The Emperor’s Urs: Riddhi Bhandari

Photographs by SIDDHI BHANDARI


When I first reached Agra for fieldwork, one of the first things guides and shopkeepers around the Taj Mahal told me about was the Urs: “Urs ke liye zaroor rahiyega. You must stay for the Urs. The Taj is different and worth seeing.”

The Urs this year fell on 5, 6 and 7 June. Literally meaning wedding, the Urs is celebrated on the death anniversary of Sufi saints, in what is regarded as their marriage to, or union with God. There is an Urs for Nizammuddin Auliya, Amir Khusro, Salim and Moinuddin Chisti and numerous other Sufi saints. The Urs in the Taj Mahal is celebrated for Shah Jahan, the Mughal emperor with no particular distinction as a Sufi saint or fakir, at least none that I was aware of. When I asked people about this contradiction, I received a number of responses that ranged from statements such as, “Ye shraddha ki baat hai, jaise aap ke mein kehte hain na, maano toh bhagwaan, varna murat – it’s a matter of faith, like they say in your religion, if you believe it’s god or else a mere idol” to, “unke [Shah Jahan] aage sufi ka title lagta hai, the sufi title is affixed to Shah Jahan’s name” and so on.


Shavez Ji, a marble emporium owner, told me, “Unka [Shah Jahan’s] wali status atka hua hai lekin ummeed hai jald clear ho jaayega – Shah Jahan’s status as a friend of God is stuck in process but will hopefully soon be cleared.” When I asked who the status was stuck with, he pointed a finger upward, indicating god. Shavez Ji then proceeded to tell me a story in support of Shah Jahan’s piety. When the foundation of the Taj Mahal was to be laid, Shah Jahan made an announcement stating that the first brick would be laid by the person who had read namaz all five times, as well as the Tahajjud ki namaz, every day of his life. Tahajjud ki namaz is a night prayer and according to Shavez Ji, falls between midnight and 2:30 am. So, following the declaration, many people were found who had said the 5-times namaz and some Tahajjud ki namaz, but no one who had done so every day of his life. When after an intense search no one was found, one Bukhari Saab (one of the four brothers and imams that read from the Quran while the foundations to the Taj were being laid. Their dargahs still exist in Agra) said to Shah Jahan: Baadshah, why are you taking the trouble of this search when you well know that only you have the right to lay the first stone of the Taj Mahal?


In explanation, Shavez Ji added, “You see, he was a king but prayed so steadfastly that he performed the Tahajjud ki namaz every day of his life. In the night when men are sound asleep with their wives and children, he, despite being a king, did not miss a single Tahajjud ki namaz.”

This was not an isolated narration but the same story was repeated to me a number of times by different people, always in support of Shah Jahan’s piety and as justification for the Urs. Some people pointed out that an Urs was celebrated only for Shah Jahan of all Mughal emperors because he was different, he did something “special”, the rest were all mere royalty. When I asked what that “something special” was, his regular performance of the Tahajjud ki namaz was repeated. Some considered Shah Jahan to be a Wali (friend of God) while others (like Shavez Ji) thought the matter was still contested. The believers often pointed out that many of those who doubted Shah Jahan’s wali status were non-believers. As one guide at the Taj Mahal, Shaan Ji pointed out, “If everyone started believing, there wouldn’t be room to stand in the Taj Mahal during the Urs.”


And then there was the more democratising view, distinct from the imperial-religious one where I was informed that an Urs can be celebrated for anyone. The give and take is with Allah, and everyone goes to Allah after death anyway. “In my neighbourhood there are many graves of people who had been religious in their lifetime. So their relatives come and celebrate their Urs,” one person informed me.


I was informed that the Urs had been discontinued in between – although everyone gave different years. It was restarted by one Shiraz Ali, father of one of my key informants, Shaan Ali. Shaan told me that he remembered going to the Urs as a child along with his father: “Those days, the Urs used to be held in the night. All the Taj Mahal’s gates would be thrown open, and I think there used to be qawwali all night. If I am not wrong this is how it used to be in the ’70s. This stopped around the time Indira Gandhi died. Then my father made this committee and petitioned the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to restart the Urs. That’s when it began to be held in daytime. I don’t remember the exact year but it was ’82 or ’84.

Shiraz Ali and his father used to be ASI employees; I do not know their exact designation.

Prince Tusi

The committee that Shiraz Ali formed still stands today and plays a key in organizing Urs celebrations. This year, the president of the committee, Anjum, went to Hyderabad to give an Urs invitation to Prince Tucy, believed to be a Mughal descendant from the maternal line – a great-grandson of Bahadur Shah Zafar. The prince came for the celebration with his family – wife, two sons and a daughter – and stayed with another committee member, Yusuf Pachhekaar (pachhekaar being a marble-inlay work artisan). Furthermore, the committee took care of key celebrations like the inauguration of the Urs, putting sandal on the grave on day two, offering a chadar on the last day, organising some food for distribution on the last day and so on. Negotiating with local administration (ASI officials, DM etc) was also undertaken by them.


However, this is not the only committee that is involved in planning and organizing urs celebrations. There are many committees: each gate (east, west, south) has a separate committee with a separate leader, entrusted with tasks of collecting donations, purchasing chadars, organizing food, their participation in the Urs and all of the tasks mentioned above. Moreover, each gate also has numerous committees (in west gate, I found two such committees). These committees work independently, in collaboration and also form platforms for competing over local political power. I often heard members of one committee refer derisively to other committees making statements such as,”That man is only interested in being a leader, not doing any work,” and, “That leader must have by now asked for his chadar to be returned!” Sometimes when the administration is seen as favouring one committee over another, there is considerable resentment and charges of favouritism.


Once, I was sitting with 3-4 members of a committee and in planning the Urs for this year, a member remarked,”Let it not be like last year when ASI officials and a committee member didn’t allow the sandal programme to be held properly.” Another member remarked that the ASI official is close to the rival committee and will pay heed to them.

Other times, calculated steps are taken to draw supporters away from a committee and into its own fold. One day, as I was walking down the road a day before the Urs, I ran into the leader of a committee. The president of the rival committee was travelling out of town and would not be there on the inaugural day of the Urs. Sensing the gap, the leader of the competitive committee informed me that the prince and the District Magistrate would both be coming on the inaugural day, “And you must come, take this as in an invitation from me. You will get to see the Urs and I will introduce you to the DM as well as Prince Tucy. If you stay with me, you will get to see the Urs properly and it will help your research.”


Economic actors mostly favour committees of the gates where their work is situated. They donate money to that committee, participate in the chadar ceremony of that committee and so on. In case of more than one committee in a gate, their allegiances are divided and up for wooing. Although mostly non-committal, sometimes the general non-aligned public also forms opinions regarding different committees. For instance, Shavez Ji, who both lives and works outside Taj Ganj, told me that such-and-such committee was good and meant well while another committee was only into the Urs celebrations for their own personal gains of power and prestige and self-interest.


There is also competition between members of a committee and charges of chasing power, connections, fame, ‘chhapaai’ (media-coverage, specifically photo ops) while not doing any work are often leveled against members.

However, aside from key celebrations such as sandal ceremony, accompanying the prince and other dignitaries, different committees mostly work independently of each other. Everyone – even individual persons – is free to bring their own chadar, flowers, food etc.


The Urs started on 5th June at 2 pm, when the space where the original graves of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal are, was opened. Entry to the Taj became free for foreign and domestic tourists alike and remained so for the rest of the Urs period. Prince Tucy arrived, dressed in royal regalia and accompanied by his family, and inaugurated the urs by placing flowers on Shah Jahan’s grave. Some ASI officials and the District Magistrate also arrived on day one, in company of different committee members.

The musicians were seated at the entrance of the Taj on one side while on the other side, sat more people with mics. We were told that they would read the Quran at different points of the three-day ceremony. After that, the general public trickled in, and I was told that the Urs is mostly attended by Taj Ganj residents and those engaged in the tourism business. We are what we are because the of the Taj Mahal, we get so much from the Taj we can surely take out three days to give back to it, the guides, shopkeepers and auto-rickshaw drivers would say.


The last day was the big day for Urs. It was a Friday when the Taj is closed as a tourist monument and opened only for Muslims to offer their Friday prayers between 1-2 pm.  Subsequently, local businesses shut down as well. However, the Taj was open for urs while most shops remained shut and guides remained off work. A few were obviously open and working but one often heard them being reprimanded: “Aaj toh kamaane ki mat socho, miyan. (At least don’t worry about making money today.)”

Walking the streets outside the Taj, one saw food being cooked in large containers and we were informed that it was for distribution in the forecourt later in the day. The day remained slow but people started arriving in numbers around 4 pm.


People arrived alone, with families and friends and often as an economic unit. The different groups made a conscious effort to stand apart distinctly from each other and be easily visible as a group. Some wore pink scarves around their necks, some carried green flags, and so on. Unfortunately, marks of distinction went only so far as more than two groups wore the same pink scarves. Then, one had to simply rely on physically sticking together as a group. Each group also made considerable effort to arrive with maximum fanfare and this could be indicative of displaying their well-being as economic actors or their devotion to the Taj Mahal as their source of livelihood. Thus, the hawkers of south gate arrived with a pushcart that had a large flower-fan (with a man holding it upright) standing on the pushcart. The autorickshaw drivers of Taj Ganj too had collected money to buy lots of small chadars that they then stitched together as one. Most large groups came accompanied by drums or some musical instrument and after entering what is called the “royal gate”, they often paused, played their music, shouted slogans and danced before moving on.


With large groups, the chadar procession began from the streets of the neighbourhood itself as young men danced and posed for pictures. Aside from piety, there was also considerable playfulness as young men pushed each other in the water and made jokes like, “You are going so late. Even Shah Jahan Baadshah was asking about you.” Women were largely absent from street procession up until one got really close to the monument. A day prior, we had been told that as there will be a lot of crowd, just hold a chadar nearest to the entrance and go with it: “Just keep going with the chadar procession, nobody will stop you.” And we did just that. A chadar procession had been held up at the entrance (one procession is permitted inside at a time as the underground grave space is small and unventilated). As outside, this too comprised largely of men although a few women were scattered here and there. We too held a piece of the chadar and joined the procession and I suspect that most of the other women who were lined up had done the same, because outside, these processions were only male. The green signal was given for our procession to go in and a stampede-like situation ensued that lasted for about 5 minutes. Someone shouted a general advisory from behind me to just stay standing and not fall. After the pushing, pulling and rushing, we arrived on the courtyard with the current and the crowd loosened up. The shocking part was that we arrived with the chadar procession, in a largely male crowd, sexually unmolested.


We went inside the monument and down to the graves where prayers were being said. “Our” chadar was placed on the emperor’s grave and people broke apart to offer their individual prayers and their offerings of flowers, incense and money. We were told that the chadars are stored after the Urs and then distributed among the poor on Eid.

Outside, on what is referred to popularly as the forecourt, food we had earlier seen being cooked was now being distributed. Men arrived with big containers (deghs) that were filled with smaller packets of food. These were being given to the people. However, food distribution remained systematic very briefly and soon, young men and boys – who outnumbered the distributors – were snatching the packets. In one case, we saw a party of young men take away the entire big container, with the designated distributors chasing after them. This caused Shaan Ji, who had joined us, to remark: “bechaari ladies hamesha reh jaati hain: the poor ladies are always left behind.” We too got our first and only bit of urs food after we had exited the Taj Mahal from South Gate and a man offered us a piece of sweetened bread.


While the urs in Taj Mahal is celebrated for Shah Jahan, it is much more a celebration of the Taj Mahal. Mostly, it is the economic actors associated with the Taj who paid their homage during the Urs, stating that they earned from it. This rationale for participation was provided by both Hindu and Muslim economic actors. However, the compulsions of work, descent and participation were also evident. Economic actors who were “on the job” were reprimanded for not paying respect while those who took the day off from the Taj altogether were also reprimanded for earning from the Taj but not giving back to it. Regarding Prince Tucy, one person remarked that he comes every year, “but he has never bought even five Rupees worth of flowers for the grave,” to which another replied, “No one becomes a royal by wearing a costume three days a year. A man should be royal by his habits.”


9 thoughts on “The Emperor’s Urs: Riddhi Bhandari”

  1. The story about shahjahan’s pious status is told in exactly the same words with reference to the foundation laying ceremony of the Masjid-e-Jahan Numa or the Jama Masjid of Delhi, clearly spin masters are not a new phenomenoin. I began writing this comment without fully reading it and the following lines I had already written purely intuitively as a gut feeling and this is what i had written “One needs to find out when did it start, it has to be a fairly recent thing and nothing more than a well planned trick by the guides and the general hangers on to make a quick buck from the gullible the firangis who arrive will find all this colours and hoo hah very exotoc and it would be easy to milk them for more moolaah” and thought of checking up the article if it had some hints and it has precisely the same information. Who ever in the ASI gave this permission has obviously retired, this is in clear violation of the 1958 preservation of Monuments.

    Shahjahan was no Sufi and this is an insult to the entire Sufi tradition and nothing short of a racket being run by former employees of ASI in connivance with the present staff at the TAJ


    1. I agree entirely. Shah Jahan was no Sufi. And closure of the Taj to non-Muslims on Fridays sounds strange. Right up to 1980 the Taj was open throughout the week with tickets, except Fridays, when there was no charge as the mosque inside was used for worship. And as students we made it a point to go on Fridays only to avoid the ticket.
      Furthermore, Sahir Ludhianvi must be turning in his grave. I quote the last lines of his nazm: Ek Shahenshah ne daulat ka sahara lekar, hum gharibon ki muhabbat ka udaya hai mazaak. Meri mehboob kahin aur mila kar mujhse.


    2. Well said Sohail. It is a simple commercial enterprise and not the amazing phenomena that Gowhar Fazili is making it out to be.


  2. A Beautiful visual and textual ethnography of the ‘Emperors Urs’ by the two sisters – the upcoming Ahmad Hussain- Mohammad Hussain of Anthropology :) What fascinating pelebeianization of an imperial monument and challenge to the sarkari control over it! It also removes halo from the sacred, rendering ritual/religious more democratic and fun. This work has great potential.


  3. I agree with Sohail Hashmi, Shahjehan was no sufi. He had nothing to do with any sufi tradition of piety which primarily involved giving up the life of worldly pursuits. Shahjahan, at the instance of his father then Prince Salim,, for Emperor Akbar lived long enough, gouged out the eyes of his eldest brother Prince Khusrau, whom Salim had started suspecting as a competitor and got him imprisoned in Khusrau Bagh in Allahabad because Akbar was very fond of Prince Khusrau, found him accomplished and worthy of being his successor while he had disinherited Prince Salim thrice. But on the persuasion of his minister and confidante Raja Man Singh, Prince Salim’s maternal uncle, Akbar finally on his death bed forgave Prince Salim and soon as Salim assumed the throne and became Emperor Jahangir he got his eldest son imprisoned in Allahabad under the custody of Prince Khurram nee Shahjahan of later day. Khurram got first Khusrau’s eyes gouged
    out and then killed him in custody. Only thing is that he truly loved Mumtaz Mahal and was really sad after her death. He had planned a Black stone mausoleum for himself across the Yamuna facing the Taj. Some remnants of that unfinished building are still visible from the Taj when we look across the Yamuna


  4. Aurangzeb’s tomb in Aurangabad, too, is worshipped as a dargah. And Aurangzeb, you might say, was no Sufi either. But this would be a narrow and positivist understanding of the social manifestations of Sufi authority. Almost every Mughal emperor – indeed every king in every society of the Islamic world – patronized Sufis at least partly because he thus consolidated a popular association of his name and that of his royal house with the charisma and power (technically called “vilaayat” or the quality of being a “vali” or “Friend of God”) of the Sufi. This is why Aurangzeb who venerated the Shattari Sufi Burhanuddin Raaz-e Ilaahi as his forebears had venerated the divines of the Chishti lineage came to acquire the traits of the Sufis he patronized. One has only to read the great 18th century Urdu poet Nazir Akbarabadi’s poem ‘Taj ganj ka rauza’ to know that the monument had already assumed the traits of a dargah by then. Urs practices thus assume inter-generational popular memory and not even the cleverest money-getting scheme by the ASI or Taj staff could explain it.


    1. Yes, I agree with Prashant: I believe Akbar’s Urs and Aurangzeb’s Urs are both celebrated; and I have seen minor versions of this at the Quli Qutb Shahi tombs in Hyderabad as well (I don’t know if a full blown Urs is celebrated, but “chaadar chadhaana” etc. occurs). So this is a wider phenomenon, and hardly unique to Shah Jahan.


  5. As an extension to this discussion on folk practices associated with monuments… the dungeons of Firoze Shah Kotla has crevices in which people put their letters addressed to the jinns seeking help. They also put some edibles around possibly to appease them. The letters, basically yearnings and wishes of ordinary people make a fascinating read and jinn food is yummy!


  6. shahjehan was never a pious person, he was a lecherous king, read accounts of his life during his times, moreover Taj was never meant to be a symbol of love, read latest research, being an arrogant man he tried to create Paradise on earth. He used to carry a book by an Irani Saint with him, who had given sketches of paradise as described in Quran.The lines on the entry gate, from the Quran read “Enter my world, the paradise—“


We look forward to your comments. Comments are subject to moderation as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s