Opinion: 30th September 2018
Imagining the Mahtab Bagh as it was supposed to be
The most visited monument in India is the Taj Mahal in Agra. Guides and locals tell you stories of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s love for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, when they walk you up to the main chamber housing the cenotaphs of the emperor and his wife. As they walk you towards the back of the monument, where the Yamuna flows, they point across the bank and tell you in hushed tones that this was where Shah Jahan dreamed of a mausoleum in black marble for himself, but he was imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb before he could build it. French traveller Jean-Baptiste Tavernier was the first to mention the story of a black Taj Mahal, and it caught the popular imagination in later centuries. However, archaeological excavations have found no evidence of any foundation on which such an edifice could have been built.
The emperor’s vision
I have also heard this story many times. Though I never believed it, I didn’t realise the importance of that piece of land across the Yamuna, known as Mahtab Bagh, till a friend, Roshna Kapadia, gifted me The Moonlit Garden: New Discoveries at the Taj Mahal, edited by Elizabeth B. Moynihan. This book describes the India-U.S. project undertaken by the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution, of which Moynihan was a key member, along with the Archaeological Survey of India. The researchers concluded that the Bagh’s proportions are similar to the Taj, and it is also aligned with the monument, which means that Shah Jahan had built it as a part of the main tomb complex.
Soon after the Taj Mahal was ready, Shah Jahan moved to the new city of Shahjahanabad in present-day Delhi, and possibly did not visit Agra for some years. Aurangzeb, who did visit Agra in 1652, said in a letter, which is quoted by Moynihan, that the dome of the mausoleum had developed a leak and needed repair. He got it repaired. He also said that though the octagonal pool and pavilions of the Mahtab Bagh were in good shape, the garden was inundated and had to be restored. This establishes the connection between the two parts separated by the river. The Bagh’s position on the lower bank of the Yamuna made it prone to flooding. It was lost in the sands of time till it was discovered in the 1990s.
On a recent trip to Agra, I read a few more books on the Bagh. A discussion with a PhD student from Cambridge University, Sarthak Malhotra, whose MPhil thesis was on the Taj Mahal, led me to another wonderful resource: Taj Mahal: Multiple Narratives, by Amita Baig and Rahul Mehrotra. It was while reading this book that the entire picture unfolded before my eyes, and I was able to reimagine the Mahtab Bagh as it was supposed to be.
The first tomb to be built on the Persian charbagh plan of paradisiacal tombs was Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi. According to that plan, the tomb is placed squarely in the centre of the charbagh. The Taj Mahal, also modelled on the same theme, is at an edge of the garden. It is only when we understand the emperor’s grand vision that we understand the reason for its position: this vision had a river flowing in the charbagh over the illusory streams that flow from the main gate of the Taj and are in complete alignment with Mahtab Bagh’s water channels
Looking at the Taj’s reflection
Most tourists don’t visit Mahtab Bagh as it is a relatively long drive from the Taj and they don’t realise its importance. This is where the grief-stricken emperor came by boat from his palace and sat in the now-destroyed pavilions to look at the reflection of the teardrop in the octagonal pool.
The pool was discovered in 1993 under two or three meters of sand. When it was full, the reflection of the Taj would fall in it, in perfect symmetry. The beautiful garden, which was once home to many trees, has been redone and is a shadow of its former self. But the reflection of the Taj Mahal in the river, and in the pool if you visit during the monsoon, makes you forget everything else. As the pool was dry, I sat on the edge of the low wall that forms a boundary on the riverbank, to watch the sunset. As the sun came down and flooded the white marble beauty on the other side of the river with every imaginable hue, I could empathise with the emperor who would have sat in quiet contemplation of his lost love.
( this photo taken in a small puddle of water in the octagonal tank)