An iconic seventeenth century mausoleum made of marble stands on the bank of river Yamuna in Agra city. While most would assume that it is the Taj Mahal being talked about, it is actually not. This one stands on the bank opposite to the one on which Taj Mahal is built and even though it is referred to as “Baby Taj”, it predates it by about quarter of a century’s time. The building being referred to her is the tomb of Itimad Ud Daulah, which was built in 1628 AD commissioned by Nur Jahan in memory of her father Mirza Giyas Beg. Itimad Ud Daulah or the ‘pillar of the state’ was the title given to Beg when he served as a minister in the Mughal court. Overshadowed by the Taj Mahal across the river in reputation like most monuments in Agra or even India are, this mausoleum holds it own when it comes to architectural beauty and splendour as well as historical and political importance.
In the early hours of Saturday morning, Shivani Gupta a researcher of art history at IIT Kanpur, led a heritage walk for the mausoleum organised under the aegis of Sahapedia- India Heritage Walks, highlighting these significances of the building to a small group of Agra denizens. Shivani whose masters’ dissertation was based on this monument, is from Agra herself. During the walk she not only talked about the historical and political aspects of this monument but also, owing to her expertise, explored the artistic particularities and significance of the monument.
The monument is a confluence of Iranian, Mughal and Rajput architecture in terms of influences as Shivani pointed out. Built on a ‘Hasht Behesht’ or eight-fold pattern the entire complex has themes of immortality flowing through it. Besides the main gateway there are two false gates on the either side of the central structure and a pavilion style gateway on the other side of the entrance which provides a wonderful view of river Yamuna. One can only imagine that in its heyday when the river was thriving and not as polluted as today, the pavilion must have provided a wonderful vantage point to sit beside and relax. The mausoleum has been built in place of the garden where Beg used to spend his time in leisure. Shivani points out that this garden was the ninth in the series of a total of 24 such gardens along both banks of the river, many of which don’t survive today.
Some of the noticeable artistic and architectural components both on the outside and the inside of the various structures include marble inlay designs or pietra dura, stucco painting (paintings on plaster), muqarnas ceilings (ornamented vaulting in Islamic architecture), chhatri (kiosk) superstructures and chini khana (marble work depicting utensils on red sandstone walls).
Each of these components have their own historical and architectural significance. It is a testament to the durability of a lot of the work done in this monument that it survives today even as rest is withering away. While Shivani suggested the building is as much a tribute of Nur Jahan to her father as an expression of the power she wielded during Jahangir’s reign, it is poetic that all legacies and statements of power do not withstand the scourge of time. However, at present conservation efforts are underway by the Archaeological Survey of India in collaboration with the World Monument Fund.
Though relatively underrated in contrast to an assortment of Mughal monuments spread all across Agra, the tomb of Itimad-Ud-Daulah built in a smaller complex as compared to the other prominent monuments, provides layers of historical, artistic, architectural and political meanings and lessons for visitors in funerary architecture. This heritage walk conducted around this monument for the first time connects well with the other such walks being conducted in the older parts of the city bringing in unison not only the historical stories and architectural motifs but also such efforts through which to better appreciate the legacy and heritage of the city.