Taj Mahal, known in the official histories as Rauza-e-Munawwara (the Illumined Tomb), was built to memorialise an emperor’s love for his favourite wife. So, despite its undoubted architectural perfection, the most popular interpretation of the monument is as a symbol of love. Likewise, Mumtaz Mahal, too, remains forever defined by the superlative mausoleum in which she lies buried. However, as an individual, she remains an elusive figure, hard to capture as she flits briefly in and out of the court narratives of the Mughal rulers.
Born Arjumand Bano, she is first referred to in the Tuzuk-e-Jahangiri, the memoirs of emperor Jahangir. In an entry dated May 1612, Jahangir simply mentions attending the wedding celebrations of his son Khurram (who would later be given the title Shah Jahan) with the daughter of I’tqad Khan, the son of I’tmaduddaula. I’tmad-ud-daulah had, less than a year ago, been made the wazir of the empire — a rise that was probably not unconnected to the marriage that same year, of his daughter Mehrunnissa, to Jahangir.
Mehrunnissa rapidly rose in the emperor’s favour, and was ultimately honoured with the tile of Nur Jahan, “light of the world”. The marriage of Arjumand Bano to Khurram had, however, been arranged five years before, in April 1607, when she was just under 14 years old, and he was 15 (in the interim period, Shah Jahan married again). Though this engagement had probably been a somewhat routine coming-of-age ritual for the prince — Jahangir had also recently granted his son some of the symbols of royalty such as a special banner and drums, a mansab rank, and a jagir (revenue paying land).
The relationship between Shah Jahan and Arjumand Bano strenghtened over time. She was given the title Mumtaz Mahal Begum, “the elect among women”, and certainly seems to have occupied a position far above that of Shah Jahan’s two other wives — one whom he married before his wedding to Mumtaz Mahal, and one afterwards. The court historian Qazwini recorded the nature of their love in these words — “The friendship and concord between them had reached such an extent, the like of which has never been known between a husband and wife…and this was not merely out of carnal desire…physical and spiritual compatibility on both sides had been the cause of great love and affection, and abundant affinity and familiarity” (translated by WE Begley and ZA Desai).
For the length of their married life Mumtaz Mahal rarely left Shah Jahan’s side, travelling wherever he travelled, often to far-flung provinces like Bengal and Telangana. She bore him 14 children during the 19 years of their marriage, and died soon after giving birth to the last.
Shah Jahan’s devastation at her death is also recorded by his chroniclers, who mention his extended period of mourning, his tears, and the fact that his hair greyed and his vision deteriorated so much that he needed glasses. It is not surprising that the culmination of that mourning for Shah Jahan — a great builder — was the construction of a mausoleum like no other.
A suitable site was identified in Agra, beside the river Yamuna. It was owned by Raja Jai Singh, the ruler of Amber, but he willingly donated it for this express purpose. In return, he was granted another property from the possessions of the emperor. The beautiful mausoleum was built over the remains of the queen, which were shifted to the site six months after her death. By the time the grand mausoleum was complete, in 1648, Shah Jahan had shifted his capital to Delhi. But he would be back permanently after 10 years, exiled and imprisoned in the fort of Agra by his son Aurangzeb. He was to live there till his death in 1666, and, according to romantic lore, he spent the long days of his exile looking wistfully out of a window towards the beautiful tomb.
Though Mumtaz Mahal’s importance in the life of Shah Jahan has received unprecedented endorsement through a beautiful tomb, her position was by no means completely unusual for the women of the Mughal royal family. Many wives, mothers, daughters and aunts played important roles in the public as well as private lives of the Mughal emperors.
Throughout the history of the Mughal dynasty, important women influenced their male relatives in decisions relating to political matters. Not only did many of the women travel with the emperor during his peregrinations through the empire, at least in the early years, many even accompanied the men in battle, seated on elephants and watching the action.
The women closest to the emperor were sometimes entrusted with important affairs of the state. Coins were minted in Nur Jahan’s name, and she was entrusted with the custody of the royal seal, for example. When Shah Jahan succeeded Jahangir on the throne, the seal was handed over to Mumtaz Mahal for safekeeping. Some of the farmans or decrees that have survived, show that they also gave commands under their own seals — such as Mumtaz Mahal’s order in 1628 to officials in Khandesh, to restore a certain person called Kanoji to his position of deshmukh, or civil administrator.
Education and economic independence was largely responsible for the influence these women could wield. They were educated, some even had a literary bent — such as Gulbadan, the daughter of Babur, who wrote the Humayunnama; or, Aurangzeb’s daughter Zebunnissa, who was a poet. They owned land and other property, and business concerns, which they managed through agents. Akbar’s wife, Mariamuzzamani, owned ships that traded in the Red Sea, as did Nur Jahan. Another wealthy entrepreneur was Jahanara — Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal’s daughter, who inherited half of her mother’s bequest of one crore rupees. She was also granted the revenues of the prosperous ports of Surat and Panipat.
The Taj Mahal is indeed a remarkable structure — a majestic monument to an imperial builder’s discerning eye, and testimony of a man’s love for his wife. But, equally crucially, behind it also lies the story of how central women were to the narrative of the Mughal royal family.
Before and After Paradise
The Taj Mahal is arguably the pinnacle of the Mughal architectural tradition, but the journey to this zenith has also seen a fair number of other notable buildings along the way. One of the earliest such structures, the red sandstone and white marble tomb of Iltutmish, was built in the 1230s near the Qutub Minar at Delhi. It represents the very basic form of a square tomb chamber built on a platform. It has no dome, probably because Indian builders were still grappling with the technique of arch and dome building.
Tomb design continued to evolve in the subcontinent. In addition to the square plan, octagonal plans also became popular. Domes were added and experimented with — flat, somewhat pointed, or hemispherical. Embellishments were added on top of the dome, usually a finial in the shape of an amlaka or a kalash, the type of finials used in temples as well. Sometimes, there was an inverted lotus below the finial. Another very Indian feature were the chhatris added to the terrace, surrounding the dome. The culmination of the Sultanate style is marked by the tomb of Sher Shah, in Sasaram, which exhibits a number of these features.
the mughals brought with them the Timurid heritage of architecture — epitomised by the structures of their ancestor Timur in Samarqand. At the same time, they relied heavily on the traditions of their new land. The tomb of Humayun exhibits many of these features of amalgamation. The slightly pointed plain dome on a high drum was distinctly Timurid, but the surface was covered in stone — the material used in north India in preference to the tiles that covered Central Asian monuments. Though gardens had been used as settings for tombs in Sultanate times as well, the Mughals gave the grid pattern of char bagh a greater formality, with flowing water channels and fountains.
Stylistically speaking, the stage for the Taj was set, and Jahangir’s tomb added a couple of other features, including the almost exclusive use of marble for the facing. The other feature was the use of four tall minars at the corners of the large platform.
Taj Mahal’s perfection gave it a strong hegemony over other tomb buildings that followed. The Bibi ka Rauza in Aurangabad, the tomb of Aurangzeb’s wife, is closely modelled on the Taj, and inevitably, falls short. Safdarjang’s tomb, built in Delhi in the 1750s, is the last of the monumental edifices in an imperial Mughal style, and in silhouette at least, is definitely inspired by the Taj, though the missing minars and the cheaper stone suggest more austere times.
Swapna Liddle is a Delhi-based historian and writer.