Agra is one of the most popular tourist destinations in India. Undoubtedly iconic Taj Mahal is the reason. Taj Mahal is the magnet that attracts millions to the historic city. But Agra is much more than the Taj Mahal. The sprawling Red Fort, Mausoleum of Akbar (Sikandara), Rambagh, Dayalbagh and the Mausoleum of I’timād-ud-Daulah too are popular tourist attractions, but many skips the last one as it is somewhat out of way. If you been to Agra and not visited the Mausoleum of I’timād-ud-Daulah (इत्माद-उद-दौला का मकबरा), your visit to the historic city is surely incomplete. This truly epochal tomb, like Taj Mahal, too is a symbol of love—a daughter’s homage to his father.
Though not as well-known as the celebrated Taj Mahal, the Mausoleum of I’timad-ud-Daulah can be considered as one of the undisputed masterpieces of 17th-century Mughal architecture. Also known as the ‘Baby Taj’ or the ‘Jewel Box’, this elegant structure exemplifies a fresh interpretation of the building art of Jahangir’s period.
Ms. Amina Okada, the curator of Indian collections at the Musée National des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet, Paris, considers the Mausoleum of I’timad-ud-Daulah a precursor to the Taj Mahal, for which it serves as a small-scale prototype. In her opinion, the mausoleum provides insight into architectural and decorative styles that were popular under the reign of the Mughals.
British historian Ernest Binfield Havell also agrees, ‘‘in construction it marks the transition from the style of Akbar to that of Shah Jahan; from the Jahangiri Mahal to the Dîwan-i-khas, the Mûti Masjid, and the Taj. The towers at the four corners might be the first suggestion of the detached minarets of the Taj. The Hindu feeling which is so characteristic of most of Akbar’s buildings is here only shown in the roof of the central chamber over the tomb; in pure Saracenic architecture a tomb is always covered by a dome.….….This change in style greatly influenced the architecture of the whole of the north of India, Hindu and Jain as well as Muhammadan.’’
The mausoleum was commissioned by Emperor Jahangir’s wife Nūr Jahān (नूरजहाँ) for her father Mirzā Ghiyās Beg (मिर्ज़ा ग्यासबेग).
Nur Jahan was an intelligent and multi-faceted personality. Historian Gavin Hambly noted, ‘‘Jahangir’s wife, Nur Jahan, was an excellent conversationalist, a fine judge of Persian poetry and a poet herself. Her accomplishments made her an irresistible companion for the emperor. Nur Jahan was a patron of painting and architecture whose interests also extended to the decoration of rooms as well as the designing of ornaments, brocades, rugs and dresses.’’ It is natural that she wished to have an outstanding final resting place for her father.
Mirzā Ghiyās Beg was an important official in emperor’s court and was bestowed with the title of ‘I’timād-ud-Daulah’ (pillar of the state). Mirzā Ghiyās Beg was also the grandfather of Mumtāz Mahāl (originally named Arjūmand Bāno, daughter of Asaf Khān), the wife of the emperor Shāh Jahān. Interestingly the foundation of the building was laid by Mirza Ghiyas Beg himself before his death. Mirzā died in 1622.
The mausoleum, built between 1622 and 1628, represents a transition between the architectural phases. Stylistically, this is the most innovative 17th century Mughal building and marks the transition from the robust, red sandstone architecture of Akbar era to the sensuous refinement of Shah Jahan’s Taj Mahal. Many historians consider the mausoleum as the prototype on which more famous Taj Mahal was later built.
The I’timād-ud-Daulah’s mausoleum is located on the right bank of the Yamuna river, 4 km from the Taj Mahal. The mausoleum itself covers about 23m square, and is built on a base about 50m square. It is set on a platform about one meter high. The main building is flanked with four hexagonal towers, about 13m tall, one on each corner. The main structure can be accessed through two of the four large gateways built into its enclosure walls. The main entrance was through the eastern gate while the western one, in actuality a waterfront barahdari (pavilion), offered riverside access to the tomb garden; the structures in the east and west walls were built as false gateways, for the sake of symmetry. Another unique feature of the mausoleum is its rectangular dome, quite very similar to that used in Akbar’s tomb at Sikandra. Such domes are also visible in many structures present at the Fatehpur Sikri complex. Usual Persian style domes (as used in Humayun’s tomb and the Taj Mahal) are onion shaped and commonly found in Mughal era structures.
The entire complex is perfectly symmetrical, the only asymmetrical element is that the cenotaphs of Nūr Jahān’s parents (Mirza Ghiyas Beg and Asmat Begam) have been set side-by-side, a formation later replicated in the Tāj Mahal. Many of her relatives are also buried in the mausoleum.
This was the first Mughal structure built completely with marble. All walls are made of white marble and beautifully encrusted decorations of floral, geometric and animate motifs. Colourful semi-precious stones such as cornelian, jasper, topaz, lapis lazuli, onyx etc. were extensively used to create perfectly proportional motifs. This is the first example in India where in influence of pietra dura or pietre dure—called ‘pacchikari’ (पच्चीकारी)—can be seen. Pietra dura is an Italian technique and means decorative inlay of highly polished colored stones on white marble to create images. Many different colored stones were used, along with semi-precious, and some even precious stones. This art-technique first appeared in Rome in the 16th century, and reached its full maturity in Florence. When Italian artisans visited the court of Jahangir, their mission was to find and procure precious/semi-precious stones from India. Some of these visiting artisans stayed back in India and inspired the architectural transformation here, though some historians don’t agree to this general perception.
Ernest Binfield Havell in his book ‘A Handbook to Agra and the Taj, Sikandra, Fatehpur-Sikri, and the Neighbourhood’ (1904) writes: ‘‘Many authorities have connected the marked difference between I’timad-ud-Daulah’s tomb and Akbar’s buildings to Italian influence, only on the ground that Jahangir is known to have been partial to Europeans, and allowed them free access to his palace. There is not, however, a trace of Italian art in any detail of the building; there is not a form or decorative idea which had not been used in India or in Central Asia for centuries. The use of marble inlaid work on so extensive a scale was a novelty, but it was only an imitation, or adaptation, of the splendid tile-mosaic and painted tile-work which were the commonest kinds of decoration employed in Persia: Wazir Khan’s mosque at Lahore, built in Jahangir’s time, is a fine Indian example of the latter.’’
Havell further writes, ‘‘the art of inlaying stone had been practised in India for many years before this building; but here, for the first time, do we find the inlayers making attempts at direct imitation of Persian pottery decoration. All the familiar motifs of Persian art, the tree of life and other floral types, the cypress tree, the flower-vases, fruits, wine-cups, and rose-water vessels are here reproduced exactly as they are found in Persian mosaic tiles. In Shah Jahan’s palace and in the Taj they went a step further, and imitated the more naturalistic treatment of Persian fresco painting and other pictorial art; but there is never the slightest suggestion of European design in the decoration of these buildings……..It is quite possible that some Italians may have shown the native inlayers specimens of Florentine pietra dura, and suggested to them this naturalistic treatment, but if Italians or other Europeans had been engaged to instruct or supervise in the decoration of these buildings they would certainly have left some traces of their handiwork.’’
Once inside the mausoleum, one can watch the soft light coming in through finely perforated marble-screens (jālī, जाली) with complex geometric lattice work carved out of a single slab of marble. These delicate marble-screens are fitted on walls of inner chamber as windows. This seems an inspiration from the Dargah of Salim Chisti located at Fatehpur Sikri, where such marble-screens were introduced during emperor Akbar’s time. Inside walls of the mausoleum are finely decorated, somewhat similar—but much more elaborate and aesthetically beautiful—to that of the Taj Mahal.
In ‘The Art and Architecture of Islam : 1250-1800’ historians Sheila S. Blair and Jonathan M. Bloom note that the tomb of I’timad-ud-Daulah was the first Indian structure in which white marble replaces red sandstone as the ground for polychrome pietra dura inlay. Blair and Bloom mentioned the structure as a ‘modest’ one, though praised the same for its delicate but exuberant decoration and warm tonality. Here the traditional technique of inlay has changed. Orthodox geometric designs and arabesques are now combined with representational motifs of drinking cups, vases with flowers, cypress trees and visual descriptions of Paradise from the Holy Quran.
Many beautiful structures were built under Mughals, but his exquisitely beautiful ‘bejeweled marble box’ is unique in its own way. Here the inlaid patterns are as delicate as embroidery. The dense gilding and paintwork represent typical Persian motifs, such as the wine-vase and the dish and cup, apart from polychrome geometric ornamentation, far more delicately decorative and beautiful than that of Taj. It is also the first all-marble structure in India, setting a trend for white marble buildings.
Historisn Percy Brown wrote, ‘‘There is no other building like it in the entire range of Mughal architecture, the delicacy of treatment, and the chaste quantity of its decoration placing it in a class by itself whether regarded as an architectural composition of matchless refinement, as an example of applied art displaying rare craftsmanship, or as an artistic symbol of passionate filial devotion, the tomb of I’timad-ud-Daulah expresses in every part of it, the high aesthetic ideals that prevailed among the Mughals at the time.”
Unlike other monuments, here you’ll find less walking and less crowd. Intricate details of the architecture, fine lattice work and the brilliant inlay work will mesmerize you. Don’t miss it when you are in Agra.