In the small ancient Christian graveyard behind the famous Ewing Hall at Nila Gumbad, where also lie buried many European indigo planters of the Mughal era, is a lonely grave to one side. The cemetery keeper claims that he had heard from his elders that the unmarked grave was of a man who was executed after he ‘designed’ the Taj Mahal.
It was an amazing assertion, but one that stuck in my mind. Recently while reading a research paper by an Italian scholar on sub-continental architecture I came across the claim that the “real architect” of the Taj Mahal was Geronimo Veroneo, the Venetian designer who was executed in Lahore in 1640 after he was imprisoned by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in the Lahore Fort. The assertion was, incorrect that it turned out to be, that he was executed after allegedly completing his work.
It is documented that Veroneo was executed by a Portuguese Christian missionary Father Joseph de Castro on the orders of the emperor. He did not want a Muslim or a Hindu to execute a Christian. It is well-known that the real architect of the Taj Mahal was Ustad Ahmed Lahori. But then as the Italians have some ‘flimsy’ proof of their claim; it makes sense to explore this possibility. Our interest emanates basically from the fact that this entire episode took place in Lahore, for Veroneo was staying in a ‘haveli’ in Tehsil Bazaar, just off Bazaar Hakeeman.
I revisited the Nila Gumbad graveyard and traced the cemetery keeper, who still claimed that the unmarked grave was of a man who made the Taj Mahal, and who was executed by the emperor. This his elders had learnt down the generations. It made sense that as the Taj Mahal was designed in Lahore by a famous son of the city, Ustad Ahmed Lahori, whose ancestors include the famous artist Chughtai, this mystery should be explored. There is no doubt that the initial drawings of the Taj Mahal were made in Lahore by Ustad Ahmed, also known as Ustad Ahmed Lahori. He worked in a house just next to the Old Kotwali near the Wazir Khan mosque inside Delhi Gate. He was assisted, as an equal, by a renowned Turkish architect named Ismail Effendi, who designed the domes and hemispheres only.
Once this was completed, Ustad Ahmed called upon his friend Qazim Khan, also of Lahore and who lived in Taxali, to design the gold finial that were to top the domes. It was, therefore, a joint effort by specialists. The final drawings were then jointly completed by Ustad Isa, a Turk and a master draftsman, and Ustad Ahmed Lahori.
Just where does the Venetian Veroneo come in? A number of Italian researchers in the late 19th century put forward the theory that the Taj Mahal was actually, initially, designed by Geronimo Veroneo. This new theory is based on a mention by Father Manrique, an Augustinian Friar, who came to Agra in 1640 A.D. to secure the release of Father Antony who had been imprisoned by the Mughals. His diaries were published after his death in Lisbon, and in them this suggestion was put forward that Veroneo designed the Taj Mahal, but that the emperor passed on his drawing to Ustad Ahmed Lahori.
This assertion, it seems, is based on his meeting with Father Joseph de Castro, the executor of Veroneo, who also died in Lahore in 1640, and it was Castro who told him about "the Venetian by the name Geronimo Veroneo, who came in the Portuguese ships, and was executed by him in the city of Lahore ...".
It is clear that Father Manrique never met Veroneo, and that he reached Lahore after Veroneo had been executed by Father Castro, and it was Father Castro, it seems, who informed Manrique that before his execution Veroneo told him that the cause of his ‘death sentence’ by Shah Jahan was because he had designed the Taj Mahal.
My research into this execution, which is based on an official court account, has come up with another reason. Veroneo was a renowned goldsmith and designer. He was involved in pilfering gold while designing jewellery for the emperor’s family. He was also accused of stealing a number of precious gems, including a huge diamond. All the jewels were recovered and he was executed. However, the emperor made sure that a Christian executed the man, and as the friar was in Lahore, he was ordered to carry out the sentence. The official record says that he was buried two ‘kos’ from the city’s Lohari Gate “near the road that turned towards Icharra”. That seems a pretty close approximation of the Nila Gumbad graveyard.
The theory that Veroneo designed the Taj Mahal does find some support in Europe, more so in Italy. But surely the evidence weighs heavily against such a possibility. The testimony, if one can call it that, of Father Manrique, is the sole string on which such a belief hangs. We know that a large number of specialists were collected by Ustad Ahmed Lahori. Besides his friend of Lahore, Qazim Khan, who cast the gold finial that tops the dome, he called in Chiranji Lal from Delhi, who was a renowned mosaic pattern designer.
From Shiraz in Iran, the master calligrapher, Amanat Khan, was called. From Baluchistan came the master stone cutter Amir Ali. Ustad Isa of Tukey and Ustad Ahmad of Lahore are, however, credited to have been the main architects. It is believed that their design embodied much of what the Emperor wanted to express. Among the other major persons involved in the building of the Taj Mahal was Mohammed Hanif of Multan, who was a master marble tile layer. Mukrimat Khan of Delhi and Mir Abdul Karim from Shiraz were the chief supervisor and administrator. During a search for material for this piece, I came across a list of persons, and the money they were paid, which must be shared with the reader. Ustad Isa, the master draftsman was paid Rs1,000, or at current prices this comes to 333 tolas of gold or Rs13.3 million. Ustad Ismail Khan Rumi, the dome expert was paid Rs500, Muhammad Sharif of Samarkand, the pinnacle expert was paid Rs500, Kasim Khan of Lahore was paid Rs295, Muhammad Hanif of Kandahar, the master mason was paid Rs1,000, Muhammad Sayeed of Multan, a master mason was paid Rs590, while Abu Torah of Multan, a master mason was paid Rs500.
The master calligrapher Amanat Khan of Shiraz was paid Rs1,000, while Muhammad Khan of Baghdad, a calligrapher, was paid Rs500, and Raushan Khan of Syria was paid Rs300.
The inlay worker family of Chirrani Lal, Munnu Lal and Chooto Lal were paid Rs800, 380 and 200, respectively. The lavish pays made sure that the very highest skills were used. It is said that the building of the Taj Mahal led to the bankruptcy of the Mughal Empire, and this was the main reason the son of Emperor Shah Jahan, the Emperor Aurangzeb, dethroned his father and led an austere life. The dwindling financial health of the Mughal court led to its collapse.
We now come to the popular myth that Ustad Ahmed Lahori was mistreated by the emperor once the masterpiece was completed. This has no basis in fact. The family record states that he dies a normal death. The myth is that the emperor got the architect blinded and had his hands cut off so that he could never again design a masterpiece to rival the Taj. The reality is that Ustad Ahmad returned to Lahore, where his sons set up a flourishing construction business. He died a much respected man. He is also credited with having designed the Red Fort of Delhi.