It is said that when Shah Jahan was interned in Agra Fort by his son, Aurangzeb, who seized power, he asked to he live out his final years in Musamman Burj from where he could “gaze wistfully at the Taj Mahal in the distance,” Here he lived till his death in January 1666, with his daughter,
Jahanara Begum, at his side – his body was carried across the river to lie alongside his beloved wife, in the peerless symbol of love he had created for her.
Whether this is legend or historic realty, the Agra Fort is certainly a great vantage point from which to stare out towards the Taj Mahal. And looking out from one of the balconies at the Taj on a rainy day, with the great monument to love looking especially mystical in the monsoon mist, floating among the fog, we could see how the splendour of the capital of Moghul-ruled Hindusthan remains undiminished, from the massiveness of the Agra Fort to the magnificence of the Taj Mahal. Even though the first impression of Agra as we entered the city was of squalor, filthy waters, pollution and chaotic streets, there is no doubt that its majestic monuments make it one of the must visit places in the world.
The high red-sandstone ramparts of Agra Fort dominate a bend in the River Yamuna, full of water when we visited during the monsoon, and tower over its moat. The curved bastions of the sandstone battlements are pierced by massive gates – we entered through Amar Singh Pol, which has impressive double walls, a forecourt and ornamental glazed tiles, like the victorious General Lake when he entered the fort in 1803 after vanquishing the Mughal, Jat and Maratha kingdoms in north-central India through the same gate.
After the gate, we walked past intricately carved buildings to a second gate that brought us to a courtyard with the sandstone pillared hall of audiences called Diwan-e-Am constructed by Shah Jahan in 1628, used as an arsenal by the British, and restored in 1876 by Sir John Strachey. The hall has three rows of white polished stucco pillars topped by peacock arches, a sitting area for ministers and an ornate throne alcove decorated with inlaid marble and flowers and foliage reliefwork. This alcove was once a suitably sumptuous setting for the world famous Peacock Throne. Our guide, hired at the entrance to the fort, showed us a Gothic Christian tomb marking the grave of John Russel Colvin, the Lieutenant-Governor of the Northwestern Provinces, who died here during the Mutiny of 1857. One could imagine the days when the fort’s grounds and courtyard contained formal gardens full of fountains and flowerbeds, tanks and water channels, the days when the Anguri Bagh had grape vines, lily pools and candle-lit niches.
The guide took us to pavilions where royalty would have sat or stood to catch the breezes wafting over the Yamuna, a marble mosque built for the emperor’s harem, and down to what he called the ‘mina bazaar’ – a beautiful marble balcony with carved lattice screens and peacock arches through which ladies of the court could look at goods such as silk, jewellery and brocade, offered by merchants, without being seen themselves. The guide says princesses Jahanara and Roshanara would have placed jewels needing repair in the niches in the balcony’s walls.
A gate that was one of the spoils from Akbar’s horrific invasion of Chittorgarh leads to the Mandir Raja Ratan, erected in 1768 after the fort was occupied by the Jats. From here, we came to the Hall of Private Audience, badly damaged during the British attack on the fort but with ornate pillars and arches inlaid with lapis lazuli and jasper surviving the bombardment. Shah Jahan apparently took his evening repose in a white throne, while a black throne is from which the emperor would watch elephant fights.
If the days of Akbar and Shah Jahan were the golden period of Agra, its decline began in 1857, following the great mutiny, when the British moved the headquarters of the northwest Provinces from Agra to Allahabad, till it once more regained the limelight after independence because of its great monuments, specially the romance of one of the wonders of the world situated in this city, and it became a leg of the Golden Triangle of India’s tourism. Later, as we drove around in the Cantonment, we saw the ochre-coloured 1826 St George’s Church, the classical façade of the Havelock Church, the library, post office, circuit house and old school buildings. From the cantonment, we drove into a labyrinth of bazaars, alleys and old residential quarters clustered around the onion domes of the Jama Masjid built by Shah Jehan in the 1600s. Sadar Bazaar, Kinari Bazaar, Gwalior Road, MG Road and Pratappura are worth spending time at, for some local colour and handicrafts. Wander around areas like Taj Ganj to see pigeon fanciers (kabootarbaz) flying pigeons in flocks over the old buildings.
Among the many handicrafts of Agra, the most famous is Agra’s inlay work, done on tabletops, boxes and decorative items. There are many emporia where you can see the process of inlaying small, exquisitely cut and fitted, highly-polished colored stones into marble tabletops to create the effect of a painting – I was specially impressed by Subash on Gwalior Road, which has a couple of really beautiful pieces created for display that are indescribable. Other places where I have seen artisans doing inlay work are Krafts Palace, Handicrafts Inn, Akbar International and UP Handicrafts Palace.
Some of the best examples of this inlay work, called Pietre Dure in Europe, are to be found on the surface of Itimad-ud-Daulah, the beautiful tomb of Mirza Ghiyas Beg, wazir to the Mughal court, who became father-in-law of Emperor Jahangir. He died in 1622. We were surprised at the few tourists at this gem of Agra, that looks like a jewel box in marble. The mausoleum is one of the oldest marble monuments in India and marks the transition from imposing sandstone architecture to the elegance of Agra’s marble marvels. It is beautifully conceived and perfectly executed with translucent stone inlaid walls and tracery-work that look no less attractive than those of the younger and better known tombs of Agra.
The mausoleum to Ghiyas Beg was built by his daughter, Noor Jehan, the influential queen of Jehangir, so respected by her husband that he had coins minted in her name. Being designed by a woman for her father, the woman’s touch is visible in its daintily proportioned octagonal exteriors and graceful pavilion on its roof rather. Beg’s grave is underground, next to his wife’s, shrouded in flowers. Latticework screens lead to the inner grave with paintings of flowers, cypresses, vases and wine vessels, all symbols of paradise. The main chamber is richly ornamented. As Mumtaz was Noor Jahan’s niece, the guide jokingly said that two great tombs of the world, the Taj Mahal and the Itimad-ud-Dulah, were built not for the mighty Mughal dynastic rulers of all India but for the family of Ghiyas Beg!
A short walk from this tomb brought us to Chini-ka-Rauza, built in 1635 and reputed to be the mausoleum of Afzal Khan, a Persian poet and Shah Jahan’s prime minister. Now largely neglected, the bulbous domed tomb is of interest as a Persian construction with a few relics of coloured enamel tiles, called chini, that gave the tomb its name, and some traces of paintings and Islamic calligraphy.
Just a few kilometres north of Chini-ka-Rauza, Ram Bagh (originally Aram Bagh) was laid out by Babur in 1528 and is probably the first pleasure garden of its kind, though it is now rather neglected.
As evening approached we drove to the Mehtab Gardens for a view of the Taj Mahal across the Yamuna at sunset. One of the most famous buildings, its perfect proportions are matched by the symmetry of two identical buildings on each side – a mosque and a guesthouse, and the frame of four minarets each topped by a chhatri.
In the morning, we started out straight after breakfast for the Taj Mahal. Much has been written about its perfection, and photographs and illustrations of the Taj are so widely used as the epitome of India’s architecture and the enduring symbol of the city, but each of more than seven visits to this monument has always left me awestruck. My favourite hour here is in the morning when the crowds have just started coming in, when the marble facades are bathed in the soft morning sunlight, the mists are rising over the Yamuna behind, the red and yellow flowering gardens look glorious, and the marble floors are cool. The play of light at different hours is a decorative element, part of the detailing that has made Taj Mahal one of the world’s leading monuments. That this tribute to love came to be built in India, by a descendant of the Mongols, who were more famous for war and pillage, is no fluke.
The guide we hired told us that the Taj was built by 20,000 men from all over Asia in the mid-1600s, using marble from Makrana and precious stones from Persia, Russia, Afghanistan, Tibet, China and the Indian Ocean. While the majesty of the Taj is such that all the tourist hordes look like ants in comparison to its size, and the monument rises like a dream amid green gardens, equally stunning is the detailed inlaywork using onyx, amethyst, lapis lazuli, turquoise, jade, crystal, coral and mother-of-pearl.
We started out by walking among the superb gardens designed in the charbagh style that evokes visions of the Gardens of Paradise, with waterways that dissect the garden into four parts before meeting at a marble tank in the centre.
The only one that was full of water runs north south and, like all other visitors, we took the mandatory family photograph in front of the fountain-fed waterway with the glassy reflection of the Taj which forms the backdrop for the image. We walked along the east–west canal, lined with lofty trees, ferns and flowers, and spotted a grey hornbill feeding on the figs of a sprawling tree. The trees trilled with birdcalls and the distinctive sounds of the brown-headed barbet.
Presently, as we approached closer, the Taj Mahal with its central dome loomed even grander, atop a square marble platform with a minaret on each corner. We enjoyed looking at the detail of the relief carving and floral patterns of precious stones. Removing our shoes, we walked over the cool marble floors to the chamber with a really fine marble screen decorated with precious stones and went below to see the tombs.