But what we see of the palace is only the surface. Below are six more floors, locked and barred, which I want to explore. I am told to obtain permission from the archeological office on the Mall (A favorite street name for a different empire). It is a single-storey bungalow, crowded with desks, files, clerks, officials, peons; a slumberous sort of place, awash with paper.
I expect the usual problems dealing with our bureaucracy but to my surprise, a young assistant curator casually waves aside formality. We can view the lower floors that afternoon if we wish. You can never make any presumptions with Indian officialdom.
A much lower functionary, the keeper of the fort’s keys, Mohan Das, a man in his thirties, neatly dressed in a bush shirt, pressed slacks and chappals, awaits us in the guard room at three o’clock. He has indeed received orders to open up whatever I want. He gathers up a torch and a ring of heavy keys, and leads us to the palace.
There is a barred door set under the Machchi Bhawan, hidden by bushes and he opens it with a flourish. The air beneath the palace has a cool, musty odour, stirring memory, but I can’t place the smell. The walls down here are not of marble, but plaster, smooth and polished, an art now forgotten in India. So much has been forgotten and we re-acquire these skills as if they are new inventions. The floors are covered with three or four inches of fine dust.
“These first rooms were dungeons for the ladies,” Mohan Das says. “They were imprisoned here for a day or two, a most mild punishment.”
I am unsure whether to believe him – so much has been forgotten. However, I am sure, as we pass through the gloomy corridors and arched chambers, that this was once the repository of the fabulous Mughal treasury. The treasury was directly beneath the harem, and was guarded by three rings of soldiers.
The outer ring consisted of men: the Emperor’s Ahadi; the centre ring of Tartar women slaves, fierce warriors; the inner ring of eunuchs. What they guarded was incalculable: tubs of diamonds, emeralds, rubies, pearls, gold coins, silver coins, gold thrones, gold saddles, gold howdahs, gold chairs, silver tables. When the empire fell, the plunderers swarmed down into these rooms.
The Mughals were the richest kings in the world. On Akbar’s death, historians have calculated that he left in cash alone, ignoring diamonds, gold and other priceless knick-knacks, 24 million pounds sterling. It certainly needed the thousand camels and elephants to carry this plunder back to the Persian kingdom of Nadir Shah.
(There is a small cavity by the wall outside the Diwan-i-Aam which the guides point to as the treasury of the Mughals. How can they possibly imagine the physical space needed for the fabulous wealth of the Great Mughal? Certainly money was stored out there in the open. Leather bags of rupees and dams were filled daily and distributed to the poor as alms.)
Descending further into greater darkness, the chill increases. The odour suddenly springs to life.
A million bats cling to the walls down here, and the torchlight ripples over their shiny black skins and, as they hurl themselves in flight, reflects on tiny ruby eyes. Maureen screams and clings to me but Mohan Das and I are quite unsympathetic to this fear. Bats, I lecture as they squeak and fill the small rooms with the whoosh of their countless wings, have excellent sonar and will not collide with us.
This is meagre comfort but she bravely trudges behind us, ducking and weaving. There is a balcony on the third floor down, and before it a marble bath. Prisoners were allowed to bathe and then stand on the balcony to see their relatives across the fort’s wall. Another chamber, very gloomy, is supposedly the execution room. The prisoners here were ordinary felons; the princely rascals were held in the Gwalior fort, 200 miles south.
I want to go further down, down to the very bottom. “Snakes,” Mohan Das says laconically, and we are immediately discouraged. I grew up in a garden filled with cobras and have a greater respect for their bad temper than for hysterical bats. Reluctantly I return back up into the sunlight and surreptitiously drag my feet through the fine dust. Maybe the plunderers dropped a ruby or a diamond but all I come up with are dusty toes.
On the way back, Mohan Das tells us that some years ago a couple of these floors were open to the public. One day the chowkidar smelt a bad odour and a search revealed a murdered man.
He had been there a few weeks and with that deep suspicion authority here harbours for the people, they closed the rooms forever. Who knows? It could have become a popular locale for more murders: deep and dark and murky, hidden from sunlight within the cold walls that have witnessed countless executions.
Mohan Das says they never did solve the case nor discover the identity of the dead man. Revealing this secret, this tidbit of gore which remains hidden from the hoi polloi milling around on the marble terraces, makes Mohan Das now quite magnanimous. He wishes to reveal further secrets, open further doors.
He jangles his keys, like the vizier of an emperor, and leads us back up into the sunlight and the air loses its sense of intrigue, deaths and priceless riches.
“Come,” he whispers, moving towards a locked room across the terrace.
We enter a bare rectangular chamber with polished plaster walls, faintly decorated with flowers. This is the bathing chamber of the emperor and empress. I cannot suppress lascivious imagination here. Arjumand revealed: the beautiful body dewed with water, drops clinging to her breasts, glistening on her flanks.
You must depend on my imagination; no one ever saw her naked except Shah Jahan and the female slaves gently washing that soft ivory-coloured skin, caressing that breathing sensual flesh. Dried, perfumed, and then, like a portcullis falling, the veil draped her from head to toe and she retreated into mystery: hidden for another day, hidden forever.
Beyond this bath is an ante-chamber. A small window frames the Taj Mahal in the distance, like a Mughal miniature. The light is hazy with pollution though. A raised platform runs along the wall, and a precisely circular hole has been made in the centre of the floor.
“Eighty feet,” Mohan Das says, and points to it. “See how clever they were. No smells.”
I peer down to where the imperial shit fell on the rocks. Beside the stones is a small opening in the fort’s wall. The shit could not have remained there for ever. Through the opening, an untouchable, trapped in the eternity of his caste, would have washed down those stinking rocks. Even these rooms are always closed to the public for, elevating themselves to imperial stature, they too could use this as their toilet. “Dirty people,” Mohan Das says with imperial contempt.
There is more. More locks, more doors. The Moti Masjid, the Pearl Mosque, built by Shah Jahan, standing at the north-west corner of the palace grounds, is locked too. But Mohan Das jangles his keys as we cross the gardens. Intimates now in our secrets, Mohan Das confesses he has a lowly position, a wife, three children, he has passed the bureaucratic exams for promotion but the third cousin of a superior, a man with no qualifications, no family to support, an upstart, an ignorant idiot, now has the job my friend Mohan Das coveted.
Ahhh, but it is such a common complaint in India. We are a people of cousins, first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and cousins of cousins, all gripping fiercely to our backs if we happen to be in a position to grant the favour of nepotism. Mohan Das understands his superior. His sigh of longing tells me this.
We are trapped by the burden of this past, the collusions of Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Parsi, Brahmin, Sudra, Tamil, Punjabi, castes, communities, tribes, family, atoms splitting into selfish loyalties. It suffocates our dreams, crushes hope. We grow lethargic, fatalistic, pinioned forever by these intangible claws. Mohan Das accepts grumbling defeat, still dreaming of escape. Where?
Away, away from the past, from identity. He sighs for the Middle East, longs for America. To be unknown, to rise on ability, free from superiors’ cousins, free from his caste. We have political freedom but not the deeper, richer one that will allow us to float away from our cursed identities. But I know, as he knows: if the roles were reversed, Mohan Das would behave exactly in the same manner as his superior.
Excerpted with permission from Empress of the Taj: In Search of Mumtaz Mahal, Timeri N Murari, Speaking Tiger.