People from across the world visit India for a couple of reasons. Two of the primary attractions being: the chance to see a cow on the streets of a large metropolitan city, or, experience one of the ‘Wonders of the World’ – the Taj Mahal. Both these objectives are successfully met in the city of Agra. Originally settled as a lazy summer getaway for the Mughal nobles, the city has grown to embody one of the primary tourist destinations of the country. It holds the respectable position of the third corner in the ‘golden triangle’ peddled by several travel companies, along with Jaipur and New Delhi. It is on the east of the national capital at a smooth two-and-a-half-hour drive – perfect for weekend trips. Even though there have been calls for reclamation by fringe right-wing individuals, the Taj has survived, unscathed, the rising power of radical Hindutva politics in the State.
Therefore, for a western tourist, in search of an exotic Orient, its incessant loud hawkers, narrow alleyways, an un-ending barrage of traditional handicrafts, the overwhelming smell of incense, and the exuberant brilliance of medieval architecture, Agra serves as a delight. However, my visit was far removed from the bustling crowd around the Wonder. It was in search of a lesser-known riverfront garden of antecedence.
Summers in India have always been a pain. We all find a way to escape the Sun. Some of us put our air-cons on full blast and creep out only when evening falls, whereas, others run to the hills, like the colonials did. The Mughals, on the other hand, pioneered a more romantic encounter with the Indian summer. They drifted down the Yamuna. When Babur made his way to the Doab in the summer of 1528 CE, he sought shelter at Agra. In a place where the river formed a ‘U’, the waters slowed down and the wilderness thinned; the young exile made his imperial bid. The new overlord claimed the land of Hindustan by tilling it. He cut the soil, shaped a quadrangle, planted fruit-bearing trees from Central Asia alongside native varieties, and endeavoured to materialize ‘paradise’ on Earth. He was not misguided.
The creation of the first chahar-bagh was not only an imperial proclamation but an attempt to civilise the unknown, unruly terrain of the subcontinent. It was a statement of discovery of a new homeland for his kinsfolk. It established a permanent address for the Mughals to retreat to from their peripatetic warring lifestyle. Unknowingly though, the Padshah set off a trend that culminated in the construction of the tomb of Shah Jahan and his beloved wife, Mumtaz, a few kilometers downstream from his paradisical garden a century later.
When Akbar left Din Panah in fear of being mistreated by his subjects, he, like his grandfather, found refuge in Agra. A new Mughal fort was constructed opposite his grandfather’s garden. It was unlike any other fort ever built by the Timurids, its scale and its fortifications were unparalleled. More importantly, the shift of capital provided the imperial court a new stage to play out their intrigue and machinations. Long-standing, as well as aspiring elites of the time, scrambled to find a piece of land beside the river near the palace. Floating on the river was fun, but having a permanent pavilion to enjoy the cool breeze was even more enticing. They paid extra for direct access to the water, to dock their watercrafts, and to enjoy the scenery of the countryside. Their umbrellas, sails, canoes, and flags proved evidence of attendance at the emperor’s morning glimpse, or jharoka darshan. And suddenly, the sleepy town of Agra became the empire’s riviera. Private char-bagh gardens, multi-storied houses or havelis with sunshades or chhajjas, ornamental umbrellas or chhatris, hanging balconies or jharokas dotted the Yamuna.
One of the plots, lying opposite the fort, was owned by Mirza Ghiyas Beg ‘Itimad-ud Daula’. Born in Tehran to a family of poet-litterateurs, Ghiyas was exiled when his father passed away and his family fell into disgrace. After being cast out of his own community without a steady source of income, returning home was not an option. Ghiyas Beg left Khurasan with his family and crossed the treacherous Thar desert with only two mules. His wife, Asmat Begum, was pregnant with their fifth child at that time. She gave birth to a daughter at a campsite on the outskirts of the Mughal Empire. While on the verge of losing all hope for survival, the exiled nobleman landed a job with the provincial imperial retinue. The family believed that the baby girl was the reason for the change in their fortunes. Therefore, they named her the ‘Sun among women’ or Mehr-un Nissa.
Ghiyas Beg swiftly worked his way to the top of the government hierarchy and got himself appointed as the treasurer of Kabul in 1577 CE. Over the next few years, his relations with the Timurid royals became stronger. He was able to find a job for his son, Abu’l Hasan, as a general in the imperial army, securing two mansab grants for the family. When Prince Salim, later titled Emperor Jahangir, ascended the throne in 1605 CE, Ghiyas was entrusted the position of a ‘vakil’ or an agent of the imperial court.
One may attribute this change in fortune to the miracle babe, but that would be ignoring Ghiyas Beg’s astute sense of statecraft, intelligence, and discretion. He orchestrated the marriage of his daughter to the emperor in 1611 CE. Soon, Mehr-un Nissa was bestowed with the role of Padshah Begum or chief consort of the emperor and was in charge of the imperial harem. In 1616 CE, as the Empress of Hindustan she was titled Nur Jahan or the light of the world. Ghiyas also made sure that Abu’l Hasan was awarded the title of Asaf Khan, and the position of an agent, his brother Mirza Ibrahim Beg was titled Fath-i-Jang and was made the governor of Bengal, and Ghiyas, himself, was elevated to the rank of a wazir or prime minister. He was named Itimad-ud Daula or the pillar of the empire. Ghiyas was the most influential man in the Mughal sphere for almost two decades, second only to the emperor. In the 17th-century dispensation of the Timurids in India, the Mirza transformed himself from a man without hope, to a man who wrote the destiny of others.
Therefore, it is not surprising that the Empress of Hindustan would take the responsibility to construct a tomb for the Mirza, who also happened to be her father. We know she was a great patron of architecture. She had previously commissioned several buildings for ordinary people, travellers, and traders. She was also an independently wealthy woman who had invested in trade ventures and land holdings. On her father’s death, she inherited his accumulated wealth and as a result, was never concerned with budgetary constraints – which is probably why her parents’ tomb resembles a jewel box beside the Yamuna.
The mausoleum was built between 1622-28 CE. It was the first Mughal-era tomb to be completely faced with white marble. It was constructed outside the city walls on the eastern banks of the river overlooking the first Timurid charbagh built by Babur. The tomb was placed on a platform made of red sandstone and was positioned right at the centre of the quadrangular garden. The main entrance of the tomb complex was through the eastern gate, which is still the main entrance today. However, the more picturesque entrance was through the waterfront pavilion or baradari that offered access to the tomb garden from the riverside – probably accessed by Itimad-ud Daula’s imperial relatives. The baradari was designed to serve another purpose as well, that of a pleasure pavilion with large interior chambers and a serene view of the flowing river underneath.
The architects employed a wide range of stone inlay work or pietra dura to decorate the exterior of the tomb. Every visible surface was covered with floral, geometric, and animate motifs – the decoration of which is only matched by the extensive and varied depictions of the same motifs in colourful paintings on the interior walls.
The tomb contains arched entrances, octagonal-shaped towers or minarets, and intricate marble screens with latticework or jaalis. For the sake of symmetry, the architects built false gateways on the two sides without entrances. The four gateways, together, were faced with red sandstone and had chini-khana or porcelain chamber designs inlaid in white marble. The entire tomb complex used elaborate chini-khana decorative motifs, namely, wall niches, vessels, bowls of fruits, flowers, vases, wine vessels, ewers, jars, cups, dishes, and betel-leaf boxes.
The tomb does not have a central dome but has a closed rectangular kiosk at the top. It has nine chambers inside, the central chamber being the largest, like a master bedroom. The interior is also laid out in the charbagh format. The central chamber houses the true-sarcophagi of Itimad-ud Daula and Asmat Begum. Despite being able to enter the tomb from each side of the mausoleum, this chamber is only accessible from the south, like in a mazaar or a tomb of a saint. The interiors are decorated with paintings of cypress trees entwined with other flowering trees having red flowers, that evoke emotions of suffering and death drawn from Persian literature.
The tomb is situated in the centre of the charbagh which is divided by walkways having built-in water channels. Such a position symbolizes the conjunction of the four rivers of Paradise – a setting which is further hinted to by the abundance of flowers, wine vessels, and fruits in stone relief. The intricate symbolic relationship between the four-cornered garden, the tomb complex, and the waterways, come together in a sublime manner to form a divine space for the dearly departed.
The tomb of Itimad-ud Daula was completed four years before the construction of the Taj Mahal even began. The use of stone inlay in such a fine fashion on the exterior of Itimad-ud-Daula’s mausoleum can be seen as a forerunner to the delicate pietra dura used to decorate the Taj, other aspects of design, colour, or layout, notwithstanding. This shouldn’t be surprising. The families of Mirza Ghiyas Beg and the Timurids were well-entwined by the middle of the 17th century. Like the cypress on the tomb walls embodying love and an eternal bond between beloveds; the two families were almost indistinguishable. After the death of the Mirza, his son, Abu’l Hasan Asaf Khan, was appointed as the grand vizier to Emperor Shah Jahan. The emperor eventually married Asaf Khan’s daughter, Arjumand Banu Begum, who went on to become the love of his life, Padshah Begum Mumtaz Mahal. For whom the imperial treasury was drained, and the empire was pushed to the brink of ruin, to build the paradisical riverfront terraced-garden tomb and whose son, Prince Mohi-ud Din Muhammad, became Emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir.
So next time you visit Agra, look out for the tomb of Itimad-ud Daula, not just one of the pit-stops on a list of tourist places to visit, but as a place of immense importance for not only the history of the Mughals in India but also the history of how perseverance, determination, loyalty, and faith can change your destiny. This is why I would return to Agra, to re-visit the mazaar of Itimad-ud Daula.