Burhanpur – Forgotten Glory

As promised in the earlier post on Asirgarh, i am back with more goodies, this time from in and around Burhanpur. For those who are joining us here, i was in Burhanpur earlier this month on office work. Its a piddly hick town in southern Madhya Pradesh near the border with Maharashtra.

I have, in the last post established that Burhanpur today is most famous for its Isabgol plant. However some centuries ago, it was a major contender for the site of the Taj Mahal. Had it won the race, the realities would have been different. But then again, who really knows!

Mumtaz died in Burhanpur giving birth to her fourteenth child, Gauhar Begum and was buried here for the next 23 years waiting the completion of her famed tomb, halfway up the country at Agra.

Is it not appropriate then, to begin this post with a photograph of Mumtaz’s hammam?

Paintings on the hammam walls

The hammam was beautifully painted, most of which has survived to this date. It is located in the Badshahi Qila or the city fort, which is the primary attraction in Burhanpur town.

Badshahi Qila

Standing on the banks of the Tapti, the Badshahi Qila is a remarkable structure. The six storeyed structure rises over 175 feet from the river beds and housed over 4,00,000 soldiers. The palaces – Diwan-i-Aam and Diwan-i-Khas were built on the terrace of the structure. The Raj Ghat, that you see in the foreground of the picture above was used as a base for the boats used by the members of the royal family.

Elephant in the water!

Just off the ghats in the middle of the Tapti is a strange rock in the shape of an elephant. To heighten the effect, the locals have even painted it in bright colours. It is said that on moonlit nights, Shah Jahan would take Mumtaz Mahal out on a boat and both of them would then sit on the elephant rock and enjoy the beauty of the night!

Badshahi Qila, again

Long after the Mughals, the Holkar Queen, Ahilya Bai, built numerous temples on the ghats, one of them dedicated to the goddess Tapti.

Raj Ghat
Life on the ghats
Life on the ghats
Life on the ghats

Burhanpur today, is a veritable necropolis. Of the monuments in and around the town, the majority are tombs. Apart from Mumtaz, Burhanpur boasts (!!) of a number of historical notables who have breathed their last here, including Nizam-ul-mulk, the first of the Asaf Jahi Nizams of Hyderabad and Sawai Jai Singh of Amber. After the tombs, the most numerous are the mosques. Lets start off on the grim note of death and the consequent monuments built to commemorate it, The following photographs belong to a complex of tombs on the banks of the Tapti. The two main mausoleums are of the Farooqui kings, Aadil Shah and Nadir Shah.

Twin TombsThe mausoleums house more than one grave. The largest of them belong to the emperor while the smaller ones are those of his wives, children, courtiers, servants, etc. Inside Nadir Shah’s tomb

One of the bona-fide gems of Burhanpur is Bilquis Begum’s Tomb. However, the locals know it as Shah Shuja’s Tomb. In reality, it was Shah Shuja (son of Shah Jahan) who built this tomb for his wife Bilqis Begum. From the outside, the dome of the structure is somewhat melon shaped. On that cue the people of Burhanpur also refer to it as the kharbooji gumbad!

Bilqis Begum’s tomb

The urge to built mausoleums for dead wives seems to have passed on from Shah Jahan to Shah Shuja. Though clearly nowhere comparable to the Taj Mahal, Bailquis Begum’s tomb has a charm of its own. The inside walls are embellished with paintings that even five centuries later continue to mesmerise and dazzle the visitor. Here, i must also thank the Archaeological Survey of India for the great job they are doing with the monuments of Burhanpur.

Details of paintings from Bilquis’ tomb!

Jai Singh of Amber (1611-1666) was one of the most trusted generals of Aurangzeb. After concluding the treaty of Purandar with Shivaji and Co, Jai Singh was on his way back to Jaipur when he mysteriously died in Burhanpur. Some say he was poisoned by Aurangzeb himself, others feel that he died of excessive drinking. I feel that he died of excessive drinking on the wine given by Aurangzeb. Makes no sense? Well, thats historical conjecture!

So after his death, he was cremated on a lovely spot on the Tapti, 20 kms south of Burhanpur. Aurangzeb later erected a simple but beautiful chhatri on this spot. It is today popularly known as Raja ki Chhatri.

Raja ki Chhatri

The most dramatic of Deaths in Burhanpur was that of Mumtaz Mahal in 1631. She was initially buries in the king;s hunting lodge on the other side of the river from Burhanpur. Ahukhana, as the building is better known, stands to this day and perhaps as fate would have it, is the favourite haunts of the city’s love-lorn couples.


From the house of the mortals we now move to the realm of God. Generation upon generation of Islamic rulers have resulted in the cityscape of Burhanpur being dominated by many a soaring mosque minar. The most prominent however is the town’s Jami Masjid. Also one of the oldest in the city, the Jami Masjid is located in Gandhi Chowk, at the very heart if the old town.

Has there ever been a better place to sleep?

It was in fact the first place we visited in Burhanpur after we had dumped our sacks in the hotel. It was a lazy afternoon and the mosque was quiet. A number of people were actually asleep in the sanctuary. Had work not being pressing on me, i would have considered a little nap myself!

It is easy to get lost in Burhanpur, a veritable city of mosques. Everybody who was anybody, anytime in the long history of this town, has left behind a mosque. Finding them in the present cityscape is a different adventure altogether. You have to get lost and wander in its labirynthine alleyways before you stand face to mace with a medieval mosque.

Beautifully sculpted mihrab at the Jama Masjid
A minar of the Tana Gujri Masjid, reflected in the waters of its hauz
Crumbling ruins of the once splendid Biwi ka Masjid
Close up of the love extant minar of Biwi ka Masjid
Remains of a sarai just outside of Burhanpur, at Zainabad
Perforated domes of the public hammam near the Anda Bazaar Chowk.
Bangles for sale outside the Iccha Devi Temple, 25 kms from Burhanpur
The delightful pleasure palace of Mahal Gulara
A solitary cupola on the roof of Mahal Gulara
Picknicking children invent a game at Moti Mahal, Asirgarh

Well, people, that was as much of Burhanpur’s secret as i could divulge. Needless to say, i could have gone on with the picture-play a bit longer but i feel that some of the intrigue should be left from the book.

Next up, is a multi-part series on Assam. So, watch this space for more.

[PS: I will have to admit that pressing schedules at work and at home has forced me to assemble this blog piece over a three week period. I would not be surprised if some of you find it a bit disjunctive and jumpy at times. Apologies!]

Conquering Asirgarh

Work comes to the rescue once again. Just when i had started to settle down, began spending more and more time under the comfort of the razai, comes the trip to Burhanpur. I am sure, most of you, just like me,  have not heard about the existence of such a town. Its only claim to fame, Parvati, my colleague tells me is that  Isabgul is made here.

Geographically, Burhanpur is located on the banks of the Tapti, 180 kms south of Indore in Madhya Pradesh. Its location is such that it is surrounded by Maharashtra on three sides. Its a very sparsely populated part of the country. The landscape is arid with either sal forests of low shrubs. Every now and then there are chains of low hills which at some points create quite a few breathtaking montages.

22 kms northeast of Burhanpur, in the middle of dense forests, one particular hill rises more than 2,300 feet from bare ground. This hill protects within itself  a number of perennial pools and the summit commands, on a clear day, a stunning horizon looking over hundreds of kilometers of the Nimar plains. The Farooqui rulers who reigned over the region before the Mughals, fortified the hill at three levels. The lowest level of fortifications was called the Malaigarh. Further up was Kamargarh, the second level of fortifications. Crowning it all was the unassailable Asirgarh.

Asirgarh rises over the surrounding landscape

Legend has it that this fort can never be conquered by force. When we went to the fort, we witnessed for ourselves the meaning of the word “impregnable”. Each level of fortification was a fort in itself. The walls run all around the hill and are riddled with sentry points at every nook and cranny. Not even a fly could have passed unnoticed. Then on top of it, to get to the king who would have been stationed at Asirgarh, you had to conquer not one but three forts.

Road to the top

Even the greatest of the Mughals – Akbar, had to face his match here. After six months of incessant warfare, he realised that he could not win the fort by direct millitary attack. The fort’s canons, stationed high on the hill were out of range for the Mughal guns but rained fire and brimstone  on Akbar’s army. So he tried a different tactic. He retreated with his army just out of range of the Farooqui canons, surrounded the hill with his 5,00,000 men and laid a siege. within a year supplies of the garrisoned troops in the fort ran out and a mass surrender followed. As it transpired, the royal family along with a handful loyal and brave warriors had managed to escape through an unknown route and were never seen or heard from again.

Natural defences – the hill-face carved into a bastion!

Today, the fort can be accessed by a variety of routes. For those climbing with vehicles, it is advisable to use the old British road (yes, the British occupied it too).  We had decided to take the car up as far as possible and then climb down later using the original paved pathway hacked on the surface of the hill by the Farooquis. You can gauge the height of the fort by the fact that the road from the base of the hill to the makeshift parking at the neck of the hill measures a full 7 kms.

Gateway to Kamargarh

The car stops at Kamargarh from where you proceed on foot to Asirgarh, which housed the citadel, the best of the soldiers, stables, a jami masjid and a temple.

Looking up at the Asirgarh walls from Kamargarh
The stairs that take you from Kamargarh to Asirgarh
Gateway to Asirgarh
Looking down at the Kamargarh gate from Asirgarh
... in Asirgarh
… in Asirgarh

One of the main attractions in the fort is the Jami Masjid. Perched on one edge of the cliff, the twin lofty minars can be spotted for miles around. While we were approaching Burhanpur in the train the minars could be seen from the window of the train. It is a mammoth structure built with black granite – a mark of Farooqui architecture. It looms large over you as you approach it. Of all the buildings in the fort, only the masjid and the temple have survived almost intact. Providential?

through the hole in the wall
Through the hole in the wall
Approaching the Jami Masjid

Built on a platform that is almost 8-10 m tall, the mosque built of huge blocks of granite gives off an air of solidness. So hard are its rocks that even time seems to have collided against it and stopped. Most of the mihrabs, both on the qibla as well as the north and south walls were once faced with intricate jaalis. Very few have survived.

View from the south

You follow the road adjacent to the southern side of the structure and it winds left to lead you to the east-facing gateway to the mosque. You enter through three tall arches. You cannot help but feel dwarfed by the scale of the structure around you. The grand, lofty arches, the soaring pillars and the eerie silence – all add to the intrigue that is Asirgarh.

Entrance to the mosque!
Entrance – closeup

The minars rose against the backdrop of clear blue sky, dramatised even further by thin, wispy clouds. It could not have been any better!

Minar (left)
Minar (right)

The sanctuary of the mosque is composed of four isles of pillars topped by arched capitals – a hallmark of Farooiqui architecture.

If you ever go there, please remember that you can climb up the minars through the spiralling staircase in them. Avoid using the left minar as it is structurally weak. As we climbed up the right minar, we first stopped on the roof of the masjid. From the edge of the roof, it was a clear drop of 2,300+ feet. From a distance, as you can see in the following pics, it looks as if it were a platform suspended in mid-air.

Just like i said, a platform suspended in mid-air
I dare not go any further

The view from the top of the minar..well.. takes your breath away. You are so high up that your stomach begins to churn. You can see the fort down below and notice how it is a vantage point to keep an eye on the vast rolling plains all around you.

View from the top of the minar
Look where the minar casts its shadow!
The stairwell in the minar
The road we used on our way up!
Where eagles dare, i guess!

Also in the fort is a temple, built beside a baoli. By the looks of it, it seems that the temple was buile in the later half of the sixteenth century, roughly corresponding to the years of Akbar’s occupation. Local guides, however, will insist that the temple is over 5000 years old and was built by Ahwatthama of the Mahabharata. They will further claim that on many a moonless night the spectre of Ashwatthama can be seen walking odown the steps of the baoli to the temple. However incredulous it might sound, one must not take the words of the guides lightly, because had it not been for these fantastic stories they weave, my job..nay, history itself would have been rather drab.

The inside of the temple was dark, except for a thin light like sensation that helped us to make out the mouldings and the corners inside the shrine. A couple of long exposures revealed that the interiors of the temple were once painted.

A shot in the dark – notice how you can see the remains of the paintings that once adorned these walls
A shot in the dark – a niche in the temple

From the temple we carried on with the walk along the ramparts. We were following the high outer walls of the fort and that ensured that we covered the entire complex in one huge circuitous route.

Mountainside hacked and chiselled to act as walls!
What a brilliant day it was!

The primary reason why the fort came up on this hill was the presence of a number of natural and perennial sources of water – a key requirement in maintaining a garrison. The two talaos directly in front of the British barracks are known as Mama-Bhanja. Again, our guide, Sat Narayan ji came to the rescue and added an anecdote to these otherwise green water bodies. According to him, if any real life mama and bhanja go in for a dip in the waters of either of these talaos, they will never emerge alive. Sinister, very sinister!

Mama Talao

Half a kilometre further from the twin talaos is a little cemetery for the British officers and their family members who died in the fort. We were surprised to find the earliest grave dating back to 1810.

Gilbert Grierson Maitland lies here…
…and the tombstone reads…

From the cemetery, we went back to the gate which let us into the fort. As decided earlier, the car had gone down and would be waiting for us at the tea stall in the3 village down below. We would be walking down using the path that the Farooquis had built more than half a millennium earlier.

On the way out

As we climbed down the pathway, which was largely a long staircase, we were thankful that we had taken the car on our way up. The steps were huge and even while descending, we were frequently feeling breathless (doesn’t say a lot about our fitness levels, either). With every turn in the road, the fort above our heads kept receding to the skies. The real sense of enormity and vertical distance was becoming more and more apparent.

Slowly rising into the bright blue sky!
and further…
and then some more…
Malaigarh, Kamargarh and Asirgarh – all in one frame!

Asirgarh was definitely the high-point of our Burhanpur trip. But my dear travellers, it is definitely not all that you see in Burhanpur. The city and its immediate environs are literally dotted with historical monuments small and big, taken care of and neglected. Watch out for a sample of the Burhani flavour in this space. Till then…

A house in Asirgarh village