Written by phileasfogg on 25 Mar, 2009
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…Read More
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.
Written by phileasfogg on 20 Mar, 2009
The eastern bank of the Yamuna was, in Mughal days, given over almost completely to gardens: the Ram Bagh, the Zahara Bagh, the Garden of Wazir Khan, and so on. Today, with the alluvial soil of the Yamuna still making the area fertile, this stretch…Read More
The eastern bank of the Yamuna was, in Mughal days, given over almost completely to gardens: the Ram Bagh, the Zahara Bagh, the Garden of Wazir Khan, and so on. Today, with the alluvial soil of the Yamuna still making the area fertile, this stretch is home mainly to nurseries that produce plants and trees for sale. There are the remains of some Mughal gardens, and there’s the odd old building in between.
We head here to see the Tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah (`Pillar of the State’), a title conferred on an extremely powerful nobleman who had come to India from Persia in the 1500’s. Itimad-ud-Daulah became not just an influential statesman, but also a member—by extension—of the royal family; his daughter Noorjahan married the Emperor Jahangir, and his granddaughter, Noorjahan’s niece Arjumand Bano, married Jahangir’s son, Shahjahan. (Arjumand Bano is better known as Mumtaz Mahal, the empress for whom Shahjahan built the Taj Mahal).
The receptionist at our hotel tells us that the Tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah closes at 4.30 PM. The driver of the car we’ve hired has been making some enquiries, and he confirms it. What’s worse, he tells us that though there are two bridges across the Yamuna, both are one-way: we’ll be able to cross coming back from Itimad-ud-Daulah, not going there. To get to the place, we’ll need to drive all the way to the Agra bypass highway, then turn from there.
A collective groan goes up: it’s already 3.45. There’s no way we can make it. It must be miles to the bypass. But we set off gamely, and by the time we’re approaching, Tarun’s all ready, wallet in hand, to leap out and run to the ticket counter as soon as we reach. We reach at 4.20 and heave a sigh of relief.
Our anxiety is all in vain, though. Itimad-ud-Daulah is open till sunset (6 PM, in spring and summer), so we have oodles of time. Tarun buys the tickets (like Sikandra, Rs 10 per Indian and Rs 250 per foreigner or non-resident Indian; children below 15 enter free), and we pause a while to admire the gate to the tomb. It’s red sandstone, with lots of elegant floral designs inlaid in white marble. There are arched recesses, a row of decorative battlements (known as `kangura’ battlements in Indian Islamic architecture), and two singularly unprepossessing ASI caretakers who totally spoil the frame.
We step through the gateway, and it’s suddenly a different world, with a little fairytale palace all in white marble at the centre of it all. The tomb stands on a low platform beyond lush green lawns. The raised path leading to it is flanked by sandstone parterres bursting with white and mauve petunias. Less than a hundred metres beyond the tomb, the land slopes away to the Yamuna below, glittering in the light of the lowering sun. But we can admire the river later; we’re here to see the tomb. And what a tomb this is!
The Tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah was built after his death in 1621 by his daughter Noorjahan, and is a squat building, topped with a pavilion with an interesting roof that looks like a ship turned upside-down. On the four corners of the tomb are low, cylindrical minarets. It’s not as elegant and perfectly proportioned a building as the Taj Mahal, but as we walk closer, we realise that this is, in itself, a masterpiece. The exterior is covered all over with inlay: grey, buff, gold, red, black, chocolate and cream stone—literally a hundred shades of colour—form intricate patterns of six-pointed stars, stylised flowers, arabesques, even quaint designs of fruit bowls filled with grapes and pomegranates. We wander around the outside for a while, just drinking it all in, admiring the delicacy of the carving (especially along the tall arched niches on the sides; these are closed with fine screens of carved marble known as `jaali’, which means net).
Inside, the decoration does an about turn. The only inlay to be seen here is the geometrical design on the floor and the dadoes. The upper half of the walls and ceiling are painted over. The innermost chamber is particularly beautiful, with very realistic lilies and what look like chrysanthemums painted on panels alternating with chini khana (vase motifs). The chini khana here is very elaborate; there are not just vases, but little jars and urns too; and the vases themselves are full to bursting with flowers. Most of the chini khana painting is in arched recesses, the painting done primarly in shades of dull blue and red. Swapna and I get even more excited when we notice `Chinese clouds’—the curling, stylised clouds that Mughal artists borrowed from Chinese art and incorporated into their own pictures.
We spend a brief while in the chamber containing the cenotaphs of Itimad-ud-Daulah and his principal wife; both cenotaphs are fairly plain, but made out of the striking deep gold stone known as Jaisalmer stone.
Outside, the sun’s dipping swiftly towards the horizon, and the gardens of the tomb complex come suddenly very alive. Rose-ringed parakeets swoop by in a tumble of bright, grass-green feathers, screeching shrilly; a black kite sits on the broken-off stump of a branch, its hooked yellow beak menacing. Just beside the platform of the tomb itself, a pair of five-striped palm squirrels scamper about, searching for food. The noise and traffic of Agra City seem a million miles away.
But before we leave the Tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah, there’s one last structure to be seen: the riverside gate. This is connected to the main tomb by a raised path paved with stone. The gate looks out over the river beyond and (though we can’t find it) has a diminutive exit through which you can actually descend to the river. It’s a red sandstone building, again (like the main gate) all arches and white marble inlay. The sides of the gate are decorated with more chini khana inlaid in white marble. It looks quite quaint, really: a high wall of red sandstone, divided by strips of marble into arched segments, each segment with its own vase. Some sections have two vases, some three. It looks a little like a medieval advertisement for a Mughal winehouse!
We step into the gateway to have a look at the inside. Like at the tomb, the inside here is painted, not carved or inlaid. The central chamber is flanked on either side by smaller rooms, in one of which a trio of workers is sawing wood and carrying out other restoration work. We sidle past them and feast our eyes on the painting; this bit is especially splendid, with white, blue, grey and red predominating in floral patterns and lots of chini khana—one wall, fitted into an arch, is covered with dozens of vases, many of them full of flowers. Superb. And, hopefully, these men at work will help keep it that way.
Outside, we wander around a bit towards the northern side of the gate, and accidentally make an interesting discovery. At the foot of the wall is an inconspicuous inscription: Flood Level Oct 7 1924. Whew; that must have been one helluva monsoon. The tomb itself seems to have escaped by the skin of its teeth.
And on that relieved note, we take ourselves off, down the road to the next sight we’ll see, the Chini ka Rauza.
Sikandra, a few kilometres short of Agra on the main Delhi-Agra highway (National Highway 2), is supposedly named for a pre-Mughal ruler of Delhi called Sikandar Lodhi. Sikandar Lodhi had ambitions of extending his reign south of Delhi, and had a citadel in Agra—and perhaps…Read More
Sikandra, a few kilometres short of Agra on the main Delhi-Agra highway (National Highway 2), is supposedly named for a pre-Mughal ruler of Delhi called Sikandar Lodhi. Sikandar Lodhi had ambitions of extending his reign south of Delhi, and had a citadel in Agra—and perhaps a garden at this spot. In the early years of the 17th century, the third of the Mughal emperors, Akbar, chose Sikandra to be the site of his mausoleum. He renamed it Bihishtabad (`Abode of Paradise’), and commissioned its design and construction, though after Akbar’s death in 1605, the building was completed under the aegis of his son and successor, Jahangir.
Since Sikandra is on the way into Agra, we decide it makes sense to stop by and see it now. The imposing gateway of the tomb, with its stolid white minarets, can be seen from the highway, and we pull into the parking lot. Tarun and Gourab go off to buy the tickets (Rs 10 for Indians; Rs 250 for foreigners and non-resident Indians; children below 15 enter free of charge), and then we stand for a while in front of the main gate, the Southern Gateway to Sikandra, ooh-ing and aah-ing at the beauty of it.
Sikandra is a typical char bagh Mughal tomb: the complex is a square garden bisected by two streams of water perpendicular to each other. The tomb lies at the centre, at the spot where the streams cross. Each of the four walls enclosing a char bagh is traditionally pierced by a gate. In the case of Sikandra, however, only the Southern Gate—the one at which we’re now standing—is a gate; the others are false gates: they look like gates but don’t lead anywhere. The southern gate is of red sandstone decorated with arched niches, carving, and bands of inlay. Around the main arched entrance are patterns of stylised flowers, leaves and tendrils, all in white and black marble. They’re beautiful, as are the geometric patterns, in white, black, tan and buff that flank them. The effect is opulent but very pleasing.
We step through the gateway and on to the wide paved causeway that connects the gate to the main tomb building, known as the rauza. Along the centre of the causeway runs a shallow channel which would once have been filled with water; today it’s dry. But the lawns around, with shady trees and shrubs, don’t look as if they suffer from a lack of water: in fact, small herds of blackbuck graze peacefully on the lawns and look up placidly to watch us walk by.
The rauza is, like the gate, mainly of red sandstone, but its roof is surmounted by rows of chhatris (domed pavilions), both large and small, in white marble. This is reminiscent of the buildings at Fatehpur Sikri (also built by Akbar) and have a distinctly Rajasthani feel to them. The upper section of the rauza, is however, out of bounds, so we have to content ourselves with exploring the ground floor.
We’re instructed to take off our shoes outside the rauza, and barefooted, we enter the vestibule that leads into the main tomb chamber. This is, without exaggeration, one of the most beautiful Mughal rooms I’ve ever seen: every inch of the walls and ceiling is richly painted. There are flowers, vines, curling leaves, bunches of grapes, and bands of calligraphy worked in gold, against a background of blue, red, orange and white. Stunning! We spend a few minutes here, gaping at the gorgeousness of it all, then take ourselves off down the sloping corridor that leads to Akbar’s cenotaph.
This corridor—a ramp leading down from the vestibule—is in marked contrast to the vestibule itself: it’s plain, with plastered walls and ceilings painted white. There isn’t a scrap of ornamentation here. The vast, high-ceilinged chamber to which it leads is equally plain, and Akbar’s cenotaph, though it’s made of white marble, is unadorned and fairly simple. A man, perhaps a mullah (or at least a religious of some rank) is standing next to the cenotaph, and calls out "Allaaahhhhh," in a loud, sonorous voice as we enter, probably in an attempt to encourage us to leave a donation (people have left a few rupees at the head of the cenotaph). The word echoes around the chamber, which has narrow sloping window-like openings towards the top of each wall.
Back up the ramp and out of the vestibule, we wander along the small marble chambers on either side of the vestibule. These contain the cenotaphs of various other members of the royal family, mainly Akbar’s many wives. Each little chamber has inlay—black and sometimes tan—in white marble; and above the dado, a screen of carved white marble pierced by a window. Lovely, and a good photo op!
Having taken plenty of pictures of each other peeking through these windows, we decide to take Swapna’s advice and have a look at the Western Gate. This, according to our guidebook (Lucy Peck’s Agra: The Architectural Heritage), is the best preserved of the three false gates at Sikandra, and worth a peek. Another causeway, at right angles to the one leading to the southern gate, brings us to the Western Gate.
The ASI seems to have been concentrating its efforts on conserving the southern gate and the rauza; the Western Gate is obviously neglected. At the top of the main recessed arch hang almost a dozen ominous black beehives. Not only do they look awful, I’m sure they’re also damaging the remarkable painting that decorates the gate. This is art of a very different style to that in the vestibule: less fine, less grand, but equally worthy of admiration. A massive fern-like plant in brick red is painted at the top, and below are motifs—looking very much like urns or jars—painted in red, ochre, rust, dull green and cream; the ceiling, where not obscured by beehives, has a pretty pattern of netted vaulting in white.
We walk around to the back of the gate, which is decorated with arched niches, beautifully carved and highlighted in white marble. There are examples here of what is known as chini khana decoration: depictions of vases, with or without flowers.
Neeti and Deb, by now, have started getting impatient (I can sympathise; Neeti has been on at least three school trips to Agra, and Sikandra is always a must-do!). We head back to the southern gate, with a minor detour en route to have a look at some colonial ruins. The British, when they took over Agra in 1803, built houses for themselves in the unlikeliest of places, including here, within the Sikandra complex. Between the rauza and the southern gate are the remains—broken columns, doorways, a short flight of steps with a balustrade—of one of these.
Out through the main gate, and we head towards the parking lot. Adjacent to this is the last of Sikandra’s attractions: the Kaanch Mahal (`the Palace of Glass’). This may seem a misnomer, since there isn’t a chip of glass or mirror on this building, but you should note that kaanch can also, in Urdu or Hindi, be used to refer to china (porcelain)—and the Kaanch Mahal has an attractive trimming of blue and yellow tilework. We find the Kaanch Mahal overrun by a group of noisy schoolchildren, laughing and playing all across the front of it. Their teachers (who should be shot!) have made themselves comfortable in the main entrance to the Kaanch Mahal, and are having a picnic. The interior of the Kaanch Mahal is, in any case, not the main attraction here; it’s the exterior, with its carved red sandstone oriel windows, with their tile edging, which has brought us here. Very pretty.
The ASI signboard outside the Kaanch Mahal describes it as a palace for the harem, but Lucy Peck is inclined to believe that this was a gateway leading into a walled garden. Swapna points out evidence: seen from the side, the Kaanch Mahal has two distinct halves. The section facing Sikandra is beautifully decorated; the other side is plain, plastered surfaces with no carving or tile. The remains of a gate built by the British stand next to the Kaanch Mahal; it was probably built to lead into the enclosure, at the far end of which we can see a dilapidated structure.
But it’s past 2 PM; the sun’s beating down; we’re thirsty and need something (as Neeti describes it) "cold, sweet and fizzy". Time to move on to Agra, but with a last, approving look at Sikandra. This is quite an appropriate welcome to Agra—and a foretaste of the delights that await us.
There’s not much I can say about the Taj Mahal that you wouldn’t know anyway. One of the Seven Wonders of the World, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and, one of the world’s most beautiful buildings. It was built by the Mughal Emperor Shahjahan as…Read More
There’s not much I can say about the Taj Mahal that you wouldn’t know anyway. One of the Seven Wonders of the World, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and, one of the world’s most beautiful buildings. It was built by the Mughal Emperor Shahjahan as a mausoleum for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, after she died in 1631, giving birth to their fourteenth child Gauharara. Millions were spent on the Taj Mahal, which (according to some accounts) took 22 years to build.
There’s nothing new to add, though there’s plenty of juicy gossip. It’s said that Shahjahan cut off the hands of the workmen so they would never be able to create anything as splendid (utter rubbish); and that he had planned a black marble replica of the Taj for himself (unlikely). The most preposterous—and much laughed at—theory is that the Taj Mahal isn’t a Mughal tomb at all, but a Hindu temple called Tejo Mahalaya.
Whatever it is, it’s beautiful, and no visit (even as fleeting as ours) can be complete without a trip to the Taj. We’ve visited it often enough, but this time, armed with the excellent Agra: The Architectural Heritage (by Lucy Peck), we’re better informed.
The earlier you arrive, the less crowded the Taj is. It opens at 6 AM, but we leave the hotel by 8, and reach the parking lot for the Taj a few minutes later. The Taj sits in a vehicle-free zone, so you park about a kilometre away. You can then either walk, or take a rickshaw, a camel cart, or a battery-operated van. We opt for a van, and on the short drive to the Taj, the `conductor’ gives us the lowdown: the Taj opens from sunrise to sunset (6 AM to 6 PM right now); the charges are Rs 200 per Indian and Rs 750 per foreigner and non-resident Indian. Children below 15 years enter free of charge. You may carry guidebooks, maps, paper and pens, mineral water, cameras and mobile phones into the Taj, but food or other electronic items aren’t allowed.
When we reach the Western Gate of the Taj, we’re frisked, and discover that even my camera remote and Neeti’s iPod aren’t allowed. Gourab takes them back to our car, so the rest of us wait for him. Swapna, meanwhile, probably because she’s wearing shades and clutching a book (not typically Indian traits), is regarded with suspicion by the guard who sees her Rs 200 ticket. "You’re Indian?" he asks."Yes," Swapna sighs. This has happened before."From where?""Delhi.""Really? And how long have you been in Delhi?""Twenty-four years.""So who’s Delhi’s Chief Minister?"Swapna’s reply satisfies him (thank God, says Gourab later, that he didn’t ask her who’s the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly—none of us knows that!), and he lets her enter.
We stand here, and while we wait for Gourab to return, we look around. Just outside the security cordon is the area known as the Jilaukhana. This is where visitors traditionally dismounted and prepared to enter. Today, it’s lined by camel carts and souvenir sellers; beyond, on both sides, are the tombs, mainly in red sandstone, of Shahjahan’s secondary wives. These include the Tombs of Fatehpuri Begum, Sirhindi Begum, Akbarabadi Begum and sati-un-Nissa Khanum.
Inside the security cordon, past well kept lawns, looms the red-and-white bulk of the Taj Gateway. This is a huge square building of red sandstone lavishly decorated with inlay in white marble and semiprecious stones. Minarets and chhatris (domed pavilions) decorate the top of the gate, and there are arched niches across the front and sides. All along the outer edge of the main arched entrance are bands of calligraphy, jasper inlaid in white marble.
Gourab’s arrived, so we step in—and are, as always, dumbfounded. Through the gateway, dead centre, we can see the Taj Mahal, cool and white in the morning sun, at the far end of a water channel flanked by lawns, flowering parterres and trees. It’s stunning. We descend from the gate, and walk on till the white marble platform midway, where it’s almost de rigueur to pose for photos (Princess Diana did too). Our photos taken, we walk on to the main tomb, the rauza.
The Taj is an unusual example of a Mughal garden tomb, in that instead of the tomb being at the centre of the square garden, it’s at the end. It stands on the riverbank, which definitely adds to the dramatic beauty of the Taj.
The rauza is cleaned from 8 AM to 9 AM daily, so we still have a few minutes before it opens. We spend that time visiting the surrounding buildings.
Typically, the tombs of Muslim nobility in India had a mosque alongside (to encourage visitors to pray for the departed). Furthermore, a woman (like Mumtaz Mahal) who died in childbirth was considered worthy of veneration. If you look up at the Taj Mahal, with the main gateway at your back, the mosque is the large red building on your left. But since the guiding principle of Mughal architecture was symmetry, a replica of the mosque was needed opposite it. This, on the other side of the Taj Mahal—on your right—is the Mehmaan Khana, the `guest house’. Made of red sandstone with three domes of white marble and extensive inlay work, the Mehmaan Khana was meant to house nobility visiting the Taj. (Note that for many years, the annual urs, the death anniversary of Mumtaz Mahal, was observed at the Taj Mahal. It attracted many visitors, and thousands more came, like us, simply came to gawk at its beauty).
The Mehmaan Khana is a wide, arched hallway, the ceiling covered with an intricate pattern of red and white motifs. Unlike the outside, which is inlay and carving, this is painted incised plaster. Outside is an enclosure guarding a strange design, in black marble, inlaid into the red sandstone paving. This is a full-size replica of the massive metal finial topping the Taj Mahal, and was put in by the British.
Having duly marvelled at it, we move on to the Rauza itself. We have to remove our shoes outside (there’s a rack and a man who dispenses `tokens’ or tags for us to collect them later). We’re glad it’s not summer yet, and that it’s still morning: stone paving below bare feet can be torturous.
It’s difficult to describe the Taj Mahal to someone who hasn’t seen it. Everybody’s seen photos of it, but seeing it up close—huge, yet so symmetrical and understated—is an experience like few others. Large expanses—the dome (which is believed to represent a guava or a breast) and the recessed arches—are, for example, plain white marble, sparingly decorated on the edges with carving and inlay.
Inside lie the cenotaphs of Mumtaz Mahal and of Shahjahan, both surrounded by an enclosure of carved marble screens that are cordoned off. The screens were originally of precious metals, but were replaced by marble in Shahjahan’s time itself. The carving’s is beautiful, but the pièce de resistance is the delicate inlay edging the screens and on the cenotaphs. Semiprecious stones such as jasper, cornelian, lapis lazuli and turquoise were used to create these floral patterns. It must have been painstaking work indeed: Michael and Diana Preston, in their book A Teardrop on the Cheek of Time, describe a single square inch of pietra dura that contains sixty chips of stone, all carefully arranged to depict tones and shades.
No photography’s allowed inside, so we step out after a while into the sunlight and do a circuit round the exterior. There are white marble dados here, carved with irises, crown lilies and daffodils. They’re fringed with less intricate inlay work. We walk along towards the back (which echoes the front) and look out over the Yamuna, then up at the minarets. They’re white marble, with black outlining the blocks. Swapna springs a surprise: the black is inlay, purely decorative.
There are a few people around, some sitting in the arched niches, staring out across the complex, others finding new angles for photographs. One man’s scribbling on a notepad. We descend from the rauza and then go to the Mosque.
The Mosque is, from afar, a replica of the Mehmaan Khana; closer up, we see the decoration’s a little different. It’s still carving and inlay on the outside, but the red-and-white painting differs. Most endearing of all is the inset above the main arch: the painting includes two tiny depictions of the Taj Mahal itself!
We wander around inside the Mosque, admiring the inlaid musalla (prayer rug) pattern on the floor, then head back, now shod, down past the water channel, along the fountains, and up to the main gate. Already, there are hundreds of tourists streaming in. We’ve avoided the worst of the crowds, and we’ve once again seen what Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore described as "one teardrop...on the cheek of time."
A little bit of background—about the trip...For anybody who’s spent their childhood in northern (read me and my sister, Swapna), at least one trip to Agra—and, of course, the Taj Mahal—is almost inevitable. And when you’re part of a family that travels a lot, that…Read More
A little bit of background—about the trip...
For anybody who’s spent their childhood in northern (read me and my sister, Swapna), at least one trip to Agra—and, of course, the Taj Mahal—is almost inevitable. And when you’re part of a family that travels a lot, that one trip can get repeated, again and again and again.
So here we are, back in Agra. This time, it’s for a variety of reasons. I need to do research on 17th century Agra for a book I’ll be writing, and unless I visit Agra now, the summer will arrive, it’ll get boiling hot, and Agra will be hellish. My husband, Tarun, has just been told by his office that because of the recession, they’re not hiring any more people, so everybody has to work a six-day week from now onwards for the next four months. There’s not going to be much scope for weekend trips. Swapna has just been told by her doctor that she needs minor surgery within the next two weeks. Her husband, Gourab, who’s a lawyer, has just realised that with the upcoming general elections and the possibility of a change in government, he’ll need to be in town all through May, which means their annual summer vacation is likely to be cut short. Swapna and Gourab’s children, Neeti (13) and Deb (12) have a few days of holidays because of a string of festivals one after the other.
All of us need a break, a weekend trip somewhere close—and Agra is perfect for that. So here we are, armed with two very informative books, Agra: The Architectural Heritage (by Lucy Peck) and A Teardrop on the Cheek of Time (by Michael and Diana Preston). And we have our own guide: Swapna, who’s a historian.
...and about the city.
Agra lies just about 200 km from Delhi, along the famous Grand Trunk Road. Although the oldest historical records mentioning Agra date back to the 11th century, excavations have revealed that the city goes back at least to the era of the Mauryan dynasty (approximately 4th century BC). In medieval times, Agra was already acquiring the status of an important centre of trade; but it was the Mughals who brought the city to the prominence it later came to command. During the reigns of the third Mughal emperor Akbar and his son Jahangir, especially, Agra came to be a major focus of economic and political power. It was an important centre for the production of leather, medicines, and luxury goods like gold and silver embroidery and inlaid stonework. The Yamuna was an artery for riverine trade, and Agra also had direct land connections linking it to the Silk Route.
Agra lost some of its political status when Jahangir’s son, Shahjahan, having built the Taj Mahal, decided to shift the imperial capital to Delhi. The city, despite its loss of status, remained a major economic centre, in fact even more so than Delhi. A little over 150 years later, in 1803, the British defeated the Marathas—who by then held sway over much of the area known as the Doab (literally, the `land of the two rivers’—the rivers in question being the Ganga and the Yamuna). Following this, the British took over in Agra (much to the detriment of many of the city’s monuments; the Agra Fort, especially, was unashamedly vandalised by British residents who moved in). In 1856, Agra became part of the United Provinces of Agra and Awadh. After independence in 1947, Agra remained part of UP (now Uttar Pradesh, or `northern state’ instead of United Provinces). It’s still a busy town, well known for its leather, its sweetmeats—and its plethora of historic monuments.
And some stories:
I couldn’t resist this. Everybody talks of how old Agra is, a town of the past, with its resident ghosts. And just about everybody has their own story to tell. Here are two.
My father studied in Agra’s St John’s College way back in the late 1950’s. At that time, one of the college’s many spooky legends concerned a young man who’d studied at St John’s some years prior, and lived in the college hostel. They say that this student was busy preparing for his upcoming exams, and as too many Indians are wont to do, was at his books till late at night. He finally decided he’d had enough of studies and needed a break, so went into town to watch a film. It was very late by the time the film got over, and the streets were deserted. Our hero managed to get an ikka (a horse-drawn cart, also called a tonga), and headed back to St John’s. On the way, crossing a bridge, he noticed an old woman sitting by herself selling cigarettes and sweets on the pavement. The student got the ikkawallah to stop, then got off and went to buy a pack of cigarettes. He picked up the pack he wanted, and took out the money to hand it to the old woman, who stretched out her hand for the money—and the student then saw that instead of a hand, she had a—hoof!
The student, terrified, ran back to the ikka, got in and urged the ikkawallah to race away. The ikkawallah complied, but after a while, as they were nearing the college, asked his passenger what was wrong. The young man told him the story, and the ikkawallah laughed. "Like this?" he said, holding up his own hands—no, hooves.
The young man, by now on the verge of a breakdown, leapt off the ikka and ran for the welcoming gates of the college, which were being patrolled by a watchman. He blabbed out the tale to the man, who listened sympathetically, then lifted his lantern—to reveal that his own hands were not hands, but hooves. It’s said that the student was found the next morning, lying unconscious at the college gate.
Okay, that’s a little blown out of all proportion, I agree. The student had probably been studying just too hard. But the second story is creepier, mainly because it’s less over the top, and centres around two people we know—one who’s related to Gourab, in fact; Gourab’s uncle.
Way back in the 1970’s, Gourab’s uncle got married, and since his father was the governor of a state, the wedding swarmed with policemen and security guards. Much to the chagrin (and resentment!) of the bride and groom, the security detail insisted on accompanying them on their honeymoon to Agra. At Agra, Gourab’s uncle and aunt were supposed to stay at an old colonial guesthouse right next door to the Taj Mahal—a wicket gate from it led into the Taj complex.
The young couple did a tour of the Taj (with security guards hanging about their ears), and by the time they got back to the guesthouse, were thoroughly annoyed. Gourab’s aunt, especially, was cheesed off (She’s American, and hadn’t still got used to the very intrusive security arrangements in India). She was sitting in their room, fuming to herself, when a door opened and a white woman emerged, clad in a wet gown, with her hair dripping—as if she’d just come from a bath (which she’d presumably taken with all her clothes on). The woman crossed the room, watched by a bewildered Barbara, and disappeared through another door.
Barbara went looking for her husband to rave and rant about intruders using their room as a thoroughfare, and both of them then went to confront the local chowkidar, the caretaker-cum-watchman. The man was matter of fact about the entire episode, and said that the woman was a ghost of some long-forgottten Englishwoman who’d probably lived in the vicinity (and drowned in the Yamuna, I’m guessing). He came back with them to their room, and opened the door into which the woman had vanished. It was a cupboard.
And on that note—glad that we’re staying in a relatively new, mundane and hopefully unhaunted hotel—we begin our explorations of Agra.
Written by phileasfogg on 29 Jul, 2002
The pros of Agra are many- with the lovely Taj Mahal topping the list. There’s more, of course: the imposing Agra Fort, Sikandra, Itmad-ud-Daulah, and more- which makes this city one of India’s most visited. Which actually translates into more cons and scams than you…Read More
The pros of Agra are many- with the lovely Taj Mahal topping the list. There’s more, of course: the imposing Agra Fort, Sikandra, Itmad-ud-Daulah, and more- which makes this city one of India’s most visited. Which actually translates into more cons and scams than you can imagine. No, not everybody’s out to crook you, but too many of the so-called tourist guides, the souvenir-sellers and the hundreds of other people who make a living out of tourism feed off the gullibility, ignorance or whatever, of the thousands of tourists who come to Agra. Here, then, is a brief guide on how to handle the cons without missing out on the pros:
1. Go well-armed- which means carrying a good guide book and reading up beforehand on the places you want to visit. If you’re going as part of a tour group this won’t matter so much, but if you’re on your own, it can mean not having to hire a local guide. Many of them are good, of course, but a large number cook up fancy stories and know precious little about the history and architecture of Agra’s sights.
2. If you’re going to Agra for the day, carry adequate supplies of mineral water- there have been instances of people buying so-called `mineral water’ in Agra, which turned out to have been nothing more than tap water. If you do buy bottled water, make sure the bottle’s sealed.
3. Beggars, souvenir-sellers, touts and other pests of every ilk abound in Agra- and they swarm around anybody who looks even vaguely like a tourist. Ignore them, no matter how persistent they may be. If that seems impossible, try using the broken record technique: "No- no- no- no- no- no..." They get the message after a while.
4. Don’t buy souvenirs from the shops right outside the Taj. They do stock very nice stuff- pretty little Taj Mahals carved from white marble or soapstone; little stone elephants, and lovely marble coasters- but don’t succumb! These shops sell their wares at much higher prices than you’ll pay elsewhere in the city for exactly the same stuff.
5. If you use local transport- especially auto-rickshaws or cycle-rickshaws- negotiate the rate before you climb in. And watch out if you’ve hired a cycle-rickshaw to take you to Sikandra: a very common ploy used by rickshaw-wallahs is to pedal not-in-the-know passengers to a series of low, exquisitely Mughal buildings in red sandstone, very much in the heart of town- which they’ll tell you is Sikandra. This complex, incidentally, is St John’s College, Agra’s premier educational institute! A beautiful building, but definitely not Sikandra, which lies 10 km outside Agra, on the highway to Delhi.
The Taj Mahal is- well, something of a pilgrimage. You can’t come to India and miss seeing the Taj- and Indians themselves turn up in droves to view the mausoleum to beat all mausoleums (which just makes me wonder: if `mausoleum’ is derived from `Mausolus’,…Read More
The Taj Mahal is- well, something of a pilgrimage. You can’t come to India and miss seeing the Taj- and Indians themselves turn up in droves to view the mausoleum to beat all mausoleums (which just makes me wonder: if `mausoleum’ is derived from `Mausolus’, then should a splendid tomb be henceforth referred to as a `Mumtazeum’?).
Am I being facetious? And that too about a monument which has long been touted as the ultimate tribute to love? The Taj Mahal, after all, has been inundated by praise- sincere and generous- for centuries altogether; it’s been described as "having been designed by giants and finished by jewellers"; as "a teardrop on the cheek of time" (by India’s very own Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore); and by English poet Edwin Arnold as "not a piece of architecture, as other buildings are, but the proud passions of an emperor’s love wrought in living stones."
But somebody- I’ve forgotten who- actually did say that he regarded all those stories of the Taj being a monument to eternal love as sheer hogwash; that the simple crux of the matter was that Shahjahan liked to build- which is a point of view I agree with whole-heartedly. The fifth of the Mughal emperors is generally regarded as the best architect of the entire dynasty- and with good reason. Shahjahan was an aesthete, and spent huge amounts of money in creating some of the most stunning Mughal monuments ever. Delhi’s Red Fort and Jama Masjid (besides a host of other mosques) were constructed by him; Lahore’s Shalimar Bagh was laid out according to his instructions, and he made plenty of additions to already-constructed buildings, especially the Agra Fort. The fact that his wife, the Empress Arjumand Banu Begum, better known as Mumtaz Mahal- copped it while giving birth to her 14th child- gave Shahjahan an excuse to build, yet again.
Which he did in style.
Schoolchildren across the length and breadth of India can still, more than three centuries later, rattle off the facts about the Taj Mahal. That it took some 22 years to build (Shahjahan commissioned it in 1631); that its architect and its artisans, even the semi-precious stones used in its exquisite pietra dura inlay work- came from far and wide. That more than 1,000 elephants were used to transport the white marble, the jasper and lapis-lazuli, the sapphire, jade and coral which went into making this spectacular tomb. Spellbound tourists are told by local guides that Shahjahan had planned an identical tomb for himself, to be built in black marble- but died before he could fulfil his dream. That Shahjahan, to prevent the chief architect from ever creating anything as ethereal, had his hands chopped off.
Perhaps truth. Perhaps an overenthusiastic medieval historian’s imagination. But- no matter what, the Taj is worth seeing, just for itself. Forget about the story of an emperor so much in love with his wife that he wanted to make her a tomb the world would admire. Forget about all the legends and the tales you’ve ever heard about the Taj. Forget that you’re in one of the most crowded, most polluted parts of the world. Just gaze on- at one of the most magnificent buildings on earth.
Written by actonsteve on 02 Aug, 2001
How can you describe the Taj Mahal? You can't--it's impossible. You just have to experience it. To gaze in wonder at that magnificent dome and elegant gardens will be a moment that you remember for the rest of your life. It is one of the…Read More
How can you describe the Taj Mahal? You can't--it's impossible. You just have to experience it. To gaze in wonder at that magnificent dome and elegant gardens will be a moment that you remember for the rest of your life. It is one of the greatest sights in the world, some say the greatest, and like Victoria Falls, The Grand Canyon, and Macchu Picchu, it simply is one of those things you have to see in your life. The architectural grace and symmetry of the Taj Mahal just takes your breath away.
Like all great buildings, there is a story behind it. And it cannot get any more romantic than the Taj Mahal. Shah Jahan was the most charismatic and cultured of the Moghuls. He spent vast revenues on building projects all over northern India. And when his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, died, he was so devastated that his beard turned white overnight. He set out to create an unsurpassed eternal monument to her memory, and construction commenced in 1632. It took 20,000 men, until 1652, to create what you see before you. Shah Jahan did not have long to enjoy his wife's mausoleum, as he was deposed by his austere son Aurangzeb and locked away in the Agra Fort. There he stood at the pavilions, gazing sadly at the Taj in the distance.
All tourists make their way to the Taj sooner or later, and there are plenty of ways to get there, including walking from Taj Ganj. The best way I feel is by cycle-rickshaws, which are often pedalled by some of the poor in Agra, and your fare is very welcome. From ground level you cannot see the Taj, as it is surrounded by high red walls, but after you have paid your admittance you can enter the first courtyard, the Chowk-I-Kilo Kham. These courtyards are full of green lawns and towering archways. You almost unobtrusively pass through the last archway, and then you see the Taj Mahal...
What is immediately striking is its graceful symmetry--geometric lines run through formal gardens, ending in a white marble platform. Atop this platform is a great white bulbous dome complemented by four towering minarets in each corner. The whole image shimmers in a reflecting pool flanked by beautiful gardens--the whole effect is magical. The first stretch by the reflecting pool is where most people pose for their photos. But we were impressed by the fresh green gardens and how Muslim the Taj looked. Doesn't the Koran say that paradise is a verdant garden? As you approach through the gardens, two mosques come into view flanking the Taj, both exqusitely carved and built of red sandstone. But everybody wants to find the famous spot where the east-west pool crosses the the north-south watercourse in a small pool surrounded by benches. This was the spot Princess Diana famously posed to show the sham of her marriage in front of the world's greatest monument to love...
We strolled up to the plinth and joined the tourists climbing the stairs to the platform. Shoes have to be removed upon entrance to the mausoleom and your bare feet bake when touching the hot white marble. We had chosen our visit carefully--the sun was setting and the light that washed over the Taj was golden in colour. The minarets were now stark against the setting sun (see photo). The actual dome was a surprise; it is not yellow-white but blue-white and covered in inscriptions and detail. From below it looked like something out of "Arabian Nights." But inside were the tombs of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan. The central tomb is a lofty chamber with light streaming through fine latticework, and hanging above was an elaborate Cairene lamp.
We came back the next day and spent more time at the Taj; we ended up spending 4 hours there altogether. And we know that when we return to India, we will go back again. Words cannot describe its beauty when you stand on that marble platform overlooking the Yamuna, with the setting sun turning it into a golden ribbon. You may also agree that this is the most beautiful building in the world.
Written by Amanda on 30 Sep, 2001
Travel in Agra is cheap, but the potential for being ripped off is huge. Taxis and rickshaws mostly have meters, but they are always "broken", and cycle-rickshaws never have them. What you therefore have to do is negotiate a price before you set out –…Read More
Travel in Agra is cheap, but the potential for being ripped off is huge. Taxis and rickshaws mostly have meters, but they are always "broken", and cycle-rickshaws never have them. What you therefore have to do is negotiate a price before you set out – should anyone say "as you like", this is your cue to determine what you like – if you accept it and give what you think is reasonable when you get there, a huge argument will ensue.
There is a travel centre in the Clarks hotel, that will organise and book taxis for you, to and from the airport, Taj Mahal, the Fort, or Fatephur Sikri. The car we had was modern, and not an Ambassador, with a quiet engine and good suspension. The centre was very helpful when we booked, and the driver spoke English well. The prices were non-negotiable, however, but were reasonable if on the pricey side, and very reliable. It’s a good idea to have a car booked to take you from the airport to the town if you are arriving by air, as it’s a military airport with the odd civilian flight, and there aren’t many taxis there.
The driver we had spoke English well and knew exactly where he was going, but there were some (typical for India) irritations – he picked us up at the agreed time, but 5 minutes later stopped for petrol, and put pressure on us to be taken to handicraft and marble shops, etc. After words with the office, this stopped.
The prices we were quoted were 150 Rs to the airport or back, 500 return to F. Sikri, and 300 Rs return to the Taj. The last of these is very expensive, as it’s a short distance, but the other two aren’t bad.
Written by email@example.com on 20 Jan, 2005
We left Jaipur at 12am on an overnight private bus from Jaipur. We booked "sleeper seats," which are horizontal platforms above seats for passenger to sleep on. Fifteen minutes out of Jaipur, I was feeling dinner come up; I was so motion sick.…Read More
We left Jaipur at 12am on an overnight private bus from Jaipur. We booked "sleeper seats," which are horizontal platforms above seats for passenger to sleep on. Fifteen minutes out of Jaipur, I was feeling dinner come up; I was so motion sick.
At the first rest stop 30 minutes in, I climbed down with a little too helpful a hand from a passenger below. I held up the bus with my nausea and pleas to go back to Jaipur. The driver, who was a good man, cajoled me back on the bus, promising to rearrange the seating so that we could sit in the front, in the cabin, with the driver. He was not under any circumstance going to leave two women alone on the highway in the middle of the night. I thank him for that.
I sat in the front by the door and next to a sliding window. The driver advised I open the window to my left and boot out the moving bus if I had to. The rest of the trip was dizzying, nauseating, and freezing cold. I kept eating candy and chewing gum to drown out the taste in my mouth. We were covered in blankets because we had not prepared for the COLD desert nights in Rajasthan. It was so cold that we could see our own breath. My cousin and I had the eyes of every man glued to us in the cabin. They must never have seen a woman before in their country of 1 billion. The three of us hardly got a wink of sleep.
Six hours after leaving Jaipur and many butt-raising bumps later, we arrived in Agra at 6:30am only to be greeted by fog so thick we couldn’t see 5 feet ahead of us and were attacked by a swarm of auto drivers who all claimed to know the hotels with the best deals.
Well, I think the next part of the story is pretty predictable. Being tired, cold, and not being able to fathom killing a couple hours outside until the Taj Mahal opened, we got in an auto and told him to take us to the hotel-ridden Taj Ganj. Instead, we were taken to every hotel along the way he would get commission at. When we finally settled on a hotel of our choice, he spent 2 hours hovering outside our hotel, arguing with the hotel owner for a commission and with us for more fare money than we had prearranged with him.
My biggest regret in Agra will always be that we could have gone straight to see the Taj Mahal at 6:30am when we arrived, seen the sunrise, and had all that magic to ourselves. The guidebooks gush about seeing it then. But silly me, I had assumed the Taj opened at 9am like most things do.
(See the Taj Mahal entry to find out about the rest of the day).