Lockdown reads: Walking down the Agra’s necropolis, in the shadow of the Taj

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Walking around Taj Mahal is like roaming within different layers of Mughal history. Once you start peeling off these layers, you get to know—one after the other—many lesser known facts and events of the period which was largely overshadowed by a single story of love. As one of the curators of our walk, Shradha Arora would say it as the ‘shadow of the Taj’, a ‘necropolis’ where all dead lay buried, including the other queens of Shahjahan, all of whom have largely been forgotten.

We all know about Mumtaz Mahal and the story of Taj Mahal. In an earlier post we also talked about the first wife of Emperor Shahjahan. Kandahari Begum, as she was know, has her tomb at Sandali Masjid complex on the other side of the Taj Mahal complex, but not the part of it. We are now going to talk about other two queens of Shahjahan and their tombs and also about another lady, who though not royal, was as prominent as other ladies of the emperor’s harem.

Also read: Where a Shahjahan’s Queen lies in solitude on the other side of Taj

Shahjahan married Akbarabadi (Izzat-un-Nissa, Izz-un-Nissa or Aizaz-un-Nissa) Begum in 1617 as his third wife and Fatehpuri Mahal (Begum) later. Akbarabadi Mahal was grand-daughter of Abdur Rahim Khan-i-Khanan, a great poet in Akbar’s court. Year of his fourth marriage is largely unmentioned. Shahjahan’s love to Mumtaz Mahal is nothing that needs to be told about, but as I said last time, status of his relations or affection towards his other three wives has always behind wraps. Were there any priorities of his affection after Mumtaz Mahal died? We know that Mumtaz died in June 1631, but there aren’t any confirmed mentions of year and way of death of other three queens. Lot of it has been left to assumptions or near guesses. 

Kandahari Begum’s tomb outside Taj complex

They all died after Mumtaz Mahal. Kandahari Begum was the first one to pass away around 1650 and the other two later. As per some references both the younger queens died after Shahjahan’s death in 1666. It is said that Akbarabadi Mahal and Fatehpuri Mahal were with the Emperor during his imprisonment in the hands of Aurangzeb and until his demise. 

Would have been safe to assume that queens who were less fortunate in getting the Emperor’s affection than turned themselves to more religious pursuits. That is perhaps reflected in the big mosques built by them during their lifetimes, which came to be known by their own names. Akbarabadi Begum built a big Akbarabadi Mosque in Delhi, but it is nowhere to be seen today as it was said to be demolished by Britishers in early 1858, in the aftermath of revolution of 1857. Akbarabadi Mosque was built close to Red Fort and some recent excavations have indicated that it was at the site where Netaji Subhash Park is located today in Old Delhi. (This is the same now non-existing mosque that went into huge controversy, debate and tension during construction of Delhi Metro’s heritage line in 2012.) Akbarabadi Mosque was built in year 1650. 

Sketch of Akbarabadi Masjid from Sir Syed Ahmed’s Asia-us-Sanadid

In his book Asar-us-Sanadid Sir Syed Ahmed Khan in 1847, had written- “In this same Faiz Bazaar is a beautiful mosque that pleases the heart, refreshes the eyes and rejuvenates the spirit. It is built completely of red sandstone. There are rooms around it for students to live in. It has been built on a plinth which goes all the way to its western side. In magnificence and exaltation it even supersedes the sky. Aizaz-un-Nisa Begum, wife of Shihabud-Din Muhammad Shahjahan, in AH 1060 (CE 1650) built this blessed mosque in his twenty-fourth regnal year. She was given the title of Akbarabadi Mahal and the mosque also became famous by that name. It had three burj and seven arches and measured 63 gaz in length and 17 gaz in width.” (Originally published in Urdu and translated in English by Rana Safvi.) The book also has a sketch of the mosque.

Similarly, Fatehpuri Mahal (Begum) built Old Delhi’s famous Fatehpuri Masjid, on the other end of the Chandni Chowk. And, equally surprisingly this mosque was also said to have built in the year 1650, same year when Akbarabadi Mosque was built and also presumably the same year when Kandahari Begum died in Agra. This all was the time when Taj Mahal’s grandeur was almost completely in place. And, if you find it odd, as it seemed to me, then also notice this another fact that Akbarabadi Begum is said to have built a garden in Delhi- Shalimar Bag—on the lines of Shalimar Bagh of Kashmir—and that too is said to be have formally opened in September 1650. There are some references which say that Kandahari Begum who was also known as Sirhindi Begum, also built a mosque in Delhi named as Sirhindi Mosque at Lahori Gate near Khari Baoli market.

Fatehpuri Masjid in Old Delhi

Well, now comes the most intriguing part for me. Although the mausoleum part of the Taj was completed much before, work related to other structures, forecourt, gardens, took their own time and some references say that they were finished by 1653. Many few people coming to Taj know that while they enter the premises from either the western gate or the eastern gate of the Taj complex, they first pass alongside the tombs of one of the Shahjahan’s other queens even before they can have the first glimpse of the magic in white marble. The jilukhanah or the forecourt of the Taj complex houses tombs of Akbarabadi Mahal and the Fatehpuri Mahal. So, when we enter the complex from the general used western gate after ticketing and security, and move towards Darwaza-i-rauza the tomb of Fatehpuri Mahal is on the right, where we find some drinking water coolers for the visitors. Similarly, when we enter from the eastern gate of the complex (side of the Shilpgram and Taj Khema) and move towards darwaza-i-rauza, then the tomb of Akbarabadi Mahal is on the left. Unfortunately, public entry to both these tombs is now banned, so we now can’t visit these two tombs. We are not even allowed to go towards these tombs for whatever reason. 

Aerial view of the Taj complex with all monuments. Photo source: A video on vimeo.

Set within the walls of complex at opposite ends of the courtyard, both tombs are identical in size and design. Both tombs are full “rauza” as per Mughal architecture, i.e. a tomb with a ‘charbagh’, a four cornered garden. Obviously, they lack the craft, beauty, grandeur and grandness of the white mausoleum across the gateway. A chipped staircase leads to each of the tombs. Charbagh in both the tombs has ‘now dried up’ water channels  as well as causeways on the sides. Just as we saw at the tomb of Kandahari Begum, tombs of Akbarabadi Mahal as well as Fatehpuri Mahal are made of red sandstone and are octagonal in shape and stand on raised oblong platforms. Graves inside the chamber are made of white marble and so are the respective onion shaped domes. White marble on the dome signified that the person laid inside belonged to the royal family. 

Dome of Fatehpuri Begum’s tomb as seen from Fatehpuri Masjid. Source: University of Washington

What bewilders me is the fact that tombs of these two queens were incorporated in the Taj design, even when they were still alive and healthy. But no place was found for tomb of the Shahjahan’s eldest queen in that design even though she died around 1650 when the work on the complex was still going on. What was the reason behind that? Was she least attached to the Emperor? And, did Shahjahan add the tombs of other two queens on his own will & wish? Or, after her death, the other two queens coerced upon the Emperor to add their tombs to the complex? One thing for sure is that the two smaller tombs gel perfectly into the overall symmetry of the Taj complex. Third one perhaps would not have been. May be, after death of Kandahari Begum and building her tomb at Sandali Mosque comlpex, it would have come to Shahjahan’s mind that he needed respectful places for his other wives as well, if in any case something happens to him. And, as we all know just five years after completion of work on Taj Mahal, Shahjahan was dethroned and imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb in 1658. In some references the year of construction of Fatehpuri Mahal’s tomb is mentioned as 1653. But it might also be because the work on Taj Mahal is said to have completed in 1653, 22 years after it started in 1631. 

Tomb of Fatehpuri Begum- the garden, channels and pathways. Original photo source: hiddenheritage.in

There is another Fatehpuri Mosque in Agra itself and it is just behind the Fatehpuri Mahal’s tomb. But this mosque is outside the Taj complex and a road leading to Taj Ganj separates the tomb and the mosque. On the western gate side, after the ticketing counters, if you turn right than you take the narrow lane to Taj Ganj and right there is the mosque on the right. If you enter the mosque and climb the stairs up then you can try to peek into the Fatehpuri Mahal’s tomb, albeit from a fair distance. Although Akbarabadi Mahal’s tomb does not have such a mosque in close vicinity. And to my astonishment I haven’t come across even a single photograph of Akbarabadi Mahal’s tomb on internet.

Fatehpuri Masjid in Agra, just at the back of Fatehpuri Begum’s tomb across road.

But there is another tomb nearby, which is part of the grand history. So, although I would have liked to say that you should definitely visit it, but I am afraid to say that like the other tombs, this one too is barred for visitors. Just before the ticket counters on the western gate side, there is a narrow pathway going to back of the Taj Mahal towards Khan-e-Alam bagh. As soon as you climb a little on that pathway and rise above the ticket counters, you will see an octagonal tomb on your right. There is no garden surrounding the tomb, instead there is proper stone flooring and clearly it was done later in recent years. There must have been a garden earlier perhaps. The platform too is not as raised as the other tombs of the queens. Tomb does not have a marble dome which clearly states that this tomb does not belong to someone from the royal family. But it is so close to Taj Mahal that it also reflects that it belongs to someone very important. This is the tomb of Sati-un-Nisa.

Dome of Akbarabadi Begum’s tomb as seen from Taj Ganj, outside the Taj complex

Sati-un-Nisa was from Persia and was sister of Abu Talib, a noted poet at Jahangir’s court. Her educated, scholar family background as well as her own knowledge saw her rise quickly in the court. Soon enough, she became the chief lady-in-waiting for Mumtaz Mahal, you can simply say as in-charge of the harem. Shahjahan had so much trust in her that when Mumtaz Mahal’s body was exhumed from Burhanpur and brought to Agra for burial at Taj, emperor relied upon none other than Sati-un-Nisa to accompany the body of his beloved, not even any of his sons. This itself signifies her importance. Later, on she became tutor to Princes Jahanara and played big role in her upbringing. She died in 1647 and as the work on Taj was still going on, her tomb was build here close to Mumtaz Mahal’s. Normal visitors will not realise his that today, all the ticket counters on the western gate are actually in chambers right below the Sati-un-Nisa’s tomb. It is also mentioned that Shahjahan actually had fixed a monthly allowance for maintenance of this tomb, revenue for which used to come via collections from a city.

Tomb of Sati-un-Nisa close to western gate of Taj complex

There is no doubt that beauty of Taj is unparalleled and it has capability to outshine everything around it. But then, there are numerous little stories roaming in the air around Taj, and they all need to be heard, acknowledged and admired. Stories of these three ladies so close to Mumtaz Mahal are definitely among them. So next time you are in Agra to see the Taj, don’t forget to turn an eye as well as ear towards them.

View of Taj as seen from Fatehpuri Mahal’s tomb. Original Photo source: hidden heritage.in

Note: Our walking tour to these tombs and other places of Agra was organised by Tourism Guild of Agra and curated by Shradha Arora and Shahena Khan, two Agra lovers and conservation architects, and together they initiated Sair-e-Dastan to explore, acknowledge, make aware and promote living cultural heritages of historic cities.

Have you visited the tombs of other queens of Shahjahan in Agra? What was your impression about them? Share with us in the comments section below.

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