There is no one more fascinating in Mughal history than the Persian father-daughter duo Mirza Ghias Beg and Mehr-un-Nissa. Posterity knows them as Itimad-ud-Daulah and Nur Jahan.
A classic tale of riches to rags and back to riches, Mirza Ghias Beg was a defamed nobleman from Tehran, Iran who decided to try and change his fortunes in 16th Century Mughal India. Robbed on his way, he reached Akbar’s court penniless, but was quick to rise the ranks to earn himself the title Itimad-ud-Daulah or Pillar of the State, and even become the grand vizier in Akbar’s successor, Jahangir’s court.
His daughter, meanwhile, was abandoned at birth by her parents, fraught with poverty, in Qandahar, Afghanistan on 31 May, 1577 on their way to India. She was returned to their home the same night by a stranger who decided to take the family under his wing.
Beautiful, fearless, hot-tempered with nerves of steel, she fell in love with Jahangir, the Emperor Akbar’s son when she was eight years of age. But it was only after a 14-year bad marriage—widowed, 34, and with a child—that she re-entered his life to become his 20th and last wife in 1611. He bestowed upon her the title Nur Jahan, Light of the World. In the ensuing years, Jahangir spent his life intoxicated by opium and alcohol, smitten by her beauty and brains. She, on the other hand, became the most powerful woman in Mughal history and ruled the empire for 16 years from behind the veil.
Jahangir and Nur Jahan’s love story has been recounted countless times over the centuries through dry biographies, magnum opus cinema, and historical romantic reads.
Whilst the exact details of the dynamics of their relationship varies between authors, her devotion to her parents Mirza Ghias Beg and Asmat Begum remains undisputed. Its most tangible expression is the poetic tomb she commissioned on the River Yamuna’s east bank in Agra between 1622 and 1628. Her parents died one after the other, over a period of a few months, in 1622.
The tomb is remarkable in more ways than one. From an architectural perspective it is the transition point between the red sandstone edifices associated with Mughal rule and the poignant Taj Mahal in semi-translucent white marble. Referred to both as a Jewel Box and the Baby Taj, the dome-less mausoleum in the heart of a char bagh edged with magnificent gateways and a pavillion, paved the way for Shah Jahan’s masterpiece.
From an aesthetics perspective, the Iranian-styled edifice built with white marble from Rajasthan is embedded with exquisite pietra dura comprising geometric patterns, cypress trees, bouquets of flowers and wine bottles made of carnelian, jasper, lapis lazuli, onyx, and topaz. The outer marble surfaces punctuated with delicate jaalis give way to a riot of colour through painted stucco lining a dark inner chamber.
Lastly, in terms of familial love, it is warm and intimate. Not too big, not too small. Heady in its detailing. Nur Jahan spent copious amounts of funds on the mausoleum, determined to give her beloved parents a gift which summed up her love for them. Her parents lie side by side in the heart of the encrusted, gilded mausoleum, befitting their status and role in the empire and the empress’ life.
Nur Jahan, herself, along with her husband is buried in Lahore, present day Pakistan. But through her parents’ tomb in Agra she lives on in one of history’s greatest empire’s capital city that she ruled with much passion, and even greater ambition.
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Travel tips for Itimad-ud-Daulah’s Tomb:
- Recommended reading: The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan. You will be hard put to place the book down. More importantly it sets the context for understanding Nur Jahan, the woman and her relationship with her family.
- Ticket and timing: Rs. 10 for Indians, Rs. 110 for foreigners; Open every day from sunrise to sunset; Photography allowed.
Travel tips for Agra:
- Staying there: I stayed at the Crystal Sarovar Premiere through makemytrip.com. Ask for a Taj Mahal-facing room [no extra charge] and one that is at the beginning or end of the corridor. Else, you end up also looking out at KFC’s exhaust pipes.
- Getting to Agra: I took the Gatimaan Express from Delhi to Agra and back. The train offers fantastic on-board services with a travel time of 1 hour 40 minutes one way.
- Getting around: Auto rickshaws and car hire services are plentiful.
- How many days: Try and spend at least 3–4 days in Agra. There is plenty to explore, I assure you!
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Note: This post is the fourth in a 7-part series on why Agra should be on every travel bucket list. To read the entire set click here.