Monday, 1 February 2016

Bibi Ka Maqbara, Aurangabad

The Bibi Ka Maqbara is the chief tourist attraction of Aurangabad in the Indian state of Maharashtra, although technically it lies just outside the city. Due to its resemblance to the Taj Mahal in Agra, it is called the Taj of the Deccan or even unflattering names like “poor man’s Taj Mahal” or “duplicate Taj Mahal”. But the Bibi ka Maqbara is, in fact, an original design; “the last in a distinguished lineage of Timurid inspired imperial Mughal mausoleums”, the earliest example of which would be Humayun’s tomb in Delhi, which was constructed 100 years earlier.



The “Bibi” or wife whose mausoleum this is was known as Dilras Banu Begum during her lifetime and Rabia-ud-Daurani (also spelt Durrani) after her death. She was the first wife and chief consort of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb (full name Abul Muzaffar Muhi-ud-Din Muhammad Aurangzeb, known as Alamgir after coronation), the last of the great Mughals. Rabia-ud-Daurani was a princess of the prominent Safavid ruling dynasty of Iran. Her father was Mirza Badi-uz-Zaman Safavi, aka Shahnawaz Khan, the governor of Gujarat. Contemporary authors describe her as being fair skinned, beautiful, vivacious and charming. However, she was a strong-willed, imperious lady and even her husband is said to have been somewhat in awe of her. But she remained until her death, his favourite wife and Aurangzeb favoured her children above those from his other wives.


Rabia-ud-Daurani died on 8th October 1657, in Aurangabad from illness following childbirth. She was 35. She had been married to Aurangzeb on 8th May 1637 and in 20 years had borne him, 5 children. Their first born was the talented Zebunnisa who would come to be known as a poetess. Their eldest son was Muhammad Azam Shah and it was he who began construction of the Bibi ka Maqbara in 1651 while his mother was still alive. Construction was completed in 1661 and the monument cost 6,68,203-7 (Rupees Six Lakh, Sixty-Eight Thousand, Two Hundred and Three & Seven Annas). Since Aurangzeb was alive during this period, it seems likely that he approved of the project and made funds available for it. This is somewhat uncharacteristic for an Emperor who is known for his austerity. Aurangzeb had denied permission for so much as a tomb to be constructed over his own grave. Love can make people do things rather out of character, no?

Inscriptions inside the Bibi ka Maqbara state that the monument was designed by a certain Ata-Ullah and constructed by Hanspat Rai. Ata-Ullah was the son of Ustad Ahmad Lahauri, the principal architect of the Taj Mahal of Agra. Marble for the monument came from mines near Jaipur (the Taj’s marble came from Makrana). Beautifully framed by the mountains behind it, Bibi ka Maqbara stands atop a huge square plinth. It is approached via a gate to the South and is accessed by stairs on three sides. The stairs to the west were demolished when the Nizam of Hyderabad built a mosque on the Western side of the plinth, although one source suggests that the mosque was built along with the tomb and the Nizam merely repaired it and added buttresses to prevent the decayed Western side from collapsing. Apart from marble, basalt may be seen at one level of the monument. A Mughal garden with water channels is laid out around the Bibi ka Maqbara and the central water channel on the southern side contains a series of fountains. A large mosque is built into the Western wall. There are four minarets at the corners of the plinth and four smaller ornamental minarets around the central dome which is topped by the characteristic inverted lotus finial. The central dome is surrounded by four smaller domes. Foliage patterns may be seen all over the monument and the Southern gate, executed in stucco. The doors contain exquisite patterns as well, on wood and brass, and the interiors of the Southern gate contain beautiful hand painted porcelain tiles.


Visitors to the Bibi ka Maqbara climb stairs to reach the top of the plinth, and from here enter the mausoleum through the door on the Southern side. The actual grave, however, is down below. This is only natural since a person has to be buried in the ground. On entering the octagonal chamber, you find yourself inside a gallery bounded by low marble balustrades. There are no cenotaphs here, unlike other Mughal graves, and you gaze down at the Queen’s grave which is on the lower level, surrounded by a marble jaali screen with delicate geometric patterns. The arched marble windows contain some exquisite decorative patterns as well, and the high dome creates some interesting acoustics.

Muslim graves in India often turn into places of worship. People make a wish and leave an offering of money on the grave. When I looked down upon Rabia-ud-Daurani’s grave, it took me quite a while to understand that what looked like garbage accumulated upon the green velvet “chadar” was actually vast amounts of money that had been thrown down by visitors. There were coins and notes of all denominations. The Archaeological Survey of India is now the caretaker of the site, so this isn’t really like a traditional dargah where the money goes into a “daan peti” to be used to feed the poor or maintain the tomb. So where does all this money go? Your guess is as good as mine. It was once possible to enter the lower chamber to have a closer look at the grave, but this was not permitted when I visited the site in November 2015. It was also once possible to climb the minarets and I bet the view from the top would be breath-taking, but this too is no longer permitted. A little disappointing considering that when I had visited Lucknow the previous year, there had been no restrictions and I had climbed right to the top of Nawaab Saadat Ali Khan II’s tomb.

Although the grave was covered with a velvet cloth when I visited, in the old days the cloth was removed in the monsoon months. Under it, on the foot high square bed of marble, is a patch of open earth in which the Queen’s mortal remains were placed. Five small windows near the base of the summit of the dome are provided with sluices, which allow the rain water to descend on to the grave. Underneath the right corner of the Maqbara platform is a second grave, said to be that of Rabia-ud-Daurani’s nurse. Nizam Sikandar Jah had at one point wanted to pull down the Bibi ka Maqbara and use the marble for a mausoleum for himself in Hyderabad. He was dissuaded from doing so with great difficulty.


The one thing that has continued to frustrate me and has slowed down my writing on Aurangabad is the very poor documentation of monuments within and around the city. Even with something as famous as the Bibi ka Maqbara, there is one question I have not been able to answer. A few yards from the Southern gate of the monument is a raised patch of land surrounded by a metal fence. This is what Indians call a “traffic island”. Americans would probably call this a roundabout. Inside this patch of land are several graves. The graves to the Eastern side and clearly Muslim, while those to the Western side are clearly colonial, Christian graves and bear some resemblance to the graves in Calcutta’s South Park Street cemetery. Who are these people and why are they buried in the middle of the road?

I have managed to find only one line in the book “Historical and Descriptive Sketch of His Highness the Nizam’s Dominions – Volume II” by Syed Hossain Bilgrami and C. Willmott, which I believe refers to this spot. “A Short distance from the Mukbara there is an old European burial-ground which has been closed for more than half a century and with the existence of which few people are acquainted”. The only other Christian burial ground I saw was in the cantonment area, which is quite some distance away. The book was published in 1884, and one of the tombstones was of a certain Captain John Sykes, who died on the 20th of August, 1815, which was 69 years before the book came out. So it all adds up. But what about the Muslim graves? Christians and Muslims buried in the same cemetery? Surely that is unheard of!


Bibi ka Maqbara is open 7 days a week from 8 am to 6 pm. It is a ticketed monument. Admission charges are Rs. 10 per head for Indians and Rs. 100 per head for foreign tourists. For those into photography, carry a wide angle lens. My Canon EF-S 10-22 was very useful inside the monument. For the best shots, take your time and walk around the monument. Still photography is permitted inside and outside the monument, but tripods are not allowed. For video, you need to take special permission from ASI and pay. The best time to visit Aurangabad would be the winter months, November to January. A short distance away from the Bibi ka Maqbara are the Aurangabad Caves and Soneri Mahal.

-         by Deepanjan Ghosh



  • Sohoni, Pushkar - Aurangabad with Daulatabad, Khuldabad and Ahmednagar
  • Bilgrami, Syed Hossain/ Willmott C. - Historical and Descriptive Sketch of His Highness the Nizam’s Dominions – Volume II
  • Sarkar, Sir Jadunath – History of Aurangzib Volume I & II

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