The Grand Tour III-11: Agra…City of the Taj


The Taj Mahal, completed in 1653, in the reign of the Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan (1592 – 1666).

Most visitors to Agra come for one purpose alone – to marvel at the Taj Mahal. They day-trip here from Delhi or spend at most a night in this city.

That is a pity, since there is so much more to marvel at in this former Mughal capital. Three days would just be enough to take in its most important sites.

Agra (and its surrounding regions) was the capital of the Mughal Empire under three successive Emperors – Akbar, his son Jahangir, and his grandson, Shah Jahan, who would go on to build the Taj Mahal. Of the four great mausoleums of the Mughal Emperors, two are situated here: Akbar’s at Sikandra, and Shah Jahan’s at the Taj Mahal.  The other two are Humayoun’s in Delhi and Jahangir’s in Lahore.

2 - Agra_(Baedeker,_1914)

Baedeker Map of Agra (1914). The old city sits on the western bank of the River Yamuna, just like the Old City of Delhi does. The Red Fort is to the south of the old City, with the Cantonment to the south of the Fort. The Taj Mahal sits to the East of the city, and is visible from the ramparts of the Fort. [Public Domain.]

3 - Taj Again

The spectacular approach to the Taj Mahal. On days with blue skies, the Taj itself is reflected in the fountain.

12 - Sikandra

The Mausoleum of the Mughal Emperor Akbar, situated in Sikandra, a suburb of Agra. It was completed in 1613.

From 1575 to 1585, the Emperor Akbar established his new capital in the outskirts of Agra proper, building an entire new city complete with massive Friday Mosque (Jami Masjid). He abandoned it soon after, moving his capital to Lahore and thereafter to Agra. Fatehpur Sikri, completely deserted and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, still stands today, and makes for an essential day-trip outside of Agra proper.

13 - Jami Masjid

The Buland Darwaza, or great entrance to the Jami Masjid, Fatehpur Sikri. This was completed in 1577.

14 - Fatehpur Sikri Diwan e Khas

Diwan-i-khas, or Hall of Private Audience, Fatehpur Sikri.

15 - Panch Mahal

Panch Mahal, or wind-catcher tower, Fatehpur Sikri.

The name, “Agra”, was a later invention. During the reign of the Mughal Emperors, the city was known as Akbarabad – “Akbar’s City”.  The Emperor Akbar would rebuild and refortify the existing fort-palace in the city with red sandstone, calling it Lal Qila. We know it today as the Red Fort or Agra Fort, to distinguish it from its younger sibling in Delhi.

The Red Fort would be the residence of both the Emperors Jahangir and Shah Jahan as well, with the latter massively beautifying the palace grounds and making it what it is today.


Delhi Gate, Agra Red Fort, 1889. [Public Domain.]

5 - Red Fort Amar Singh Gate

Amar Singh Gate, or Lahore Gate. This is the main public entrance to the Fort today.

6 - Khas MAhal and Anguri Bagh

The Khas Mahal and Anguri Bagh Gardens, Agra Fort. The former was built by Shah Jahan, known for his predilection for white marble.

7 - Shah Burj

The Shah Burj – an exquisite viewing tower, Agra Fort. It was built by Shah Jahan for Mumtaz Mahal and provides stunning views of the Taj Mahal.

8 - Shah Burj Interior

The beautiful marble interior of the Shah Burj. Note the Persian elements in the form of the niches.

9 - Taj Red Fort

View of the Taj Mahal from the Red Fort

Emperor Jahangir loved gardens and laid many gardens out within the walls of the Red Fort – these were destroyed by the British and unfortunately lost.  It is his son, Shah Jahan, who would be best remembered for his contribution to the architectural heritage and legacy of not only Agra, but also Delhi.

I refer, of course, to the Taj Mahal, widely considered to represent the apogee of Mughal art and architecture; an impossible confection of gleaming white marble, inlaid with precious stones and decorated with stucco and carvings.

A dream of a monument – one to undying love, that of an emperor for his queen, Mumtaz Mahal – the Taj is everywhere in Agra. It is almost impossible to avoid it, given that it sits in its own prominent location to the East of the city, forever visible from the ramparts of the Red Fort and the banks of the River Yamuna.

Shah Jahan would abandon Akbarabad in 1638, shifting his capital city to Shahjahanabad in today’s Delhi. There, he would build a larger replica of the Red Fort in Agra, calling it by the same name, Lal Qila.

His time in Delhi would be short – his son, the Emperor Aurangzeb, would depose him and imprison him in the Agra Fort, where he lived till the end of his days, admiring the Taj Mahal further down the river. Only in death, would he be reunited with his beloved Mumtaz.

10 - Itimad ud Daula

The Tomb of I’timad-ud-Daulah was commissioned by Nur Jahan, the wife of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir. Completed in 1628, it is widely regarded as having a direct influence on the Taj Mahal and is colloquially referred to as the “Baby Taj”.

11 - MEhtab Bagh

View of the Taj Mahal from the Mehtab Bagh (Gardens of Moonlight).

Taj Mahal 1800s

View of the Taj Mahal from the Mehtab Bagh, across the Yamuna River. 1800s Company School watercolour.

Agra also boasts a surprising array of colonial buildings. The British established the Presidency of Agra in 1835, and with them came all manner of church and civic architecture, concentrated in two locations – Civil Lines, to the north of the Old City of Agra, and Agra Cantonment, to the south.

A trip to Agra would not be complete without also taking in its colonial heritage.

16 - Hessing Tomb

John Hessing’s Tomb (1803), in the Roman Catholic Cemetery, Civil Lines. The tomb is in the Mughal style.

17 - Cathedral of Immaculate Conception

Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (1848), Civil Lines.

18 - Akbar Church

Church of the Pieta, also known as “Akbar’s Church” (1772), Civil Lines.

19 - St Georges Cathedral

St George’s Cathedral (1826), Agra Cantonment.

20 - NCC Mess

Bungalow, in the Indo-Saracenic style, along Mall Road. Now the NCC Officers’ Mess.

Essential Reference:

  • Agra – The Architectural Heritage. An INTACH Roli Guide. By Lucy Peck, 2008.  New Delhi: Lotus Collection – Roli Books.
21 - Taj Mahal

…and a backward glance at the Taj Mahal.

About Kennie Ting

I am a wandering cityophile and pattern-finder who is pathologically incapable of staying in one place for any long period of time. When I do, I see the place from different perspectives, obsessive-compulsively.
This entry was posted in Art & Architecture, Cities & Regions, Culture & Lifestyle, Heritage, India, Landmarks & History, Photography, Sociology & Urban Studies, Travel & Mobility and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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