Agra Stories and Tips

A Glimpse of the Past: Agra’s Colonial Buildings

St Mary's Church Photo, Agra, India

I am taking a slight liberty here by referring to Agra’s European past as colonial. Agra, actually, has had residents and passers-through of extremely varied origins since well before the British took over, and many of them have left their mark on this historic city.

Agra has been, at least since medieval times, an important centre of industry, trade and commerce. It specialised in the production of luxury goods (such as sweetmeats, medicines, gold and silver embroidery, and inlay work), and carried on a flourishing trade in a vast number of other items. The Yamuna made it a focal point of riverine trade, and land routes connected it to the ultimate of trade routes, the Silk Route. As a result, Europeans—Florentines, Venetians, Genoese, Russians, Bavarians, Spaniards, Frenchmen, Englishmen, Portuguese and just about everybody else—with something to sell, something to buy, or just an itch to see (or in many cases, convert) the world washed up in Agra. Many, like the Englishman John Mildenhall (who left London in 1599) came all this way in order to be able to boast that he had spoken to the Great Mogul, the Emperor Akbar, himself. Others, like the Armenian bishop Zakur and his compatriot Khwaja Mortenepus, or the intriguing Dutch mathematician and friar, Henry Uwens (`the friend of [Prince] Dara Shikoh’), came to India with a view to converting the heathen masses to Christianity. Still others came, matchlocks primed and swords on the ready, to sell their skills to the highest bidder.

One of the earliest—if not the earliest—evidences of a European presence in Agra is the Roman Catholic Cemetery, where the oldest Armenian graves date back to 1550. Around the same time, the Emperor Akbar had welcomed the Jesuits into his court, and they had built a church in the northern part of the city. The church was destroyed during the reign of Akbar’s grandson Shahjahan, but one of Agra’s oldest churches arose in 1772, the building today known as Akbar’s Church, though Akbar had nothing to do with it.

The late 18th century was a time of turmoil for not just Agra, but northern India as a whole. The Mughal empire was declining swiftly and steadily, and in its stead, the Marathas were making their presence felt. Also, the British East India Company was making inroads, with decisive victories at the Battles of Buxar and Plassey. In the Doab area (the `land of the two rivers’—the Ganga and the Yamuna), the Scindia clan of the Marathas was dominant. They held sway over both Delhi as well as Agra, and a number of European mercenaries such as Hessing and Perron entered their service. Others, like the infamous Walter Reinhardt `Samru’, switched sides at the drop of a hat with apparently little or no compunctions.

1803 proved a decisive year for Agra and for the Doab as a whole. The British defeated the Marathas (and with them, their European generals, including Hessing and Perron) and took over. A Resident was stationed at Delhi, with the Mughal emperor being reduced to a mere figurehead. In Agra, a Lieutenant Governor’s post was established; Agra itself became part of what was named the United Provinces. Within just over two decades, hectic building activity had begun, and you can still see some fine examples of this across the city, especially in the Agra Cantonment and the Wazirpura and Civil Lines areas. In the cantonment, the neat-as-a-pin St George’s Cathedral was designed by the then 21-year old John Theophilus Boileau, the Garrison Engineer of the cantonment, in 1826.

Also in the mid-1800’s were constructed a number of other Agra’s other important buildings. In Wazirpura, the Roman Catholic Complex appeared, centred round the imposing baroque Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, which was built in 1848. Five years earlier—in 1843—St Patrick’s School had been built nearby (it is today separated from the cathedral churchyard by a wall painted over with instructions on how to perform various yogic asanas, along with accompanying illustrations and details on the illnesses they can help cure). If you go down the lane between the school and the church, you’ll come to yet another building from the 1840’s: St Peter’s College, a well-maintained and striking building in white and grey, with long arcades spreading out from an ornate central porch.

In 1856, the ruling dynasty of the Nawabs of Lucknow (the capital of Awadh) finally collapsed. The British took over, and made Awadh part of the same province as Agra, renaming it the United Provinces of Agra and Awadh. The turmoil of the Mutiny of 1857 and its aftermath had its impact on Agra, but by the early 1900’s, building work had once more begun in earnest. In 1914, Sir Swinton Jacob designed the part Gothic-part Rajput red sandstone pile known as St John’s College (the college itself had been established more than half a century earlier, in 1850). Some years later, the art deco building of the Post Office was constructed in the cantonment. It’s a well-kept structure, painted a crisp white, with a deep red trim that echoes the official colours of India Post. The large arched windows, the shallow dome on top, and the somewhat fussy pillars and niches and narrow windows that punctuate the facade are all quite quaint, and the fact that this is a public building means it’s accessible to all.

Near the Post Office is another building worth a look, if only for the history. This, just behind the Post Office, is St Mary’s Church, a Catholic church commissioned by the John family. The Johns were descended from a Greek diamond merchant named Joanides; the Johns themselves went on to become important industrialists in Agra, owning what came to be known as the John Mills along the bank of the Yamuna. St Mary’s Church isn’t as splendid as the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, but with its distinctly Italianate facade (topped by a crucifix and a six-pointed Star of David), in pale yellow and white, is attractive enough.

That, of course, isn’t all there is to see. Agra is chockfull of colonial buildings. The Sarojini Naidu Hospital (built in the 1850’s) on Hospital Road; the Balwant Rajput College (1890); the John Public Library (also named after the John family and built in 1925); and the Agra College (founded in 1823; the first buildings were designed by John Theophilus Boileau) are among the best-preserved and prominent examples of colonial architecture. Walk through the old city, and you’ll find mansions from the early 20th century, several of them deftly combining colonial elements—arches, balconies, shuttered windows—with indigenous features, especially fine stone carving.

Drive through the cantonment, and you’ll see plenty of private bungalows built in the early 1900’s, all with the low domes, the large semi-circular arches and the porches common to the era. One word of advice, though: don’t spend any time looking for the horrendous Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) Office. It’s a fine colonial building, but they’ve recently painted it—white, but with a very startling deep pink trim that looks truly awful. A disturbing reflection on what the ASI (which is responsible for maintaining most of India’s historic monuments) is capable of doing.

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