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Notes on the Geography of Peninsular India: Aurangabad

A tale of two cities? Here are two towns, the historic Aurangabad and its contemporary, ambitious successor.

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Peninsular India: Aurangabad picture 1

Although tourists arrive chiefly to see the caves at Ellora, the city has its own chief attraction, the Bibi ka Maqbara. It's the tomb of Rabia Daurani, Aurangzeb's wife, and it was completed only 25 years after the Taj Mahal. James Fergusson, a shrewd judge, wrote caustically in the 1870s that the tomb "was intended, it is said, to reproduce an exact copy of Shah Jahan's celebrated tomb, the Taj Mahall. But the difference between the two monuments, even in so short an interval, is startling. The first stands alone in the world for certain qualities all can appreciate; the second is by no means remarkable for any qualities of elegance or design, and narrowly escapes vulgarity and bad taste. In the beginning of the nineteenth century a more literal copy of the Taj was erected in Lucknow over the tomb of one of its sovereigns. In this last, however, bad taste and tawdriness reign supreme. It is difficult to understand how a thing can be so like in form and so unlike in spirit; but so it is, and these three Tajs form a very perfect scale by which to measure the decline of art after the great Mughal dynasty passed its zenith and began its rapid downward career." (History of Indian and Eastern Architecture, 1876 (1910), ii, 322)

Peninsular India: Aurangabad picture 2

Restoration work has been going on for a very long time.

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Unlike the marble-clad Taj, this Taj is mostly plaster-clad.

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A mosque stands to the west, facing Mecca.

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A little over 10 miles to the northwest, there's the semi-wreck of a town called Rauza. It's alternatively called Khuldabad, or Heavenly Abode, which seems wildly inappropriate, but the town was once the karbala or favored burial place of Muslims across peninsular India.

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Here's the entrance to its most important graveyard.

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The tomb in the foreground is that of Saiyad Zain-ud-din, who died in 1370. The structure is much later, built by one of his disciples, but it became a magnet drawing the faithful. But we're here for the grave behind the jalis, or carved screens?

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A closer view. They enclose the tomb of Aurangzeb. Plain as it seems, even these screens would have annoyed the emperor, famously conservative in his faith. The screens, it turns out, were added in the 20th century by the Nizam of Hyderabad at the request of Lord Curzon, the viceroy. Aurangzeb isn't registering a complaint.

Peninsular India: Aurangabad picture 9

Auraugzeb died in 1707, at 89. The Alamgir-Nama explains that, "According to the will of the deceased king, his mortal remains were deposited in the tomb constructed during his lifetime near the shrine of the holy Shaikh Zain ud din (on whom God have mercy!). 'Earth was consigned to earth, but the pure soul survived.'" The same text describes the grave this way: "A red stone three yards in length, two in width, and only a few inches in depth, is placed above the tomb. In this stone was hollowed out, in the shape of an amulet, a cavity for the reception of earth and seeds; and odoriferous herbs there diffuse their fragrance around" (7:47).

Fergusson, usually so shrewd, was unsympathetic, writing that "The spot is esteemed sacred, but the tomb is mean and insignificant beyond what would have sufficed for any of his nobles. He neglected, apparently, to provide for himself this necessary adjunct to a Tartar's glory" (ii, 322).

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Aurangabad had a British cantonment, which meant that it had a European cemetery. Some of its monuments are grand in the style of the early 19th century. Here's one.

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Dated 1833, it marks the grave of the commander of the Aurangabad Division of the Bengal Army. The phrasing is eloquent but highly formulaic, referring to a "strict integrity, benevolence, high talents, and urbanity" winning "universal respect and esteem."

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A simpler stone: a doctor dead at 24.

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A widow dead at 26. Her husband had died a week earlier. Cholera?

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The station church.

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Late in the day: a memorial from 1933.

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Established as a town in 1610, Aurangabad three hundred years later was described as a thriving place. Its population was under 40,000. What to call it now, when it has 1.4 million? In the United States, that would make it a metropolis. In India, it's a third-tier city. Still it has its ambitions, some of them stuck on the wall of this new shopping center.

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The New York Times published a story on October 23, 2010, about a group of 150 Aurangabad businessmen deciding to make a single purchase of 150 Mercedes-Benz cars--combined price, $15 million--simply to tell the world that the city was open for business and not mired, as the newspaper put it, in "crumbling Mughal-era ruins and ancient Buddhist caves surrounded by endless parched acres...."

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Inside the mall, there is a supermarket with its own grain shop. Big Bazaar, by the way, is a chain, its owner a fan of Sam Walton.

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At your service: mills that grind by request.

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