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First halt of tourists to the Taj

RV Smith | New Delhi |

When tourists from Delhi go to see the Taj Mahal, the first stop is the maqbara of Mariam-uz-Zamani, chief of the wives of Akbar, built by her son Jahangir, a short distance from the tomb of his father at Sikandra, Agra. Some think that she was Akbar's Christian wife and others assert that "Mariam" was only a title given to a Rajput princess, who became the mother of the heir apparent.

The maqbara is a favorite picnic spot but during the troublesome days of 1947, it housed hundreds of refugees from Sindh. Men, women and children stayed both inside and outside the monument, some in tents. Why a place of historical interest was thus used is not known, except that it was on the Delhi-Agra Road and, like the Purana Qila, had ample space for the shelter. The Sindhis continued to stay there up to their Chetti Chand festival of 1949 and then moved to the city or to other towns of Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere.

The refugees passed their time in cutting twigs for "datun" from the neem trees that grew around, as picknickers like Albina and her children Enid, Bunny, Minnie and Roddy were to learn years later. In the forenoon the older people preferred to cross over into the CMS compound (either to squat behind the bushes or to cut datum) where were situated an orphanage, a printing press, two churches and a residential colony.

One afternoon Master Robinson was, as usual, out with his muzzle-loader, shooting pigeons. Suddenly he saw a hare, and since rabbit pie is a delicacy, he thought he would bag it and surprise his wife. He fired at the little animal which managed to enter a bush, from behind which came the shriek of a woman. Thinking that he had hit her, the unnerved hunter ran home where he hid his gun. It was the sort of surprise that he hadn't planned for his wife.

Lilian Bua got perturbed and on inquiring the reason rushed out to caution her sisters Ruby, Muriel, Phoebe and Dulice not to tell anyone that "Uncle" possessed a gun. It transpired, after an agonizing wait, that the woman had merely got scared. It was the hare, which had taken the impact of the grape-shot. Some boys, who had been sent to see if a body was lying behind the bushes, found the hare while a group of refugees stood at a distance, wondering if rioters were about to attack their camp.

Among those who went past Mariam's tomb on weekly shoots at Churmureka-Nala were the wellknown shikari Cyril Thomas and Uncle Harnam Singh, who later became Firemaster at the Agra Fort. During a fire in a War years he had saved an ammunition dump from exploding, saving not only the monument but nearly half of the city as well.

One Sunday, while the two Christian friends were returning, a group of refugee women stopped them and sought protection from about 40 donkeyboys, who wanted to strip them of their ornaments. The shikaris fired and the donkeyboys fled. Meanwhile, trainloads of refugees to Punjab made their exodus. Some of their trains were attacked near Akbar's mausoleum at Sikandra. A number of bodies were recovered there and also a few injured men, among them a bearded octogenarian.

The incidents took place invariably behind a discarded church, which was situated at the side of the railway line to Delhi. One night there was a great din in the church but none of the families staying in the Protestant bustee attached to it had the courage to ascertain its cause. However, when the commotion continued even after daybreak some of the brave ones ventured forth and, with due precaution, peeped into the Church. What they saw made them burst out laughing. A half-blind donkey had strayed into the ruined building and in attempting to get out, kept banging its legs against the half-open doors of the church.

Well, even grim situations have their humorous side, but strange to say, after that incident no more casualities were found behind the church. The curiosity to see what Sindhis looked like brought the butcher Sheikh Kammu all the way from mid-town to Mariam's mausoleum. He was the younger brother of Mottal Kasai, who had witnessed the "Mutiny" as a child. Kammu came armed with a six-foot lathi and escorted by his drinking pards (who would drink from a tubful of liquor in their heyday).

The visit was converted into a picnic by the old timers, who, however, Lazarus Sahib, Bacchus having consumed him years ago. But Tommy Sahib and Elias Sahib were still around. The next day when James and Peter, his customers, asked Sheikh kammu what the refugees looked like, he remarked, " They look like the survivors of Noah's Ark, with the women wearing big nose-rings which, I suspect, their husbands sometimes use to catch fish from the nearby Keetham reservoir." Near which the young angler Sushir Devid Wilson was drowned. Well, that's how illinformed people were in the fateful days of 1947, when the maqbara was in much better shape.

According to historians (as mentioned in an earlier Quaint Corner article), Mariam-uz-Zamani was not Jodha Bai, as depicted in Bollywood films like Mughal-e-Azam and JodhaAkbar. She was the daughter of Raja Barmal of Amber and aunt of the Mughal general Raja Maansigh I. Jodha Bai was actually the daughter of Mota Raja Udai Singh of Jodhpur (hence the name Jodha). She is said to be the mother of Shah Jahan, who built a mausoleum for her in Agra. That would mean that instead of being Akbar's wife, Jodha Bai (also married to Jahangir) was the Bahu (daughter-in-law) of the emperor, who must be turning in his grave at this distortion of facts. Surprisingly enough, the residents of the adjacent Christian colony continue to believe that Mariam-uzZamani was a Christian.

Some time ago, a Goan professor Correia released his book claiming that she was in fact a Portuguese lady, Dona Maria Mascarenhas who, along with her sister, Juliana, had been sent to the court of Akbar (who later married her) after being rescued from pirates near the Gujarat coast. And so the mystery of Mariam-uzZamani gets curiouser and curioser. No wonder tourists from Delhi and other places flock to her "maqbara".