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