Saturday, 19 January 2013

The second wife

The Taj Mahal is a wonderful statement of love; love and grief. Shahjahan built it for his wife Mumtaz Mahal; he could not give her life, so he gave her beauty in death – the sheen and translucence of white marble, the perfume of jewelled flowers.
But Taj Mahal is more than this, and more than most tourists see, and more than the books tell you.
Under two matching domes, in the middle of two matching gardens, at the back of the entrance chowk, lie two of Shahjahan's other queens. I might never have found out if someone hadn't left a door open. A door, open, and steps leading up; how could I resist?
There at the top of the steps was a garden – a char bagh, a Mughal garden just like the Taj Mahal itself, though on a smaller scale.  A garden on the first floor, a garden above an arcade, a garden with a fountain in the middle, and a domed tomb at one end. It's a garden within a garden, a monument within a monument.
It's the tomb of Akbarabadi Mahal Begum. Another wife of Shahjahan; the wife no one has heard of.
(I looked at Mumtaz Mahal's picture in the museum – a plump little woman painted on ivory, with hard eyes and a thick neck – and wondered, as Akbarabadi Mahal Begum must have wondered, what Shahjahan saw in her.)
Here she lies in a red sandstone mausoleum, with little ornament, but with a fine white marble gravestone. All its inlays have been ripped away, and when I saw it, it was covered in dust and pigeon droppings. The adjoining buildings have become carpentry workshops for the ASI; a bench with a vice was set up outside the mausoleum. It's a sad place.
Sadder still when I was chased out by an ASI official who maintained, despite a large sign with an arrow and an open door, the place wasn't open. ("Down madam, fast fast!")
Yet this woman must have been respected by Shahjahan; she must have had a high status in the court. The whole area on this bank of the Yamuna is scattered with mausoleums, but hers, like Fatehpur Begum (I may need to be corrected here as I can't read my own writing), is a symmetrical element in this whole great enterprise – a place of prestige – not a separate little tomb elsewhere, like the Saheli Burj in the gardens opposite the East Gate, where a lady now lives under the verandah of the tomb and shares her blankets with her two cats – I met them one morning just after sunrise as the lady lit her fire and the cats stretched lazily. But that's another story.) The missing inlay sockets show her tombstone was finely ornamented; not quite as finely as Mumtaz Mahal's, but I think more poetically – with sprays of flowers that look almost as if someone had scattered them freely on her tomb.
Such it is to be a second wife. Not in the history books. Not in tours. Loved a little, cherished a little, not quite enough.
Though you could take another view. There's a rather disheartening subtext to the romance of the Taj Mahal; when Mumtaz Mahal died, it was shortly after bearing her fourteenth child, and quite probably as a result of that birth. That was, after all, her job. Love was superogatory.
I had no idea how subservient women were in Mughal civilisation. Many people claim that Nur Jahan effectively ran the Mughal empire for years, but the towering height of Shahjahan's grave marker compared to Mumtaz Mahal's shows you the irreparable gulf in status between the two. Women didn't even have the right to their own names; Mumtaz Mahal was originally kown as Arjumand Bann Begum, and Nur Jahan was originally Mehrunissa, renamed Nur Mahal (light of the palace) on her marriage to Jahangir, and Nur Jahan on her promotion to chief wife.
Perhaps Akarabadi Mahal Begum is, after all, quite glad not to have a man about the place for all eternity.

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