Agra is of course known the world over for the famous Taj Mahal, an immense white marble mausoleum commissioned in 1631 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of this favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal.
The Taj Mahal is of course the most visited attraction in Agra, and indeed the entire Indian subcontinent. But there are so many less known monuments that deserve the attention of anyone visiting this city, monuments that are far less populated with hoards of Instagram hungry tourists and yet offer an unforgettable experience. One such monument is the tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah.
Situated on the east bank of the Yamuna river and built between 1622 and 1628, the tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah is simply breathtaking. This is the first Mughal tomb faced in white marble to employ such a wide use of stone inlay (pietra dur) to decorate the exterior, a technique that inspired and was later deployed on a far grander scale at the Taj Mahal. This has led to tourist literature commonly referring to the tomb as “Jewel Box”, “Little Taj”, or “Baby Taj” (“Bacha Taj”).
I think this is grossly unfair labelling, this monument should be appreciated in its own right. What Itimad-ud-Daulah may lack in scale it certainly makes up for in exquisite detail. The term “small, but perfectly formed” certainly applies here, with the added bonus that you will probably be one of just a handful of people visiting this site. It is an incredibly beautiful and peaceful place.
Itimad-ud-Daulah (‘Pillar of the State’) was a title given to Mirza Ghiyas Beg (also known as Ghiyas Beg Tehrani), a Persian noble from Khurasan who arrived at the Mughal court in 1577 during the reign of Akbar. The two first met at Fatehpur Sikri where he was taken into Akbar’s service, quickly working his way to the top of government hierarchy via a number of important posts.
Not long after his arrival in India, Ghiyas Bed (Itimad-ud-Daulah) had a daughter with his wife Asmat Begam, who they named Mehrunnisa.
After Jahangir ascended the throne in 1605, he awarded Ghiyas Beg the title of ‘Itimad-ud-Daulah’ to recognise both his loyalty and trustworthiness. His wife died in 1621 and he died the following year in 1622. Whilst Itimad-ud-Daulah certainly enjoyed a successful career in the Mughal courts, his daughter Mehrunnisa became deeply entwined within it.
In 1594 at the age of 17, Mehrunnisa married Sher Afgan, an Afghan noble and governor of Bihar which was an important Mughal province. At some point early in their marriage she met Prince Salim (the future Emperor Jahangir), who by all accounts became bewitched and fell in love with her. The young Salim of course could not do anything about this as Mehrunnisa was already married.
Thirteen years of marriage suddenly came to an end in 1607 when Mehrunnisa’s husband died, some scholars believe this may have in fact been an assassination by a jealous Jahangir, who had ascended the throne just two years earlier.
Mehrunnisa returned to Agra from Bengal where she became lady-in-waiting to Akbar’s widow, Ruqayya Begum, who was foster mother of the future emperor Shah Jahan. It was a further three years before Jahangir finally married Mehrunnisa in 1611. He initially gave her the title Nur Mahal (‘Light of the Palace’), but he improved on this five years later, naming her Nur Jahan (‘Light of the World’).
After her wedding to emperor Jahangir, Nur Jahan’s rise to power was rapid and swift. As a strong, well-educated and charismatic woman, she enjoyed the absolute confidence of her husband and was the most powerful and influential woman at court during a period when the Mughal Empire was at the peak of its power and glory.
More decisive and proactive than her husband, she is considered by many scholars to have been the real power behind the throne for more than fifteen years. Nur Jahan was also granted certain honours and privileges which were never enjoyed by any Mughal empress before or after.
Nur Jahan’s brother, Asaf Khan (formally known as Abu’l-Hasan), had a daughter who married Jahangir’s son, Shah Jahan. She was known as Mumtaz Mahal, in whose memory Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal.
Having been married to Jahangir for over 10 years before her parents death, no expense was spared in the mausoleum Nur Jahan built for them. It is simply remarkable.
It was probably Nur Jahan’s Persian heritage that influenced the character of the tomb, as it did in other court art during her time as Empress. It is highly likely her family brought with them fine persian embroidery which ultimately inspired the varied colour and intricate detail that can be seen on this tomb.
This heralded a shift away from stone carving to mural painting which can be seen throughout the interior of the tomb. Another innovation was the realistic portrayal of plants, in particular plants that grew in Persia but not in the lowlands of India, which is something Jahangir himself was particularly interested in.
Architecturally, the tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah instigates a change in direction away from red sandstone structures to the use of white marble, which continued through to other buildings of Jahangir’s reign.
However, the most astonishing feature has to be the fantastic inlaid stonework that covers the the exterior surface, depicting plants, cypresses, wine glasses, and an amazing variety of geometrical patterns.
The most elaborate and intricate of these are placed at strategic locations such as entrances and on the minarets. This gives the whole structure the impression of an enlarged precious object, it’s a building nobody could ever get tired of looking at.
Another famous element of the tomb is the marble Jali screens, these are considered more delicate than any other structure in Agra, including the Taj Mahal.
Jali screens originated from Gujarat and were used extensively during the Mughal period, both for their beauty and for their ability to mutate the natural light into the interior of buildings.
The inner space of the tomb is geometrically divided into nine chambers. Only accessible from the southern side, the central chamber is the largest of all and holds the cenotaph of Itimad-Ud-Daulah and Asmat Begum.
The cenotaph of Asmat Begum occupies the exact center of the hall. The corner rooms have tombstones of Nur Jahan’s other relations.
I don’t know how much this entire interior has been restored over the years, but the paintings and use of colour is amazing.
It is noticeable that the flowers painted on the interior walls are predominantly red, which can perhaps be explained by the symbolism associated with them. In Persian literature red flowers are often associated with suffering and death.
The interior ceilings of the tomb chambers are also in a tradition of decoration and design associated with Jahangir’s reign.
One of the early examples of this type of ceiling decoration, based upon a network of points arranged in concentric circles which were purely aesthetic, be seen at Mariam Zamani mosque in Lahore.
The tomb has four gateways constructed of red sandstone with bold inlaid designs in white marble. The eastern gate is the main entrance to the complex and the western gate is a waterfront pavilion. Traces of paint still exist in some of the gates, most notably the western gate by the river.
The north and south gates are ‘false gates’, built primarily to achieve symmetry. This technique can also be seen at Akbar’s tomb a few miles away in Sikandra, another monument that is well worth visiting.
The tomb garden was intended to represent paradise. It is square shaped and subdivided into four parts by water channels and walkways. The tomb is symmetrically placed on a plinth at the center, at the junction of the four quadrants. Each quadrant represents a sea of paradise, incorporating four rectangular pools with fountains.
Nine years after the tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah was completed, Nur Jahan built a similar style tomb for her husband in Lahore. Whilst much larger in size, to be expected as this was a tomb for an emperor, there are many parallels that can be drawn between the two.
Just four kilometers away from here is the Taj Mahal, where thousands flock every day to see arguably the most beautiful building in the world and listen to endless tales of an emperor’s love for his wife.
But here at the utterly peaceful Itimad-ud-Daulah is a building which I consider equal to the Taj Mahal. A loving tribute from a daughter, an emperor’s wife, and one of the most famous women of her time.
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