A travel journal or blog, is not a new fad. Persians called it a safarnama, a travelogue. Nasir Khusrow, a Persian philosopher and author, penned the first safarnama in which he wrote:
“Kindle the candle of intellect in your heart
And hasten with it to the world of brightness.
If you want to light a candle in your heart,
Make knowledge and action its wick and oil.”
I was asked to start a travel blog by family and friends, repeatedly. I love that they have more faith in my writing than I do, however, travelling is my unearned privilege. It is the result of a passport, that I played little part in being able to possess. So why should I write about my travels? For a while, I was unable to reconcile these two things and I continued to tread the line where, on the one hand, I was no better than an Orientalist obsessed with ‘finding’ sights and ‘experiencing’ a place and its people. As if the places I was travelling to existed in a vacuum of history and I was among the first to discover them. As if the stories of the people that I was meeting had never been told before.
On the other hand, I began to see myself as someone who was trying to dig into the nuances of the places I was seeing and the people I was meeting. Perhaps like an anthropologist. I hoped that by doing so, I would discover something new about myself. Here is why: you see, I am a Canadian of Pakistani origin, born and raised in Saudi Arabia, who then immigrated to Canada, while his ancestors belong to India. Those are enough identities to make anyone confused about ‘where they belong.’
With this question in mind, I decided that I wanted to travel in the footsteps of the Mughals, learning their history across the land they occupied and governed. Theirs is a history of fluid identities, ruling as they did over diverse lands and people; and so, I followed their trail through various parts of India (twice!), Bangladesh (twice!), and finally, Pakistan.
I doubt that I would ever be able to match the lofty ideals of Khusrow’s safarnama, and so mine is a pictorial journey, documenting the Mughal monuments across the three countries.
Delhi: Jama Masjid
Built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in 1644-1656, the Jama Masjid in Delhi can accommodate more than 25,000 worshippers. It was inaugurated in 1656 by an Imam from Bukhara, Uzbekistan, and it was named, Masjid-i-Jahan-Numa. The Jama Masjid is the architectural inspiration behind the Badshahi Masjid in Lahore (which I will get to).
Delhi: Humayun’s Tomb
Completed in 1572, the mausoleum was actually built by the emperor’s grieving widow, Hamida Banu Begum. It is the “precursor” to the Taj Mahal with its clear Persian influence. It reaches a height of 47 meters and other than Humayun, it contains over a 100 graves!
Agra: Taj Mahal
Three guesses what this place is. To all those who say that it is hyped up and not all that: Please. Just. Don’t. There is a reason why the Taj Mahal has captured the imagination of millions since its completion in 1656. It is an architectural marvel envisioned by Shah Jahan, the fruit of 20,000 artisans and laborers, a symbol of love and devotion, and nothing less than a great wonder of the world! It is worth every penny (rupee, to be exact) that it takes to catch the sunrise over this great marble “tear drop on the cheek of time” (Tagore).
I mean, just look at it!
Uttar Pradesh: The shrine of Salim Chishti
The shrine of Salim Chishti, a sufi saint from the Chishti order. The tomb is within the courtyard of the mosque in Fatehpur Sikri and the Mughal Emperor, Akbar, ordered its construction. Akbar was devoted to Salim Chishti and named his first son after him.
Devotees and visitors tie threads as a physical sign for their prayers and wishes to Salim Chishti.
While the Mughal Empire wielded power over north India, the Deccan Plateau housed the Qutub Shahi dynasty since 1538. The dynasty also drew influence from Persian culture and literature and were the southern rivals to the Mughals- so of course I had to check out Hyderabad!
Hyderabad: Charminar (Four Minarets)
Built in 1589 by Mohammad-Quli Qutab Shah, the king whose seat was Golkanda Fort, to commemorate the spot where he caught his first glimpse of Bhagmati, a Hindu girl who became his queen. Bhagmati took on the name Hyder (Lion) Mahal, hence the name of the city.
Hyderabad: The Mosque of Ibrahim in Golkanda Fort
The Mosque of Ibrahim in Golkanda Fort. Remember the Koh-i-Noor diamond that is a crown jewel of the UK? The fort is in the vicinity of its excavation site. But more importantly, the fort was the capital of the Qutub Shahi dynasty for the Deccan Plateau and was impenetrable for 62 years until the Mughal ruler, Aurangzeb breached the citadel in 1687.
Hyderabad: The Makkah Masjid
The Makkah Masjid was completed in 1694 under the rule of Quli Qutb Shah of the Qutb Shahi dynasty. The mosque allegedly gets its name from bricks that were baked using the soil from the holy city of Makkah.
Continuing to follow in the footsteps of the Mughals, we turn now towards Dhaka, the city of mosques. Dhaka was a major commercial capital for the Mughal empire with GDP contributions at almost 50%! The river waterways inside the city once popularised it as the “Venice of the East”.
Dhaka: Lalbagh Qila Masjid
Lalbagh Qila Masjid is located inside the grounds of the Mughal Fort in Dhaka. Stylistically it belongs to Shaista Khani architecture; its form is typical of three-domed, rectangular mosques commonly found in Dhaka.
Dhaka: The Dargahs
Scattered around the old Mughal city of mosques, are Dargahs (shrines) dedicated to sufis ascetics influenced by the Chishti nizam (Sufi lineage/order). This mausoleum for an elder named Makhusha stands on a curved busy street of a Shi’a dominant neighborhood of Old Dhaka.
The word for “to return” in the Urdu is vaapsi. It alludes to a sense of belonging. The irony is that in my 26 years, I have now travelled and lived longer in countries outside of Pakistan. Nevertheless, Pakistan is an important chapter in this safarnama. I was fortunate to travel to Lahore in 2016 and it was the perfect way to complete my Mughal journey.
Lahore: Wazir KhanCommissioned by the chief physician of the Mughal court, Wazir Khan, the mosque was completed during the reign of the “builder Emperor”, Shah Jahan in 1642. The mosque encloses the shrine of the sufi saint, Miran Badshah.
The vault ceiling design inside the mosque is known as muqarnas. These decorative vaults help to carry the sound of the imam leading the prayer and are the most iconic examples of Persian kashkari tilework in Lahore.
Lahore: The Tomb of Noor Jahan
Her title literally means ‘The Light of the World’. Empress to Mughal emperor Jahangir, Noor Jahan even got her own husband released from rebels after he had been captured. Also, if she hadn’t arranged her niece Mumtaz Mahal’s marriage with Shah Jahan, we wouldn’t have the Taj Mahal. I was looking forward to visiting her resting place, as I had previously visited her father’s tomb in Agra, colloquially known as the “Baby Taj.”
Lahore: Tomb of Jahangir
Jahangir was Akbar’s son and he expanded and ruled over the Mughal empire as an alcoholic, opium addict and painter. Another ‘coming full circle’ moment for me, after having seen Akbar’s architectural experiments in Fatehpur Sikri.
Lahore: Badshahi Mosque
Completed in 1673 under the rule of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, the mosque was the largest in the world for over 300 years! For the Delhiites, imagine twice the area of the Jama Masjid that Shah Jahan (his father) built. And yet, doubling the size of his father’s iconic mosque is not the worst way Aurangzeb tried to one-up his father. He also deposed him as king, imprisoned him, and killed his own brother.
For all their reputation as romantics, partly due, no doubt, to the magnificent monuments they built, some Mughal rulers played the role of oppressor in equal parts.
Both the interior and exterior of the Badshahi mosque are decorated with elaborate white marble, carved with a floral design common to Mughal art. The carvings of the mosque are considered to be unique and unsurpassed examples of Mughal architecture.
This picture marks the culmination of a journey that began a year earlier in Delhi. I had travelled to three countries, each relaying a chapter of the Mughal story. Though politics divide the lands they once ruled, there is a common heritage, a shared identity, that exists (resists) irrespective of borders. And yet, the Mughals no longer felt like the central theme of my safarnama. Their spectacular monuments exist as reminders of the power they once wielded (for good and bad). But there is more to heritage and identity than monuments alone; it was through the people I met along the way that I felt a common ground and a sense of solidarity- perhaps the basis for another safarnama.
After I returned to Canada people asked me, “What’s next, did you find what you’re looking for?” I couldn’t answer those questions. And so I borrow Ahmad Faraz’s words: “Kisi ko ghar se nikalte he milgayi manzil, Koi humari tarah umr bhar safar main raha.” Crudely translated, “Some quickly find a destination upon leaving their home. While some, like me, are traveling [without a destination] for a lifetime.” Definitely not planning a career as a translator.