TAJ MA­HAL EN­DURES

But its lit­tle-known birth­place, in town off tourist map, crum­bles slowly

Winnipeg Free Press - Section F - - TRAVEL - By Vi­jay Joshi

BURHAN­PUR, In­dia — It is no se­cret that the Taj Ma­hal is a mon­u­ment of love, built by a Mogul em­peror as the fi­nal rest­ing place for his beloved queen who died giv­ing birth to their 14th child in 1631.

What’s less known is that the whitemar­bled tomb was not her first rest­ing place af­ter death.

Queen Mum­taz Ma­hal in fact died some 900 kilo­me­tres away in cen­tral In­dia’s Burhan­pur town and was buried there, in a rose-tinted sand­stone pav­il­ion in her favourite deer park. The once op­u­lent and richly dec­o­rated pav­il­ion is now a sad, crum­bling ruin, thanks to ne­glect and apathy by au­thor­i­ties and Burhan­pur’s own 200,000 res­i­dents.

And it’s not the only gem in the trea­sure chest of this town, which even most In­di­ans could not iden­tify on a map.

Be­hind its dirty, un­paved streets and open garbage dumps, Burhan­pur hides an abun­dance of mag­nif­i­cent Is­lamic mon­u­ments dat­ing back to 15th cen­tury. Once an im­por­tant trad­ing and mil­i­tary out­post, Burhan­pur slipped into mar­gins of his­tory in less than two cen­turies and is now nowhere to be found in any tourist ad­ver­tise­ment.

On a re­cent trip, we found in Burhan­pur the ru­ins of a river­side palace; airy pavil­ions with in­tri­cately carved pil­lars; grand stone mau­soleums with lat­ticed win­dows that throw fil­tered beams of dusty light on the graves in­side; a royal bath house with cheer­ful paint­ings of birds and flow­ers; aus­tere and im­pos­ing mosques with in­cred­i­bly fine cal­lig­ra­phy, and a fort on a cliff with a mind-bog­gling view of the un­du­lat­ing plains be­low.

Each one of the town’s trea­sures is a re­minder of In­dia’s rich mul­ti­cul­tural his­tory and the con­tri­bu­tion that about 800 years of Mus­lim rule made to the pre­dom­i­nantly Hindu coun­try’s her­itage.

Many of the mon­u­ments in the town are in ut­ter ne­glect. In­fra­struc­ture as ba­sic as toi­lets and roads to the sites is miss­ing. Open drains run along some im­por­tant tombs, which are rav­aged by over­grown shrubs. Moun­tains of garbage greet vis­i­tors.

“Ev­ery mon­u­ment here tells a story. Ev­ery stone here says ’come to me and lis­ten to what I have to say’ but there is no­body to lis­ten or to take care of them,” lamented Hoshang Haval­dar, 60, who has lived all his life in Burhan­pur, and runs one of only two de­cent ho­tels in the town.

Burhan­pur was ruled by the found­ing Faruqi dy­nasty from 1400 to 1599 and by the fa­bled Moguls from 1600, when Em­peror Ak­bar con­quered it. His grand­son, Em­peror Shah Ja­han, ran his mil­i­tary cam­paigns against south­ern king­doms from Burhan­pur, ac­com­pa­nied by his wife, Mum­taz.

She died while giv­ing birth to their 14th child and was buried in a pav­il­ion fac­ing a small palace in a deer park.

To­day, the Ahukhana, as the park was called, and its two build­ings are one of the most di­lap­i­dated among Burhan­pur’s trea­sures.

The sprawl­ing park is locked up with no care­taker. Its rusty metal gates are tied by a chain loose enough to leave enough space for hu­mans or an­i­mals to slip through. The grounds are over­grown with shrubs and weeds. Wild goats and cows roam freely. All that re­main of the one-story pav­il­ion are pil­lars and walls, some art work on them still vis­i­ble. Its ceil­ing is no more.

For about six months, Mum­taz’s body re­mained in the pav­il­ion while Shah Ja­han made plans to build the Taj Ma­hal on the banks of the nearby River Tapti.

But un­for­tu­nately Burhan­pur’s geog­ra­phy, ge­ol­ogy and hy­drol­ogy con­spired against his plans.

Ac­cord­ing to his­to­ri­ans, Shah Ja­han wanted the mon­u­ment to be of white mar­ble, which was only avail­able in the far­away Markana, mak­ing trans­porta­tion dif­fi­cult. River Tapti’s breadth was a lit­tle nar­row where he en­vis­aged the mau­soleum — mean­ing it would not be re­flected fully in the wa­ter on moon­lit nights. Fi­nally, the rock-bed just wasn’t right to hold up a build­ing of that mass. As it turned out, Agra on the banks of ma­jes­ti­cally wide River Ya­muna and not too far from Markana, was the per­fect choice.

Mum­taz’s body was dis­in­terred and taken to Agra, then the im­pe­rial cap­i­tal of the Mogul em­pire that ruled In­dia from 15th to 19th cen­turies. And so Burhan­pur faded away.

One of the most beau­ti­ful mon­u­ments in Burhan­pur is the tomb of Bilquis Ja­han, the wife of Shah Ja­han’s son. It is known as the Khar­boozi Gum­baz, or Melon Dome, be­cause of its dis­tinc­tive dome and bulging walls that look like the fruit. An unim­pos­ing struc­ture, it nev­er­the­less stands out be­cause of its shape and stunning in­te­rior -- ev­ery cor­ner of its walls and roof is dec­o­rated with mu­rals in flo­ral pat­tern, its colours as fresh as they were cen­turies ago.

But to get there we had to walk through a grave­yard, where a horse lay dy­ing in a ditch while lit­tle boys played nearby.

Burhan­pur, lo­cated in Mad­hya Pradesh state, was the rea­son for our trip, but not the des­ti­na­tion. Our 10-day trip cut an arc through the vast state, stop­ping at four other places of Is­lamic and Hindu cul­ture that car­ried in their stone mon­u­ments sto­ries of love, val­our, de­vo­tion and sex.

The last stop was the 10-11th cen­tury Kha­ju­raho group of Hindu and Jain tem­ples, a UNESCO World Her­itage site.

Their dis­tinc­tive steeple domes are made of in­ter­lock­ing blocks of finely carved stone, and the outer walls of tem­ples dense with sculp­tures of Hindu gods and god­desses, scenes of court life, and a pro­fu­sion of graphic erotic sculp­tures in­spired by the Kama Su­tra, de­pict­ing all kinds of sex­ual acts.

But we will save that story for an­other day.

VI­JAY JOSHI / THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A cow grazes on the grounds near Mogul Queen Mum­taz Ma­hal’s first rest­ing place af­ter death in Burhan­pur, In­dia. Lo­cated in Mad­hya Pradesh state, about 180 kilo­me­tres from In­dore, the city with the near­est air­port. The drive from In­dore takes about four hours. Mad­hya Pradesh State Tourism runs a ho­tel, Tapti Retreat, for $30-$40 a night: http://www. mp­tourism.com/web/ Burhan­pur/Burhan­pur. asp

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