Cover of Empress of the TAJ: In Search of Mumtaz Mahal. Credits: Amazon.in
The problem with writing something new about historical personages, more than events, is always going to be to decide what really needs to be said anew; in other words what fresh insights could be presented to add value to what has gone before.
Needless to say, Timeri Murari does not lack for knowledge on his subject; some years ago, he wrote a well-received novel, Taj: A Story of Mughal India, and saw the need to pen a captivating prequel to the Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal story that culminated in the building of the iconic mausoleum. Having learnt quite a bit about the Mughals from his earlier research, he wouldn’t have looked further than launching a search for Mumtaz Mahal’s initial burial site where she lay for six months before her body was disinterred on her grieving husband’s orders and shifted to Agra to await the building of her final, peerless, resting place across the Yamuna. Lending his narrative its almost mystic quality would be the fact that the grave in question was clouded in obscurity.
Popular belief had it that the Empress, having travelled constantly by the side of her husband on all his forays into the Deccan to do battle with the enemies of the dynasty, died, all of 38 years, giving birth to her 14th child after a supposedly tortured pregnancy. A number of forts and palaces she visited on her travels were marked by the birth of one or more of her children, and the erotic bonding with her husband was never diminished by the physical tribulations of this most fecund woman. Though Shah Jahan took another wife, a political manoeuvre at best, and had the most desirable women in his kingdom to attend to him, his longing for Mumtaz burned till the very end of her life, and indeed of his. No doubt, the story had a poignant core, but whether it had enough in it to sustain a full-blown novel was a moot point. Mr Murari’s book makes no effort to examine or analyse the intensely personal aspects of their relationship and how it could have affected, for better or for worse, the convoluted politics of the Mughal court.
No woman in Mughal history captured so comprehensively her husband’s passion and his loyalty; history also records the prime contribution of her seven surviving children in shaping the passage of the Mughal dynasty and yet Mumtaz, unlike her Machiavellian aunt Nur Jahan, preferred to remain in the political penumbra. Mr Murari’s prime objective remains the burial site. But is it sufficient to write only about an unadorned grave in a town now relegated to being a largish dot on India’s map, particularly as history tells us of its impermanence? I would think that it would have been more relevant in his search for Mumtaz Mahal to rediscover the many forts and palaces that the young Empress, almost always heavily pregnant, visited other than the fabled and legend-encrusted ramparts and pavilions of Mandu, Ranthambore and Asigarh. On the other hand, Mumtaz Mahal’s life, unlike her aunt Nur Jahan’s, is very sparsely documented, and the writer would have his work cut out for him because his only sources would have been the locals who knew these places, but whose material was often unreliable. As a matter of fact, as Mr Murari himself notices, the information about these places comes mainly from unreliable guide books
and from often indecipherable signage mounted at the entrance to the property by the Archeological Survey of India.
Mr Murari understands all this and makes a choice. He knows that he has not made any promises to his readers in terms of guiding them to Mumtaz Mahal’s burial site in Buhranpur because he, more than his readers, will probably know what to find once he gets there. So, like the proverbial clued-up tour guide, he decides to make the journey more interesting than the destination. This, in short, means that as he takes off from Madras (now Chennai) with his blonde wife and pushy sister, and meanders upwards and northwards cutting across state boundaries, and in and out of towns and cities, at the mercy of Indian rail and road transport and tricky officialdom and antique sellers and guides. India becomes more prominent than the Empress.
The grave turns out to be placed within a spare high-walled enclosure on the riverbank opposite to where Mr Murari stands and he observes it receding into the gathering early evening darkness. His companions sense that this is his quest and allow him his space; he crosses over the shallow part of the river to the site of the grave but he carries no sense of disappointment with him because it’s not the structure that is important but the place where this extraordinary Empress of Mughal India breathed her last.
Perhaps Mr Murari realises then that rediscovering his India has been actually more relevant than finding Mumtaz Mahal’s first grave.
Empress of the Taj: In Search of Mumtaz Mahal
Timeri N Murari
240 pages; Rs 350