You may not have been there, but you’ve definitely heard about it or seen photographs. Bill Clinton paid a visit here, as does almost every person who visits India. It is the epitome of ever-lasting love: the Taj Mahal in Agra. But did you know that you could find another Taj Mahal in India?
After a visit to Aurangabad, just a few hours away from the bustling city of Mumbai, I no longer turn up my nose at replicas. It is in Aurangabad that I set my eyes on the lesser-known “Mini-Taj” or Bibi Ka Maqbara, which translates as “Tomb of the Lady.”
During an overnight ride in an air-conditioned coach on the Express train, which departs daily from Mumbai, I learned about the existence of this monument from a co-passenger. Let’s call him Mr. Branch. He was a very shy gentleman and surely would not have approved of his true name being used here.
Keeping up with the manners of the Underground Rail, in true Brit style, Mr. Branch was an elderly retired English bureaucrat maintaining a stiff upper lip and avoiding eye contact with his fellow passengers. But a sudden lurch led to his spilling some coffee — a few drops landed on my shirt — and it was just enough to break the ice. Taking full advantage of the moment, I asked him about the black and white photos that he was looking at over and over again. There he was: Mr. Branch as a young man holding hands with a pretty lady in front of the Taj Mahal. At least I thought it was the Taj Mahal.
“No. It is the Mini-Taj and that is where I am headed,” he chuckled. So far, I thought that Aurangabad was just the site of the renowned Ajanta and Ellora caves, the main tourist attraction in this region. Both cave complexes have been World Heritage Sites since 1983.
Murals in the group of about 30 Ajanta Caves span a period of 800 years and provide insight into the life of Buddha and the Buddhist culture. Ellora consists of 34 caverns decorated with sculptures depicting the Hindu religion and culture. The works of art are believed to have been carved between 350-700 AD. The Kailas Temple found in one of these caves is chiseled by hand from a single massive rock.
The caves were the reason I had taken this trip. But I was so intrigued by the Mini-Taj that I decided to accompany my new friend and make Bibi Ka Maqbara my first stop at Aurangabad.
For Mr. Branch, this trip was his way of paying homage to his late wife. They had visited the Mini-Taj during their first year of marriage, while Mr. Branch was posted in Colonial Bombay. To relive old memories he was visiting India again after a lapse of 50-odd years.
Both the famous Taj Mahal in Agra in north-central India, and the lesser-known Bibi Ka Makbara, are monuments of love. The original is the final resting ground of Mumtaz Mahal. Her husband, Emperor Shah Jahan, had it constructed until his favorite wife passed away in 1629. The Mini-Taj is a tribute to a mother. Prince Azam Khan, son of the Mugal Emperor Aurangzeb, built the Bibi Ka Maqbara in 1679 to honor his mother Rabia Durani. He modeled it on the original Taj Mahal.
The Muslim Mughal Empire ruled India in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Dynasty was founded by a Turkish chieftain. The Mughals (or Moguls) controlled vast areas of India and reached as far as Afghanistan. They erected many architectural marvels like the Taj Mahal and the Bibi Ka Maqbara.
Like the Taj Mahal, the replica has a central dome, surrounded by four smaller domes and four minarets. Four taller minarets complement this central structure. The pathway leading up to the mausoleum has fountains, pools and tall trees on both sides of the walkway. The ambience is uncanny — it is so similar to the Taj Mahal.
The Mini-Taj is perhaps half the size of the famous structure it was modeled after. Yet it is a monument worth admiring and considered to be the finest Mughal monument in the western India’s Deccan region.
We visited early in the morning when the air was chilly. The sounds of the aazan ― the muezzin’s call for the morning prayer, which wafted across from a nearby mosque ― added to the peaceful aura. To my untrained eye, the entire monument seemed to be carved of marble. The brass inlaid doors and especially the exquisite white marble lattice screens are a must-see. But look closely and you will find that limestone also contributes a fair share to this structure. Well, it isn’t dubbed as the “Poor Man’s Taj” for nothing.
The octagonal burial chamber of Rabia Durani that is enclosed within the main structure is built entirely of marble, and it has intricate carvings and rich tapestries. For some strange reason, I did not venture to step in and see it. I guess a grave, whether it is in the open or amidst marble splendor, does make one feel a trifle sad, or a tad philosophical.
All I could think of were the words of American poet Mary Elizabeth Frye [1905-2004]: “Do not stand at my grave and weep; I am not there. I do not sleep. I am in a thousand winds that blow […].”
As I strolled the grounds, I admired the delicate latticework and the general peace and quiet. The cool breeze stirring the leaves on the trees seemed to whisper these very words. I am sure Mr. Branch heard them, too.
If You Go
Tourism Ministry of India
The Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC), a state government-run company conducts tours to Aurangabad and has a resort in Aurangabad. www.maharashtratourism.gov.in
How to get there
By train: Two trains depart from Mumbai to Aurangabad daily. The Devgiri Express is an overnight train, which reaches Aurangabad in the early morning. The Latur CSTM Express leaves in the afternoon and reaches Aurangabad late evening.
Departing times are always subject to change.
At the Chatrapati Shivaji rail terminus in Mumbai (or Victoria Terminus as it is popularly called) there is a separate queue for foreign tourists to purchase tickets.
By air: Most domestic airlines operate daily flights from Mumbai and other cities.
By road: Various private operators provide air-conditioned coaches from Mumbai to Aurangabad. Packaged tours are also provided by the MTDC. Queries can be directed to the tourist offices. www.maharashtratourism.gov.in/mtdc/Default.aspx?strpage=Contact_us.html
Where to stay
MTDC Resort, opposite Aurangabad railway station.
Phone: 91 (country code)+ 02432 (city code) + 2331513 or 2334259
Further details can be made available from MTDC offices in Mumbai. The maximum tariff for a double room is around Rupees 1,500 per day (US$ 35).
Tariff starts at Rupees 2,500 upwards for a double room (US$ 58)
Phone: 91 (country code)+ 02432 (city code) +2381006-10
Where to eat:
Apart from restaurants attached to various hotels, including the MTDC Resort and the Taj Residency, local restaurant Angeethi is a good choice for an assortment of rich gravies.
Phone: 91 (country code)+ 0232 (city code) +2441988
Where to shop:
Fabrics with gold and silver thread embroidery, called Paithani fabrics, are now available not only as traditional saris (the wraparound traditional garment for women) but as stoles, cushions and bedcovers. Also look for leather goods such as sandals and purses.
Try the government-run shops such as:
Cottage Industries, Shahgunj Road, Aurangabad
Government Emporium, Station Road, Aurangabad
Best time to visit:
September to early March is the best time to avoid the hot summers and the monsoon rains.
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