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Purest in all times

The Begum Shahi Masjid was built in honour of Maryam Uz Zamani, Emperor Akbar’s Rajput wife whose story is the stuff of legends

Purest in all times
Persian style kashikaari on eaves and cupolas inside the prayer halls. Arches are connected on the point with most engravings. — Photos by the author

The Masjid of Maryam Uz Zamani aka Begum Shahi, was built in 1611 to honour the royal title of Emperor Akbar’s Rajput wife who goes in popular accounts by several names — Hira Kunwari, Harkha Bai, and the more cinematic, Jodha Bai. Incidentally, all of these names are incorrect, as historians agree on the fact that the Princess of Amber, after getting the title Maryam Uz Zamani, was never spoken about by her maiden name. Later, people started referring to her as Jodha Bai who was, in fact, the Princess of Jodhpur, not even remotely related to Maryam.

Standing tall against all odds, the stoic Masjid is located in the heart of the Mochi Bazaar, inside the Mochi Gate, one of the thirteen gates that boulder the Walled City of Lahore. The dingy lanes are so tightly packed that two people cannot walk at the same time unless one slants to the curb. Here, the most famous ‘Shoe Market’ has merchants and traders of all sorts cluttering whatever walking space has been left after the massive encroachment of houses and businesses.

Dirk Collier, in his book, The Great Mughals and their India, writes extensively about the famous Queen Maryam Uz Zamani: “In the years succeeding 1562, Akbar decided to travel to Ajmer, to pray and meditate at the dargah of the famous Sufi Saint, Khawaja Muinuddin Mohammad Chishti. Crossing into the Rajputana during his journey, he was greeted by Raja Bhar Mal of Amber (in some accounts, his name is Bhagwan Das) in Jaipur. He offered to him, his eldest daughter, in marriage. Akbar gladly accepted and the wedding was celebrated at Sambhar, in January 1562, on his way back from Ajmer.” The Princess of Ajmer became Maryam Uz Zamani, meaning the ‘Purest in all times’ — likened to Mary, Mother of Jesus. This is the only name one can refer to categorically in the annals of history.

It is common knowledge that Akbar was a pluralist by nature. He had tried his best to create a symphony between his Hindu and Muslim subjects by all means. Abraham Eraly, in his book, The Last Spring: The Saga of the Great Mughals, writes that Akbar tried to encourage the formation of mixed regiments of Hindus and Muslims. Therefore, it is safe to consider the marriage to be an olive branch for the severely inflicted Rajputana which Akbar conquered, partly with war and partly with holy matrimony.

G B Malleson, in Akbar: The Rise of the Mughal Empire, quotes British historian Colonel Tod who attacks Akbar for his conquests. Even Tod, says Malleson, praises Akbar’s marriage with the Princess of Amber: “He finally succeeded in healing the wounds his ambition had inflicted. And received from millions, that mead of praise which no other of his race ever obtained.”

Malleson adds that Akbar did not conquer Rajputana to rule in Rajputana. Akbar married Bhagwan Das’s daughter and connected with the House of Amber (Jaipur) connecting the Rajputana with his empire, and the Hindus and Muslims.

Contrary to Bollywood’s various depictions of the Rajput Princess, her cousin-brother Maan Singh accompanied her to the Emperor’s palace and became a loyal warrior chieftain who won several battles for Akbar. Maryam had her own temple in her section of the Zenankhana. According to Collier, “Maryam’s relatives were not treated as vassals but as true allies, friends and family members: in every respect equal or superior to the leading Muslim Ameers.”

Maryam’s brother and father both carried the loyalty through Akbar’s reign and later as well, thus raising her in rank in the harem, which already held almost a dozen of Akbar’s wives and several concubines.

Abraham Eraly, in The Mughal World: India’s tainted Paradise, writes that since the harem grew in size during Akbar’s rule (the harem was small in numbers during the Humayan and Babur’s rules, and royal ladies were married off when they came of age), Akbar ordered a decree according to which the princesses in the harem could not get married at all, since “no Prince’s blood was worthy enough of Mughal blood,” and so the princesses lived in spinsterhood all their lives. This was quite a setback to the social atmosphere for the royal daughters who could see their male relatives marrying multiple times, as per tradition.

The staircase with Mughal style steps, that once led to the minaret used for the prayer call.

The staircase with Mughal style steps, that once led to the minaret used for the prayer call.

The royal begums enjoyed a lavish lifestyle. Occasionally, the great begums indulged in the gamble of international trade — Maryam Uz Zamani conducted extensive overseas trade, and so did Nur Jehan and several others. The business affairs of the begums were managed by officers called Nazeers, who were, as per Manucci, in charge of the property, lands and income of the begums. Maryam Uz Zamani also spent her wealth on buildings, art, and cultural promotions, fashion and perfumery, all expensive hobbies. Zamani and other begums also played a role in the patronage of the officials, and ameers courted them assiduously, sending them presents and seeking their advice and support.

There could be no direct contact between the ameers and the begums and all communication was carried out through eunuchs (Eraly) and the women were limited to the Zenankhana — a tradition which would later be broken by Maryam’s daughter-in-law, Nur Jehan, who claimed public space for herself and opened doors for the other queens as well.

Jehangir’s biography by Parvati Sharma tells readers about the biggest problem of Maryam’s married life: she had to go through a bout of barrenness for seven years. Once Akbar and Maryam met with Sheikh Salim Chishti, he blessed the couple with a prayer. En route a hunting expedition, Maryam bore the news of being pregnant. Elated, Akbar took her to live in the Sheikh’s home. This was done, so that the expecting mother could be in a protected and holy place and also to keep the pregnancy “far from gossiping streets and stem the tide of curious stories that had begun to dog the emperor’s childlessness.

“One day, the baby stopped kicking. At first the queen felt only a nagging strangeness and then later, it dawned upon her. In a dither, the nurses reported the situation to His Majesty.” Akbar took vows, made sacrifices and prayed with Salim Chishti. So, in the mid-morning of a Wednesday in the monsoon of 1569, Maryam Uz Zamani delivered a healthy baby boy, who was named Salim, with permission from the revered Sufi Salim Chishti.

This baby, the only surviving heir of Akbar, was born through Maryam Uz Zamani’s womb, and he grew up to be the next Emperor, Jehangir, who had the Masjid of Maryam Zamani, also called Masjid Begum Shahi, built in honour of his mother.

When she died, Maryam was buried in a sepulchre near Akbar’s tomb in Sikandra, India.

The mosque is a work of art, or rather must have been in its days of glory. The humble-looking entrance is further humbled by the scores of shoe shops around it. The wooden door with carving in the style of Islamic art is the original door. Entering it, one stands in a verandah which has a contemporary pool, actually a ‘hauz’ (a tank of water which is filled with clean water for ablution purposes).

Also read: The chronicles of Anarkali

The hauz is purposeful, no doubt, but certainly out of place, in an otherwise ancient looking mosque, with cupolas and eaves intricately worked with Persian style kashidakari (engravings), hand painted patterns and murals, as well as beautiful calligraphy on the walls, arches and doorways.

Like most Mughal buildings, the Masjid has arched halls — three in number — which open into one another. The mosque can house up to a hundred worshippers inside the halls at a time and another hundred in the courtyard where the hauz stands. The minarets are broken, and the staircase which would lead up to the main minaret for the prayer call, is in ruins.

In the original plan, the Badshahi Masjid would serve for larger communal prayers and Begum Shahi would be used for congregational prayers for the ladies, or smaller groups, with the emperor of the time.

The small mosque was originally surrounded with a garden that connected it with the Lahore Fort, and the entrance to this was through the Masjid Gate, or Maseeti Gate, now linguistically corrupted to be the Masti Gate. The space taken up by encroachments and shops was a garden. The Mochi Bazaar has taken up all of the garden, and the mosque has been pushed into a corner, not easy to locate or reach. Its dome can be seen from one of the high points at the Lahore Fort.

Sana Munir

One comment

  • This was an illuminating read.

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