The Taj Mahal in Agra might have made it to the seven new wonders of the world but another architectural gem by the same name, built by Begum Shah Jahan of Bhopal in 1874, is in danger of being erased from the heritage map of Madhya Pradesh.
Though very different from the celebrated monument in Agra, this one was built by Begum Shah Jahan for the purpose of living in Bhopal, which was the only Muslim state to be ruled by four women monarchs in succession.
The complex, once called the 'Raj Mahal', has elaborate stone-pillared arches, with the ceilings having iron rings where coloured glass lamps used to be hung at one time.
"When the British Resident called on Shah Jahan Begum, he was so impressed with its architecture that he looked around with admiration and remarked that this splendid palace should be known as the 'Taj Mahal'. After all, it is the creation of Shah Jahan Begum. Thereafter, the Raj Mahal was renamed Taj Mahal," recalls an old timer.
Today large parts of the heritage complex have collapsed. Its ceiling near the entrance has buckled and the huge garden with a complex of palaces and covered walkways have disintegrated.
As a result, one can easily see narrow bricks peering out from wherever the plaster has peeled off or the walls have caved in.
But it is said that the palace was once beautiful, as the Begum - ruler of the erstwhile princely state of Bhopal for two terms (1844-60 and 1868-1901) - was quite passionate about architecture like her namesake Mughal emperor Shah Jahan.
She not only built the Taj Mahal here for herself but also got a mini city called Shahjahanabad developed.
The grand palace, which was home to Begum Shah Jahan and built as part of her ambitious construction of the Shahjehanabad suburb, has a huge gate with its menacing spikes still intact.
Born in Islamnagar near the city of Bhopal, the begum was known as a lady of learning and piety. She was credited with the authorship of several books in Urdu.
She also made sizable donations towards the building of a mosque at Woking, Surrey, in Britain and contributed generously towards the founding of the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh, which developed into the Aligarh Muslim University.
Though much of Bhopal's architecture is said to bear the Mughal, French, British, Rajasthani, Persian, Arabic and Islamic designs, the ruins of Taj Mahal distinctly reflect Islamic architecture.
Observes conservation architect Meera Das, who studied the palace in great detail in her capacity as regional convener of the conservation group INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage), "The Taj Mahal had a long courtyard with a fountain structure constructed in carved red stone. This exquisite fountain structure - the Sawan Bhadon Sahan - is the attraction of this large complex."
According to Das, the palace was a mixture of Islamic and Hindu architectural elements with cusped arches, massive gateways, screen windows at upper levels, extensive mouldings, decorative plasterwork and squat homes with 'jharokhas'.
"The detailing on the inner courtyard facades seemed to have a colonial influence. The entrance dome of the Taj Mahal was so large that a 12-horse buggy (cart) could turn under it with ease. The begum would alight from the coach here as she observed purdah," says Das in a booklet on Bhopal's architecture.
While most of the flooring has been coarsely cemented over, blue-painted Jaipuri tiles are still visible in a few spots. One can well imagine how beautiful it would all have looked with the coloured glass lamps, terracotta painted walls and floors with blue tiles.
The begum also initiated the construction at Bhopal of Taj-ul-Masjid, one of the largest mosques in India.
The begum married Baqi Muhammad Khan, a nobleman of Bhopal and became his third wife in 1855. Four years after Muhammad Khan's death in 1867, Shah Jahan married Sadiq Hasan Khan of Bareilly in the then United Provinces.
After India's independence, a few members of the royal family lived at the Taj Mahal. But since they had no money for repairs, gradually they all moved away and the palace now lies in ruins.