Out of the many stories related to India’s history that have come down to us, one of my favorites is how the biggest tourist attraction of the country, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World and a World Heritage Site, the Taj Mahal, almost didn’t get built at its current location in Agra. Begum Mumtaz Mahal, Emperor Shah Jehan’s wife, didn’t pass away in Agra, but at a location several hundred kilometers south of the Mughal capital. This was a city that was a major urban center of great strategic value at the time, but which most tourists, Indian or otherwise, haven’t even heard of today. We present to you Burhanpur, once known as the Gateway to Deccan, located about 340 km southwest of Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh.
Photo by dalbera
Burhanpur is believed to have been of significant importance during the rule of the Rashtrakutas (r. 753 – 982 CE), but it really rose to prominence after being developed under the Faruqi Dynasty (r. 1382 – 1601), which ruled over the Khandesh Sultanate, which corresponds to northwestern Maharashtra. The area north of Khandesh was referred to as Hindustan and the area southwards was where Deccan began. This made Burhanpur an important business center, especially for textiles, as well as the key to conquering Deccan for rulers from northern India. Emperor Akbar annexed Khandesh in 1601 and renamed it Danesh after his third son Daniyal Mirza, who served as the Viceroy of Deccan. The city, which served as an outpost for the Mughal Empire, was further developed into an expansive, beautiful metropolis under their rule. It later came under different Maratha clans before being taken over by the British in 1818.
Emperor Shah Jehan served a considerable amount of time in Burhanpur, mainly overseeing his campaigns in the Deccan. And it was here that, while giving birth to their fourteenth child, Mumtaz Mahal died in 1631. Shah Jahan probably never planned to build the Taj Mahal here anyway, but the deceased Begum did stay buried here for some time. Difficulty in sourcing marble for the mausoleum might also have played a role in the Taj Mahal finally being built near the Mughal capital of Agra.
Places to Visit
While Burhanpur is a town of very little importance today, the structures that continue to stand, many of them built during its short period of glory, do still remind any visitor of how magnificent this city would once have been.
Photo by Yashasvi nagda
Asirgarh Fort – Built in the Satpura Range at a height of 700 m, and located about 20 km from Burhanpur, is this massive fort famous for its impenetrability. It is believed to have been built by a local noble called Asa Ahir in the early 15th century and later served as one of the key sites in the Second Anglo-Maratha War of 1803-1805. Additions by later rulers have meant that you can see a variety of architectural styles all over the fort.
You might also have come across this fort in some TV shows that have covered the local legend of this fort being haunted. And not just any random ghost – people believe that the Gupteshwar Mahadev temple inside the fort is visited regularly by Ashwatthama, the warrior from Mahabharat, who was cursed by Krishna to keep roaming the land of the living for thousands of years with blood and pus oozing from his wounds. Many visitors claim to have encountered a person that matches this description!
Photo by Md iet
Shahi Qila – Towards the southeast of Burhanpur, abutting the Tapti River, is another grand fort built by the Faruqi Dynasty. This fort served as the residence of Shah Jahan for many years, but only a few structures remain intact now within its walls. The Mughals also added a Diwan-i-khas and a Diwan-i-aam to the fort, along with a Hammam Khana (ladies’ bathhouse), which is one of the better maintained structures still standing. The Shahi Qila is often called the bhool-bhulaiya (labyrinth) by locals because of its puzzling layout.
Jama Masjid – Close to the Shahi Qila, but more centrally located, is this magnificent mosque that is still used for prayers. It took several years to build under the Faruqi and Mughal rules before being completed under Akbar’s supervision. It is particularly known for its symmetrical pillars covered with extensive artwork and the impressive minarets.
Photo by dalbera
Dargah-e-Hakimi – Close to the northern border of Burhanpur is this complex that houses tombs, mosques and gardens, and even accommodation for visitors. The main attraction here is the tomb of Syedi Abdul Qadir Hakimuddin (1665 – 1730), an important religious leader for the Bohra sect of Islam. This beautiful complex spread over 125 acres attracts thousands of visitors every year, many of whom believe that praying here can cure their loved ones of serious diseases.
Black Taj Mahal – About 2 km southeast of Dargah-e-Hakimi, is the tomb of Shah Nawaz Khan, more famous as the Black Taj Mahal. Shah Nawaz Khan was the eldest son of Abdul Rahim Khan-e-Khana, one of the nine gems of Akbar’s court. He served as a general in the Mughal army and was the court’s representative in Burhanpur. While his tomb is no comparison to the great white monument in Agra, it is well-preserved to this day and worth a visit.
Apart from these, the town, like many important Mughal centers, is teeming with symbols of its glorious past and the interested visitor can discover a lot on one’s own by moving around on foot in the old city areas.
The nearest airport from Burhanpur is Indore, about 210 km away. Bhopal (340 km) is also a major airport. The Burhanpur railway station lies on the Mumbai-Delhi and Mumbai-Allahabad routes, and many important trains pass through it. Road connectivity is also very good, with bus services to important cities in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. Hotel options are sufficient considering the relatively low tourist footfall. Best time to visit is between October and March.
Featured Photo (Tomb of Shah Nawaz Khan) by Kirk Kittell