Agra is one of the most prominent destinations of the World Tourism map with three heritage monuments that includes-The Taj Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri and Red Fort. It is more than just a decadent city of graveyards and stones. It is a vibrant centre of culture, art and religious philosophies that have enriched mankind and shaped human thought over centuries. Agra is famous for handicraft products such as inley work on marble, leatherwork, footwear, brasswear, carpets, jwellery, zari and embroidery work.
Agra is invariably included on every first-time visitor’s itinerary, for who visits India without visiting the Taj? Home to three generations of one of the most dynamic dynasties in the medieval world, their talent and wealth immortalized in stone and marble, Agra is home to the finest examples of Mughal architecture in India, of which the Taj is simply the most famous. The beauty of these buildings will bowl you over, but knowing something of the history that played itself out on these stages (akin to reading a Shakespearean drama) makes the entire Agra experience come alive.
To soak up this fascinating history in the walls and rooms that resonated to Mughal voices, you should ideally set aside 2 full days here and hire the services of a good guide. And, if your budget can stretch that far, there’s only one place to stay: the palatial Amarvilas, where every room has a view of the Taj.
WHAT TO SEE & DO
Agra is today a large industrial city with a woeful infrastructure, but sightseeing is quite manageable given that there are five major attractions and very little else to keep you here. Ideally, you will see the Taj at dawn, then visit Itmad-ud-Daulah’s Tomb and Agra Fort, and move on to Fatehpur Sikri the following dawn. Besides those sights listed below, you may also want to make time to visit beautiful Jama Masjid, built in 1648 by Jahanara Begum, Shah Jahan’s favorite daughter, who clearly inherited some of his aesthetic sensibilities. It is in the heart of the medieval part of Agra, best approached by cycle- or auto-rickshaw; you can stop along the way to bargain for jewelry, fabrics, or carpets. The other sight worth swinging by is Dayal Bagh Temple— begun 95 years ago, it is still under construction and is being built by the progeny of the laborers who built the Taj. The families guard their traditional craft techniques like gold, passing them on only to the sons in the family. Other minor attractions are ill-kept and a disappointment after viewing those reviewed below. Note that Bharatpur, where Keoladeo Ghana National Park lies (see chapter 10), is only 54km (34 miles) from Agra, with a stop at Fatehpur Sikri along the way.
Taj Mahal You expect to be disappointed when coming face to face with an icon that is almost an archetype, but nothing can really prepare you for the beauty of the Taj Mahal. Built by Shah Jahan as an eternal symbol of his love for his favorite wife, whom he called Mumtaz Mahal (“Jewel of the Palace”), it has immortalized him forever as one of the great architectural patrons of the world. It’s not just the perfect symmetry, the ethereal luminescence, the wonderful proportions, or the sheer scale (which is virtually impossible to imagine from staring at its oft-reproduced image), but the exquisite detailing covering every inch of marble that justifies it as a wonder of the world. What appears from afar to be perfectly proportioned white marble magnificence is in fact a massive bejeweled box, with pietra dura adorning the interior and exterior— said by some to be an Italian technique imported to Agra by Jahangir, but more likely to be a craft originating in Persia. These intricately carved floral bouquets are inlaid with precious stones: agate, jasper, malachite, turquoise, tiger’s eye, lapis lazuli, coral, carnelian—every stone known to man, as well as different shades of marble, slate, and sandstone. Beautiful calligraphy, inlaid with black marble, is carefully increased in size as the eye moves higher, creating an optical illusion of perfectly balanced typography, with the letters the same size from whichever angle you look. Carved relief work, again usually of flowers, which symbolized paradise on earth for the Mughals, decorates much of the interior, while the delicacy of the filigree screens that surround the cenotaph, carved out of a single piece of marble, is simply astounding. The tomb is flanked by two mosques—one is a prerequisite, but the other is a “dummy” built only in the interests of symmetry; both buildings are worthy of examination in their own right. At the center of it all lies Mumtaz Mahal’s cenotaph with the words HELP US OH LORD TO BEAR WHAT WE CANNOT BEAR; Shah Jahan’s cenotaph was added later. Work started in 1641, and the structure took 20,000 laborers 22 years to complete— legend has it that Shah Jahan cut off the hands of the architect (Persian-born Ustad Ahmad Lahori) and his laborers to ensure that they would never build another, but there is little to substantiate this sensational story. The Taj changes color depending on the time of day, and many recommend that you witness this by visiting in the morning and evening; however, your ticket is valid for one entry only. Eat a hearty breakfast before you head out (no food is allowed past security), and stay the day, or come in the early morning.
Agra Fort Built by Akbar (or rather, by his 4,000 workmen) on the west bank of the Yamuna, Agra Fort first took shape between 1565 and 1573, but each successive emperor was to add his imprint, and today the towering red-sandstone ramparts house a variety of palace apartments, representing the different building styles of Akbar and his grandson Shah Jahan. Akbar’s son, Jahangir, installed a “chain of justice” (1605) by which any of his subjects could call on him, which provides some insight into the ruling qualities of the man many dismiss as a drunkard. Entrance is through impressive Amar Singh Gate. On your right-hand side you pass Jahangiri Mahal, the palace that housed the women of the court, dating to Akbar’s reign (ca. 1570). In front is a stone pool with steps both inside and outside—legend says it was filled with rose petals during Nur Jahan’s time, so that she could bathe in their scent. Much of the exterior (the jutting jarokhas, for example, and the domed chattris) and almost the entire interior were clearly built by Hindu workmen, who used Hindu building styles and decorative motifs—indicative of Akbar’s all-embracing religious tolerance. Adjacent, facing Anguri Bagh (Grape Garden, where flowing water, flower beds, hidden lamps, and hanging jewels would have transformed it into a fantasy garden), is Khas Mahal (1636), built overlooking the cooling breezes of the Yamuna. You are now entering Shah Jahan’s palaces, immediately recognizable by the extensive use of white marble. Historians also point out that here—unlike in Akbar’s buildings, which feature straightforward Hindu elements next to Islamic—a subtle blend of Hindu and Persian elements resulted in a totally new style, referred to as the “Mughal style,” with its classical purity. The Khas Mahal is flanked by two Golden Pavilions (a reference to the fact that they were once gilded): the bedrooms of the princesses Jahanara and Roshanara, before the latter plotted the downfall of her father and sister. On the left is Mussaman Burj, an octagonal tower open to the cooling breezes, which may have been the emperor’s bedroom. Romantic accounts would have us believe that Shah Jahan, imprisoned by his son in this room, would gaze at the Taj Mahal until his death of a broken heart in 1666. However, evidence points to death by a massive dose of opium, complicated by the prolonged use of aphrodisiacs. Near the tower are the mirrored Sheesh Mahal and Mina Masjid (Gem Mosque); adjacent is Diwan-i- Khas (Hall of Private Audience; 1637), its marble columns inlaid with semi-precious stones in pietra dura floral patterns. In front of Diwan-i-Khas are two thrones (from where the emperor watched elephant fights below); facing these is Machchhi Bhavan (Fish House), once filled with the sounds of trickling water. Beyond lies Diwan-i-Am (Hall of Public Audience), the arcaded hall where the emperor would listen to the complaints of his subjects, seated on the Peacock Throne (see Lal Qila [Red Fort], in Delhi, earlier in this chapter). Note the insensitive placement of the tomb of John Russell Colvin, who died here during the Mutiny and was laid to rest in front of Diwan-I-Am. The ugly barracks to the north are also 19th-century British additions. From here on, most of the buildings (except for Nagina Masjid, the private mosque of the ladies of the court) are closed to the public, being at press time structurally unsound.
Itmad-ud-Daulah’s Tomb Described as a mini-Taj, this is the tomb of Mirza Ghiyath Beg, who served under Akbar and fathered Nur Jahan, the powerful wife of Jahangir who helped promote her father to his position as Lord of the Treasury and enshrined him here in this “bejeweled marble box”—proof of her powerful hold on the purse strings. Also built of translucent white marble, it was the most innovative building of 17th-century India, and marked the transition from the heavy red sandstone so favored by previous Mughal emperors. It no doubt inspired Shah Jahan with its beautiful symmetry and detailing; the pietra duras are as delicate as embroidery, and the dense gilding and paintwork feature typical Persian motifs, such as the wine-vase and the dish and cup, much favored by Jahangir at the time. The scale may be far less grand than that of the Taj, but the polychrome geometric ornamentation is more obviously decorative, and given the beauty of the proportions and the intricacy of its inlays and mosaics, it’s amazing how little traffic this tomb sees relative to the Taj. It definitely warrants a short visit, if only to get a sense of how almost generic opulence was to the Mughal court.
Sikandra (Akbar’s Tomb)
Sikandra (Akbar’s Tomb) Someone once described the rise and fall of the Mughal empire as rulers who started “as titans and finished as jewelers.” To this end, Akbar’s tomb is a less-elegant version of the bejeweled tombs of his great-granddaughter (or his daughter-in-law’s father), yet more ornate than that of his father Humayun (see “Delhi: The Top Attractions”). That said, the perfect symmetry is typical of Persian architecture, and the scale is huge; the gateway alone, featuring more than 20 panels inlaid with intricate geometric patterning, will stop you in your tracks. Geometric patterning in fact dominates, with relatively few floral designs, as befits the last “titan” ruler. It’s not surprising to hear that the tomb is believed to have been designed by Akbar; the detailing reflects the altogether more restrained lifestyle and masculine personality of this great ruler.
The district of Agra is situated in western U.P., between 27.11°N and 78.0° to 78.2°E. Its altitude is about 169m above the sea level. On the north, it is bounded by Mathura District, on the south, Bharatpur bound it. Agra is situated on the bank of Yamuna River.
The climate of Agra is extreme and tropical. Summers are extremely hot and the maximum temperature can be as high as 45°C, while winters are cold and foggy. Heavy rains and high humidity mark the monsoon season.
Agra has a population of about 1,259,979. Males constitute 53% of the population and females 47%. Agra has an average literacy rate of 65%, higher than the national average of 59.5%; with 76% of the males and 53% of females literate.
Agra is globally known as the city of Taj Mahal. But this royal Mugal city has, in addition to the legendary Taj, many monuments that epitomize the high point of Mughal architecture. In the Mughal period, in the 16th and 17th centuries, Agra was the capital of India. It was here that the founder of the Mughal dynasty, Babar, laid out the first formal Persian garden on the banks of the river, Yamuna. Here, Akbar, his grandson raised the towering ramparts of the great Red Fort. Within its walls, Jahangir built rose-red palaces, courts and gardens, and shahjahan embellished it with marble mosques, palaces and pavilions of gem-inlaid white marble.
Fatehpur Sikri (39km)
Emperor Akbar visited the small village of Sikri in 1568, to seek blessings for a son from the renowned mystic, Sheikh Salim Chisti. He became the father of a son, as foretold by the sufi saint and shifted his capital to Sikri to honour the saint and named it as Fatehpur Sikri. The construction of the new capital city began atop a rocky ridge in 1596 and was completed in 1575. An artificial lake was dug out and construction of magnificent Jama Masjid marked the beginning of the new city. This first planned city in Indo-Islamic style was built around Jama Masjid. The palace courts were laid out parallel to the cardinally aligned mosque and the sequential order of the palaces were emphasised by change in level. Due to the shortage of water and unrest in north-west, Akbar had to abandon the city after sixteen years. The remains of this ‘ghost’ city are still in a perfect state of preservation.
Buland Darwaza (Gate of Victory)
The 53.5 metres high gateway commemorates Akbar’s successful campaign of Gujarat. It is the highest gateway in India and leads to the sacred tomb of Sheikh Salim Chisti.
Sheikh Salim Chisti’s Tomb
The white marble mausoleum of Salim Chisti is held sacred by people of all faiths and beliefs. The enchanting tomb in the courtyard of the mosque has its interior embellished with mother-of-pearl, lapis-lazuli and topaz.
The open five storeyed columnar structure used as a pleasure pavilion by Akbar is set in the corner amidst eh female zone of the palace. It offords a fine view of the palaces below and noted for the stone cut work walls. Ankh Michauli, a fine hall is said to be the place whee theemperor played hide and seek with royal ladies. Other interesting sites are Diwan – I – Am or hall or Public Audience; Diwan-i-Khas or the Hall of Private Audiences, an astonishing chamber dominated by a massive carved pillar; Pachisi Court, with a gigantic game board on which the game Pachisi was played using slave girls; Private Living Quarters clustered around a pool; Mariam’s Palace; Jodhabai’s Palace; Hawa mahal; Jama Mashid etc.
It is famous for Aligarh Muslim University, founded by Sir Syad Ahmad Khan in the 19th century. The town is also well known for manufacturing excellent locks.
Bateshwar, the ‘abode of Lord Shiva’ set on the west bank of Yamuna, has a number of sacred shrines and bathing ghats. The first temple of Bateshwarnath was built here by Raja Badan Singh of Bhadawar in 1646. Later on, the temple of Thakur Bihari was built by Diwan Bakht Singh and the Nikunja Bihari Temple by the Raja of Bahadawar. Shauripur, the ruins of an ancient town located 2km north of Bateshwar is said to be the birth place of Lord Neminath, the 22nd Jain tirthankar.
Agra Distance Guide
|Agra||to||Uttar Kashi||523 Km|