Nadira Begum’s tomb – faded glory of Lahore
Finding Nadira Begum’s Tomb isn’t hard since its right next to Sufi Saint Hazrat Mian Mir’s shrine.
Nadira Saleem Banu was the wife of Mughal Prince Dara Shikoh, the ill-fated heir to Shah Jahan’s throne and the crown prince of his Indian empire.
She died in 1659, several months before Dara Shikoh execution, and was survived by two daughters. No sons survived thanks to Aurangzeb Alamgir, who got rid of all male threats.
Stories of Nadira Banu’s beauty and intelligence were famous throughout the empire. She was the daughter of Shah Jahan’s half-brother, Prince Perwez, and therefore Dara Shikoh’s cousin.
Her would-be husband Dara Shikoh was eager to marry her and had a good relationship with her throughout his turbulent life. He never remarried, in spite of the common Mughal practice of persistent polygamy and overflowing harems. Shah Jahan’s wife Mumtaz Mahal, Dara’s mother, arranged the marriage when both Dara and Nadira were teenagers.
Dara Shikoh’s sister Jahanara Begum got along with Nadira quite well, as reflected by her involvement and interest in Nadira’s wedding and her closeness to him.
With the death of Mumtaz Mahal, arrangements for the wedding died as Shah Jahan and his India plunged into mourning. After much coaxing by many, especially Jahanara, Shah Jahan resumed life and let her oversee the remaining aspects of the wedding. Jahanara had always visibly supported Dara over Aurengzeb and never hesitated in demonstrating that. Jahanara’s love for Dara strengthened her relationship with Nadira and after her death she left her fortune to one of Nadira’s daughters.
Aurengzeb once openly asked Jahanara if she would support him in his bid for the crown but she refused. Despite this event and her undying loyalty to Dara, she was made the head of the harem in Aurengzeb’s court.
Aurangzeb, driven by his ambition and fanatical views, seized the throne and eventually defeated his moderate and secular brother Dara Shikoh, who was said to be tolerant, wise and admired. Two major wars were waged between them, Dara lost both. In 1659 he lost another war with fate while escaping to Dadhar (Balochistan) en route to Iran, when his wife Nadira Begam died of exhaustion and dysentery. Sunk in despair, Darà Shikoh dispatched his remaining soldiers to escort his beloved wife’s dead body to Lahore.
It is interesting to note that moderates and extremists have always clashed in history. While Aurangzeb despised arts and had no love for mankind, his brother Dara was said to be a fine painter and poet.
Many of his works were collected and gifted to Nadira Begum in 1641. It was her affection for him that she cherished them until her death. Titled the ‘Dara Shikoh Album’, it was a collection of paintings and calligraphy assembled from the 1630s until his death.
After her death the album was taken into the royal library and the inscriptions connecting it with Dara Shikoh were deliberately erased; however not everything was vandalised and many calligraphy, scripts and paintings still bear his mark. Some of the surviving works were recently on display at a British museum.
Unlike other Mughal tombs which have normally been constructed in the midst of gardens, Nadira Begum’s tomb is built amidst a water tank without a dome, which bears the flat parapet on all its four sides. In fact, these distinguished architectural features have made it look rather like a pavilion than a tomb. The tomb stands on a raised platform in the centre of a water tank, which was large enough to accomadate a lake. Encroachments have eaten away most of the tomb’s area during the course of history.
During the British period, the tank was dismantled by a local contractor Mian Muhammad Sultan and its bricks were recycled in building the Lahore Cantonment. According to historians, the corners of the tank were marked with pavilions, while the lofty gateways provided access to the tomb from the north and south through a masonry bridge. The gateways no longer exist but most of the causeways can still be seen. The culverted bridge still stands on thirty arches. The 14′ wide central chamber is surrounded by an ambulatory in the form of vestibules. It greatly resembles the tank and baradari at Hiran Minar in Sheikhupura.
A plinth ten-feet high from the surface of the tank, comprises the foundations of the tomb. Square on plan, the tomb on each side measures 44′ feet. It used to be a two storeyed structure and now has a height of 32′-6″from the grave platform. The height of the first storey is 13′ flanked by square headed apertures. The pavilion is constructed of burnt bricks and contains deep cusped arched openings. The central openings are arched, while those on the sides are flat. There are four arched openings on the ground floor in the interior around the grave and above them arches, exactly of the same type, are built in the upper storey. All these arched openings in both the storeys are cusped in design.
Each of the openings in the lower storey is three feet four inches wide and six feet six inches high and that in the upper storey is three feet three inches wide and six feet high. An interesting feature of the openings is that all the eight corners of lower and upper storeys were executed skilfully by forming a small pavilion in each of the corners. All the four facades of the pavilion are decorated with blind cusped arches and panels.
On the northern face of the grave Quranic verses are laid in marble slab in the pielra-dura technique in Naslaliq character, while on the southern end, Nadira Begum’s name and her date of demise is inscribed in the marble slab in the same design.
The façade at the top retains parapet. On the parapet wall, just on the roof level are four small arched openings, two each in the north and the south, which, if seen from outside appear that. Below the parapet, in the façade is a balcony in red sandstone. The roof built in vaulting is flat at the top except for a fascinating hexagonal platform of two feet height that is located in its centre. The roof and the platform are covered with thick lime plaster and lack any ornamentation. The tank around the pavilion, which was enclosed by a high wall, has been filled with earth and traces of its four walls are still visible. It was a very spacious tank square in shape, with each side being 580 feet long. There were fine gateways to the north and south.
When there was water in the tank, the tomb seemed to be floating in water, its reflections creating the illusion of movement. Though isolated in this manner, its connection with the rest of the world is maintained by means of a causeway access in the east-west direction. The causeway bears 32 pointed arched openings and in addition to that there is one more opening in the centre of the causeway which was intentionally closed. That closed opening forms a beautiful square platform in the centre of the causeway, its each side being eleven feet and nine inches long. The causeway, which is in a deteriorating condition, is five feet and nine inches wide.
The tank has now been developed in pretty lawns, bearing pathways. Numerous evergreen trees have also been planted in it and flowerbeds have also been prepared for seasonal flowers. This new arrangement has converted the area of the spacious tank into a beautiful park, an attractive spot for the inhabitants of the locality. But it has also made it into a sports ground where the causeways seem ideal for a cricket pitch!
In the interior of both the storeys, the ceilings and faces of the walls are decorated with the traditional Mughal architectural feature of Ghalib Kari, panels of various geometrical shapes, which bear traces of red, green and black colours. The use of Ghalib Kari ormuqarnas (stalactite squiches) for roofs and vaults are also employed internally.
Though now faded, the traces are still beautiful. The colour scheme appears to be carried over the whole of its interior surface except for the trench of the upper storey which was brilliantly embellished with glazed tiles of multi-colours, traces of which are still evident. Although no tile-work is extant on the external façade, but traces of glazed tiles arc still evident in first floor interiors. Most of the tiles removed from the tomb are preserved now in the Lahore Museum.
In its early days, the tomb was an inspired achievement, the variety and distribution of its tonal value, the simplicity and scale of each clement and finally the carefully adjusted mass of the total conception showed the calibre of the Mughal architects at their best.
But today the tomb retains a simple and blank facade, shorn of all ornamentation. It is said to have been robbed of its costly marble and semi-precious stones during the Sikh period. It is very sad to note that like other Mughal monuments of Lahore, the beautiful tomb pavilion of Nadira Begum and its attached structures could not escape the vandalism of the Sikhs. During Ranjit Singh’s rule, the choicest material from the structure was removed, leaving it in a dilapidated condition. The tomb is also a victim of contemporary vandalism, as gaudy graffiti is visible on the structure with the ugly plague of wall chalking.
Since independence, its proper conservation has been ignored. The tomb was declared as a protected monument in 1956 and since then its responsibility for conservation lies with the Department of Archaeology and Museum.
In 1956, a comprehensive scheme was framed by the department for its repair and restoration. It seems nothing has happened since 1956.
Nadira Begum remains a silent spectator, watching cricket and soccer balls often being hit into her tomb.
She lies there in silent royalty, listening to the ghosts of the past talk about the faded glory of the Mughal Empire, which was at that time the richest empire in the world.
: View my Flickr Set on Nadira Begum’s Tomb at : http://www.flickr.com/photos/saadsarfraz/sets/72157622278655989/
An animated slideshow at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/saadsarfraz/sets/72157622278655989/show/