History will always remember Arjumand Banu Begum, niece of Mughal Queen Nur Jahan, as the famous Mumtaz Mahal, for it was in her name that her husband, Emperor Shah Jahan (r. 1628-58), built the Taj Mahal, one of the wonders of the world. And yet we know next to nothing about Shah Jahan’s other wives.
Izz-Un-Nissa was the Emperor’s third wife, a queen-consort who built two magnificent monuments in Delhi, of which one survives to this day. Izz-Un-Nissa was the great-granddaughter of Emperor Akbar’s trusted General Bairam Khan, while her grandfather was Abdul Rahim Khan-e-Khanan, one of the famous Navratnas in Akbar’s court and a poet whose work is still remembered and studied.
Her father was Shahnawaz Khan, who was made Commander-in-Chief of the southern islands by Prince Khurram (the future Emperor Shah Jahan). To strengthen his case in the upcoming battle of succession upon the death of his father, Emperor Jahangir, Prince Khurram decided to marry Izz-Un-Nissa, and she became his third wife or begum.
Upon marriage, Izz-Un-Nissa was named Akbarabadi Begum since her family was from Akbarabad, the name for Agra at the time. Some accounts say that Shah Jahan saw her for the first time when she was picking roses in the royal garden outside the Agra Fort and was instantly besotted by her beauty. They got married in 1617 CE and had a son. Tragically, he died before he turned two.
As was the custom since the time of Babur, founder of the Mughal dynasty, almost all Mughal princesses and queens received an income, which they could spend as they pleased. Most of these royal women spent their money on constructing buildings for the common folk or royal mausoleums for their husbands.
Also, almost all the Mughal princesses and women of the nobility received a quality education, which helped them understand their finances and spend them wisely. Presumably, Akbarabadi Begum too was well-educated. We know this because she translated the Quran from Arabic to the then emergent Urdu. It was to mark this achievement that she built the Akbarabadi Masjid in Delhi.
The mosque, built in Darya Ganj (now Netaji Subhas Park) in 1650 CE, was covered with red sandstone and marble. It had three domes and seven arched openings in its facade. Its courtyard was nearly as big as that of Delhi’s Jama Masjid and could rival the Fatehpuri Masjid built by another of Shah Jahan’s wives, Fatehpuri Begum.
The Akbarabadi Mosque was demolished by the British in 1857 after the Great Revolt. It was part of a mass demolition drive carried out by the British to clear all monuments around the Red Fort, where they suspected Indian revolutionaries could hold meetings to plot against the colonial rulers. A park was later built on the remains of this mosque. It was called Edward Park and, after Independence, renamed Netaji Subhas Park.
In 2012, when excavation was underway for the Delhi Metro’s Heritage Line, remains of the foundation of the Akbarabadi Masjid were unearthed. A legal tussle followed but the Delhi Metro authorities were eventually allowed to build their Heritage Line at the site.
Akbarabadi Begum also built the Shalimar Bagh in Delhi, a once beautifully landscaped expanse with a Sheesh Mahal or crystal palace gracing its lawns. Built in 1653 CE in what is now the Shalimar Bagh locality in Delhi, this bagh was the largest of the many grand gardens built by the Mughals outside Shahjahanabad, the then Mughal capital. It was built on the lines of the Shalimar Gardens in Lahore, which in turn were designed on the even more famous Shalimar Bagh in Srinagar, commissioned by Emperor Jahangir.
Delhi’s Shalimar Bagh was enjoyed by Akbarabadi Begum’s husband, Emperor Shah Jahan, who halted there on his way to Kashmir, Punjab and Lahore. It was also a favourite countryside estate of Prince Aurangzeb, son of Mumtaz Mahal.
After he placed his father, Emperor Shah Jahan under house arrest in the Agra Fort, and while pursuing his elder brother Prince Dara Shikoh, Aurangzeb paused at Shalimar Bagh and crowned himself Emperor. It was the first of his two coronation ceremonies and it took place in the Sheesh Mahal, on 31st July 1658 CE. Aurangzeb’s second coronation took place in the Red Fort, on 13th June 1659, after he defeated Prince Dara Shikoh.
Delhi’s Shalimar Bagh wears a forlorn look today. Not much remains of the classic Mughal Char Bagh layout that was used. Most of the garden around the Sheesh Mahal has been taken over by the Delhi Development Authority and transformed into a public park. The rest has fallen victim to collective amnesia and neglect.
It may not have been built by a notable historical figure but Shalimar Bagh is steeped in history and a marker of the heyday of the Mughal era.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Barun Ghosh is an alumnus of the Parsons School of Design, New York. Apart from being an entrepreneur, he’s a landscape, architecture and food photographer. He is also a heritage enthusiast and currently pursuing a degree in history (honours) from IGNOU. He tweets at @barunghosh.
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