September 11, 2013

Jahanara Begum's Tomb, New Delhi

"Jahanara, the eldest daughter of Shah Jahan, was very handsome, of lively parts and passionately loved by her father. Shah Jahan reposed immense confidence in his favourite child. She watched over his safety and no dish was permitted upon the Royal table, which had not been prepared under her observation." 

- French traveler Francois Bernier

In her marble grave, shrouded by the sky & covered with a layer of grass lies Sahibat-ul-Zamani Shehzadi Fatima Jahanara (1614-81 AD), princess of India, benefactor of the poor, confidante of native Indian chieftains & counselor to two mighty Emperors – her indulgent father Shahjahan (ruled AD 1638-58) & pious brother Aurangzeb (ruled AD 1658-1707). Despite being one of the most powerful women of her time, bestowed with both beauty & intelligence, the humble princess wished that she be buried in a simple enclosure close to the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, the patron saint of Delhi & the Sufi mystic whose teachings she revered (refer Pixelated Memories - Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah). 

She was only 17 when her mother Arjumand Banu Begum aka Mumtaz Mahal (the lady for whom Shahjahan built the magnificent Taj Mahal) passed away during childbirth leaving a terrible vaccum in her life; she took it upon herself to raise her six siblings (Mumtaz had 14 children with Shahjahan but 7 of them predeceased her) & also look after her grief-stricken father & assist him in the affairs of the court so as to enable him to fulfill his obligations to the state. Her younger brother Dara’s marriage to the beautiful Begum Nadira Banu (their cousin; daughter of Shahjahan’s half-brother Prince Pervez) which was planned by their mother but delayed due to her untimely death was conducted by Jahanara with great pomp & fervor. Jahanara became the first woman of the Mughal household, soon surpassing Shahjahan’s other wives – he made her the custodian of the Imperial Seal & gave her the titles of Badshah Begum (“Lady Emperor”) & Begum Sahiba (“Princess of Princesses”). Shahjahan also fixed her an annual stipend of Rs 1 million & granted her the right to revenue from the port of Surat (Gujarat) which she possessed till the time of her death. She received half of Mumtaz Mahal’s total wealth worth over Rs 10 million (the other half was distributed among the rest of Mumtaz’s children) & also received handsome gifts from the native rulers, chieftains & warlords in return for political & administrative favors she bestowed upon them through the Emperor – she was the wealthiest woman of her time, but being of Sufi temperament, she used most of her wealth & accumulated riches for the service of the poor & the orphans.

The tomb of Jahanara Begum (The marble dome on its immediate left belongs to the tomb of Amir Khusro while the red building on the right is the Jamaat Khana mosque, the principal mosque of the Dargah Complex)

A very learned lady, she was well-versed in Persian & Arabic & came to be known as a scholar & a patron of arts & literature, herself being a writer, painter & poet (her younger brother Dara Shukoh too was a fairly good painter & writer, therefore explaining the camaraderie the two felt with each other). Most importantly, it was Jahanara who designed the famed Chandni Chowk (“Moonlight square”) street of Delhi – the chief avenue of Shahjahan’s capital at Shahjanabad with the Red Fort as its pinnacle & flanked by the houses of the “Omrahs” (high-ranking officials) & a canal running through its center that reflected moonlight & made onlookers gasp with astonishment at the fusion of earth & paradise. Of a philanthropic dispossession, she took it upon herself to look after the comfort of the poor & the needy. She was highly influenced by Sufism – at the early age of 10, she (along with Dara) was initiated into the Qadiriyya sect of Sufism under the tutelage of Mullah Shah Badakhshi – she began to call herself a “Fakeera” (female mendicant) & it is said that she became such a formidable champion of Sufism & worship that the Mullah would have named her his spiritual successor had the rules of the sect allowed it. Both Jahanara & Dara also had spiritual contacts with Mian Mir, Mullah Shah’s spiritual predecessor & a very revered saint of his time (It is said that the Sikh Guru Arjan Singh had the foundation stone of the holy Golden Temple, Amritsar, laid by Mian Mir). A religious person (but not dogmatically intolerant of other beliefs & religions like her other brother Aurangzeb), she is credited with having built many mosques, especially the Jama Masjid of Agra, & serais (traveller’s inns). She wrote “Mu’nis al-Arwāḥ”, the biography of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, the founder of the Chishtiya sect of Sufism (Khwaja Nizamuddin also belonged to the Chishtiya order) & “Risālah-i Ṣāḥibīyah” (“The Mistress’ Treatise”), the biography of Mullah Shah, both highly noted for their literary quality & writing style. She was renowned as a patron of Sufi literature & commissioned the translation as well as commentary on several classical works.

In the year 1658, Shahjahan fell terribly ill & was bedridden as a consequence, rumors spread that the Emperor was dead, that he had been murdered by the followers of one of his sons for the purpose of usurping power – when he failed to appear in court for over a week, each of his four sons, Aurangzeb, Dara Shukoh, Murad Baksh & Shah Shuja, prepared their armies & marched upon Delhi to claim sovereignty. Jahanara openly & actively supported Dara, her brother with whom she shared her Sufi beliefs & religious tolerance; she was totally against her cold, rigid & Wahabi brother Aurangzeb whom she referred to as a white serpent in her personal correspondence. However after the initial tussle & warfare, it was Aurangzeb who graced the throne of India & also had Dara executed; soon thereafter Shahjahan recovered from his illness, but Aurangzeb was in no mood to restore surrender his powers & face his father’s terrible wrath for murdering his brothers – he had Shahjahan imprisoned in his fortress at Agra.

The heavy, marble doors that lead to the princess' grave 

Despite his initial resentment Aurangzeb extended courteous treatment towards his sister, Jahanara however was very close to her father & decided to share his captivity – Aurangzeb was spared the opportunity to imprison her (apart from their father, he had also confined his own daughter Zebunissa on the charge of being a poet-composer to the gallows built in Delhi’s Salimgarh fortress, refer Pixelated Memories - Salimgarh Fort). Aurangzeb fixed her a handsome annuity & allowed her to maintain her estates as well as retain the right to revenue from Surat. There were rumors to suggest the reason for her choosing captivity over enjoying her youth & life - she closely resembled her mother in terms of looks & intelligence, prompting her father to make advances towards her & the two had shared sexual relations; French traveler Bernier writes “Begum Sahib, the elder daughter of Shah Jahan, was very beautiful… Rumour has it that his attachment reached a point which it is difficult to believe, the justification of which he rested on the decision of the Mullas, or doctors of their law. According to them it would have been unjust to deny the king the privilege of gathering fruit from the tree he himself had planted.” She lived in Agra till her father’s death in 1666 after which she was reconciled with Aurangzeb & retired to Delhi to live in the mansion that once belonged to Ali Mardan Khan, a Persian noble in her father’s court & the viceroy of Punjab. Aurangzeb respected her & sought her counsel in matters of state & public welfare; she never shied from arguing with the Emperor in order to prove her point, especially when it concerned his enforced austerity measures or his practice of religious intolerance. Though he never forgave her for siding with Dara, Aurangzeb trusted her wisdom over the loyalty of their younger sister Roshanara Begum who harbored bitterness & political enmity against Jahanara & had also shared in Aurangzeb’s schemes to usurp the throne when Shahjahan was bedridden. Overlooking Roshanara & Gauharara (the third sister among the seven siblings), Aurangzeb appointed Jahanara as the first lady of the court & raised her annual allowance from Rs 1 million to 1.7 million.

The intricately carved lattice screens of the grave enclosure

Mughal princesses were not allowed to marry, a custom arising out of the consideration that no man was worthy enough to ask the hand of the daughter of the Great Mughal in marriage (the real reason however was the suspicion that the princesses’ husband might accumulate power in his hands & threaten the Emperor) – Jahanara, Roshanara & Gauharara stayed single all their life even though they had many lovers who would come visit them at night in the cover of silence & camouflage of the dark. Roshanara, who was closer to Aurangzeb & had immense power in her hands took on a number of lovers. Soon however she was caught red-handed by the pious Aurangzeb who chastised her for failing to honour her obligations by curtailing many of her powers & had her lover poisoned. Much to the chagrin of Roshanara, Jahanara was given considerable influence in Aurangzeb’s court after this & began acting as an intermediary between the local chieftains/warlords & the Emperor. Though Dara’s sons were executed by Aurangzeb to avoid future complications, the remaining children were looked after by Jahanara like her own. Roshanara decided to retire to a garden-pavilion built for her pleasure at the outskirts of Delhi; Jahanara became the most important woman in the Mughal court. It is not to suggest that Jahanara did not have any vices – both Bernier & Manucci note that she was an alcoholic (besides the usual charges that Aurangzeb disapproved of – dancing, singing, poetry & acting); at times she would be so drunk that she would have difficulty standing up & would often pass out.

Jahanara's grave (& the random stuff strewn around)

Aurangzeb allowed her to design & commission her own simple mausoleum comprising of a magnificent lattice enclosure made of white marble immediately opposite the striking tomb of Hazrat Nizamuddin. She passed away on September 6, 1681, at the age of 67 & was buried in a simple grave in the open-roofed enclosure she designed. She was posthumously conferred the title of Sahibat-ul-Zamani (“Mistress of her time”) by the Emperor. The intricately carved filigree screens of her remarkably simple tomb hide the graves of the princess & several others who lie beside her from the eyes of the onlookers, an equally splendidly adorned marble door bars the entrance to the princess’ final resting place. In accordance with her last wishes, she was given a humble funeral & an otherwise unremarkable grave. Except for a simplistic flower carved in marble at the head of the grave, the rest of it is not ornamented in any manner, instead the grave hosts a hollow on the top filled with grass; the sides too bear no ornamentation except calligraphic inscriptions. The Persian inscription next to her grave reads –

“Allah is the Living, the Sustaining.
Let no one cover my grave except with greenery,
For this very grass suffices as a tomb cover for the poor.
The mortal simplistic Princess Jahanara, 
Disciple of the Khwaja Moin-ud-Din Chishti, 
Daughter of Shah Jahan the Conqueror 
May Allah illuminate his proof. 
1092 [1681 AD]”

Sadly, though Aurangzeb did not subject her to an ill-fated existence, it is actually the treatment that the citizens of 21st-century Delhi (who take pride in their education & awareness) have meted out to the princess’ grave enclosure that seems more like a condemnation. The enclosure is surrounded by varied stuff strewn around – rags, shreds of clothes, metal cupboards; the insides are no different – more cupboards line up against the filigree screens, a broken chair lies in a corner, wooden planks & clothes are thrown around for added charm, pieces of paper & polythene cover the hollow receptacle on top of the grave instead of the grass that was intended to be Jahanara’s shroud. Despite this, the enclosure is bliss; it is quiet & serene, so unlike the Dargah complex outside that is bustling with visitors & booming with their continuous chatter. Once you push open the heavy marble doors that bar entry to the enclosure, you discover a quiet little corner for yourself, free from intruders, free from the beggars who roam about the Dargah complex, free from the noise & disturbance. Sadly, not many know that the princess of India is buried here, even fewer pay a visit to her unadorned grave. Once the richest woman in the country, today she is also the loneliest – perhaps she likes it, she is buried close to the revered Sheikh – like life, like in death she lives alone in her own peaceful, hermetic way. Ironically, despite having an ardent devotee in the form of Jahanara buried in its close vicinity, Hazrat Nizamuddin’s tomb is out-of-bound for female followers of the saint!!

The signboard at the entrance to Nizamuddin's Tomb

Location: Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah, Nizamuddin,
Open: All days, Sunrise to sunset (All night on Thursday)
Nearest Metro Station: Jorbagh
Nearest Railway Station: Hazrat Nizamuddin Station
How to reach: Take an auto from the metro/railway station to the Dargah as it is quite a walk from both. 
Entrance fee: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil.
Time required for sight seeing: 20 min
Relevant Links -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Amir Khusro & his Tomb
  2. Pixelated Memories - Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah
  3. Pixelated Memories - Red Fort
  4. Pixelated Memories - Salimgarh Fort Complex & Freedom Fighter Museum
Suggested Reading -
  1. A Sufi Metamorphosis - Jahanara; The Mughal Sufi princess
  2. - The unsung Mughal princess
  3. - Article "Princess Jahanara’s biography of a Sufi saint" (dated Feb 01, 2013) by Ursula Sims-Williams
  4. - "Janni" the dutiful daughter Jahanara
  5. - Article "Shah Jahan’s wily princess" (dated 27th June 2013) by Anjali Sharma
  6. - Secret history of Delhi
  7. - The invisibility of the Mughal princesses
  8. - Gifts for a princess

September 09, 2013

Happy Ganesh Chaturthi!!

"Pixelated Memories" wishes all its readers a very happy Ganesh Chaturthi, the festival of the pot-bellied, elephant-headed Hindu God who is the destroyer of obstacles & the harbinger of auspiciousness besides being the patron of sciences & intellect.

September 03, 2013

Kankalitala Shaktipeetha, Birbhum

The simplest of all "Shakti Peetha" ("Centers of spiritual power") that I have come across so far during my sojourns, Kankalitala temple in Birbhum (Bengal) is also by far one of the most unadorned temples that I have ever been to – to sum it, the main shrine consists of just an ordinary colonnaded rectangular hall with a small enclosed sanctum on one end. The square sanctum, surmounted by a typical pyramidal roof, possesses only a nondescript, thoroughly garlanded portrait of Goddess Kali (the Hindu Goddess of death and destruction) that is kept surrounded by adornments and articles of worship. What was more shocking was that this simplicity of the shrine continued even during the holy Hindu month of "Sawan" that is dedicated to the worship of Shiva, Goddess Kali's consort and the primordial Hindu God of death and destruction – being an important center of pilgrimage visited by devotees throughout the year and especially during Sawan, one would have assumed the temple to be beautifully decorated, but nothing of that sort! Unaware of the significance of the holy month and its subsequent effect on the temple's daily footfall, we were in for a shock when we visited the shrine complex – there were at least a thousand "Kanwariyas" jostling for space not only within the complex  but also along the streets and in public buses – we literally felt we have landed in the middle of a small, boring and very poorly oganized fair where everyone decided to dress up in saffron! Every Sawan, millions of these men, women and children, collectively referred to as "Kanwariyas" and dressed in saffron for easy identification, throng to the river Ganga armed with slender ornamental poles (imaginatively decorated with miniature plastic tridents, idols of Shiva, snakes and other symbolism associated with Lord Shiva according to Hindu mythology) affixed with water pots on each side. Travelling in large groups on foot/buses, these people embark for the journey from their native places and head to the sacred river where they fill the water pots which they later empty either at the temple they regularly visit or at one of the mythological hallowed sites such as a Shakti Peetha – owing to the belief that completing the journey on foot will avail greater spiritual benefits, especially in the afterlife, most of the Kanwariyas prefer to cover the journey on foot and even children as young as 7-8 years walk several hundred kilometers! Incredible India, isn't it?!

The image of Goddess Kali gracing the sanctum. Notice also that Lord Shiva has been depicted lying under her feet, an iconography derived from another Kali legend that has been previously discussed here – Pixelated Memories - Kali Puja, Durgapur.

The mythological lore governing the existence of each of the 51 legendary Shakti Peethas throughout the Indian subcontinent has been discussed in detail here – Pixelated Memories - Kamakhya Temple, Assam (Kamakhya Temple happened to be the first such shrine I visited).The Kanwariyas, who look for such indisputably holy spots to empty their quota of the water from Ganga in exchange for spiritual well-being, throng to these Shakti Peethas like bees to honey and Kankalitala temple, where the Goddess’ cleaved waist is said to have fallen, is no exception to this – the thousands of pilgrims jostling to pay respects to the mother Goddess are witness to this and ensured that we could not get clear photos of either the temple or the sanctum. And that's not all, we couldn't even get standing space in the bus we took to reach the temple and had to actually sit on its roof while the skies rained and thundered heavily.

The central temple at Kankalitala

But the temple's simplicity does not mean that it does not hide impressive surprises – the first of these, a huge gateway crafted by local sculptor-artists and decorated with painstakingly executed terracotta panels, greets visitors at the very periphery of the complex itself – the magnificence of the gateway is derived from, but not limited to, its thick cylindrical pillars embossed with panels depicting royal processions, traditional dancers and elephants.

Design motifs on the entrance gateway to the temple complex

As mentioned earlier, the sanctum is a simplistic square sanctuary capped by a pyramidal roof which is further topped by a metallic spire shaped like ceremonial pots of gradually decreasing sizes placed atop each other. The Natmandir, where visitors and devotees sit and pray from (the raised pillared hall already mentioned) is three bays wide and four bays long. Unlike other Shakti Peethas, here Goddess Sati’s organs aren’t reverentially placed in the sanctum but are said to be submerged in a square tank (“Kund”) which is located close to the central temple and lead to by a flight of stairs on each side. Devotees, mostly women, descend down to the level of the venerable tank and take the sacred water in their palm to rub it on the forehead (assuming from what I observed in the short while that we stayed at the temple, here too, like Kamakhya Temple of Assam, drinking the hallowed water and thereby polluting it with saliva is prohibited).

On the other side of the temple is a sacred tree on which are hung numerous marigold wreaths and rounded stones tied via threads – a Bengali tradition to pray for pregnancy and safe childbirth. The Kanwariyas had left their now-emptied poles against the tree and the colors of the ornamental, vibrantly-colored poles contrasting against the bark of the old tree seemed visually attractive, but the incessant rains hampered any chances of clicking photographs, in fact we remained throughout the stay at Birbhum perennially afraid of damaging the cameras!

The sacred crater supposedly formed due to the impact of Goddess Sati's waist hitting the earth. It subsequently got filled with water.

The temple complex is actually very large, however there aren't many permanent structures within the campus – the associated Shiva temple, lined with marble and adorned with vermilion motifs, is located a couple of hundred meters away, close to the entrance gateway. The venerated Shivalinga (symbolic of Shiva’s phallus placed atop the Goddess' vagina) is made of hard black stone and adoringly referred to as "Shambhu Baba" and "Ruru Bhairav". Interestingly, at first sight the thick phallic construction appears to be buried in a deep crater which too, like the rest of the shrine's floor, is faced with spotless white marble on all sides; in fact, the priests who chant invocations while showering the linga with ceremonial water, flowers and condiments stand on a much higher plane compared to the deity they revere. The linga was once complete and protruded from the ground in all its majesty, but was destroyed base upwards by a viciously iconoclast 16th-century Muslim General popularly known as "Kala Pahar" (literally "Black Mountain", perhaps referring to his unparalleled physical strength or his terrible stone-heartedness) when Bengal was ruled by Afghan Pathan warlord Sulaiman Khan Karrani, a vassal of Mughal Emperor Akbar (ruled AD 1556-1605). That such a thick monolith was broken to pieces speaks of the animosity Kala Pahar felt for Hindus and their ancient traditions, though it is said that he himself was a convert from Hinduism and later notoriously excelled in destroying temples and religious sites. Also, the original structure of Assam's Kamakhya temple too was demolished by this ferocious General, as revealed in the earlier article here – Pixelated Memories - Kamakhya Temple, Assam.

The pit where the Shivalinga exists in its broken form

Opposite the Shiva temple is another roofed pavilion where the ornamental chariot used for the “Rath Yatra” (“Chariot journey”) of the deities is housed. The temple complex also boasts of a large cremation ground. As already mentioned, the temple was teeming with pilgrims and Kanwariyas on the day we visited; but, I do not expect the number of devotees to be that strong on other occasions, even though the temple is associated with “Bauls” (traditional mystic singers-composers) – one should properly time their visits, especially to religious sites, to avoid crowds if the purpose is architectural photography. Kankalitala is not part of the usual pilgrim circuit; richer and better located Shakti Peethas such as Kalighat (Calcutta) and Kamakhya steal the spotlight, but the crowds at the temple only prove how revered it is amongst devotees, many of whom come from afar. If only it were more developed and not so desolate!

Location: Birbhum, Bankura, West Bengal
Open: Sunrise to sunset
How to reach: Buses are available for Kankalitala from Siuri, Rajarhat and Bolpur divisions of Bankura district. The shrine can also be accessed by taking train to Bolpur/Rajarhat and from bus there on.
Entrance Fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 45 min
Relevant Links - 
Suggested Reading -