“ Located in Aurangabad, India. This monument was built by Aurangzeb, son of the builder of the Taj Mahal „
~A Rose by any Other Name~
It's a common and sometime annoying habit for people to refer to grand places by comparing them with even grander ones. Think of how many different cities have been lauded as 'the Venice of the North or Scotland or Belgium' and so on just by dint of having some canals. Sometimes the comparisons are obvious and would come to mind without prompting and sometimes they are a little more tenuous. Since India is filled with grand mausoleums dating to the time of the Mughal rulers, I consider that the shorthand used for the Bibi Ka Maqbara in Aurangabad which is much more commonly known by its nickname, The Taj of the Deccan, is sometimes stretching the comparison a little. I tend towards the less prosaic alternative - 'the poor man's Taj'.
If you live in the central eastern zone of the Deccan it's certainly a lot easier and quicker to go and see the Bibi Ka Maqbara than to schlep all the way to Agra. Easier and probably a lot cheaper too. The Bibi Ka Maqbara is in Aurangabad - the city of Aurangzeb - a short flight or overnight train journey from Mumbai and it means literally 'The Tomb of the Lady'. If you've never actually seen the Taj Mahal or one of the grand mausoleums elsewhere, you might come away quite impressed. But for anyone who has seen the real thing, this is a poor copy - like a knock off Gucci handbag sold on the street by a dodgy looking chap who's set to grab his stock and run the moment the police appear, the Bibi Ka Maqbara won't fool anyone acquainted with the Taj Mahal.
During our trip to India in October 2010, I booked four nights in a hotel not far from Aurangabad. On the day we visited the Bibi Ka Maqbara, we had already spent a long day out at the fabulous ancient cave temples at Ellora and the mausoleum was our last tourist site of the day. It has a clever layout in as much as you can see absolutely nothing from the outside and you'll have no opportunity to sneak a few pictures from a distance and save your money. We parked up outside, arranged where we'd meet the driver later, bought our tickets (from memory, something like 100 rupees - less than £1.50) and headed inside.
A Little Bit of History
The Bibi Ka Maqbara was built in 1678 by Prince Azam Shah in honour of his late mother, Rabia ul Daurani. Azam Shah was the son of Aurangzeb, probably the least likeable of the Moghul rulers, who was in turn the son of Shah Jahan and his wife Mumtaz for whom Shah Jahan so famously built the Taj Mahal. Aurangzeb always gets my vote for number one bad guy and humourless nasty man by dint of both locking up his father for building the Taj Mahal (and spending all the family money in the process) and for taking over from his father as the Mughal emperor by virtue of fighting off his elder brothers who, on paper at least, should have pipped him to the post. Considering his response to his father building a mausoleum for Aurangzeb's mother, it's hard to imagine how Auranzeb must have reacted to his own son building one for his mother. It would have been interesting to be a fly on the wall in the royal household when all of this was going on.
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but when the original is as beautiful as the Taj Mahal, it's unlikely that the grandson's work will bear comparison against Shah Jahan's. Whilst both the Taj and the Bibi Ka Maqbara are built from white marble and follow the traditional Persian 'chahar bagh' (four gardens) layout, and whilst each is the mausoleum of an emperor's wife, the Bibi Ka Maqbara is a poor imitation of its predecessor which had been built only 30 years earlier.
My first impression when passing through the gate and into the Bibi Ka Maqbara tomb complex was one of disappointment and of a sense of something just being wrong. We are all so familiar with the shape and geometry of the Taj Mahal that the things which strike you first are the ways in which the Bibi Ka Maqbara differs from its predecessor. The shape of the Taj exhibits a wonderful sense of symmetry with the height to width balanced in such a way as to appeal to both the eye and to the camera lens. The top line of the Taj swoops down from the central dome to the outer domes and then down to the ground at the edge of the platform on which it stands. The Bibi Ka Maqbara by contrast just looks too tall, and too narrow with its smaller domes almost hidden behind the towers at each corner of the building. The four minarets at the corners of the platform on which the Bibi Ka Maqbara stands are too tall, almost overpowering and diminishing the tomb at their centre. It looks like a plaster model made by someone who has only ever seen a picture and never experienced the real thing.
The Bibi Ka Maqbara was undergoing renovation work on its main dome during our visit, leading to the presence of a lot of dark black scaffolding wrapped around the dome, giving the impression of a swarm of black flies against the white building. The central channel of water which should enable the mausoleum to be reflected in the water was dry, whether through lack of water or an attempt to prevent the spread of dengue or malaria was unclear. Either way it detracted from the impact of the tomb. However, if this is as close a you will get to the Taj Mahal, then you're going to want to get your photo taken and local ladies and their children gathered to pose with the dome behind them. The central path to the tomb is edged on both sides by beds of marigolds and tall narrow trees. Beyond the walls on either side, small deeply tanned ladies in shabby saris worked tirelessly to pull the weeds out of the grass in the full blaze of the Indian sunshine.
The mausoleum stands on a high square platform with a minaret at each corner and the tomb in the centre. There's a mosque standing off to the west side of the tomb where visitors could pray before entering the mausoleum. As you approach the main building, removing your shoes to leave them outside, it soon becomes apparent that there's less marble in the Bibi Ka Maqbara than you expect based on first view. Around the outside, the marble only makes up the lower few feet of the building and above that the walls are made with local stone - the local basaltic trap which will be familiar to any geologists amongst those reading as being from the so-called Deccan Traps - covered with white plasterwork and decorated with stucco. Plaster and stucco show age much more badly than marble so the whiteness of the building is compromised by the use of plaster. The dome is made of white marble so there's a bit of a The fine pietra dura inlaid stonework for which the Taj Mahal is famous is missing in the Bibi Ka Maqbara but there is some very skilled carving in the marble and in the beautiful jaali screens which let light and air into the mausoleum.
Stepping inside the tomb building itself the Bibi Ka Maqbara is rather different than most Mughal tombs we've visited. You are always told in these places that the actual body is several feet below floor level and that the tomb-cover you see is just a representation of what's below. At the Bibi Ka Maqbara there is no such cover, instead you stand around a balcony looking down onto the tomb which sits at the centre of an octagonal marble platform, draped in a cloth and covered in money which has been thrown down onto it by visitors. The inside is more ornately decorated with carved marble than the outside and this has been protected from the elements and is in great condition.
After having a good look inside we walked around the outside a couple of times. It's a habit we've picked up from Buddhist temples of always walking clockwise around the outside and it's hard to shake off. I think Hindu temples are supposed to go the other way and there's no 'ring a ring a roses' circumambulatory requirement at all for Muslim buildings as far as I know but we've just got into the habit. After a couple of circuits we stopped to sit on a wall with my sister and her girlfriend. A short distance away a group of young men with folders under their arms were eyeing us up with looks of curiosity. One broke from the group and headed towards us only to be repelled by my sister waving him away, assuming that despite the location he wanted to sell us something. After she left, my husband told me that he thought they just wanted to say hello so he called them over, asked them how they were, what they were doing in the city (a technical training programme for engineers) and the gathered them all beside him on the wall for photos. I - playing the role of demure wife - backed off as they all lined up to take pictures with the strange pinky foreigner. It's a sad but apparently true fact that my husband with his number 2 hair cut and Brazil football shirt was considered a site worthy of more photographs than the mausoleum itself. After much hugging and hand-shaking they went on their way - with my sister standing off to one side laughing in disbelief.
~It's not ALL bad~
One area in which I think the Bibi Ka Maqbara does beat the Taj Mahal is in its setting. Standing on the platform by the mausoleum, you can look out at the surrounding gardens which are pretty but a bit parched and over the walls towards the surrounding hills. It also scores highly for having a lot less people there, costing a lot less to get into and for coming surrounded with a lot less of a weight of expectations. It is undoubtedly showing its age and looking a bit shabby, the quality of workmanship is poor compared to the Taj Mahal, Humayun's Tomb or many of the other Mughal era mausoleums but it has a certain quirky charm of its own. If you find yourself in Aurangabad - the city named for the Emperor whose wife finds this as her final resting place - you'll probably be there to visit the cave temples but it would be churlish not to go and take a look at the Bibi Ka Maqbara.