Stories, photographs and thoughts from a travelling couple taking walks and mapping their routes, while backpacking around India, and parts of the world.
Human beings often, and often foolishly, try to leave behind permanent traces of themselves before their fleeting existences on this planet come to an unceremonious end. From carving our own names (entwined with the initials of our object of affection) on tree barks to etching them on benches, buses and books (and maybe blogs now), we vainly and desperately try to immortalise our very mortal feelings, maybe because we know how short-lived they truly are. But while the legacy most of us are leaving behind for our progeny today ranges from the transient glass and concrete buildings we erect to our social networking timelines filled with a collection of contrived pictures and memories that insist we had an amazing life, there was a time when what a man left behind was of more permanent significance. When what was built — objects of unbearable beauty — was the subject of many a ballad and legend for centuries to come. When great men built love stories in stone.
No, I'm not talking about the Taj Mahal here, though this monument bears an uncanny resemblance to it. Strangely enough, the Bibi ka Maqbara in Aurangabad even shares a historical connection with the Taj Mahal. While a love-sick Shah Jahan built the legendary monument of love in Agra for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, the Bibi ka Maqbara was built by his grandson Prince Azam Shah (Aurangazeb’s son) in memory of his mother, Rabia-ul-Daurani.
History has it that as much of a poet, patron of arts and a lover Shah Jahan was, who believed in grand gestures and absolute extravaganza when it came to leaving a legacy, his son, Aurangazeb, was on the other end of the spectrum. A frugal man who lived an austere and simple life, dedicated to his religious beliefs, he always held a contempt for his father’s opulent and decadent larger-than-life demeanour. But his oldest son Azam Shah, the very young prince, wanted to rival his grandfather’s marbled masterpiece in his own little way by dedicating to his mom. But what he ended up creating was the Bibi ka Maqbara, a beautiful tribute, yet just a replica of the Taj Mahal. A poor cousin. A pale shadow.
For one, Azam Shah didn’t have the treasury his grandfather enjoyed or the skilled labour that came with it. While Shah Jahan is supposed to have spent around 32 million rupees to build the Taj Mahal, Azam Shah was allotted a measly sum of Rs. 665,283 and 7 Annas by his father, as is revealed in one of the inscriptions on the walls of the tomb. While the Taj Mahal was completed in 1653, taking around 20 years to complete, the Bibi Ka Maqbara was constructed sometime between 1651 and 1661. In fact, Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, a 17th-century French gem merchant and traveller has recorded that while he was crossing Aurangabad, he spotted around 300 bullock carts loaded with huge marble slabs coming all the way from Jaipur, which on enquiry he was told, were for the construction of the Maqbara. Other historians state that initially, Aurangzeb was not in favour of building a monument as lavish as the Taj. He blocked the transport of marble from Rajasthan and various other parts of the Mughal empire, but Alam Shah was determined to have a monument to his mother that might vie with the Taj. But despite his struggles to fight these budgetary constraints, he was able to build this structure, which unlike the Taj Mahal, is not completely made out of marble. Cheaper alternatives, sandstone and plaster that imitates the marbled look, had to be used to finish this tomb. That’s one reason the Bibi ka Maqbara’s facade doesn’t have the pure, milky whiteness that the Taj Mahal has come to be famous for and has instead earned the epithet — Poor man’s Taj.
But that is not to say the Bibi ka Maqbara won’t take your breath away when you lay eyes on it.
Leaving all comparisons to the stunning Taj Mahal aside, this glorious tomb does hold its own, thanks to the sheer beauty and grandeur of Mughal architecture. Set against the backdrop of the rocky Deccan mountains, the Maqbara has four imposing and towering minarets a la Taj Mahal. A path of Mughal-style landscaped gardens peppered with lawns, ponds with fountains and deep green cypresses promisingly lead up to it.
The grand monument stands right in the middle of the 450 metre-long garden, enclosed by giant walls and huge pavilions on its sides. Entry to the area is through an impressive gateway in the south wall wherein is inscribed that the the chief architect of the monument is a Persian called Ata-Ullah and Hanspat Rai was the engineer.
As we walked around the mausoleum area, we couldn't help but be awestruck with the absolutely incredible attention to detail on every pillar and every door. In fact, the brass doors with their foliage designs are exquisite.
As you enter the main tomb area, an octagonal gallery, you will see that the grave is enclosed within a series of beautifully carved marble screens. While the Taj Mahal have the remains of the immortal lovers laid side by side, the Bibi lies alone here in an moderately austere tomb.
Every inch, right from the floor to the striking ceiling displays skilled workmanship, with trellis works and flower designs set delicately in stone, greeting you everywhere you look.
We walked across the gardens, along the mosques enclosed in the complex and admired the view of the Maqbara from a vantage point. We could only imagine what it would be like to live in such an abundant era, when everything from art and poetry to everyday life was filled with so much beauty and drama. Where expression of emotions took the form of immortal legacies. Where a tomb becomes the indication of a kingdom’s splendor.
The Bibi ka Maqbara is indeed a revelation. Comparisons to the Taj Mahal however, never end. The global fame and appreciation surrounding that marbled wonder in Agra hovers like a shadow over this imitation that never ever earned its due.
And just like the fate of the Bibi ka Maqbara, relegated to always be a mere copy of the Taj Mahal, or the ‘Taj of the Deccan’, Azam Shah too enjoyed the spotlight very briefly, despite being the son of the mighty Aurangazeb and part of the lineage of India’s most prominent Mughal rulers. He was the Emperor of India for barely three months after the death of his father before his brother, Shah Alam usurped the throne from him. Despite the fact that he partly realised his aim of creating a fitting final farewell for his beloved mother through this Maqbara, he never could compete with his grandfather’s excesses. And the stones of this grand mausoleum seemed to be steeped in a unexplainable sorrow and emptiness. Of unfulfilled dreams and forgotten glory.