These lesser-known memorials across India took inspiration from Shah Jahan’s Mughal masterpiece, the Taj Mahal, as well as his tragic love tale.
It is hard to witness the glory of the Taj Mahal and not think of love or feel inspired to express that love with a grand gesture. Some have even felt inspired enough to build something just as (or, almost as) epic and eternal. From Dubai’s Taj Arabia, to a Californian houseboat that resembles the monument, many breathtaking sites across the world have stemmed from Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s epitome of love. Closer home, many lookalikes have cropped up over the years. But the beauty of magnificent mausoleum isn’t just limited to its white marbled facade. It dwells eternally in the tragic tale that led to its inception. Come with us, on a ‘Taj Mahal trail’, as we take you through its four lookalikes in India, with their very own stories to tell.
Bibi Ka Maqbara, Aurangabad, Maharashtra
It was during an impromptu field trip years ago, after we had explored the obvious—Ajanta Caves and Daulatabad Fort—and still had some time at hand before leaving Aurangabad, that I had first heard of Bibi Ka Maqbara from a local autowallah. I remember his words getting my attention upon hearing him say phrases like ‘Taj Mahal’s lookalike’ and ‘the poor man’s Taj Mahal’ (as it is commonly known). Curious, I had rushed to the site right before its closing time at dusk, and my first thought was “Who shrunk the Taj?”. It looked little like the original to me, under the fading daylight. But come during daytime, the similarities between the two will slowly begin to show. Bibi Ka Maqbara, home to the unadorned grave of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s wife Rabia-ud-Durrani aka Bibi, is a domed structure of white marble standing amid bushy lawns and old fountains. With four towering minarets standing around the mausoleum, this one comes closest to the original out of all the other imitations. Also popular as the Mini Taj among locals, it was commissioned by a grief-stricken Aurangzeb after Bibi died during childbirth, just like her mother-in-law Mumtaz, and was built by their son, Azam Shah in 1650s.
Red Taj, Agra, Uttar Pradesh
It is understandable to miss out on a much-smaller, less impressive replica when you are in Agra. But once you are done swooning over the original, move on to explore its lesser-known cousin, eclipsed by the glam of the Taj Mahal. Merely about 9 kms from the marble wonder, the Roman Catholic Cemetery behind the old Bhagwan Talkies, is home to the tomb of John Hessing. It is no parallel to the Taj when it comes to grandeur, but both were built out of love and insufferable loss. Famous as the Red Taj, thanks to its red sandstone-facade, it was built back in the 18th century by Ann, his wife, after Hessing, a Dutch officer in the Maratha Army, died defending the Agra Fort against the British. It lacks the intricate mosaic work of the Taj Mahal, but the pain and longing of Ann Hessing can be seen woven into the Persian inscriptions at the modest entrance of this forlorn tomb.
Mahabat Maqbara, Junagadh, Gujarat
Gothic columns, French-style windows, marble jalis, fine arches, and shining silver doorways—the striking Mahabat Maqbara is hard to miss, when you are in Junagadh. Right in the heart of the busy M G Road, Gujarat‘s Taj lookalike is a dramatic blend of European, Gothic, and Indo-Islamic styles of architecture and looks straight out of one of Disney’s fantasy classics. The four minarets have snaking stairways spiralling along them and the three-storeyed structure is topped with an onion-doomed roof. It is the resting place of Wazir Bahaduddinbhai Hasainbhai, one among the chief nobles in the court of the Nawab Mahabat Khanji II of Junagadh, who started its construction in 1878. The monument was later completed in 1892 by his successor Bahadur Khanji.
Black Taj, Burhanpur, Madhya Pradesh
Once a thriving Mughal-era town, Burhanpur in Madhya Pradesh is left far off the traveller’s trail today. The walled city is where giant gateways coexist with old wooden houses, and horse-led tongas are still an accepted mode of transport. It is dotted with many graves, and one is even claimed to be Mumtaz Mahal’s original grave before it was shifted to the Taj Mahal. However, the Black Taj or the tomb of Shahnawaz Khan, is what you should be looking for, if you ever find your way to this forgotten town. Popular as ‘Kala Taj Mahal’ among locals, it owes its names to the local black stones it was built with. But the credit also goes to blackening of the stones by age and years of neglect. From outside, it is just another (smaller and dare I say, rather gloomy) imitation of the Taj, with hexagonal minarets guarding it on the four corners, but enter its premises, and remnants of the painted niches and frescoed walls will give you a hint of how beautiful it must have been back in its days of glory.