India outsources its archaeology to American students who work for free

In my last article, I gave a brief introduction to my travels in India and discussed the tomb of Akbar at Sikandra.  Today’s column will present the other sites we visited.  The other major tomb researched was that of Itimad-ud-Daula.

You may recall that the Emperor Akbar’s tomb was completed after his death by his son, Jahangir.  The tomb of Itimad-ud-Daula was built by Jahangir’s wife, Nur-Jahan, for her father, who was a prominent member of the Mughal court.  Though not of royalty, he rose through the ranks to become the chief treasurer.  He was given the title Itimad-ud-Daula “Pillar of the State” in recognition of the crucial role he played in the administration of the Mughal Empire.

The tomb itself follows conventional Mughal practice in that it features a symmetrical mausoleum at the center of an ideal charbagh garden.  As with Sikandra, the garden stands below the level of stone pedestrian causeways, which divide the garden in 4 equal quadrants.  Each causeway terminates on a gate structure at the perimeter wall.  The east gate forms the primary entrance today, while the west gate is situated directly on the Yamuna River, which runs (or, more accurately, trickles) through Agra.  Those to the north and south are false gates, or rather porticos with niches.  At the 4 corners of the precinct are large chhatris, elevated atop the wall.  The one in the northeast corner was especially popular with the resident monkeys.

I should note that, unlike Akbar’s tomb, Itimad-ud-Daula is not perfectly oriented to the cardinal directions.  Rather, it stands parallel the river, rotated about 13 degrees clockwise from the compass rose.  The relationship to the river really defines the experience of the site, a characteristic it shares with its larger progeny, the Taj Mahal.  Indeed, the tomb is often given the nickname “Baby Taj,” in accordance with the “Any-instance-more-diminutive-than-the-norm-is-automatically-cute” meme.

In both volumetric proportion and predominant use of marble rather than sandstone, Itimad-ud-Daula is the most explicit precedent for the Taj Mahal. It is not, however, the first Mughal tomb built exclusively of marble – the tomb of Salim Chisti, completed during Akbar’s reign, antedates it by over 40 years.

As at Sikandra, the upper level gave the sense of an enclosed courtyard in the clouds.  Here, however, the effect was not due to a physical wall of marble screens.  Instead, its proximity to the river subjected the site to pea-soup thick fog from before dawn until midday.  From up on top, you couldn’t see the ground a mere 20 feet below, so it seemed as if one was literally sailing in the clouds.  Occasionally a thin spot in the fog would drift across the garden, revealing the canopy of a scraggly tree piercing the void like an iceberg.  It surely ranks among my top surreal fog experiences of all time, alongside a journey by elevated high-speed train outside Verona, Italy.  Something about hurtling through a gray nothing at 180 kilometers per hour as the spectral catenary supports appear in strobe-like blips can be very disorienting.

The marble inlay had its own degree of psychedelic display, with interwoven tendrils and leaves, vases, pitchers, bowls, flowers, and stars.  With the aid of such modern conveniences as corrective lenses, I was able to detect a number of flaws in workmanship, such as the transposition of buds and blossoms on the spandrel of the middle bay of the south side of the upper pavilion.  That would never cut it in my empire, but I guess Jahangir was more forgiving than I am.  For the most part it was stunningly executed.

A particularly awe-inspiring example was the floor paving of that pavilion, an area of some three or 4 hundred square feet.  Each corner looked the same at a cursory glance, but closer inspection revealed slight variations preventing literal repetition. We also discovered a “stenciling” effect on the floor of the north gate, which suggested to us that it had been used as a staging point to layout and rough-cut the pieces for the pavilion before they were hoisted up and set in place.  Such theories, if correct, give us important clues as to the chronology of construction.

In all, the trip was a phenomenal opportunity to put our architectural and preservation training to work in a fascinating intersection of cultures and history.  We hope that the research we present will increase awareness of these lesser-known monuments, and ultimately bolster their petitions for recognition as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Matthew Balkey is a fifth-year architecture student.  He accurately pegged the date of construction of the Jama Masjid in Delhi within 6 years based purely on his gut estimate of the rate of deterioration for that particular sandstone.  Please direct all job offers to