The other Taj Mahal
Shona Adhikari

The Taj Mahal in Bhopal
The Taj Mahal in Bhopal

There is another Taj Mahal that was created by another Shah Jahan. Very different from the celebrated monument in Agra, built as a mausoleum the other Taj Mahal was built by Begum Shah Jahan in Bhopal and was meant to be lived in.

The history of Bhopal is unique among states in India and probably in the world. It is the only state a Muslim state at that, ruled by a succession of four female monarchs. Considered good rulers, they initiated many developments such as postal system, railways and modern waterworks. Pragmatic rulers, they negotiated and maintained good relations with the British who, in turn, treated them with respect.

As drove from the new part of Bhopal to the old walled city, I passed the high walls, pillared arches and balconies and decided to visit the place. The huge gate with its menacing spikes still intact was guarded by an octogenarian with his staff. He agreed to let me in, after carefully looking me up and down — shaking his head when he saw the rather delicate-looking slippers on my feet. I realised why, when I stepped inside. The ceiling near the entrance had collapsed and I had to clamber over stones to go inside. I entered a huge garden with a complex of palaces and covered walkways. I wondered how anyone in their right mind could allow this heritage complex to disintegrate.

The guard proudly showed me around. He had been working there for more than 50 years and his voice broke as he spoke about families moving out and the palaces became derelict. The complex was earlier known as the ‘Raj Mahal’. Successive monarchs had ruled from within its high walls. When the British Resident called on Shah Jahan Begum, he looked around with admiration and remarked, "Your Highness, this splendid palace should be known as the ‘Taj Mahal’, after all it is the creation of ‘Shah Jahan Begum’!" Thereafter, the Raj Mahal was renamed Taj Mahal.

The roofs of some palaces recently caved in. There were balconies running all the way round and a jharoka, where the ruling Begum would appear when required Banyan and peepal trees had taken root. They added to the place’s derelict look. Parts of the complex appeared to be at least 400 years old, judging from the narrow bricks that peered out where the plaster has fallen off, or where the walls had collapsed.

The red sandstone facade of the wallways
The red sandstone facade of the wallways

The guard said there were still old family retainers living there. They considered the place their home and also had nowhere else to go to. He and his family had always lived there. An ex-jawan, he was assigned this job soon after Independence. At the time part of the royal family lived there, but since they had no money for repairs, they all moved away.

The walkways were safe and I had a wonderful time imagining how the Begums must have enjoyed walking there. The stone pillared arches were ornate and had a distinctly Islamic architecture. There were also plaster friezes of flowers which were still intact. The ceilings had iron rings from where coloured glass lamps were suspended and lit in the evening. While most of the flooring had been crudely cemented over, still discernable were Jaipuri blue painted tiles in a few spots. These were no doubt a comparatively new addition, but one can imagine how it would all have looked with the colored glass lamps, terracotta painted walls and floors with blue tiles.

Shah Jahan Begum was responsible for building the extremely well-preserved Taj Mosque, located by the side of a huge water body. Most religious places have trusts, which is why the buildings are usually well preserved. One wishes that it was also the same for old buildings — think of all wonderful tales these wonderful places could tell. Here at the ‘Taj Mahal’, Bhopal’s heritage is still alive in the pride taken by the guard. Now more than 80, he continues to guard the place as though it was still the residence of royalty.