Black Taj Mahal: The reality in the myth surrounding it
“Believing where we cannot prove” This snatch from the great British poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, albeit originally used in a different context, appears to be the key to understanding so much that has come down to us from the grand Mughal ages. It is particularly true of Mughal era architecture, many of which by their sheer grandeur had contemporary subjects awestruck. And from awe are generated myths. One example of such an enduring myth that has withstood the assault of centuries is a majestic image of a black Taj Mahal.
Shah Jahan’s wish for black Taj
Built with best quality polished black marble, the black Taj, it has been believed over four centuries, was created on the orders of emperor Shah Jahan. He, it has been said, cherished to lie in this tomb for eternity like a deep shadow of the sparkling tear-drop marvel that he had built as the mausoleum of his beloved Mumtaz Mahal. In between the two monuments, he is said to have wished, would flow the Jumna, like a stream of love.
This beautiful romantic story was first given credence by the French gem merchant and traveler Jean Baptiste Tavernier. He did visit India during Shah Jahan’s reign. ‘Shah Jahan began to build his own tomb on the other side of the river,’ wrote the Frenchman, ‘But the war with his sons interrupted his plan and Aurangzeb who reigns at present is not disposed to complete it.” This single sentence has induced a few writers to spin an elaborate story around the existence of the so called black Taj Mahal. Iftakhar Nadim Khan has even penned a whole book titled, Black Taj Mahal: The Emperor’s Missing Tomb. Remnants of a wall has been suggested to be the remains of the so called unfinished Black Taj Mahal.
The real black Taj
A closer examination by acclaimed art historian, with a specialization in Mughal architecture, R. Nath claims the contrary. He, in a scholarly article has established there is not a shred of evidence beyond that single sentence by Tavernier in his travelogue Lex Six Voyage. Archaeological scrutiny has proven that the masonry structure on the west of the Mahtub Burj across the Jumna was in reality a wall of the Mahtab Bagh founded by Babur. Historian Nath has also pointed out that the dates of Tavernier’s visits do not match with his claim. He visited Agra twice.
First in 1640-41, when the Taj was being built. It was completed in 1648. So, if indeed Shah Jahan wanted to erect a black mausoleum for himself, and if it had been started soon after the white one. It is surprising that it was still not completed in the following 17 years. Because Tavernier’s second visit was in 1665. Other architectural and religious evidence also disproves the possibility of the existence of any black Taj Mahal.
There, however, is a ‘black Taj Mahal’ in India. But not in Agra. Well known cultural writer Rana Safvi in a beautiful piece on the walled medieval city of Burhanpur, now in the state of Madhya Pradesh, has pointed out that locals do call a monument here the Kala (Black) Taj Mahal. It is the tomb of Shahnawaz Khan. Son of Abdur Rahim Khan-e-Khana. A minister in emperor Akbar’s court. The much less ambitious tomb is so called because of the use of local black stones. Beautiful as it is, it does require a good degree of local pride and stretch of imagination to really compare in with the Taj!
(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)