Beyond the clichés
Agra has much to offer for those with the thirst to explore, going beyond the traditional offerings of storied monuments and eclectic shops – an adventure for both the well travelled and first-time visitors
A few nights ago, I was Netflixing Victoria & Abdul when I came across the endearing Judi Dench in the role of Victoria. The Queen is introduced to mangoes by Abdul – a servant who was introduced on her Golden Jubilee. Abdul later rose to become one of her closest confidants, so much so that it irked the royal household. Although the movie was freshly entrenched in my mind, it was walking around the streets of Agra that I chanced upon the famous story once again.
It was my fourth visit to Agra, however, this time I consciously steered clear of the Taj Mahal to discover the city's other sparkling gems.
One of the first ones is Munshi Abdul Karim's tomb. Now, the story goes something like this – Abdul Karim, a young prison clerk from British India, was instructed to travel to England for Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee in 1887 to present her with a mohur (an Indian gold coin) as a token of appreciation from British-ruled India. A chance incident led to Karim regaling the Queen with his stories of India, especially that of Biryani served with Mango pickle. This initiated a bond between the two as Queen Victoria started calling Karim her Munshi (a teacher) as he started giving her lessons in Urdu. While Victoria treated Abdul as a son, his preferment was resented by her household and inner circle and they tried to shut Karim out. After Victoria's death in 1901, he was sent back to India and all of his correspondence with her was confiscated. Abdul lived quietly in Agra until he passed away in 1909 and was buried at the Royal Graveyard there. A tomb was erected over it which today bears the distinct features of Indo-Saracenic and colonial British architecture.
Although Agra had been a capital in the Mughal empire, the city was benevolent to all religions – quite evident from the city's skyline.
Akbar's Church was built in the late 16th century by Jesuit priests and has been patronised by many of the Mughal emperors including Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan. Another church that reminds us of the mid-18th-century Anglican architecture is St George's Cathedral.
This Protestant church was built by Colonel John Theophilus Boileau and draws Christians not only from the nearby regions and India but all over the world. While the exteriors are dominated by a yellow Ochre stucco, the interiors have six columns and an arched ceiling.
This Neo-Gothic style Church has an altar adorned with marble inlay work and is a typical Cantonment church featuring several memorials and commemorations of JCOs from the East Surrey Regiment.
Besides, the Jama Masjid is a beautiful representation of Mughal architecture. Built by emperor Shah Jahan in honour of his eldest sister. With multiple domes and minarets, this mosque is built with red sandstone and marble and has intricate lotus and kalash finials under the domes. The Western wall has a beautiful mihrab and pulpit in white marble. Also, there is a Persian inscription in white marble inlaid with black stone singing praises of Jahanara and Shah Jahan.
Next comes the Mankameshwar temple which houses a Shiva Linga and is surrounded by narrow lanes that stock up all the articles required for impressing the Gods and Goddesses.
Another remnant of Agra's Christian history is the Roman Catholic cemetery which is the oldest Christian burial ground in the whole of North India and holds tombs of Armenian, Portuguese and Jesuit travellers and businessmen who came to India during the 16th and 17th centuries. Also, there are a few tombs with Portuguese and Latin names – Tomb of John Hessings, Tomb of Geronimo Veroneo and Tomb of Khoja Mortinepus being the popular ones.
One of the city's colonial elements is the Post office – oldest ones in the country. This picturesque British bungalow is topped off by a 15 ft dome in the centre. The building is coloured red and white, which are also the colours of Indian postal services. It has a philately gallery with all the machinations of modern Indian postal service.
Any trip to Agra is incomplete without digging into some authentic food from the North-Western frontier at Peshawar at ITC Mughal. The must-eats includes Dal Bukhara and Sikandari Raan that you must combine with some Taftaan to round off Agra's exquisite Mughal history.
Agra was a city at the crossroads of the Mughal and colonial empire and there is quite a bit to explore here beyond the majestic ivory-white mausoleum. So, if you are planning a trip to the city anytime soon, make sure you go beyond the clichés.