ‘the sights’.

Let us stop first at the massive and majestic Agra Fort, from where Akbar ruled an empire that extended, at the time of his death, from Kashmir in the north to the Deccan in the south, from Baluchistan and Afghanistan in the west to Bengal in the east. Akbar was, without doubt, the greatest of the Great Mughals, and one of the greatest kings that India had seen in her long history.

A view of a section of the wall of Agra fort. In the distance, the Taj Mahal can be seen through the haze.
A view of a section of the wall of Agra fort. In the distance, the Taj Mahal can be seen.

Akbar, only thirteen at the time, was away in Punjab under the charge of his guardian Bairam Khan when news came of his father, Humayun’s death. He was formally proclaimed king on February 11, 1556.

Despite the fact that Humayun had managed to win back his throne, Akbar’s position as emperor was far from secure: a terrible famine raged in the land; independent kingdoms in different parts of India warred with each other for power and control; and the Surs were still in occupation of the major part of Sher Shah’s empire. Fortunately for Akbar, Bairam Khan his guardian proved to be loyal, and capable. Acting as Regent for the young king, Bairam Khan proceeded to deal ably with the crises that faced the kingdom.

Four years later, Akbar summarily dismissed Bairam Khan, and took control of the now more stable kingdom into his own hands. Akbar was a confirmed imperialist; through a series of conquests he proceeded to increase his kingdom till it became the vast empire he left behind upon his death.

But Akbar was not just an imperialist. He was also an enlightened ruler, known for his wisdom, his religious tolerance, his patronage of the arts, his political sagacity and administrative ability.

Akbar’s fort at Agra has all the strength and majesty that one associates with Akbar. It is huge - more a walled city than a fort. Built of red sandstone, the walls of the fort rise 70 m above the banks of the Yamuna. We enter from the Lahore gate (the imperial entrance, the Delhi gate, is closed to the public) and walk through what were once the public areas of the fort (a market place, a garden) and see before us the red sandstone façade of the Jahangiri Mahal.

The Jahangiri Mahal, Agra Fort
The Jahangiri Mahal, Agra Fort.
Outside the Jahangiri Mahal lies a huge stone basin - this, says a sign, was the bath used by the Emperor Jahangir. The basin is as deep as a man, with stone steps along the outside and inside to climb into and out of it. The bath was carried along for the Emperor wherever he went. I wonder how many elephants were required to pull or carry that massive burden!!

Peter Mundy, a clerk with the East India Company, spent some time in Agra during the years 1631-32, when Akbar’s grandson, Shah Jahan, ruled as Emperor. In an account of his travels, Mundy describes the main sights of Agra. Of the Agra Fort (which he calls ‘the Castle’) he writes:

The Castle stands on the river side, built of square hewen redd stone. That [part which] sides towards the water lyes straight upon a lyne about a quarter of a mile, and soe come[s] rounding into the Cittie. Heere is its best prospects, which is loftie and stately, garnished with handsome Compleat battlements on the wall; about it appearinge divers of the Kings places of residence some of whose upper Coveringe are overlaid with gold. The inside of the Castle lyes levell with the Topp [of the hill on which it is built], but the outside [appears to be] of an exceedinge height [from the river]. In the Corners on the outside, great round Towers with galleries above; on the Topp sundry Turretts, Cupolaes, etts., which much beautifie it.

Of the five hundred or so palaces built during Akbar’s time, only a few remain - some were demolished by his succesors to make way for their own palaces; most were destroyed by the British in the nineteenth century to put up barracks.

In startling contrast to Akbar’s red sandstone palaces are the white marble palaces built by his grandson Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal. Along the riverfront lies the Khas Mahal, the private apartments of the royal ladies, and the delicate fairy pavilions of the princesses Jahanara and Roshanara. Mundy mentions the Sheesh Mahal  (Palace of Mirrors) its ‘floors, roofe and sides of marble, inlayd with lookinge Glasses made into severall workes’. The Sheesh Mahal was closed for restoration work when we visited.

Here are some images of the Diwan-i-Aam, or Hall of Common Audience, where the king met the common people and listened to their pleas and petitions, and where the fabled Peacock Throne once stood.  The Diwan-i-Aam overlooks a large courtyard and garden where shady trees are home to dozens of raucous, screeching parakeets. It is peaceful there, outside the Diwan-i-Aam.

Diwan-i-Aam, front 

The Diwan-i-Aam, Agra Fort

Akbar was a man of many parts - empire-builder, architect, idealist, philosopher, reformer, diplomat, and politician. I like to think that while the Agra Fort reflects the pragmatic man of campaigns and conquests, Fatehpur Sikri is the creation of the dreamer and idealist. Located 37 kms west of Agra, Akbar built this city in 1571 in honour of the Sufi saint and mystic Salim Chisti. It remained the capital of his empire till 1585. Akbar built the city of his favourite red sandstone, quarried from the ridge upon which the city stands. Its many and varied architectural styles, combined harmoniously together, reflect his philosophy of tolerance and assimilation.

We enter through a gateway that takes us straight into the Haram Sara, the imperial Harem complex. The largest of the palaces here is Jodh Bai’s palace. This was the residence of the Emperor’s principal wives, not just Jodh Bai, as is sometimes claimed.

A suite of rooms, Jodh Bai Palace, overlooking the courtyard. fatehpur Sikri 
A suite of rooms in Jodh Bai Palace, opening out into the central courtyard. We wander through the apartments, and imagine the floors covered with luxurious rugs, the walls hung with rich tapestries and silken curtains, the rooms warmed in winter with braziers of burning coals, cooled in summer by fans and fountains.

Close to Jodh Bai’s palace lies a small and elegant house, the Sunehra Makan, or Golden House, so called because of the murals and golden paintings which once adorned it. Remnants of these decorations can still be seen. This was probably the residence of Akbar’s mother, Hamida Banu Begum.

A building known as Birbal’s house lies towards the northern end of the Haram Sara.  Despite Birbal’s standing with the Emperor, it is unlikely that he would have been given a house in the middle of the imperial harem, and it is likely that in reality this was the residence of Akbar’s two senior queens, Ruqayya Begum and Salima Sultan Begum.  The palace, a medley of Hindu and Islamic architectural styles, is stunningly beautiful.

We walk through the columned halls of the Panch Mahal, or ‘Five-storeyed palace’ and out of the imperial harem into the courtyard known as the Pachisi Courtyard because of the life-size pachisi board in its centre. According to legend, the Emperor used to play pachisi here with slavegirls as counters!!

The kiosk known as the Astrolger's seat, with its craved serpentine brackets, Fatehpur Sikri
The Astrologer’s Seat, with its carved serpentine brackets

We wander round the official area - the mysterious building with its strange and elaborately carved central column, variously identified as the Diwan-i-Khas, the Jewel House, or the Ibadat Khana; the misnamed Ankh Michauli, which was not the place where Akbar played blind man’s biff with his wives as legend claims, but a part of the Imperial Treasury; the carved stone kiosk called the Astrologer’s Seat, but which was in truth the Emperor’s seat, where he would sit to watch the distribution of copper coins among the poor, or as payment among his troops.

The building often called the Diwan-i-Khas, fatehpur SikriThe carved pillar in the Diwan-i-Khas, Fatehpur Sikri
The building often called the Diwan-i-Khas, and the carved stone pillar at its centre.

The Diwan Khana-i-Khass and the Khwabgah (‘Dream Chamber’) were Akbar’s private rooms. The walls of the lower chamber are hollow, with sliding stone slabs, the spaces used for storing books which Akbar was fond of having read out to him.

We walk out through the colonnaded courtyard of the Diwan-i-Am, and out of the impressive Agra gate.

A little way away from the Imperial Palace complex, to our right, rises the Badshahi Darwaza, the entrance to the Jama Masjid and the dargah of Salim Chisti. The Jama Masjid is the largest, most impressive building of Fatehpur Sikri.  The great mosque took five years to build and was completed in 1571-72. Salim Chisti’s tomb, a poem in white marble, stands in the centre of the mosque’s vast courtyard.

I had first visited the mosque and the dargah in 1977, more than thirty years ago. I remembered these as the high point of my visit to Fatehpur Sikri, the courtyard of the mosque the most beautiful and serene spot in that magical deep red city. This time though I was disappointed - gone was the peace and serenity. Instead, the courtyard was noisy and crowded, and so filthy that I hesitated to walk across it in my bare feet. It is said that Akbar himself would often sweep the floor of the mosque and call the azan. His spirit must be sorely troubled then, to see the mess and chaos today.

I turn away from the mosque towards the Bulund Darwaza, the monumental gateway that rises 40 m above the courtyard of the mosque. Akbar built this gateway in 1573, to commemorate his victory over Gujarat. This gateway is often regarded as Akbar’s most arrogant assertion of imperial power. But today, this mighty gateway is hung with huge wasps’ nests. I turn away with a shudder. Why this neglect of one of the most incredible structures of medieval India? Does anybody have any answers?

In 1585, only fourteen years after it was built, Akbar and his court left Fatehpur Sikri for Lahore, most probably because of the needs of government and empire. Akbar’s departure took the life from Fatehpur Sikri; it became a ghost city, the residence of djinns and peris.

Our final stop for Akbar is at his tomb which lies on the outskirts of Agra in a small, crowded village called Sikandra. The tomb stands amidst vast manicured gardens where herds of deer graze languidly on the lawns, and langurs run riot amongst the trees.

The magnificient gateway to Akbar's tomb
The magnificient gateway to Akbar’s tomb at Sikandra

The doorway to the tomb, of red sandstone with a huge central arch, is a monument in its own right. The four graceful minarets at the corners, themselves inspired by the Char Minar of Hyderabad, are considered to be the inspiration for the minarets of the Taj Mahal. 

The tomb itself, a four-storeyed structure, is very different from the conventional domed tombs of the Mughals. It is a relatively simple building, though richly adorned inside.

Peter Mundy describes Akbar’s tomb in some detail in his travel journal:

Kinge Ecbar’s [Akbar’s] Tombe is at Shecundra [Sikandra], two miles from Agra, standing in a Garden with four great gates, whereof one principall excellinge all others that I have seene in India for hight, curious Invention in buildinge, paintinge etts., having two extarordinarie high spires…from whence in a long walke you goe to the monument itselfe whose outward farme resembleth the mauseolo pictured among the 7 wonders, fower square, lesseninge towards the topp, havinge severall galleries round about, adorned with Cupolaes of which the lower galleries conteyne the more, the borders on the outside etts’, of redd stone through Cutt [perforated] with curious workes, theis galleries ascending one from another to the Topp, on which is a square litle Court, the pavement chequered with white and a reddish marble, the midle of which is over the midle of the whole, where stands a Tombestone in forme of a herse of one entire peece of marble, curiosuly wrought and engraven with letters and flowers etts. This hath 4 turretts with Copulaes, att each Corner one; from one side to another are galleries alofte and under foote marble, the sides alsoe, which are artificially Cutt through as afore mentioned.

Mundy goes on to write that he was not permitted to enter the chamber where Akbar lies buried, ‘by reason the Kinge[Shah Jahan] keepes the key of the doore which is alsoe sealed with his signett.’ At the time that Mundy wrote his account, he says, ‘the garden and other gates were not yett finished.’

Leaving Akbar to his rest, we return to Agra, to the east bank of the Yamuna river and the small and elegant jewel-like tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah. ‘Itimad-ud Daulah’ was the title given to Mirza Ghiyas Beg, Lord Treasurer to Jahangir, Akbar’s son and successor, and the father of Nur Jahan, Jahangir’s favourite queen.

Exterior decoration on Itimad ud Daulah's tomb, Agra
Exterior decoration on Itimad-ud-Daulah’s tomb in Agra

Jahangir himself was not much of a builder. It was Nur Jahan who took the initiative in such matters and helped lay out Persian gardens all over the empire. It was she who designed and commissioned her father’s tomb, which was begun in 1622 and took six years to complete. It is of white marble, and decorated with a combination of coloured mosaic, stone inlay and lattice work. In many ways it is a memorial more personal, more intimate than the Taj Mahal, and one of the finest examples of Mughal architecture. It marks the transition from the sturdy red sandstone structures of Akbar’s reign to the ethereal marble creations of his grandson, Shah Jahan.

Shah Jahan’s greatest creation, and the zenith of Mughal architectural achievement, is of course, the Taj Mahal. This is my third visit to the Taj Mahal, but once again I am struck by its beauty. It rises, delicate, graceful, almost fragile in its symmetrical perfection. The winter haze lends it an other-worldly quality, and I understand once again the magic of this monument to Love.

The Taj Mahal, Agra
The Taj Mahal, Agra

Shah Jahan, Jahangir’s son and successor, built this fairy edifice in memory of his beloved wife and queen Arjumand Banu Begum. She married Shah Jahan in 1612, and was known as Mumtaz Mahal, ‘Pride of the Palace’, and Taj Mahal, ‘Crown of the Palace’. She accompanied Shah Jahan in his Deccan campaign, and died in Burhanpur in 1631, during the birth of her fourteenth child. Her body was temporarily buried in a garden on the banks of the river Tapti, and, the following December, was brought to Agra where it was placed in a garden on the right bank of the Yamuna during the construction of her mausoleum. It is said that Mumtaz was the love of Shah Jahan’s life and that his other marriages were purely political alliances.

Mundy, who witnessed the construction of the Taj Mahal during his stay in Agra, writes:

This Kinge [Shah Jahan] is now buildinge a sepulchre for his late deceased Queene Tage Moholl [Taj Mahal] (as much to say att the brightnes of the Moholl), whom he dearely affected… He intendes it shall excell all other… There is alreadye about her Tombe a raile of gold. The buildinge is begun and goes on with excessive labour and cost, prosecuted with extraordinary diligence, Gold and silver esteemed comon Metall, and Marble but as ordinarie stones. Hee intends, as some thinck, to remove all the Cittie hither, cawseinge hills to be made levell because they might not hinder the prospect of it, places appoynted for streets, shopps, etts., dwellings commaunding Marchants, shoppkeepers, Artificers to Inhabit [it] where they begin to repaire and called by her name Tage Gunge [Taj Ganj].

The gold railing, studded with gems, that Mundy mentioned, was removed in 1642, and replaced by a marble lattice palisade, which is what we see today. The area around the Taj Mahal is indeed called Taj Ganj. It is a busy area, full of shops and houses. The reason to found a suburb and a market near the Taj Mahal was to provide revenue for the maintenance and upkeep of the building.

Across the river, one can see the foundations of another edifice, a mausoleum in black marble that Shah Jahan was planning for himself. He could not complete that dream - in 1658, his son Aurangzeb, fought and killed his three brothers and seized the throne. Aurangzeb placed Shah Jahan under strict confinement in Agra Fort. He was treated like an ordinary prisoner and denied even the most basic conveniences. He spent the last years of his life in prayer, and, it is said, in gazing upon the Taj Mahal, which is clearly visible from the riverside terraces and pavilions of the Fort.

Shah Jahan was buried in the Taj Mahal, alongside his beloved Mumtaz. His grave is the only asymmetrical feature in the building.

Thus ends - for now - our tour of Mughal India.

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