Tuesday, 8 January 2013

A vision of paradise

Agra is almost synonymous with the Taj Mahal. Crowded, but still beautiful. I'm staying in Taj Ganj; you can see the Taj from the roof top restaurant in my hotel.

But Agra has another great mausoleum worth visiting; Sikandra, where the emperor Akbar is buried.
Akbar doesn't have such a great story as the love story of the Taj (built by emperor Shah Jahan for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal), but his historical importance is far greater; it was Akbar who created the first great Mughal empire, or as the charming language of the ASI information plaque has it:
"He planted his kingship in the Indian soil and made it an indigenous thing... he made a nation out of  a mob, which is why he is style 'Akbar the Great'."

He was also an enlightened monarch. Every guide (official and unofficial) at Sikandra will tell you he had three wives – a Muslim, a Hindu and a Christian – and the ASI again has a charmingly old-fashioned way of referring to his multiculturalism:
"His state functioned on the sacred principle of peaceful co-existence  with his non-believing subjects."

Your first sight of Sikandra is from a busy highway, full of trucks with 'please horn' signs on their back bumpers and plenty of motorists and motorbike riders taking full advantage of that invitation as they weave anarchic paths around each other, and any cyclists, cycle rickshaws or horsecarts that happen to be in the way. The sight of four tall marble minarets is unexpected. Even less expected, the fact that they belong not to a mosque but to a huge gateway: Buland Darwaza, the Gate of Magnificence.
Every inch is decorated; there are panels of curving flower patterns, and panels of star patterns, and even two panels in which Islamic geometry is created with the Hindu swastika (sign of good fortune here, long before Hitler coopted it) at its centre, a syncretism of which Akbar presumably approved. And then there's a long strip of fine Persian calligraphy in white marble, which reads; "These are the gardens of Eden: enter them and live forever."

That's the clue to Sikandra. This is a garden of Eden, a garden of Paradise; for Akbar, the garden of his everlasting life.

This is perhaps the best of the Mughal char bagh; gardens of the four quarters, visions of paradise. The ones I've seen are gardens with a mausoleum at the centre, such as at Safdarjang's or Humayun's tombs in Delhi, or Itmad ud Daulah and the Taj Mahal here in Agra. Every such garden is a square, divided into four quadrants by watercourses; Eden, with the four rivers flowing to the four cardinal directions – four rivers of milk, honey, wine and water. (Wine, apparently, is allowed in heaven; Omar Khayyam and Rumi would have allowed it on earth, too, but I suppose many more orthodox Muslims would call them heretics.)

The geometrical perfection of such gardens would have contrasted with the movement of the water and the natural curves and colours of the plants and trees; but most such gardens now are devoid of their water, and have only dusty earth where once there would have been vegetation.

Sikandra has lost its water. But the lawns in front of the central mausoleum are grazed by antelope and deer; parakeets fly shouting from tree to tree, and mynahs chatter, and unusually silent peacocks strut the grass. (I found a breast feather from one on the red sandstone paving, and pressed it into my notebook, a better souvenir than any the postcard and marble elephant salesmen could have offered.) Close your eyes at Sikandra and you hear only birdsong.

In the slowly dispersing mist of a January afternoon, this was truly a vision of paradise.
How wonderful it would have been with the waters; flowing down the centre of each of the high causeways out from the centre; lying still in the great tanks in front of each of the iwans (the entrance gate and its three mirror images); and leaping and dazzling down the waterfalls. How wonderful it would have been to listen to those liquid sounds as well as the birdsong. In a dry country, how much the more a paradise; lush lawns and plentiful waters.

And Sikandra has depth; the causeways stand six feet high above the surrounding gardens, so that no tree can grow half as high as the mausoleum or the gates. You're looking down on to the gardens; everything is contained, so though the gardens are huge, you have a feeling of their boundedness. Everything is bound together – a haven, a place set apart.

In the centre stands Akbar's mausoleum. A strange construction; the bottom bulky and square, with huge red sandstone gates reflecting those of the outer garden wall – power was Akbar's keynote. But the ensemble is topped by a fantasy of small cupolas at different levels, and on the very topmost floor a fine white marble pavilion with delicate screened windows – the single use of white in the whole building, and what an amazing vision it is.

That same contrast of delicacy and power is evident in the tomb chambers. Akbar's daughters are buried to each side of the main vestibule, in roomy tomb chapels where delicate jali screens dapple the light; but Akbar himself lies deep in the centre of the mass, in a plain vaulted chamber lit by a single slanted window to the east. His marble grave marker is quite plain; no carved ornament, nothing but simple rolled mouldings and the gleam of a single massive piece of marble. Three incense sticks at the bottom wafted their smoke into the gloom.

Perhaps Sikandra lacks the Taj's romance? But then, I saw many living romances at Sikandra – it's a place where Indian couples come, holding hands, sitting side by side on the steps or in the great gateways' alcoves, or feeding the tame squirrels with namkeen. That's as much romance as you need when you're in Paradise.

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