Aurangzeb. The very name evokes revulsion in Hindus and Sikhs alike throughout India. The butcher. Defacer of India’s rich Hindu cultural heritage. Murderer of Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur. These are but a handful of epitaphs the country’s populace remembers Aurangzeb, India’s 6th Mughal emperor by.
His path to power was no less callous—he shed no tears when conniving the cold-blooded execution of his three brothers or when placing his old, frail father under house arrest.
It is 312 years since Shah Jahan’s fanatic son, Aurangzeb (1618 – 1707 AD) has died, but the hatred has not abated one iota. Stories of his cruelty fill school text-books. Nearly every major temple in India has either been mutilated or had a mosque built over it on his orders. The shudders are still there on the mention of his name. I have seen instances of all of these with my own eyes.
But was he really such a monster? It is hard to be certain when one considers that much of history is written and rewritten by those in power, often manipulated to suit political agendas using prejudice.
Times were different back then. With different rules. In spite of all the touted bloodshed, India was a super-power in 1700 AD—the empire spread over almost all of the Indian subcontinent and generated one-fourth of the world’s GDP. Deposing all possible contenders to the throne was the norm of the day. Why, even Aurangzeb’s own father, Shah Jahan, had done the same.
Aurangzeb’s only flaw was maybe his obsessive religious convictions which made him annihilate everything that was to its contrary. Austere to the extreme, following the Koran to the letter, he could not fathom or accept a world that was different from his own Islamic ideal. He just could not see beyond his own radicalism.
Except when it came to his wife Dilras Banu Begum, a Safavid Persian [Iranian] princess he married in May 1637, at the age of 19. Dilras was beautiful, arrogant and dominating. She was also a Shi’a Muslim in contrast to his Sunni beliefs. The man who was rigid and uncompromising with the world at large was [like all good men] loyal, loving and totally in awe of his wife at home.
By the time Aurangzeb died, aged 89, the Mughal empire had crumbled into a shadow of its past glory as a result of his religious intolerance. He knew in his heart he had failed the empire and his own god. In 1707, in a letter to his son Kam Baksh he lamented:
“Every torment I have inflicted, every sin I have committed, every wrong I have done, I carry the consequences with me … I have sinned terribly, and I do not know what punishment awaits me.”
[The Peacock Throne by Waldemar Hansen]
To make peace with his soul, the old, embattled emperor sewed Islamic prayer caps and made copies of the Koran when in his eighties. The monies he made from selling these funded his tomb and went to the poor.
Though traces of Aurangzeb’s rule are scattered all over the sub-continent, it is a small, sleepy city called Aurangabad, in the heart of Maharashtra, which is inexorably tied to him. Not only is it named after Aurangzeb, following its stint as his capital when he was the Viceroy of the Deccan, but it also holds in its folds two extraordinary edifices associated with him.
Whilst his fore-fathers built lavish monuments to be interred in, Aurangzeb left instructions that he be buried under the open sky in Khuldabad, on the outskirts of the city. No money was to be spent on his shroud except for the 14 rupees 12 annas he made from the prayer caps.
The unmarked tomb of the 6th Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb aka Alamgir [conqueror of the world], in Khuldabad.
This is where he still lies interred. Under a white sheet, the soil soft and damp with a rose bush planted in its midst, in the grounds of the Sufi saint Sayyad Zain-ud-din Shirazi whom he revered deeply. This was his salvation. An effort for atonement. Even the marble flooring and screen encircling it are later additions by the 7th Nizam of Hyderabad and Lord Curzon, British Viceroy of India in the early-20th Century.
A few kilometres away, in the heart of Aurangabad is the city’s pride and the Taj of the Deccan—the Bibi ka Maqbara or Tomb of the Lady in honour of Aurangzeb’s first wife and chief consort, Dilras. It is also another anomaly to Aurangzeb’s personality when it came to his wife. Designed by the son of Taj Mahal’s chief architect and built with Rs. 700,000 in 1660, it is the largest structure and only monument to have been commissioned by the emperor. When one compares it to his own unmarked tomb, it says volumes about his relationship with Dilras.
Visiting these two final remnants of the Mughal empire last month, I felt I met Aurangzeb, the human being, in those few short hours. Not a powerful emperor or a religious fanatic, painted in black and white. But a person steeped in greys, entangled in complex relationships with his god, the woman he loved, and his own self.
Note: Azam Shah, Aurangzeb’s eldest son, has been incorrectly credited with building Bibi Ka Maqbara in various literature. This includes the ASI notice board at the site. To know more about the historical data which support Aurangzeb as the actual builder, read here.
Bibi ka Maqbara, like the Taj Mahal in Agra, is a husband’s homage to his wife. Albeit smaller, simpler, but no less charming, it is Emperor Aurangzeb’s statement of love and loss for his Iranian wife Dilras Banu Begum.
Relief ornamentation and lattice work decorate the main mausoleum.
Left: Mosque to the mausoleum’s left, built by Sikandar Jah, 3rd Nizam of Hyderabad in 1803; Right: Just as in the Taj Mahal, four towering minarets peg the four corners of the Maqbara. No surprises since the architect Attaullah Rashidi was the son of Ustad Ahmed Lahori, chief architect of the Taj Mahal.
Dilras Banu Begum’s grave inside Bibi ka Maqbara. Aurangzeb gave his wife the posthumous title Rabia-ul-Durrani meaning “Rabia of Today” when he built the mausoleum for her—Rabia was an 8th Century Muslim saint from Basra who was known for her virtue and piety. The notes and coins you see are offerings by modern-day pilgrims and visitors.
- Khuldabad: Open from sunrise to sunset; Entry is free.
- Bibi ka Maqbara: 7:00 am – 10:00 pm; Rs. 25 for Indians; Rs. 300 for foreigners; Still photography charge is Rs. 25.
- Where to stay: I stayed at Hotel Green Olive through makemytrip.com. Wonderful rooms, great service, and lovely restaurants. Can’t go wrong with this one.
- Getting to Khuldabad and around Aurangabad: I hired a car for my entire 5-day trip from KM Holidays run by Mangesh Kathar. Mangesh was fantastic! Thorough, patient, and punctual. Cell no. +91 99 6007 7444.