Rambles and recollections of an Indian official!
Major-General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B.
Influence of Electricity on Vegetation—Agra and its Buildings

On the 30th and 31st,[1] we went twenty-four miles over a dry plain, with a sandy soil covered with excellent crops where irrigated, and a very poor one where not. We met several long strings of camels carrying grain from Agra to Gwālior.


A single man takes charge of twenty or thirty, holding the bridle of the first, and walking on before its nose. The bridles of all the rest are tied one after the other to the saddles of those immediately preceding them, and all move along after the leader in single file.


Water must tend to attract and to impart to vegetables a good deal of electricity and other vivifying powers that would otherwise he dormant in the earth at a distance. The mere circumstance of moistening the earth from within reach of the roots would not be sufficient to account for the vast difference between the crops of fields that are irrigated, and those that are not.


One day, in the middle of the season of the rains, I asked my gardener, while walking with him over my grounds, how it was that some of the fine clusters of bamboos had not yet begun to throw out their shoots.


'We have not yet had a thunderstorm, sir,' replied the gardener.


'What in the name of God has the thunderstorm to do with the shooting of the bamboos?' asked I in amazement.


'I don't know, sir,' said he, 'but certain it is that no bamboos begin to throw out their shoots well till we get a good deal of thunder and lightning.'


The thunder and lightning came, and the bamboo shoots soon followed in abundance. It might have been a mere coincidence; or the tall bamboo may bring down from the passing clouds, and convey to the roots, the electric fluid they require for nourishment, or for conductors of nourishment.[2]


In the Isle of France,[3] people have a notion that the mushrooms always come up best after a thunderstorm. Electricity has certainly much more to do in the business of the world than we are yet aware of, in the animal, mineral, and vegetable developments.[4]


At our ground this day, I met a very respectable and intelligent native revenue officer who had been employed to settle some boundary disputes between the yeomen of our territory and those of the adjoining territory of Dhōlpur.


'The Honourable Company's rights and those of its yeomen must', said he, 'be inevitably sacrificed in all such cases; for the Dhōlpur chief, or his minister, says to all their witnesses.


"You are, of course, expected to speak the truth regarding the land in dispute; but, by the sacred stream of the Ganges, if you speak so as to lose this estate one inch of it, you lose both your ears"—and most assuredly would they lose them,' continued he, 'if they were not to swear most resolutely that all the land in question belonged to Dhōlpur. Had I the same power to cut off the ears of witnesses on our side, we should meet on equal terms. Were I to threaten to cut them off, they would laugh in my face.'


There was much truth in what the poor man said, for the Dhōlpur witnesses always make it appear that the claims of their yeomen are just and moderate, and a salutary dread of losing their ears operates, no doubt, very strongly. The threatened punishment of the prince is quick, while that of the gods, however just, is certainly very slow—


Ut sit magna, tamen certe lenta ira deorum est.


On the 1st of January, 1836, we went on sixteen miles to Agra, and, when within about six miles of the city, the dome and minarets of the Tāj opened upon us from behind a small grove of fruit- trees, close by us on the side of the road. The morning was not clear, but it was a good one for a first sight of this building, which appeared larger through the dusty haze than it would have done through a clear sky. For five-and-twenty years of my life had I been looking forward to the sight now before me.


Of no building on earth had I heard so much as of this, which contains the remains of the Emperor Shāh Jahān and his wife, the father and mother of the children whose struggles for dominion have been already described. We had ordered our tents to be pitched in the gardens of this splendid mausoleum, that we might have our fill of the enjoyment which everybody seemed to derive from it; and we reached them about eight o'clock.


I went over the whole building before I entered my tent, and, from the first sight of the dome and minarets on the distant horizon to the last glance back from my tent-ropes to the magnificent gateway that forms the entrance from our camp to the quadrangle in which they stand, I can truly say that everything surpassed my expectations.


I at first thought the dome formed too large a portion of the whole building; that its neck was too long and too much exposed; and that the minarets were too plain in their design; but, after going repeatedly over every part, and examining the tout ensemble from all possible positions, and in all possible lights, from that of the full moon at midnight in a cloudless sky to that of the noonday sun, the mind seemed to repose in the calm persuasion that there was an entire harmony of parts, a faultless congregation of architectural beauties, on which it could dwell for ever without fatigue.


After my quarter of a century of anticipated pleasure, I went on from part to part in the expectation that I must by and by come to something that would disappoint me; but no, the emotion which one feels at first is never impaired; on the contrary, it goes on improving from the first coup d'œil of the dome in the distance to the minute inspection of the last flower upon the screen round the tomb.


One returns and returns to it with undiminished pleasure; and though at every return one's attention to the smaller parts becomes less and less, the pleasure which he derives from the contemplation of the greater, and of the whole collectively, seems to increase; and he leaves with a feeling of regret that he could not have it all his life within his reach, and of assurance that the image of what he has seen can never be obliterated from his mind 'while memory holds her seat'.


I felt that it was to me in architecture what Kemble and his sister, Mrs. Siddons, had been to me a quarter of a century before in acting—something that must stand alone—something that I should never cease to see clearly in my mind's eye, and yet never be able clearly to describe to others.[5]


The Emperor and his Queen he buried side by side in a vault beneath the building, to which we descend by a flight of steps. Their remains are covered by two slabs of marble; and directly over these slabs, upon the floor above, in the great centre room under the dome, stand two other slabs, or cenotaphs, of the same marble exquisitely worked in mosaic.


Upon that of the Queen, amid wreaths of flowers, are worked in black letters passages from the Korān, one of which, at the end facing the entrance, terminates with 'And defend us from the tribe of unbelievers'; that very tribe which is now gathered from all quarters of the civilized world to admire the splendour of the tomb which was raised to perpetuate her name.[6] On the slab over her husband there are no passages from the Korān—merely mosaic work of flowers with his name and the date of his death.[7]


I asked some of the learned Muhammadan attendants the cause of this difference, and was told that Shāh Jahān had himself designed the slab over his wife, and saw no harm in inscribing the words of God upon it; but that the slab over himself was designed by his more pious son, Aurangzēb, who did not think it right to place these holy words upon a stone which the foot of man might some day touch, though that stone covered the remains of his own father.


Such was this 'man of prayers', this 'Namāzī' (as Dara called him), to the last. He knew mankind well, and, above all, that part of them which he was called upon to govern, and which he governed for forty years with so much ability.[8]


The slab over the Queen occupies the centre of the apartments above and in the vault below, and that over her husband lies on the left as we enter. At one end of the slab in the vault her name is inwrought, 'Mumtāz-i-mahal Bānū Bēgam', the ornament of the palace, Bānū Bēgam, and the date of her death, 1631. That of her husband and the date of his death, 1666, are inwrought upon the other.[9]


She died in giving birth to a daughter, who is said to have been heard crying in the womb by herself and her other daughters. She sent for the Emperor, and told him that she believed no mother had ever been known to survive the birth of a child so heard, and that she felt her end was near. She had, she said, only two requests to make; first, that he would not marry again after her death, and get children to contend with hers for his favour and dominions; and, secondly, that he would build for her the tomb with which he had promised to perpetuate her name.


She died in giving birth to the child, as might have been expected when the Emperor, in his anxiety, called all the midwives of the city, and all his secretaries of state and privy counsellors to prescribe for her. Both her dying requests were granted. Her tomb was commenced upon immediately. No woman ever pretended to supply her place in the palace; nor had Shāh Jahān, that we know of, children by any other.[10]


Tavernier saw this building completed and finished; and tells us that it occupied twenty thousand men for twenty-two years.[11] The mausoleum itself and all the buildings that appertain to it cost 3,17,48,026—three karōr, seventeen lākhs, forty-eight thousand and twenty-six rupees, or £3,174,802 sterling;—three million one hundred and seventy-four thousand eight hundred and two![12]


I asked my wife, when she had gone over it, what she thought of the building.


'I cannot', said she, 'tell you what I think, for I know not how to criticize such a building, but I can tell you what I feel. I would die to-morrow to have such another over me.'


This is what many a lady has felt, no doubt.


The building stands upon the north side of a large quadrangle, looking down into the clear blue stream of the river Jumna, while the other three sides are enclosed with a high wall of red sandstone.[13] The entrance to this quadrangle is through a magnificent gateway in the south side opposite the tomb; and on the other two sides are very beautiful mosques facing inwards, and corresponding exactly with each other in size, design, and execution.


That on the left, or west, side is the only one that can be used as a mosque or church; because the faces of the audience, and those of all men at their prayers, must be turned towards the tomb of their prophet to the west. The pulpit is always against the dead wall at the back, and the audience face towards it, standing with their backs to the open front of the building.


The church on the east side is used for the accommodation of visitors, or for any secular purpose, and was built merely as a 'jawāb' (answer) to the real one.[14] The whole area is laid out in square parterres, planted with flowers and shrubs in the centre, and with fine trees, chiefly the cypress, all round the borders, forming an avenue to every road. These roads are all paved with slabs of freestone, and have, running along the centre, a basin, with a row of jets d'eau in the middle from one extremity to the other.


These are made to play almost every evening, when the gardens are much frequented by the European gentlemen and ladies of the station, and by natives of all religions and sects. The quadrangle is from east to west nine hundred and sixty-four feet, and from north to south three hundred and twenty-nine.[l5]


The mausoleum itself, the terrace upon which it stands, and the minarets, are all formed of the finest white marble, inlaid with precious stones. The wall around the quadrangle, including the river face of the terrace, is made of red sandstone, with cupolas and pillars of the same white marble. The insides of the churches and apartments in and upon the walls are all lined with marble or with stucco work that looks like marble; but, on the outside, the red sandstone resembles uncovered bricks.


The dazzling white marble of the mausoleum itself rising over the red wall is apt, at first sight, to make a disagreeable impression, from the idea of a whitewashed head to an unfinished building; but this impression is very soon removed, and tends, perhaps, to improve that which is afterwards received from a nearer inspection. The marble was all brought from the Jeypore territories upon wheeled carriages, a distance, I believe, of two or three hundred miles; and the sandstone from the neighbourhood of Dhōlpur and Fathpur Sīkrī.[16]


Shāh Jāhan is said to have inherited his partiality for this colour from his grandfather, Akbar, who constructed almost all his buildings from the same stone, though he might have had the beautiful white freestone at the same cost. What was figuratively said of Augustus may be most literally said of Shāh Jahān; he found the cities (Agra and Delhi) all brick, and left them all marble; for all the marble buildings, and additions to buildings, were formed by him.[17]


This magnificent building and the palaces at Agra and Delhi were, I believe, designed by Austin de Bordeaux, a Frenchman of great talent and merit, in whose ability and integrity the Emperor placed much reliance. He was called by the natives 'Ustān [sic] Isā, Nādir-ul-asr', 'the wonderful of the age'; and, for his office of 'naksha navīs', or plan-drawer, he received a regular salary of one thousand rupees a month, with occasional presents, that made his income very large.


He had finished the palace at Delhi, and the mausoleum and palace of Agra; and was engaged in designing a silver ceiling for one of the galleries in the latter, when he was sent by the Emperor to settle some affairs of great importance at Goa. He died at Cochin on his way back, and is supposed to have been poisoned by the Portuguese, who were extremely jealous of his influence at court. He left a son by a native, called Muhammad Sharīf, who was employed as an architect on a salary of five hundred rupees a month, and who became, as I conclude from his name, a Musalmān.


Shāh Jahān had commenced his own tomb on the opposite side of the Jumna; and both were to have been united by a bridge.[18] The death of Austin de Bordeaux, and the wars between his [scil. Shāh Jahān's] sons that followed prevented the completion of these magnificent works.[19]


We were encamped upon a fine green sward outside the entrance to the south, in a kind of large court, enclosed by a high cloistered wall, in which all our attendants and followers found shelter. Colonel and Mrs. King, and some other gentlemen, were encamped in the same place, and for the same purpose; and we had a very agreeable party.


The band of our friend Major Godby's regiment played sometimes in the evening upon the terrace of the Tāj; but, of all the complicated music ever heard upon earth, that of a flute blown gently in the vault below, where the remains of the Emperor and his consort repose, as the sound rises to the dome amidst a hundred arched alcoves around, and descends in heavenly reverberations upon those who sit or recline upon the cenotaphs above the vault, is, perhaps, the finest to an inartificial car.


We feel as if it were from heaven, and breathed by angels; it is to the ear what the building itself is to the eye; but, unhappily, it cannot, like the building, live in our recollections. All that we can, in after life, remember is that it was heavenly, and produced heavenly emotions.