When Akbar christened a city as Allahabad, it meant ‘Abode of God’. Whenever the name Allahabad is mentioned, the first thing that pops in the head is ‘Sangam’, the place where the three rivers, namely, Ganga, Yamuna, and the mythical Saraswati, meet. But this city is much more than that and I can proudly admit being born in a city that is embracing modernity while still holding hands with its heritage and culture. Recently Allahabad was rechristened as Prayagraj, but does renaming a city change the essence it contains? That’s hardly possible. The people of the city still assemble at their favourite joints and talk about politics and daily happenings, cattle still walk past the narrow lanes and traffic snarls still pester the people every day. Life is not as fast-paced here like in the metro cities and people are used to this languor.
Historically this city has held high importance and was very active during our struggle for independence. Like being the birthplace of our first prime minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru wasn’t enough, the city also became the place where Chandrasekhar Azad breathed his last. Akbar had a special fascination with this place and also built a fort here and Mughals’ date with this city did not end with Akbar but Emperor Jahangir is also linked to this place.
When various other places in this city share the limelight, there is a place that silently watches the action from behind the curtain. The quaint place almost tucked away from the spotlight, is known as Khusro Bagh. If the University of Allahabad is a testimony of British architecture in the city, then Khusro Bagh stands as the representative of the exquisite Mughal architecture. Standing less than a kilometer away from the Prayagraj junction, even the city’s inhabitants treat it more as a picnic spot than revere it for its historical significance. Though it is listed as an Indian Site of National Importance, it stands silently as a testimony to the internal conflicts that went on in the lives of the emperors and the effects of grisly, gruesome politics on individuals.
The moment you enter the sprawling, over 40 acres premises of this wide garden, a sudden calm descends on you. It is a quiet retreat from the busy lanes on the outside and it feels that you have driven headlong in a historical documentary. The elaborately walled garden contains three sandstone mausoleums that stand witness to the grandeur of the Mughal era and its architecture. Each mausoleum has its history and maybe that is what adds the charm to the architecture.
The first tomb belongs to Shah Begum, born as Manbhawati Bai; she was the daughter of Raja Bhagwant Das, who was the ruler of Amer. She was betrothed to Jahangir at the age of fifteen, and she became the mother of Jahangir’s eldest son Khusrau Mirza after which she was given the title of Shah Begum, meaning ‘The Royal Lady’, by Jahangir. She committed suicide on 16 May 1604 by consuming opium as she couldn’t tolerate the tiff between the father and the son. Her tomb was completed in 1606-07. Her elaborate tomb invites comparisons with Fatehpur Sikri as the monument is a three-storied terrace plint without the main mound. Her tomb is adorned with intricate inscriptions that were carved out by Mir Abdullah Mishkin Qalam, Jahangir’s greatest calligrapher.
Next to the tomb of Shah Begum, is the tomb of her daughter, Nithar Begum. Architecturally speaking, her tomb is the most elaborate one in the vicinity. It lies on an elevated platform and is beautified with panels showcasing the scalloped arch motif. Nithar Begum’s tomb was built at her instruction in 1624-25, however, her mausoleum is empty and does not contain her tomb within it.
The tomb of khusrau Mirza is the last of the three tombs in the gardens of Khusro Bagh. Being the eldest son of Jahangir, he was briefly the heir apparent to the Mughal throne. Akbar had been deeply disappointed with Jahangir and perhaps due to this background, Khusrau rebelled against Jahangir in 1606 to secure the throne for himself. But the rebellion was not a success and Khusrau ended up been captured by Jahangir’s army. After his capture at the hands of his father, Khusrau was then blinded in 1607 and imprisoned in the garden itself. In 1620, he was handed over to his younger brother and third son of Jahangir, Prince Khurram. In 1622, Khusrau was killed on the orders of Prince Khurram, who later came to be known as Emperor Shah Jahan. Khusrao’s tomb was completed in 1622 and the tomb of his mare lies near his own.
The design of the Bagh’s main entrance, the surrounding gardens and the three-tier tomb of Shah Begum have been attributed to Aqa Reza who was the principal artist at Jahangir’s Allahabad court. If bricks could speak, they would have recited the tales of disappointment and disillusionment that went behind the lives of emperors. Where the bagh is proof of the aesthetic sense of the Mughals is also stands as a witness to the complicated lives of the royal families. The tombs have beautiful trellis as light is an important aspect of Islam and it is considered essential that light falls on a grave. The sandstone tombs must have been once very beautiful when they were constructed but now they seem rather neglected. The paintings in the niches have been destroyed but there are still lingering remnants of a splendor long gone.
During the First War of Independence in 1857, Khusro Bagh again had a tryst with history when it became the headquarters for the sepoys under Maulvi Liaquat Ali, who took charge as the Governor of liberated Prayag. However, the mutiny was swiftly crushed and Khusro Bagh was re-captured by the British in two weeks.
The exquisite gardens that were at one time visited by Emperor Jahangir and Shah Jahan have fallen into humbler times where people nowadays roam around oblivious to the rich heritage that the place contains in itself. The gardens are still as productive as they were in the past, the only difference being that earlier the fruits were enjoyed by the royalty, now it’s open for the people from all walks of life. The gardens now contain orchards of guavas and mangoes; the city been very famous for the former.
Marcus Garvey said, “People without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture are like a tree without roots.” The city of Prayagraj is blessed to have some marvelous gems of history bestowed on them and it’s up to the people to uphold and protect it because we learn from our past as we move towards our future. Standing tall like a lone warrior for more than 400 years now, the walls of Khusro Bagh echo with stories untold and unheard. Tucked away in the folds of the city, it is a slice of our ancient heritage waiting to be explored.
Author: Mobani Biswas, Prayagraj