08 March 2016

Itimad-ud-Daulah's Tomb, Agra, Uttar Pradesh


“Almighty God! What a profound thought and glorious idea it is that the subtle apprehenders of truth, whose bright minds are like the breath of morning, and who are keen-sighted students of the schedules of Creation and composers of the diagrams of the tables of wisdom and perception, have not, with the exception of Speech which is but a vagrant breeze and fluctuating gale, found in the combinations of the elements or in material forms, anything so sublime or a jewel so rare that it come not within the mould of a price, the Reason’s balance cannot weigh it, that Language’s measure cannot contain it, and that it be beyond the scale of Thought; – and yet how should it be otherwise? Without help of Speech, the inner world’s capital cannot be built, nor this evil outer world’s civilization conceived.
– Abul Fazal ibn Mubarak, “Akbarnama” (written and illustrated, AD 1590-96)


Describe this, Abul Fazal!


With the indulgent reader’s benevolent acquiescence, and wholly apprehending the significant semantic inadequacy in describing the unparalleled subliminal magnificence of the imaginatively conceived and meticulously embellished mausoleum of “Itimad-ud-Daulah” Mirza Ghiyasuddin Beg that I recently had the delightful privilege of setting eyes upon, I shall here humbly endeavor to retrace in thoughts and photographs, the matchlessly resplendent impression that is instantaneously seared onto one’s retinas for interminable eternity upon crossing the enchanted threshold of the small, conscientiously symmetrical and affectionately maintained grass-shrouded oasis that affectionately embraces the extravagantly ornamented “jewel-box” edifice as its centerpiece, and mercifully secludes it from the exasperatingly tumultuous deluge of humanity indifferently throbbing about the perplexing spiders’ webs of extensive streets and enormous slithering riverine bridges enveloping it.

Imagine then, walking towards an exceedingly massive gateway, squat solid of design and flawlessly balanced of proportions, composed of vibrant red sandstone painstakingly inlaid with glistening white marble in numerous spellbinding motifs so incomparably exquisite that one explicably confuses them for painted designs! Wide-eyed speechless with fantastical wonderment at the unequaled sight of the intricate festooning of rococo floral foliage and vegetative flourishes ornamenting the grand gateway, one belatedly comes to the arousing realization that despite the sculptural excellence of its elaborate decorative features, it is merely a trifling formal entrance; a temptingly promising, yet wholly functional, demarcation between the remarkably simplistic peripheries and the regally lavish centerpiece whose minute glittering jewel-like glimpses assiduously attract one further along the perfectly manicured garden complex till one sets eyes on its superlative majesty enthroned lethargically upon its high sandstone plinth.


Portal to another world


Stepping within, let the reader visualize this square immensity, brightly illuminated by sparkling sunshine, its enormous marble surface magnanimously and very flamboyantly sprinkled with an unbelievably profuse, elaborately Bacchanalian crisscrossing inlay of multi-chrome glimmering floral convolutions, geometrical designs and arabesque scrollwork that in itself would have been exaggeratedly ostentatious were it not so exceptionally precise, so extraordinarily symmetrical, so astonishingly hypnotic, and so irrefutably subdued by the soothing whiteness of the unblemished marble, that it conclusively surpasses all endeavors at visual faultfinding.

“Marble, specially of the textural quality as that obtained from the quarries of Makrana in Jodhpur, provides its own decorative appearance owing to its delicate graining, and any ornamentation requires to be most judiciously, almost sparingly applied, otherwise the surfaces become fretted and confused. Moldings have to be fine and rare in their contours and plain spaces are valuable as they emphasize the intrinsic beauty of the material, so that restraint has to be invariably observed. The forms therefore of this style are essentially marble forms, while the decoration is only occasionally plastic, such enrichment as was considered essential being obtained by means of inlaid patterns in colored stones.”
– Percy Brown, British art critic-scholar-historian-archaeologist,
“Indian Architecture, Volume II: Islamic Period”


Behold extravagance


Along the soaring octagonal minarets, enclosing the richly sculpted stone filigree screens, in the little crevices encapsulated between contiguous ornamental brackets supporting the overhanging eaves (“chajja”), camouflaged on the surface of the brackets themselves, indeed on every smallest fraction of the mammoth edifice except the curved roof of the square pavilion crowning it – is interwoven this precisely outlined veneer of multi-hued tessellation, this incomparable exemplar of embellishment the sheer complexities of whose unforgiving delicate nature and ostentatiously ornate intricacies spontaneously and endlessly snare flabbergasted onlookers into meticulous contemplation of its constituent configurations until eventually it seems ceaseless time itself has come to an unforeseen standstill to admire this remarkably mesmerizing superficial constitution.

One unquestionably perceives the prominent emphasis on the meticulous miniaturization of even the more massive panels, especially those adorning the exceedingly detailed lower portions of the edifice, and categorically comes to the plausible conclusion that the committed sculptor-craftsmen, who diligently emphasized the minutest of arabesque details, the slightest of geometric illustrations, and the simplest of physical forms, might have been essentially convicted that even layman visitors would not merely reflect unrelenting attention on the entire colossal edifice, but also comprehend the faultless nature of miniaturization herein accomplished and the unequivocal excellence thus incorporated.

Indisputably inspired by enthralling Persian paintings, visually the most noteworthy tessellated sections are the realistic minuscule panels, comprising of eclectically intricate flower vases, splendidly arrayed tiny cups and fashionably slender wine flasks, intermittently peppering the tremendously sophisticated surface of the extraordinarily evocative mausoleum.

“It is of no little psychological significance that a movement (Islam) which began with restrictions against all forms of monumental art should eventually produce some of the most superb examples. Only the pyramids of the Pharoahs, and a few other funerary monuments, such as that raised in memory of King Mausoleus at Halicarnassus in Asia Minor, have excelled in size and architectural splendor the Islamic tombs of India.”
– Percy Brown, British art critic-scholar-historian-archaeologist,
“Indian Architecture, Volume II: Islamic Period”


Incredible!


Let me also recount for the forbearing readers the incredibly fascinating, if slightly far-fetched, story of Mirza Ghiyasuddin Muhammad Beg who is often regarded as a living exemplar of individual advancement, through education, from debilitating insufficiency to enviable affluence, and from depressing powerlessness and agonizing dependency to wielding considerable influence even over otherwise unyielding sovereigns.

Firstly however, it needs be justly acknowledged that our exceptionally handsome and illustriously erudite protagonist is more eminently renowned for his celebrated descendants – his daughter Mehrunissa “Nurjahan” (“Light of the World”) formidably wielded the royal scepter while her depraved husband Emperor “Nuruddin” (“Light of the Faith”) Muhammad Salim “Jahangir” (“World Conqueror”, reign AD 1605-27) abandoned himself to drunken debaucheries and overindulgence of laudanum and opiates; his distinguished granddaughter Nawab Aliya Arjumand Bano Begum “Mumtaz-i-Mahal” (“Most Exalted in the Palace”) is of course recognized throughout the world as the “Lady of the Taj”, the favorite wife of Mughal Emperor Shihabuddin (“Champion of the Faith”) Muhammad Shahjahan (reign AD 1627-57)!

The son of a high Persian official, Mirza Beg was obliged for some undocumented reason to quit Teheran in AD 1577 and travel in extreme impoverishment to the vast realm of the Great Mughals to secure official and pecuniary advancement at the imperial court. Regarding this compelled relocation, a curious, although probably erroneous, saga resiliently survives in local folklore and is very delightfully recounted by semi-learned guides to perplexed tourists – it goes that while traversing, in a buffalo/mule cart (the numerous fictional accounts differ on such insignificant intricacies!), the vast desolate tracts delineating Indian subcontinent from central Asia, Mirza Beg’s family exhausted their money (alternatively, they were waylaid by ferocious bandits), and were all in danger of wretchedly perishing from hunger when Asmat Begum, Mirza Beg’s pregnant wife, delivered the radiantly lovely Mehrunissa (“Sun among Women”) in the oppressive desert.

Drastically affected by the absence of sustenance, the famished mother could barely remain upright, and the aggrieved father had become too severely exhausted to afford her either physical or emotional support. Distressed by starvation and fatigue, they hardheartedly resolved to abandon the newborn in some solitary stunted undergrowth and grievously resume their long onward journey in the hope of coming across some form of reprieve.


A daughter's tribute


But as they deliberately pressed on and the tiny shrubbery perceptibly disappeared from the horizon, uncontrollably the mother burst in a piteous paroxysm of grief, crying “My child! My child!”, consequentially causing them to return and retrieve the child. Soon thereafter they were picked up by a benevolent caravan headed to Lahore (in modern-day Pakistan) in the realm of Emperor Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar (reign AD 1556-1605), and the rest, as they say, is history.

The legend is undoubtedly mythical – firstly, the alleged circumstances would only be known to Mirza Beg and Asmat Begum and neither of them of course would have made the humiliating anecdote public. Furthermore, most historians unambiguously concede that the shrewdly resourceful Mehrunissa (afterwards Empress “Nurmahal” (“Light of the Seraglio”) and “Nurjahan” (“Light of the World”)) was born in Kandahar enroute to India.

An identical tale states that the crying newborn was in reality discovered by an affluent trader Malik Masud who then recounted the sordid account at the caravanserai he was lodged in, consequentially causing the anguished Mirza Beg (who too had coincidentally boarded there) to recount his sorrowful travails and reclaim the beautiful child. Affected by pity, Malik Masud ceremoniously introduced Mirza Beg to Emperor Akbar who, propelled by his astute business skills, respectable scholarship, and amiable temperament, readily conferred upon him the office of “Diwan” (treasurer) of the province of Kabul (Afghanistan).

During the reign of Emperor Nuruddin Jahangir, Mirza Beg was bestowed with the honorific “Itimad-ud-Daula” (“Pillar of the State”), decreed “Sarpotdar” (“Lord High Treasurer of the Empire”), and eventually raised to the enviable position of “Wazir-ud-Daulah” (Prime minister). Interestingly, his bold propensity to demand immense bribes was entirely overlooked! His sons Mirza Abul Hasan “Asaf Jahan”, Muhammad Sharif and Ibrahim Khan “Fateh-Jang” too were entrusted with the the command of several thousand cavalrymen of the mammoth imperial army.


Delicate, in all senses of the word!


Affectionately commissioned by Empress Nurjahan upon the mournful demise of her father, the majestically rousing mausoleum, constructed over AD 1622-28, is undeniably a visionary alchemical transformation sublimely arising from the distillation of hundreds of relatively modest, though awe-inspiringly attractive, predecessors. Not only perceptible in its singularly unusual architecture is the conspicuous mix of Hindu and Persian antecedents, the inimitable exteriors too, with their elaborate rococo of intricate floral flourishes and enchanting arabesques, are unforgettably evocative of fine embroidery realistically portraying elegant flowers not found in the Indian subcontinent, which, it’s said, is how the indulgent empress artistically envisioned the gorgeously wreathed edifice. Surprisingly though, the extensive use of semi-precious stones – turquoise, jade, lapis lazuli, topaz, carnelian, quartz, garnet, agate – of all hues and shades, in combination with black and white marble, is visually balanced despite the exaggeratedly ostentatious mosaic they culminate into.

“It is easy to trace Nur Jahan’s feminine taste…in the magnificent tomb which she built for her father, Mirza Ghias Beg, Jahangir’s Prime Minister. This is one of the most eclectic of the Mogul buildings… It is inaccurate to apply the term “Indo-Persian” to Itmad-ud-daulah’s tomb and other of Jahangir’s and Shah Jahan’s buildings. The structural design of the tomb belongs to the Hindu tradition… Nur Jahan’s intention was to reproduce in marble and precious inlay the enamelled tile mosaic of Persian tombs; but Persian craftsmen who were not skilled in fine masonry could not do this for her. The Indian masons, therefore, with their usual versatility adapted their craft to the Empress’s taste.”
– Ernest Binfield Havell, “Indian Architecture, Its Psychology, Structure, and History
from the first Muhammadan Invasion to the Present Day” (1913)


Across the threshold


Let the kind reader picture now an incalculably magnificent gallery lined with numerous outstandingly finished, repetitive designs – bountiful flower vases alluringly overflowing with delicate foliage flourishes and multicolored roses (many of these polychrome compositions inspired by the stylized sketch-works of Ustad Mansur Naqqash, Emperor Jahangir’s renowned court painter specializing in rich flora-fauna masterpieces), skillfully finished wine-cups, splendid rose-water vessels, exceedingly vivid cypress trees realistically billowing on the smooth surface, and congregations of tiny feathery birds composed as if of delicately frothy clouds – each dexterously painted in a thousand vibrant hues and gracefully adorning every slightest nook and cranny of the wonderful surface except where the celebrated walls are layered with recurring multi-patterned inlaid marble or are interspersed by formidably set entrances and perfectly sculpted stone filigree screens. This then is a humble description of the mesmerizing interiors!

Unwaveringly adhering to the “Hasht Bihisht” architectural scheme favored by the affluent royalty, these galleries surrounding the large central chamber culminate into considerably smaller subsidiary chambers where are interred Itimad-ud-Daulah’s dearest kinfolk.

Yet the greatest surprise waits in the magnificent central chamber where in a centrally located sarcophagus reposes in eternal slumber the beloved Asmat Begum who deceased in AD 1621, only a year prior to her influential husband whose own brilliant green grave, appreciably offset towards the side, accompanies hers. Here then, staggeringly encasing the entire roof is an impressively enormous, celestially dazzling, brilliantly vivid-hued painted medallion conceived in such an impossibly exquisite, ostentatiously charismatic and symmetrically engrossing manner that the reader shall unfailingly discover that one cannot help being compellingly immersed in its pensive contemplation for a long while.


Iridescence!


Precisely outlining the passionately decorated mausoleum’s flamboyant florid iridescence is the formulaically envisioned quadrangular Mughal “charbagh” (“four-quartered garden”) grandiosely enveloping it. Its beautiful accompaniments – faultless walkways and their straightforward fastidiousness and subdued sunburned brown-red hues; ornamental false gateways adorned with decaying remnants of impressive marble inlay and vibrantly multi-hued paintwork; corner domed towers blushing red through their restrained simplicity; and shallow water channels meticulously lined with attractively patterned cascades – are equally noteworthy.

Irrefutably capable of rendering one sufficiently awe-inspired through the resourceful invocation of the incomparable exquisiteness of the intricate painted patterns adorning its under-surface, the majestically proportioned western false gateway transforms into a humongous, breathtakingly beautiful pavilion from which to contemplate the lethargic flow of the narrow slithering stream that is Yamuna, the meandering “black river” of mythology (now deplorably physically so too, considering the ceaseless discharge into it throughout the day throughout the years of incalculably vast quantities of tremendously poisonous chemicals, inexorably nefarious organic wastes and putrid-smelling decomposing excreta).

Unquestionably hundreds of the unbelievably colossal fortifications, extravagantly opulent palatial complexes, profligately ornamented sepulchers, and passionately envisioned religious edifices dotting the immense landscape of the country would live up to indescribably fanciful adjective-laced descriptions, yet rare would be one as ethereally beautiful, as subliminally spellbinding, and as consummately perfect as Itimad-ud-Daulah’s magnificent sparkling “jewel box” mausoleum.


Painted and tessellated - Pavilion views


“The tomb known as that of Eti-mad-Doulah at Agra… cannot be passed over, not only from its own beauty of design, but also because it marks an epoch in the style to which it belongs… Its real merit consists in being wholly in white marble, and being covered throughout with a mosaic in “pietro duro” – the first, apparently, and certainly one of the most splendid, examples of that class of ornamentation in India… The beautiful tracery of the pierced marble slabs of its windows, which resemble those of Selim Chisti's tomb at Futtehpore Sikri, the beauty of its white marble walls, and the rich colour of its decorations, make up so beautiful a whole, that it is only on comparing it with the works of Shah Jehan that we are justified in finding fault.”
– James Fergusson, Scottish businessman-architect-writer
“The History of Indian and Eastern Architecture” (1876)

That being said, demeaning comparisons need to be notched down a scale or two. Despite their underlying technical similarities and structural over-refinement, and the extravagantly sumptuous decorations and lavish expenditure in material ornamentation concurred in both their construction, in my humble opinion, the exemplar mausoleum of Itimad-ud-Daulah arguably deserves to be above “Baby Taj”, its other descriptive sobriquet. The two edifices underline entirely different classes of architecture. Itimad-ud-Daulah’s eccentrically ornate mausoleum is the product of an altogether different age and its corresponding aesthetics – an age when the most functionally mundane edifices were intended to bedazzle; an age when, notwithstanding funerary sobriety, a sepulchral edifice would not be considered complete without an overindulgence of ornamentation, and an overemphasis on explosive bursts of rococo floral flourishes, all-encompassing artistic excess and fantastically multicolored traditional tessellated motifs.


Not the “Baby Taj” it's made out to be!


“It is an exceedingly beautiful building, but a great part of the most valuable stones of the mosaic work have been picked out and stolen, and the whole is about to be sold by auction, by a decree of the civil court, to pay the debt of the present proprietor, who is entirely unconnected with the family whose members repose under it, and especially indifferent as to what becomes of their bones. The building and garden in which it stands were, some sixty years ago, given away, I believe, by Najif Khan, the prime minister, to one of his nephews, to whose family it still belongs.”
– Major-General Sir William Henry “Thuggee” Sleeman, British East India Co. Administrator
“Rambles and Recollections of an Indian Official” (1844)

(In hindsight, the preposterously appalling treatment meted to the preciously unique edifice at the hands of Mir Bakshi Mirza Najaf Khan Safvi, the incorrigibly efficient commander-in-chief during the unsustainably fragile reigns of the fledgling emperors Muhammad Shah I (reign AD 1719-48) and Shah Alam II (reigned AD 1759-1806), seems conservatively improbable but not entirely impossible. Mirza Najaf himself is buried in an unspeakably plain, possibly half-finished mausoleum in Delhi’s Jorbagh-Karbala area (refer Pixelated Memories - Najaf Khan and his tomb)).

In so impressively restoring the elegantly kaleidoscopic edifice vis-à-vis the despicably ruinous circumstances in which it was inherited (!!), the Archaeological Survey of India, in collaboration with World Monuments Fund, has commendably accomplished an exceptionally onerous and enormously expensive undertaking – an extremely comprehensive process that involved scientific research and documentation, structural conservation, immaculate replacement of missing/deteriorated architectural elements, preservation of the sophisticated paintwork, and the integrated restoration and technological optimization of the water channels and contextually traditional horticultural landscape epitomizing the refined Mughal “charbagh” setting. Salute to their meritorious achievement!


History meets modernity


Location: The mausoleum, accessible via Ambedkar Bridge, is situated on Yamuna riverbank across from Taj Mahal/Agra Fort and the railway stations. One can avail a shared auto-rickshaw from Agra Cantt. Railway station or Agra Fort for Bijli-ghar crossing (Rs 15/person either way) and from there avail a shared auto-rickshaw, again for Rs 15/person, for Yamuna ghat (or simply “Ghat”) on the other side of the river. The mausoleum is barely 5-10 minutes’ walk from there on.
Open: All days, sunrise to sunset (ticket window closes 30 minutes before the sunset)
Entrance fees: Indians and SAARC country nationals: Rs 5; Others: Rs 100. Free entry for children up to 15 years of age.
Agra Development Authority (ADA) toll-tax (applicable on all days except Fridays): Indians and SAARC country nationals: Rs 10; Others: Rs 500 (remains valid (only for foreigners) for an entire day and can be presented at other major monument complexes too).
Photography/Video charges: Nil/Rs 25 respectively
Time required for sightseeing: 1.5 hours
Note: Footwear is not allowed within the mausoleum and can be deposited (for no charge) at the small counter adjacent the side.

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