Easy Trip: Burhanpur, Madhya Pradesh

Mughal melodrama

GREAT FROM: Mumbai, Indore, Bhopal

GREAT FOR: History buffs

GO NOW: While pleasant weather and while the old houses in town still stand.

Blame it on the darn termites. If it weren’t for them (or so the proud locals claim), Agra would never have been able to steal Burhanpur’s glory, becoming India’s pride and joy in its stead. In 1631, at the age of 38, Mumtaz Mahal died giving birth to her 14th (that’s right!) child in Burhanpur. It was here that Shah Jahan had originally decided to build the Taj Mahal before he was cautioned about the pesky bugs and other problems like transporting the marble (while the structure is made of marble, the foundation is still wood).

Perched on the northwestern banks of the Tapti River, this dusty town has witnessed centuries of Mughal drama. Founded at the beginning of the15th century by Faruqi kings and captured in the 17th century by Emperor Akbar, it was ruled by his successors for a century thereafter. The region became a strategic outpost for Mughal interests in the South and was also enjoyed as a picnic spot by the town’s unrivalled star, Shah Jahan.

It’s apparent that the emperor’s fascination with building tombs extended beyond Mumtaz Mahal. A two-minute walk through an unkempt garden brings you to the well-preserved tomb of Begum Shah Shuja, which was built by Shah Jahan for his loyal commander Shah Shuja’s wife. The tomb has Mughal frescoes painted with vegetable dyes (near Azad Nagar; 10am – 6pm; free). Some 20km from Burhanpur is Mahal Gulara (sunrise – sunset; free). The plaque that cites it as a ‘pleasure house’ makes you wonder if the city was anything more than just a picnic spot for Shah Jahan. Legend has it he would visit his courtesan, Gulara, here on full moon nights.

Burhanpur has quite a few historical sites but the feather in this town’s cap is the undoubtedly Shahi Qila (6am – 6pm; ` 5). Built by the Faruqis, it was revamped by Shah Jahan, who added the Diwan-e-Khas and Diwan-e-Aam. The fort is in ruins today, but as you walk through it, it’s easy to imagine how opulent it must have been. Mumtaz Mahal’s hammam has a marble bath and painted frescos on its dome. A great way to see the fort in all its glory is from across the river. Hop aboard one of the rowboats at sunrise for undisturbed views of the fort (from Raj Ghat; negotiate a price before getting in, about ` 200/ person; till Nov, dependent on water level).

Whispers of past grandeur linger in the city: even the traffic is of a different kind here – you’re either stuck behind a herd of unbothered buffaloes or dodging

horse-drawn carriages at every turn. Despite this, the maze-like lanes of the old town are worth venturing into. The century-old houses on Itwara Road or Navdurga Chowk are beautiful examples of Indian vernacular (rural) architecture.

If you’re lucky, kind locals might let you take a peek into their homes. Bang in the centre of the old town is the Jami Masjid, whose construction was begun by Adil Shah from the Faruqi dynasty in 1590 and completed by Emperor Akbar.

A geometric marvel in black stone, its highlight is the Sanskrit inscription praising Adil Shah carved into the stone right under the Arabic lettering (Gandhi Chowk; 6am – 6pm; free).

An hour’s drive from Burhanpur will get you to Asirgarh Fort (21km). The final stretch of a winding, bumpy road brings you to the ruined fort through which the fragrance of wild tulsi wafts. The once-impregnable fort has an ancient Shiva temple with an adjoining step well, a British cemetery and gallows, and its own gorgeous Jami Masjid built from black stone. As you walk through the fort, you realise it’s strangely eerie and peaceful in equal measure.

Every place has that one special secret spot or town that the locals don’t care to spread the word about. With its secret royal past and its remnants of Mughal opulence, Burhanpur feels like Madhya Pradesh’s special secret place.