Burhanpur: Gateway to the Deccan

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    The Taj Mahal is India’s most famous monument and it was built for the beloved of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, his wife Mumtaz Mahal. But far away from the Taj, 860 km south is the dilapidated remains of Mumtaz’s original burial place in Burhanpur. Little remains of the monument or the city that was once one of the most powerful in the region and the gateway to the Deccan.

    Today, at first glance, Burhanpur looks like just another industrial town in Madhya Pradesh, its claim to fame being a thriving cotton textile industry, a few oil mills and a major railway junction. But look a little closer and the city begins to reveal its true identity, one that is hidden beneath the callous layers of time.

    This unremarkable city, around 340 km from Bhopal, was once the most glorious in the region. Scattered on the outskirts are palaces, hunting lodges, tombs, pavilions and mosques. There is an extraordinary amount of Mughal architectural painting in these monuments. There is also a fine water supply system from the 16th and 17th centuries that we can learn so much from today.

    Burhanpur owes its legacy to its geographical positioning in the Satpura Range, in a mountain pass that made it a natural Gateway to the Deccan. The city thus commanded one of the most important routes from North to South India, or from Hindustan to the Deccan, as the two halves of the country were then called. The city reached its zenith between the 15th and 17th centuries, during which time it was also the regional capital of the Mughals. It grew into an extremely important centre, administratively, militarily and commercially.

    Traders would pause here, transact business and move on and caravans would stream through, transporting goods from far and wide, including the finest muslin, lace, gold and silver brocade produced in Burhanpur itself. But this once fabulous city was not founded by the Mughals. It was founded in 1399 CE by Nasir Khan of the Faruqi Dynasty, which ruled the Khandesh region not far away.

    Nasir Khan’s father was Malik Raja Faruqi, a rebel from the Bahmani court of Muhammad Shah I (r. 1358-77). He had been granted land in the region by Firuz Shah Tughlaq in 1370 CE and assumed the title ‘Shah’ in 1382 CE. Claiming to be a descendant of the second Caliph, Umar Faruq, Malik Raja was also a disciple of 14th-century Sufi spiritual leader Zainuddin Shirazi. He used these links to legitimise a dynastic claim and founded the Faruqi Dynasty in Khandesh.

    His son Nasir Khan succeeded him in 1399 CE and immediately captured the ancient hill fort of Asirgarh. In 1431 CE, not far from the fort, Nasir Khan founded two new settlements on the north and south banks of the Tapti River. He named them after the two Chishti saints at Rauza (present-day Khuldabad) – Burhanpur (after Shaikh Burhanuddin Gharib) and Zainabad (after Zainuddin Shirazi), respectively.

    Burhanpur thus became the capital of the Faruqi Dynasty of Khandesh, a role it retained for 200 years. The Faruqis built a number of monumental buildings at Burhanpur, of which the Jami Mosque is perhaps the most astounding. Built of black basalt and grand in scale, its precise engineering and the vaulting in the enclosed part of the courtyard is unique. It is similar in form to the mosque on top of Asirgarh Fort, and both shrines have inscriptions in both Arabic and Sanskrit, where one would expect the maqsura, a wooden enclosure with a screen to protect a ruler while he was praying. The later inscriptions date to the Mughal era.

    In 1601 CE, the Mughals under Emperor Akbar (r. 1556 to 1605) annexed Burhanpur and made it one of the most prosperous cities in the region. The last Faruqi king, Bahadur Shah, was imprisoned and Akbar’s son, Prince Daniyal, was appointed Governor of Khandesh province. Akbar tried to rename the province ‘Dandesh’ after Daniyal but the name never caught on.

    Being the gateway to the Deccan, Burhanpur was important as a mercantile and military centre, and the Governor was always either a Mughal Prince or a court noble, who had family ties with the royal family. So, it is no surprise that the main palace in the city, the Shahi Qila, has several luxurious apartments and quarters inside, including a beautiful hammam or bath that overlooks the Tapti River and the ghats. Although large parts of the palace are in ruins, enough remains to recreate the grandeur that it once possessed.

    Later, Abdurrahim Khan-i Khanan (1556-1627), a close associate of Akbar, was appointed Governor of Khandesh and he stayed in Burhanpur for a very long time. It was here that his son Iraj Nawaz Khan died in 1618 CE, and was buried in a magnificent tomb. This tomb appears as two separate, intersecting buildings and includes a horizontal baradari (a pavilion with 12 doors) with a conventional double-storey tomb in the centre. Built from black stone, this building still retains beautifully painted surfaces on the inside.

    Akbar was succeeded by his son Jahangir (r. 1605-27), who appointed his own son Parviz as the Governor of the province, and Burhanpur became his headquarters. Parviz died here in 1626 CE, allegedly poisoned on the orders of his brother Shah Jahan (r. 1628-58). The latter, as Prince Khurram, had made Burhanpur his headquarters in his Deccan campaigns of 1616 CE, and later, as the Mughal Emperor, was also based here in 1630-32 CE.

    It was during this period that Shah Jahan’s wife Mumtaz Mahal died in Burhanpur. She was buried here, at the southern side of the river, before the Taj Mahal was built in Agra, and her remains were exhumed and shifted there. Her burial site is a modest building, a little north across the river from the Shahi Qila. It is in ruins today.

    Not far from the city, the Gul Ara Bagh has a pair of pavilions on either side of a small reservoir that consists of two adjacent bunds on the Utaoli River. The bunds, which one can cross on foot, had water cascading over them when the reservoir they created was full. The two pavilions are not large and still bear traces of paint on the inside.

    The Ahu Khanah in Zainabad is a fine example of a hunting reserve and lodge. It stands within a large, rectangular enclosure defined by tall walls. Inside are several small buildings, including a baradari and some waterworks. Neglected and in ruins, this complex is stunning for its scale, and its seclusion adds to its mystique. It is unclear how exactly this Mughal complex was used but it is definitely worth a visit.

    Bilqis Begum, the wife of Shah Jahan’s son Shah Shuja, also died in Burhanpur and is buried in a tomb unlike any other funerary building in India. Locally known as ‘Kharbuza Mahal’ due to its resemblance to a melon, its painted interiors are its biggest surprise. The tomb is difficult to access and is in the midst of a graveyard, but visiting this monument is worth the effort. The building is 12-lobed and set on a platform of the same shape. The resolution of this plan with the elevation resulting in a fluted dome is interesting. The building has magnificent murals inside.

    The last of the great Mughal buildings in Burhanpur is the Chhatri of Mirza Raja Jai Singh, a general of Emperor Aurangzeb (r. 1658 to 1707). Commissioned by the Emperor himself, it was built on the general’s death in 1667 CE when he was returning from a military campaign in the Deccan. Standing on the banks of the Tapti River a short distance from Burhanpur city, this majestic monument is set in fields near the village of Mohona. It has been constructed in the form of a large, raised baradari and is impressive for its scale and neat ornamentation.

    Several European travellers such as John Jourdain, Sir Thomas Roe, Peter Mundy, Nicolao Manucci and Jean-Baptiste Tavernier have left behind descriptions of Burhanpur. Their descriptions vary, occasionally complaining of the barren and desolate landscape around it but often praising the monuments, the architecture and prosperity of the region.

    It is a shame that the city has been recognised neither as an important royal capital nor as a pure architectural treasure. Sadly, it is largely forgotten, except in historical texts.


    Pushkar Sohoni teaches at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Pune. He has lectured and written extensively about different aspects of the Deccan sultanates including fortification and coinage.

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