TAJ FOR HUSBAND
One of the seven wonders of the world, the original Taj Mahal, attracted (before the pandemic) nearly 40,000-70,000 tourists on a daily basis! Synonymous as the symbol of love worldwide, here’s a looking at its much less popular cousin in the same city, John Hessing’s tomb or The Red Taj Mahal built by a wife in the memory of her husband.
WHO IS JOHN HESSING?
John William Hessing was born in Utrecht, Holland, in 1739, and came to India as a 24- year-old, after having served in the Dutch East India Company in Ceylon. He served under the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Marathas and was later given the command of the first two battalions of the newly raised Scindia army. Disagreement with the French commander of Scindia’s forces compelled Hessing to resign his commission. However, Hessing had fought several battles for Maharaja Mahadji Scindia who had also taken a liking for him. The Maharaja made him the head of his Khas Risala (personal bodyguard). Even after his in 1794, Hessing continued to serve under Maharaja Daulat Rao Scindia. He had earned the reputation of being a loyal, brave soldier and a kind man. When he could no longer actively serve due to ill-health, Hessing was made the commandant of Agra Fort by Scindia. He died in 1803 on the battlefield trying to defend the fort. He was buried in the Roman Catholic cemetery, once the sole cemetery used for catholic burials for all of North India, and continues to preserve remains of eminent English soldiers, Italian jewelers, Armenian merchants today. Devastated and heartbroken by her husband’s death, his wife Anne Hessing commissioned this monument in the memory of her husband. The tomb was designed to look like the Taj Mahal but in red sandstone, costing a whopping Rs 100,000 then. The outer mausoleum contains a crypt that holds the grave, kept under lock and key by a guard who unlocks it for visitors. The minarets couldn’t be replicated for the lack of funds, but the red sandstone structure is a close replica of the original Taj Mahal.
Four slender minarets are attached to the main tomb, about 29 feet in height. Square cupolas sit on each of the minarets crowned by pinnacles. The double dome crowning the tomb has an inverted lotus and a Kalash finial on its top. There are octagonal platforms attached to its nearly 11 feet tall base, on all four corners. One can ascend the terrace via twin stairways from the western side of the platform. The tomb has a massive iwan with two slender guldastas on each face of the tomb. There is a finely carved panel running along the edge on the top and around the drum of the dome. Marble panels at the main entrance have inscriptions in Persian. Like all Mughal tombs, the actual grave is underneath. There is a stone cenotaph in the centre of the interior chamber with inscriptions in English. The ground level is surrounded by jaali screens on all sides and has doors to the taikhana (underground chamber).
But the memorial is cracking up for lack of repairs. There are many other graves in the
corridor outside the crypt. “Without a doubt, the Red Taj is the star attraction of the
cemetery”, says a local guide. According to Mathura: A District Memoir by F.S. Growse, a
French traveller named Victor Jacquemont, who visited Agra in 1830, had said that the
Taj, though pretty, was hardly elegant and that the only pure specimen of oriental
architecture was the tomb of John Hessing in the Catholic Cemetery. There is no doubt
that Jacquemont was talking of the time when the Taj Mahal had fallen into disrepair;
though the Hessing’s tomb is elegant, arguably Jacquemont’s views are far fetched
even when comparing it to the derelict Taj Mahal of the nineteenth century. Nonetheless,
Fanny Parkes in her journal Begum, Thugs and White Mughals, describes the Hessing
tomb as “a beautiful mausoleum” which is “well worth a visit”. It was built by a “native
architect, by the name Lateef, in imitation of the ancient Mohammedan tombs”. She
writes: “The tomb is beautiful, very beautiful and in excellent taste.”
The Hessings are still living and working in India, according to The Statesmen. The Red
Taj Mahal is perhaps one of the best examples of cultural amalgamation, where the west
imbibed the ways of the east, in diet, clothing, even in expressing affection for the
(Labelling on the image is by the author)