Mumtaz Mahal: A distinct creature encaged in zoo gallows for the past 45 years

The feature attracts on average 500 people, on Sundays the numbers exceed over 1,000.

Hifza Jillani July 08, 2013
Mumtaz Begum (top) is a regular feature at the Karachi Zoo and resides in the special pavilion (bottom). PHOTOS: EXPRESS

KARACHI: For the rest of the world, Mumtaz Mahal - the known epithet for a Mughal empress, Arjumand Banu - rests at a mausoleum signifying a lover’s fort in Agra. Karachi has, however, orchestrated its very own Mumtaz Mahal but the irony is that it is no love temple, yet it abodes in one of the city’s popular locations - the zoo.

In the most gaudy manner, the small temple-like structure at the zoo clearly imitates a Mughal fort with posters plastered over its walls of Mumtaz Mahal - a kitsune [half human, half fox]. Inside the special pavilion, a small creature over a cot-like table with a human face over a body of a fox aptly entertains zoo visitors.

Mumtaz Begum (top) is a regular feature at the Karachi Zoo and resides in the special pavilion (bottom). PHOTOS: EXPRESS

Former Gandhi Gardens, today the zoo has almost all animals caged, including chimpanzees, lions, tigers, elephants, stags and crocodiles but an encaged fox has yet to be seen. However, a fox-cum-human surely fits the phrase ‘beloved ornament of the palace’, which is the meaning for the title Mumtaz Mahal.

This mythical creature, depicting a thousand years of ideas about supernatural beings, promises to be different yet entertaining. After all, it is the only animal that can talk at the zoo. It looks like a princess with a bushy tail, but the naked truth is that it’s a dead fox that has the head of a man, dolled up like a woman.

People of all age groups enjoy the entertaining show, even if they know it is a trick-oriented one. “When I was young, we would get scared,” said an excited Zarish, 17, as she walked out of the pavilion. “Even if we knew it’s an optical illusion, it would still be entertaining and scary at times.”

Kamila, 52, said that Mumtaz begum never gets old. “It brings me back to all the memories from childhood, we would get spell-bound by her performance,” she recalled fondly. “I remember exactly the way Mumtaz would sound, the bright lipstick and  the cakey make-up and it is still the same.”

The experience

Entering the small crypt, the ‘maa-fauq-ul-fitrat’ [supernatural] goes on a narrative stead where she amusingly talked about how she hails from the savannas in Africa but is being kept in confinement, as she happily ate the cake, juices, biscuits and fruits. Mumtaz is a fortune-teller too. So a student instantly asked her about his visa status while a concerned mother wondered about her daughter’s proposal.

Once actor Adnan Siddiqui happened to be shooting at the zoo when the person impersonating Mumtaz begum asked for a picture with him, said zoo’s security in-charge, Sajid Husain.

His driver was so excited that God gave him an opportunity to meet her. Actress Resham and politician Sharmila Farooqi are also a few visitors Mumtaz loves to brag about.

Behind the scenes

Rahim Baksh Hero, a 52-year-old performer in various movies, has also served as Mumtaz Mahal for some time. “It is just like a drama,” he said, revealing trade secrets. “We prepare for it beforehand and put up the best show when the audiences visit.”

Murad, who is currently playing Mumtaz Begum, is in his late 20s. He lives at the zoo, said Usman, a superviser. “He wakes up at 6am for prayers and work-out and then gets to the ‘mahal’ at around 9,” he said. “He puts on make-up himself.” Usman admired how Murad earns his livelihood through this unique talent.

Not everyone is, however, happy with this feature at the zoo. “It is despicable and ignoble,” claimed AA Quraishy, the founder of the zoo. “The optical illusion is designed by showmen working for their livelihood and surely people with weak values are the ones who admire illusions they can’t comprehend.”

Published in The Express Tribune, July 8th, 2013.


Karachite | 10 years ago | Reply

I don't know why people are against this ACT. Its not a part of your culture, its just a comedy act. You basically ask him random questions and he comes up with funny answers. Also, if you are so driven to purify your culture then I suggest you start with the culture of mujra. Search 'Pakistani music' on YouTube and most of the search results would be of mujra videos with millions of views. Pakistani citizens are also one of the biggest searches for the word 'sex' and 'rape pictures' as revealed by google trends. So cut the crap and stop this hypocrisy.

Karachite! | 10 years ago | Reply

I remember visiting it on a school field trip, it was indeed amusing for us kids of grade 2! We could make out it was a trick but had no idea how it worked. A few classes later I remember our Science teacher asking us if we had ever visited Mumtaz Mahal at gandhi gardens and how optical illusions works and everything became clear.

Hats of to the Begum for amusing and entertaining generations of Karachites!

Ps: Cant stop laughing about Lily!

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