The eastern bank of the Yamuna was, in Mughal days, given over almost completely to gardens: the Ram Bagh, the Zahara Bagh, the Garden of Wazir Khan, and so on. Today, with the alluvial soil of the Yamuna still making the area fertile, this stretch is home mainly to nurseries that produce plants and trees for sale. There are the remains of some Mughal gardens, and there’s the odd old building in between.
We head here to see the Tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah (`Pillar of the State’), a title conferred on an extremely powerful nobleman who had come to India from Persia in the 1500’s. Itimad-ud-Daulah became not just an influential statesman, but also a member—by extension—of the royal family; his daughter Noorjahan married the Emperor Jahangir, and his granddaughter, Noorjahan’s niece Arjumand Bano, married Jahangir’s son, Shahjahan. (Arjumand Bano is better known as Mumtaz Mahal, the empress for whom Shahjahan built the Taj Mahal).
The receptionist at our hotel tells us that the Tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah closes at 4.30 PM. The driver of the car we’ve hired has been making some enquiries, and he confirms it. What’s worse, he tells us that though there are two bridges across the Yamuna, both are one-way: we’ll be able to cross coming back from Itimad-ud-Daulah, not going there. To get to the place, we’ll need to drive all the way to the Agra bypass highway, then turn from there.
A collective groan goes up: it’s already 3.45. There’s no way we can make it. It must be miles to the bypass. But we set off gamely, and by the time we’re approaching, Tarun’s all ready, wallet in hand, to leap out and run to the ticket counter as soon as we reach. We reach at 4.20 and heave a sigh of relief.
Our anxiety is all in vain, though. Itimad-ud-Daulah is open till sunset (6 PM, in spring and summer), so we have oodles of time. Tarun buys the tickets (like Sikandra, Rs 10 per Indian and Rs 250 per foreigner or non-resident Indian; children below 15 enter free), and we pause a while to admire the gate to the tomb. It’s red sandstone, with lots of elegant floral designs inlaid in white marble. There are arched recesses, a row of decorative battlements (known as `kangura’ battlements in Indian Islamic architecture), and two singularly unprepossessing ASI caretakers who totally spoil the frame.
We step through the gateway, and it’s suddenly a different world, with a little fairytale palace all in white marble at the centre of it all. The tomb stands on a low platform beyond lush green lawns. The raised path leading to it is flanked by sandstone parterres bursting with white and mauve petunias. Less than a hundred metres beyond the tomb, the land slopes away to the Yamuna below, glittering in the light of the lowering sun. But we can admire the river later; we’re here to see the tomb. And what a tomb this is!
The Tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah was built after his death in 1621 by his daughter Noorjahan, and is a squat building, topped with a pavilion with an interesting roof that looks like a ship turned upside-down. On the four corners of the tomb are low, cylindrical minarets. It’s not as elegant and perfectly proportioned a building as the Taj Mahal, but as we walk closer, we realise that this is, in itself, a masterpiece. The exterior is covered all over with inlay: grey, buff, gold, red, black, chocolate and cream stone—literally a hundred shades of colour—form intricate patterns of six-pointed stars, stylised flowers, arabesques, even quaint designs of fruit bowls filled with grapes and pomegranates. We wander around the outside for a while, just drinking it all in, admiring the delicacy of the carving (especially along the tall arched niches on the sides; these are closed with fine screens of carved marble known as `jaali’, which means net).
Inside, the decoration does an about turn. The only inlay to be seen here is the geometrical design on the floor and the dadoes. The upper half of the walls and ceiling are painted over. The innermost chamber is particularly beautiful, with very realistic lilies and what look like chrysanthemums painted on panels alternating with chini khana (vase motifs). The chini khana here is very elaborate; there are not just vases, but little jars and urns too; and the vases themselves are full to bursting with flowers. Most of the chini khana painting is in arched recesses, the painting done primarly in shades of dull blue and red. Swapna and I get even more excited when we notice `Chinese clouds’—the curling, stylised clouds that Mughal artists borrowed from Chinese art and incorporated into their own pictures.
We spend a brief while in the chamber containing the cenotaphs of Itimad-ud-Daulah and his principal wife; both cenotaphs are fairly plain, but made out of the striking deep gold stone known as Jaisalmer stone.
Outside, the sun’s dipping swiftly towards the horizon, and the gardens of the tomb complex come suddenly very alive. Rose-ringed parakeets swoop by in a tumble of bright, grass-green feathers, screeching shrilly; a black kite sits on the broken-off stump of a branch, its hooked yellow beak menacing. Just beside the platform of the tomb itself, a pair of five-striped palm squirrels scamper about, searching for food. The noise and traffic of Agra City seem a million miles away.
But before we leave the Tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah, there’s one last structure to be seen: the riverside gate. This is connected to the main tomb by a raised path paved with stone. The gate looks out over the river beyond and (though we can’t find it) has a diminutive exit through which you can actually descend to the river. It’s a red sandstone building, again (like the main gate) all arches and white marble inlay. The sides of the gate are decorated with more chini khana inlaid in white marble. It looks quite quaint, really: a high wall of red sandstone, divided by strips of marble into arched segments, each segment with its own vase. Some sections have two vases, some three. It looks a little like a medieval advertisement for a Mughal winehouse!
We step into the gateway to have a look at the inside. Like at the tomb, the inside here is painted, not carved or inlaid. The central chamber is flanked on either side by smaller rooms, in one of which a trio of workers is sawing wood and carrying out other restoration work. We sidle past them and feast our eyes on the painting; this bit is especially splendid, with white, blue, grey and red predominating in floral patterns and lots of chini khana—one wall, fitted into an arch, is covered with dozens of vases, many of them full of flowers. Superb. And, hopefully, these men at work will help keep it that way.
Outside, we wander around a bit towards the northern side of the gate, and accidentally make an interesting discovery. At the foot of the wall is an inconspicuous inscription: Flood Level Oct 7 1924. Whew; that must have been one helluva monsoon. The tomb itself seems to have escaped by the skin of its teeth.
And on that relieved note, we take ourselves off, down the road to the next sight we’ll see, the Chini ka Rauza.