The Agra Fort: History Come Alive

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by phileasfogg on March 20, 2009

The Agra Fort—also known as the Red Fort—is, along with the Taj Mahal, Agra’s big attraction. It’s not as popular as the Taj Mahal, and is consequently less crowded. Once we’re done seeing the Taj, we take the road along the Yamuna. There’s scrub on both sides, reclaimed land from factories shut down to lessen pollution. All along the way, embedded in the walls, are plaques with little titbits of information about Agra’s history and monuments. A thoughtful touch, but not much use because at the speed we’re travelling, we only just about manage to read the first few words on each plaque.

We reach the Agra Fort about five minutes after leaving the Taj Mahal, and go in to buy our tickets (Rs 20 for Indians; Rs 300 for foreigners and non-resident Indians. Neeti and Deb, as always, get in free because they’re below 15). That done, we step in through the carved red sandstone bulk of the Amar Singh Gate, with its curving bastions decorated in panels of colourful tiles in yellow, green and blue.

The Agra Fort is shaped like a semi-circle, and stands along the bank of the Yamuna. Excavations have revealed signs of a citadel here as far back as 1080 AD, but the fort today was built largely by the third Mughal Emperor, Akbar, starting in 1565. His grandson Shahjahan demolished many of the buildings and replaced them with palaces in his trademark white marble.

We begin by visiting the Jahangiri Mahal, a long palace of red sandstone, its façade decorated with arches picked out in white marble. Though it’s named for Jahangir—Akbar’s son—the palace was built by Akbar as part of a palace complex known as the Bangali Mahal. The Jahangiri Mahal’s gate is very attractive: red sandstone, embellished with the gold-coloured Jaisalmer stone, and with highlights of white marble. In front, a short distance down a broad path surrounded by manicured lawns, stands a hemispherical stone bowl with Persian inscriptions along its rim. This is known as the Jahangiri Hauz, and is believed to have been a portable hamaam—a bathtub—commissioned by Jahangir.

Inside, the Jahangiri Mahal is exquisite: there are panels of painted plaster (with gold leaf too), courtyards fringed with ornately carved pillars, pilasters with herringbone patterns, panels of impossibly intricate carving. A young man in T-shirt and knee-length shorts with a vacant look on his face sits on a verandah which has a particularly stunning panel of carving. I peer around him to focus my camera on the carving, hoping he’ll take the hint and move. He doesn’t. I squirm around a bit, manage to get the carving into my frame and have just clicked the button when he lifts his legs over his head and farts—loudly. Yuck, yuck, yuck! I scurry away, cursing fluently, and gather up the rest of the clan. Deb wants the rude guy pointed out to him, but all I’m interested in is getting out of here.

We escape, through the maze of chambers that make up the Jahangiri Mahal, and towards the Khaas Mahal. At the far end of the Jahangiri Mahal, near the Khaas Mahal, is a small room with an extremely historic artefact in it: the 11th century Ghaznin Gates. These are the polished, carved leaves of a massive wooden door that belonged to the tomb of Mahmud of Ghazni. The British brought the gates from Ghazni, claiming that they were the gates of the temple at Somnath, which Mahmud plundered in 1025 AD. This was eventually disproved, and the gates ended up here.

After peering at the gates, we move on to the Khaas Mahal, which comprised the emperor’s private apartments. The Khaas Mahal consists of a series of pavilions, including a pillared one in carved white marble, with twin pavilions—both with gilded whaleback roofs—on either side.

Beyond these is the exquisite Shah Burj or Mussamman Burj, now cordoned off with a heavy metal mesh. The Shah Burj was where the emperor would appear every morning to `show’ himself to his subjects. It was originally of red sandstone, but Shahjahan made the present one in white marble. We can’t see much of the Shah Burj, but the inner section’s gorgeous, with intricate carving and panels of pietra dura inlay: I can see one with purple and blue irises. The floor has a carved shallow tank and a fountain.

From the Shah Burj, we trace our steps back a bit and descend to the large garden below. This is the Anguri Bagh, an expanse of red sandstone parterres, right now in shades of bright green foliage and deep scarlet flowers. The Anguri Bagh is surrounded by relatively plain buildings which are believed to have been the zenana, the imperial seraglio.

We walk across the Anguri Bagh, along its northern edge, till the corner, where we climb upstairs and make our way through the Machchi Bhawan (the `House of Fish’, though I can’t fathom why). The Machchi Bhawan is, like the buildings surrounding the Anguri Bagh, fairly plain. They’re red sandstone and white plaster, but the decoration is minimal.

We walk on to the end of Machchi Bhawan, and enter the Nagina Masjid or Nagini Masjid. This was probably the private mosque of the emperor, and is consequently a small one, reminiscent of the Moti Masjid at Mehrauli in Delhi: the same white marble, three domes, and restrained decoration. In fact, just about the only carving is the simple floral pattern along the top of the enclosing wall. The simplicity of the mosque adds a lot to its charm, we agree.

From the Nagina Masjid, we make our way through the Machchi Bhawan and into the large quadrangle fronted by the Diwan-e-Aam, the Hall of Public Audience. This was where the emperor met the nobility, entertained ambassadors, received tributes, distributed tokens of his favour, and so on. It’s a large open hall with rows of pillars joined by cusped arches, marching down the length of the hall. The entire hall, pillars and all, is covered in polished offwhite plaster, with the edges highlighted in black: very striking. There’s also a carved white marble throne, though nowhere as splendid as the one at Delhi’s Diwan-e-Aam.

In front of the Diwan-e-Aam, on the ground not far from the hall, is an oddity: the 19th century Memorial of Russell Colvin, Lieutenant Governor of the North-West Provinces. The European style of the memorial, with its sloping `roof’, little pinnacles and whatnot, make it stick out like a sore thumb amidst the Mughal buildings around. (Swapna points out that the British in the early 1800’s didn’t stop at that. They set up homes in the fort, erecting partitions and scraping off painted plaster. A wall of the Diwan-e-Khaas was broken down to put in a fireplace, and the hammam was removed and sent to Calcutta by Lord Hastings. Lord Bentinck completed Hastings’s work by selling off the remaining marble of the hammam to manufacturers of souvenirs).

Neeti and Deb are by now hot and tired and irritable, and Swapna gives them a pep talk before we move off to our final sight in the fort, the Diwan-e-Khaas, or Hall of Private Audience. This overlooks the river, so we need to retrace our steps, past Machchi Bhawan and back. On the way, we peek into (literally) the Sheesh Mahal (the `Palace of Mirrors’). The ASI have locked it up, but the door has grubby glass panes through which we can just about get a glimpse of some breathtakingly beautiful patterns of incised plaster and glittering mirrors.

The Diwan-e-Khaas is cordoned off and we can’t get in. Fortunately, it’s an open hall, so we can see most of it through the railings that screen it. The pillars here are square, with carved bases. What I like most of all are the arched insets of delicately carved marble at the far end: they’re superb.

Near the Diwan-e-Khaas, on a broad stretch of paving with a fine view of the distant Taj Mahal, is a heavy bench of black slate. This is the Takht-e-Jahangir and was commissioned by the Emperor Jahangir while he was still officially just Prince Salim: it was an act of rebellion against his father, Akbar. The top of the bench is flat and unadorned; the sides are carved with calligraphy in praise of Salim, the `Shah’.

By now, even the adults in our group are in serious need of liquid sustenance. We troop back, sated and more than a little dazzled by all we’ve seen. Swapna points out, beyond some buildings, the sloping tiled roofs of British-era barracks, all within the fort. These are still held by the Indian Army, which has a substantial presence in the fort. Someday, maybe, they’ll move out, and visitors like us will be able to see a little more.

Agra Fort

Agra, India

© LP 2000-2009