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Mughal emperor Jahangir's chief minister of finance was Mirza Giyath Beg, a cultivated Persian whose father had served Safavid Shah Tahmasp. Having been forced to flee Persia, the son enrolled in the service of Emperor Akbar at Fatehpur Sikri. He became one of the most influential of the Mughal ministers when his daughter Nur Jahan married Emperor Jahangir in 1611; he was known by his honorific title of Itimad al-Dawla or Pillar of the State. The family's influence via royal marriages continued, when Itimad al-Dawla's granddaughter (Nur Jahan's niece) married the future emperor Shah Jahan. She is the Mumtaz Mahal for whom the Taj Mahal was built.

Grief-stricken at the death of his wife Asmat Begum in 1621, Itimad al-Dawla himself died within a year. A woman of exquisite taste, Nur Jahan commissioned their tomb, located on the eastern bank of the Yamuna River in the center of a formal "paradise" garden with canals and pools. Sometimes called the "Little Taj," the tomb is a gem-like structure on a raised platform. The basic architectural forms come largely from the Indian tradition; particularly noteworthy is the square upper storey instead of a circular dome. While the actual burials were in the crypt, the first floor and the upper storey both contain coffin-like cenotaphs (made of yellow porphyry to resemble wood) commemorating Itimad al-Dawla and his wife. As is the case in the Taj Mahal, the wife's burial was in the exact center, since she preceded her husband into heaven.

The tomb is the first of the Mughal buildings to be sheathed in polished white marble (as opposed to being built in red sandstone). The "most gorgeously ornamented monument of the Mughals," every inch of its surface is decorated: inlay of precious stones (the technique called pietra dura, used extensively here for the first time in Mughal architecture), carving, marble screens, and in the interior painted panels and painted stucco muqarnas (stalactites). Although they have not survived later vandalism, at one time there had been inscriptions painted in gold leaf. One architecture historian (R. Nath) has commented that "the monument itself was so designed as to look like a beautiful picture, rather than a massive tomb." Among the sources for the decoration were the popular Persian-style miniature paintings which are one of the glories of Mughal arts in this period. Despite traditional Muslim strictures against the use of such imagery in a religious context, some of the designs have figures of animals; in at least one case there are also some subtly drawn human figures.

© 2001 Daniel C. Waugh.
Silk Road Seattle is a project of the Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington.