6 Apr 2008, 0235 hrs IST,Atul Sethi,TNN (from Times of India)
Wahan toh road bahut kharab hai ," (the road is bad there) was our guide's first reaction, when informed about the intention to visit Mumtaz Mahal's grave, or kabr . It is early morning in Burhanpur, a small town in southern Madhya Pradesh, near the Maharashtra border, and despite the threat of the kharab road, we set out for the kabr .
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. It was here that Shah Jahan spent a considerable number of years as governor of the Deccan region, before his ascension to the throne. And it was in Burhanpur, two years after he became the emperor ? on June 17, 1631, to be precise ? that his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal passed away, while giving birth to their 14th child.
A grief-stricken emperor had her laid to rest near the banks of the Tapti river and a monument was built, where her remains were kept. Simultaneously, work also started on a grand mausoleum near the kabr . Shah Jahan wanted it to be a monument of unparalleled beauty, conceptualised 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 the Tapti river, near Mumtaz Mahal's kabr in Burhanpur, stand mute testimony to what could have been.
How Agra got the Taj
By the time we reach the kabr , located almost 10 km away from the town of Burhanpur, the sun is shining brightly overhead. A few kilometres away from our destination, the road gives way to a wobbly dust track that finally leads to a monument, now largely a ruin. A signboard next to it proclaims it as Begum Mumtaz Mahal ki kabr and claims that it is ostensibly protected by the state archaeology department. Two boys, playing cricket nearby, offer to show us 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, we are informed, the ground here was levelled. So, any sign of a kabr 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 Shah Jahan's time ? this complex would perhaps have been one of the most important buildings of the Mughal empire. One can almost visualise the scenes that must have unfolded here.
History books tell us that Shah Jahan 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, the emperor would come to the kabr and light a lamp in his wife's memory, even as maulvis recited verses from the Quran and pandits chanted shlokas near the burial chamber. In fact, the alcoves where the lamps were lit ? known as chiraagdaan ? can still be seen in the wall 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 Shah Jahan wanted to have his Taj built here. Three things, however, prevented this from happening, says Vinit Sharma, head of the history department of Burhanpur's Seva Sadan college. "First, there were logistical problems in transporting marble from the quarries in Makrana in Rajasthan to Burhanpur. Then, when the builders evaluated the site, they found that the black soil along the Tapti could not support the weight of a structure of the magnitude that they were planning. They advised Shah Jahan to shift the mausoleum away from the river, but he 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. Further, its proximity to marble quarries and the presence of better soil along the Yamuna also went in its favour," says Sharma.
While the location of the mausoleum was being decided, Mumtaz Mahal's body remained in the kabr 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 Armanul Haq of Jamia Hamdard, who published a research on this subject some years ago, Mumtaz Mahal's body would have been preserved according to Unani techniques. In his research report, Haq says that the body was probably kept in an air-tight box, filled with herbs like camphor, acacia, sandalwood, ash etc, that 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, points out Haq.
However, according to Sharma, 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, he says. Nevertheless, it is fascinating to know that Mumtaz Mahal's body was buried at three different places at various times. According to KK Muhammad, superintending archaeologist of Bhopal circle, first the body was kept at the royal hunting palace, the ahukhana, located near the kabr in Burhanpur. Here, the ceremony of takfeen or wrapping it in a kafan was performed, before it was taken to the kabr , 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 monument's 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 kabr and ahukhana in Burhanpur ? also get their due. For, Agra may have got the Taj, but the story behind it, still reverbrates in these monuments in Burhanpur.