Sunday, June 21, 2015

Princess still in distress

Illustration by Vinay Kumar
Illustration by Vinay Kumar

The pathos of Princess Jahanara’s life is reflected in her grave too

Jahanara Begum led a life of hardships and now more than 300 years after death her agony continues as her grave lies neglected with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the Nizamuddin Dargah Committee washing their hands off the matter. The ASI says guards are there only to protect the tomb from vandals while the Nizami family, trustees of the shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin, contend that the ASI is the caretaker since the grave comes under the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act. As it cannot circumvent this it is just a helpless onlooker. But the fact remains that the grave needs repairs and clearing of waste left behind by pilgrims to the adjacent shrine, most of whom don’t even know who Jahanara was!
It’s not so much grass that grows on Jahanara Begum’s grave these days as shrubs. Her wish to be buried in a “kuccha” grave was duly fulfilled though a sarcophagus protects it from the elements, open as it is to the sky but situated in an enclosed chamber with perforated marble screens, south of the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. 

Still, when one sees it, one is reminded of the Persian poet Sadi’s poignant lines :

“I saw some handful of the rose in bloom with bands of grass suspended from a dome/I said, ‘What means this worthless grass that it should in the rose’s fairy circle sit?”/Then wept the grass and said, ‘Be still and know the kind their old associates ne’er forgo/Mine is no beauty here or fragrance-true. But in the garden of the Lord I grew.” No wonder grass springs up like hope eternal even on old forgotten monuments, where no roses may bloom. Grass is never a deserter. That was why Shah Jahan’s eldest daughter wanted it to grow on her grave.

Forced spinsterhood found an outlet in poetry and both Jahanara and her sister Roshanara gave vent to their feelings in verse. Persian was the language employed, as Urdu was considered the camp language and was yet to take over its predominant position. Persian similes and metaphors, like the jam (wine cup), the shama (lamp), the moth, the mythical mountain Kohkaf and the bulbul were hardly considered alien at a time when the ambience at the Mughal court was the same as that of Persia, Arabia or Turkey. As a matter of fact, even present day Urdu poetry waxes eloquent on them – and who doesn’t enjoy this escape to a romantic past, so far removed from the mundane image of the modern age when Kohkaf has been identified as the Caucasus mountain?

Even such a selfless person as Jahanara must have no doubt yearned for someone, who could be the master of her heart. Her emotions are portrayed in her poetry, which is that of a pious woman deeply attached to her Maker. She was also a great lover of gardens and laid the Begum Bagh in Delhi, in which was also situated the Begum Sarai. Outside the bagh was the Chandni Chowk, which was also her creation. After Aurangzeb came to power Jahanara preferred to stay with her father, who was held captive in the Agra Fort for seven years until his death on 16th January, 1666. She became a recluse after that and patronized mystics and mendicants until her own death. As per her wishes, she was buried in the tomb she had built for herself in 1681, next to the shrine of the saint she held in high regard.

The hollow sarcophagus is the receptacle, in which the grass grows in accordance with her epitaph. “Let naught cover my grave save the green grass, for grass will suffice as covering for the lowly.” And yet she was the one, who was once the virtual ruler of Hindustan and whose “pandan kharch” (betel leaf expenses literally but pin-money in this case) which was met by the revenue of two flourishing ports of the Mughal empire. Sleep well, gentle princess!

When Rudyard Kipling visited her grave in the 19th Century he couldn’t help comparing her to Christina Georgina Rossetti, the celebrated sister of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) writer of the famous poem “The Blessed Damozel”. Christina too died a spinster in 1894 when the last of the Mughal princess were still alive in the Mori Gate. Hence Kipling’s poignant comparison of the green grass growing over their lowly graves, with Christina’s words ringing in his ears; “Be the green grass above me/With showers and dewdrops wet…/I shall not hear the nightingale/Sing on as if in pain/And dreaming through the twilight/That doth not rise nor set/Haply I may remember/And haply may forget.” Few indeed forget Christina Rossetti after visiting her last resting place! The same is true of Jahanara.

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