travel shorts: the taj of haryana

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In all likelihood, you have already been to the Taj Mahal in Agra. And most probably, also made your way to Bibi ka Maqbara in Aurangabad, often referred to as the ‘Taj of the Deccan’.

What if I tell you, there is one more marble-encased Taj, and that too in the rather understated state of Haryana. But with a difference. Unlike its two other counterparts, the ‘Taj in Haryana’, as it’s often called, is not an expression of a man’s deep devotion to his wife, but instead a tomb for a saint and teacher who passed away in 1660.

Sheikh Chaheli, a name corrupted to Chilli over the years, was a Sufi saint and the spiritual advisor of Shah Jahan’s eldest and favourite son Dara Shikoh. To top this exalted position, Shah Jahan also made him the Faujdar [military commander with judicial and land revenue duties] of Sirhind. With such powerful backing, the tomb’s grandeur is no surprise. It is monumental. Surrounded by towering fortified walls.

Inside the complex, dainty carvings and elegant lines form chambers to contain the saint and his wife’s cenotaphs, a madrasah, and an expansive charbagh Mughal garden. Pather Masjid, an intricately-carved red sandstone mosque, completes the ensemble which stands in the midst of green meadows.

There are no long queues here or crowds. Just you, the Taj of Haryana, and a Sufi saint much revered by his student, and his student’s waalid [father].

P.S. I explored Sheikh Chilli’s tomb in Thanesar, Haryana, as part of a weekend heritage trip to Sirhind [in Punjab] from Delhi with Sair E Hind. They specialize in heritage walks and tours to off-the-beaten-path historical sites in India.

in search of rahim das aka rahim khan, the 16th century warrior-poet

Young Abdur Rahim Khan-I-Khanan being received by Akbar, Akbarnama. V&A Museum, London.

Not all men are made the same. Some are soldiers, and some are poets. And then there are some who wield a sword and pen with equal elan.

This post is the story of one such gentleman in the 16th Century who went by the name Abdur Rahim Khan-I-Khanan. ‘Khan-I-Khanan’ meaning ‘Khan of Khans’, a title given to him by the Mughal Emperors he served: Akbar and Jahangir.

Abdur Rahim Khan-I-Khanan portrait. 1627. Freer Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

Abdur Rahim Khan-I-Khanan was a man of multiple talents: a statesman, courtier, soldier, poet, linguist, humanitarian, and patron. Befittingly, he was also one of Emperor Akbar’s legendary ‘nine jewels’ or navratanas in the Mughal court.

Born to a Muslim father, Bairam Khan, and a Hindu mother in 1556, he was equally proficient in Persian, Arabic and Turki as he was in Sanskrit and Hindavi, his mother tongue. His Portuguese was passable.

His family belonged to the inner circle of the Mughal royal family, serving as companions and tutors to its princes through generations. Though his childhood was marred by the fall of his father’s career and subsequent assassination, he was straightway taken into Emperor Akbar’s court when he was just four years old. A court where pluralism and aristocratic culture thrived under Akbar’s mentorship. It was, thus, no surprise that Abdur Rahim’s manifold innate talents bloomed multi-fold.

History remembers him most for his translation of the Baburnama, Emperor Babur’s biography, and the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, into Persian and some 300 pithy Hindavi dohas or couplets. The latter, written under the pen name of Rahim Das, ooze with a deep insight into the complexities of life and human nature, and form part of India’s school curriculum, even four hundred years after his death. Continue reading

travel diaries: a mughal wazir’s tomb in day and night

Another tomb!

I’d once read that in London, at the turn of the 20th Century when the British Raj was planning to move its capital from Calcutta to Delhi, a British newspaper had called Delhi the ‘graveyard of dynasties’.

It was in reference to the countless tombs of the Muslim dynasties and their key officials, first those of the Delhi Sultanate and then the Mughal Empire, who had ruled Delhi for 660 years. These tombs dot every nook and corner of the city. Some are grand and ostentatious. Some humble and tiny. But they are everywhere.

Many have crumbled over time and been replaced with the fast-burgeoning, steel and concrete ‘New Delhi’. I wonder how many there would have been, say a hundred years ago, or at the closing chapter of the Mughals in 1857, as I gasped in awe at the ceiling inside.

Where was I? In a tomb. Continue reading

sunder nursery: delhi’s loveliest secret

[Updated on 2 June, 2022. This post was first published on 4 April, 2022. I went back to Sunder Nursery for a night heritage walk led by Sair E Hind in May. This updated post includes images of Sunder Nursery at night.]

Red Fort. Check. Humayun’s Tomb. Check. Qutab Minar. Check. A walk through Chandni Chowk. Check … and one gets deluded into believing that Aah, one has seen it all, done it all in Delhi.

Could one be further from the truth?

Delhi’s loveliest secret, hidden from prying tourist hordes, is Dilliwale’s [Delhiites] favourite place to have an uninterrupted yoga session, a picnic with close family and friends, or an organic brunch at a weekend farmers’ market. All in the company of blooming flowers, hundred-year-old wise trees from around the world, and exquisite Mughal-era UNESCO-listed monuments.

Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? But isn’t that what lovely, best kept secrets look like. Continue reading

photo essay: delhi’s red fort, stories told and untold

Behind a pile of impregnable traffic barriers and guarded by the stern-lipped, but polite, Central Reserve Police Force [CRPF] is Delhi’s most prestigious fort, Qila-e-Mubarak, meaning ‘Auspicious Fort’. Or the Red Fort, as the British called it.

Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, who designed and built it in 1648 [the same gentleman who built Taj Mahal], would not have been too pleased about the barricades, both human and metal. He was not even happy when his son Aurangzeb built a wall around Lahore Gate, the public entrance.

With a direct line of view from Chandni Chowk to the Diwan-e-Aam [Hall of Public Audience], Shah Jahan argued that the enclosure was like putting a veil in front of a woman’s beautiful face. Continue reading

humayun’s tomb: an ode to destiny’s child

An opiumate and weak general [as popular history would like us to believe] or a gentle ruler determined to regain his lost territories and in fact did. Even if it took him 15 long years in exile racing on horseback through Lahore, Sindh, Rajputana, and Persia.

Were it not for a colossal garden tomb built in his memory by his son, he may well have been forgotten in the dusty pages of time.

This blog post is the story of Indian Mughal history’s most fortunate and unfortunate emperor: Humayun and his enormous resting place in India’s historical capital city, Delhi. Happy exploring! ❤ Continue reading

#7 beyond the obvious: 7 reasons why agra should be on every travel bucket list

So, you’ve ticked off Agra’s major sights, the raison d’êtres for your visit. Or maybe it is your umpteenth time to the city. What now?

After marvelling at Agra’s treasures [listed from 1 to 6 in this series in no specific order] I wanted to experience yet more of it. Beyond the Agra the travel and history guides enthused about. And I was not disappointed. Digging and wandering through its centuries old lanes, having heartfelt conversations with its present residents, I saw sides of it which further justified its place in a traveller’s bucket list, equal to its more celebrated attractions. Don’t believe there is more to Agra than its UNESCO World Heritage Sites and Mughal masterpieces? Read on and be pleasantly surprised, like I was. 🙂

1. Dig into a Pay-What-You-Want meal at Cafe Sheroes Hangout

Continue reading

#6 colossal sikandra: 7 reasons why agra should be on every travel bucket list

After getting all sentimental at Shah Jahan’s expression of love for his beloved, departed wife and marvelling at the artistic nuances of Nur Jahan’s token of devotion towards her doting parents, I am ready to be bowled over by Sikandra, Akbar’s tomb for his own self.

Here was a monument made by, and for, one of India’s greatest rulers—befitting his stature and achievements. I wondered what it was going to be like. Continue reading

#5 roman catholic taj mahals: 7 reasons why agra should be on every travel bucket list

Whilst Shah Jahan was building the Taj Mahal as an ode to his beloved wife, the European Christians in Agra were creating their own fairy-tale like mausoleums in a cemetery dating back to Akbar’s time. Not perhaps on the same scale, they are however, no less delightful in carved red sandstone, yellow basalt, and whitewashed plastered walls. These tombs in Agra’s Roman Catholic Cemetery are the resting places of initially the Armenian Christians in the 1600s and, thereafter, of other European Catholics in the city. Continue reading

#4 itimad-ud-daulah’s poetic tomb: 7 reasons why agra should be on every travel bucket list

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. Continue reading