My first priority on arrival is to get new glasses made to replace what I had lost at Shirdi. I check into a hotel conveniently close to the bus station. The hotel manager, a guy from Andhra, tries to impress me with his Tamil. He knows but a handful of words. A hotel boy negotiates the fare with an auto-rickshaw-walla and tells him the destination. It is an area of town with half a dozen optical shops. I get my eye test done, have brunch and in an hour get a new pair for just Rs. 600.
Every city has its history. What we know is only what we have been able to unravel. Anything that precedes in time hides with its secrets that become more and more distant with the passing of years. History of Aurangabad starts from 3rd century AD with the Buddhist Caves with their rock-cut architecture. This is like so many other places in India where the earliest survivors of the ravage of time are caves and their sheltered halls, cells, pillars and reliefs. When it comes to architecture, nothing is as enduring as rock in situ. The city then has a large gap until we pick up the thread of history in the 17th century. Being central to the Indian peninsula and tucked away from hostile neighbours it was an ideal capital. It was Aurangazeb who gave the city its modern name and made it his capital while he governed the Deccan after his victories over Golconda and Bijapur. It is from this century that we have the Bibi-ka-Maqbara.
Not really knowing the bus routes and to make good the few hours of the afternoon, I take an auto-rickshaw from my hotel. We pass busy streets and small lanes. It appears the driver is taking a shortcut. The afternoon sun is hot but I am sitting comfortably. I can’t imagine being here in summer. We pass under an arched gateway. Old fort walls stretch on either side of this gateway with their once hostile crenellations. They have not seen any action for years, only dust, heat and the bustle of modern day that chooses to ignore the past. We immediately cross a bridge across a river. Or is it a canal? The bed is overgrown with weeds and strewn with litter. It has seen better days.
I see the monument from a distance. The place is busy with tourists. I expected as much. Any resemblance to Taj Mahal is not yet apparent from the outside. Once I step through the outer wall I see a high pishtaq flanked by two levels of arches on either side. The sweeping main arch has a decorated underside and it is bordered with 33 cusps. Through the frame of the entrance arch I see the tomb in the distance. With its marble domes, four corner towers and its reflection in the garden pool it does very much look like the Taj Mahal.
The design of the gateway is cleverly done. What appears as a graceful octagon on the outside, appears as a square on the inside. It is still richly decorated with reliefs but the simplicity within is a necessary part of the scheme to keep the focus on the main tomb. This is apparent when the gateway is viewed from a distance. It does not lure the viewer to look beyond but rather look within.
This tomb was built in memory of Aurangazeb’s wife, Rabia-ul Durrani. The pool leading to it is half dry. The fountains are all turned off. Tall clipped hedges that lead the view look emaciated and at times broken. A group is posing at a marble seat with the tomb for background. In a greater distance, the hills of Aurangabad are visible with the caves appearing as black patches on the brown hillside. The sun is shining high from behind me. The sky is clear blue and the tomb is brilliant white. There could have been a better afternoon for admiring this monument.
Bibi-ka-Maqbara is unfortunately at the receiving end of criticism for not having the beauty of its fairer cousin. It may have been modelled on the Taj Mahal but it is different in many ways. Emphasis is on loftiness and this achieved by making the pistaq relatively taller. Consequently the dome becomes less significant. Four smaller domes that surround the central one have a greater visual weight that in the Taj. The same can be said of the corner turrets and their domed kiosks. The wide platform of the tomb has octogonal corner towers and domed kiosks. Such towers are circular in the Taj. When viewed from the gateway at ground level, these towers stand above the central dome. In the Taj, the dome is always more prominent. Everything else plays a subsidiary role. The pistaq is flanked by arched niches in two tiers. Since the Taj is broader in design, it has twice as many arched niches arranged in the same two tiers. Bibi-ka-Maqbara is a beautiful monument on its own but a comparison is inevitable.
Bibi-ka-Maqbara could have been far more beautiful had it been of pure marble. Only the domes and lower portions of the monument are of marble. Rest of it is simply plaster polished to achieve the smoothness and sheen of marble. Where such plaster has come off, ugly dark patches are revealed. These spoil the look of the monument. So we should not consider Bibi-ka-Maqbara as a poor imitation of the Taj but really a poor execution of a great design. Much of the brilliant floral reliefs are made of plaster but they would have looked something else had they been of marble.
Many elements of Mughal architecture can be analyzed here:
- Many of the reliefs on the pishtaq, of the monument and its gateway, are in the Jehangiri style of chini khana. Some are beautiful but many are quite plain. At Rewa Palace I have seen much better examples of chini khana.
- Vaulting contains some wonderful patterns. I have seen similar ones at Orchha. This sort of lierne vaulting, locally called muqarnas, became popular during the reign of Jehangir.
- The tomb is the orthodox takhtgah, low platform tomb arcaded with bays and piers.
- The surrounding garden is the classic char bagh, a walled-in garden divided into four quarters by paved walkways bordered with garden beds and fountains. The southern end has the main gateway while other three ends have pavilions. The four quarters of the garden are further enhanced with octogonal pools and fountains, walkways, garden beds and open lawns.
A mosque with beautiful cusped arches and graceful pillars in its wide bays stands west of the mausoleum. The tomb platform has a low parapet wall with in red sandstone containing good perforated designs. Doors are decorated with plates moulded in brass. As part of ongoing preservation, parts of the mausoleum are buttressed for support. Workers are busy erecting scaffolding on the northern facade. There are supposedly beautiful wall paintings in the pavilions bordering the walls but they are currently closed for repair. Couples idle in the open lawns. Visitors look in awe at the arches, decorative reliefs.
I return to the monument just before sunset. The guard allows me to come in with the same ticket. I sit below the main arch of the mausoleum ignoring the last of the day’s crowds. The bluish sky has darkened. It casts its subtle shade on the marble and plaster. The coved ceiling below the main arch is richly decorated with swaying curves. They curves get narrower and quicker as they converge to the high point of the arch. I lose myself in these curves and the floral designs they enclose. I linger this way till the closing bell is sounded. The day has quietened. The moon is up. Dims lights shine on the mausoleum from a distance. In this restful hour I try to see things in 17th century light. Like in Gwalior, I feel I am once more in Mughal India.
‘This is a largely restored chaitya hall,’ I mention to a British guy as I point to the patchwork of cement where the stone had gone missing. In fact, the restored chaitya hall recreates the original form and shapes but not the feeling.
‘It is, isn’t it,’ comments the guy. I saw him earlier at another cave. He was busy referring to some photocopied notes and marking things on the margins.
‘Are you doing research on rock-cut architecture?’ I ask.
‘Not really. I am doing a tour of Maharashtra. I work for Rough Guides,’ replies Edward.
‘That’s interesting. I have their book on South India.’
‘I worked on that one. I edited parts of it.’
‘So are you updating the stuff on Maharashtra?’
‘Yes I am. They want me to trim the content a little bit.’
I assume ‘they’ being the management or a body of editors and authors. We continue talking a little bit more about tourism and travel. Bring two travellers or backpackers together, there is no other topic better suited to fill the hours. About two-thirds of his time goes into updating information on accommodation. Readers what options over a wide spectrum of cost and comfort.
‘Strange, all hotels I have visited have TVs,’ he comments.
‘I stayed at really basic places – dharamshalas, old lodges, dormitories – where TVs are really a luxury,’ I tell him.
We move together from cave to cave. He checks, verifies and updates his notes while I continue on my own to admire the sculptural reliefs. The caves were excavated from the 3rd to 7th centuries. They are not clearly numbered as in Panduleni. The two main groups of caves are a kilometer apart. I can see nothing new that I had not seen in caves elsewhere – a chaitya hall, pillared porticoes, monastic cells, water tanks, half pillars with collapsed roofs, sanctums with ambulatory passages, walls covered with high reliefs.
In terms of art, many pillars are simply superb. Capitals are elaborate. Kumbhas overflowing in vigourous detail are beautifully preserved. Sometimes sculpted brackets project on all four sides of a kumbha, something I have not seen anywhere else. Pillars are a combination of square bases, panels in an octogonal projection, 16-sided shafts that end in the fluted surface of a circular kumbha. On many pillars packed bands of reliefs appear. In many cases these reliefs run diagonally. Each band bears a different motif from another. When they are all seen together, it may appear that the pillar was frozen in its final turn while bridging the space between floor and ceiling. Continuous friezes run on cornices.
Two Indians joined us as Edward and I are chatting outside a cave. Though they live in Aurangabad, these caves don’t mean much to them. With Ajanta and Ellora within a few hours reach, Aurangabad Caves have not had the attention they probably deserve. Truly the decorative work on these pillars are among the best that I have seen, probably better than the ones at Badami Caves.
Meanwhile the warden of the caves walks up to us. He tells the two Indian guys in an unfriendly tone not to bother the foreigner. Luckily I am spared. He has seen me arrive with Edward.
‘His ticket is two-fifty. They should not disturb him. He should be allowed to see the caves in leisure,’ he tells me in Hindi. It is clearly unfair on those two guys but I know where this is going. The warden volunteers to be our guide. He shines his torch through the darkness. He speaks in quick Hindi. I translate his words into English. He introduces to us Bodhisattvas and Taras. He then shows us the superb work on the Dancing Panel – the dancer and the musicians who surround her. Armed with many new facts and insights into Buddhist art, I wonder how Edward is going to trim the chapter on Aurangabad. There is nothing more difficult than to weed out a few good lines from a page of excellent ones; but which ones are good and which ones excellent?
The caves are open till sunset and the sun is already orange. As we take leave, the warden requests a tip. I give him a ten-rupee note. He kindly refuses amidst much fuss. Clearly he is expecting lot more. I leave Edward to settle the matter alone.
Edward offers a ride but I prefer to walk down to town and then to my hotel. Meanwhile, Edward lingers on the hill awhile. ‘It says here something about a nice sunset,’ he points to his notes. He is going to wait for a few minutes to confirm it.