Travellers and tourists from around the world visit India every year to savour a view of the iconic Taj Mahal. The white marble mausoleum was commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. For almost four centuries now, it has been sitting on the banks of Yamuna in Agra, telling the tale of Shah Jahan’s love for his wife Mumtaz.

While the world considers it a symbol of a man’s undying love for his wife, it is also perhaps an embodiment of the power an emperor possessed to build one of the greatest monuments ever. However, the story of the woman who lies in this tomb has been lost in the pages of history. Her identity is associated with her death, and any signs of her life before the Taj was known is associated with her husband.

Thus, it is her voice that is the subject of Timeri N Murari’s quest in Empress of the Taj: In Search of Mumtaz Mahal. Essentially, the book is an account of Murari’s travels around India searching for bits and pieces of information on Mumtaz Mahal, which helped him write his earlier book, Taj: A Story of Mughal India, back in 1985.

So, Murari, who has spent much of his working life in the UK and America, travels through the hills and plains of India, in both comfortable and harsh conditions, searching for his muse, Arjumand, who is remembered by the world today as empress Mumtaz Mahal. He shuttles between the past and the present, constantly drawing himself back to his protagonist.

The search for Arjumand takes him on a tour around the Mughal capitals of Delhi and Agra, the Rajputana territories of Udaipur, Ajmer, and Jaipur and finally, towards the last leg of his journey, Murari visits Burhanpur, Arjumand’s initial resting place. The book doesn’t attempt to stick to one theme and explores a mosaic instead. Travelling as he was in the 1980s, Murari uses both memory and immediacy to write of his journey and, in the process, provide a glimpse of modern India more than three decades ago. His troubles with the Indian Railways, encounter with riots, conversations with unemployed youth, accounts of nepotism and politics, and his love for the grandiosity of royals, are all intermingle here.

Ghosts of the past

“History, as I am to gradually discover as I excavate a shard of our past, is either gossip fashioned into fact, or worse, outright distortion...”

Unlike many historians (and like some novelists), Murari has a romantic take on history. He writes in a Herodotean style – one which looks at history as an art – rather than the scientific Thucydidean one. With Arjumand being the focus of Murari’s research, it is no surprise that history is viewed romantically. But does he take this approach just for the purposes of writing this book? Or is it simply easier to view the past through the lenses of nostalgia, romance, and beauty?

Travelling around Delhi towards the beginning of his journey, Murari gives his readers a history lesson. Describing the changing landscape of Delhi from a mud settlement to a thriving capital, Murari writes, “No one knows when mud turned to brick and when the name changed but here Delhis lie on Delhis”. This refers to the seven historical cities of Delhi, which are today divided into administrative districts of the same city.

What is fascinating is that while Murari travelled around these cities almost 40 years ago, his experiences leave you with an uncanny feeling that alternates between “nothing has changed” and “it has been a lifetime”. One is bound to travel through space and time and get muddled somewhere in this transition while reading this account because, on the one hand, Murari travels in the 1980s while reminiscing the 1600s, and on the other hand, we are reading this account almost forty years later, in the 21st century.

Murari’s own observation about the past is worth noting. He writes, “The past, not only here but everywhere in the world, comes down to us in fragments, bits of a puzzle we piece together”. Here, Arjumand is the puzzle that has taken over his mind, and he is trying to search for fragments of her and put them together. He feels her ghostly presence everywhere he travels and “with the romantic imagination of a novelist”, he attempts to set up a narrative around the purpose of her presence in each of the places he visits.

On approaching their guest house in Mandu, which lies amidst the ruins of another forgotten empire, Murari “imagines himself ensconced in those rooms sitting on the balcony and listening to the ghostly music and laughter”. However, his perception of reality is far removed from the actual surroundings – his wife and his sister aren’t too keen on dining with ghosts and sleeping in rooms infested by mice and prefer to spend the night in a place away from the ruins.

Living and dying a nomad

“Briefly, in death as in life, she led a nomadic existence but then as the marble sarcophagus settled down with her, eternity claimed her forever...”

Murari travels through India, his homeland, in search of Arjumand, an empress who was travelling around the same places hundreds of years ago. Arjumand came from the family of a Persian nobleman who had yet travelled all the way from Persia to the Mughal Empire in search of a better life. She had married into the royal Mughal family, who traced their lineage to the nomadic tribe of Mongols.

Thus, Arjumand’s life, by birth and by marriage, was supposed to be a nomadic one; but was her death to be nomadic too? She died in Burhanpur, far from her native land of Persia. There her body rested for a few years, before being transferred to another temporary tomb in Agra, and finally being buried in Taj Mahal.

Arjumand’s nomadic existence reminds Murari of his own life. He writes, “What better proof of our nomadic existence than my mother’s death in Lahore, 2000 kilometers from our ancestral home in Madras.” Paralleling Arjumand’s life with his own, Murari seems to be searching for his own self and for stories from his past through this journey. There is constant banter between him and his sister throughout the journey as they try to locate their collective memories in their individual ones.

Being the child of a government employee, Murari had had a fair share of moving around, leaving him with fragments of memories from everywhere and a feeling of uncertainty about home. However, during one of his journeys, his wife Maureen is engulfed with a sense of foreignness while traveling in India. At that instance, a realisation dawns upon him when he writes, “India can never frighten me. I suppose that is the definition, for me, of home”.

Murari’s search for Arjumand ends with Burhanpur. As they near Burhanpur, Murari has second thoughts about visiting the her first grave. He considers letting Burhanpur remain a “figment of his imagination and a figment of India’s memory, long forgotten on the banks of Tapti”.

However, after his initial apprehensions, when he is finally standing at the tomb with the sun setting, there is a deep sense of closure in the reader’s mind. Murari’s “private pilgrimage” comes to an end. He makes one final journey the next day, early in the morning, to look at the grave a second time, this time all by himself. “The grave begins another day of solitude on earth, protecting nothing, marking nothing but memory”.

Empress of the Taj: In Search of Mumtaz Mahal, Timeri N Murari, Speaking Tiger.