Time-Travelling In Agra

As the Mughal capital, Agra was a robust city even before the Taj was built.  
The sight of the sun setting over the Yamuna behind the Taj Mahal has mesmerised visitors to Agra for centuries. Photo: Adrian Pope/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images
The sight of the sun setting over the Yamuna behind the Taj Mahal has mesmerised visitors to Agra for centuries. Photo: Adrian Pope/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

The first time I visited Agra, it was with my grandfather. I remember moonlit gardens, and tall fountains that fell into sparkling silver streams. I remember the dark dungeons of Akbar’s fort. Most of all, I remember the ghostly crypt beneath the Taj Mahal, where lay two solemn graves that sent shivers up my spine. The graves, my grandfather explained, were those of a queen, Arjumand Banu Begum, and her grief-stricken husband, the Emperor Shah Jahan, who had once ruled all of India.

The story of Shah Jahan and the mausoleum here built in memory of his beloved wife has fired the imaginations of writers and poets through the ages, as it fired mine, even as a child. As I grew older, my fascination with the Taj Mahal turned into an abiding interest in Mughal history. The more I read about the Mughals, the more captivated I became with them—the larger-than-life emperors, warriors, poets, architects, painters, and their incredible achievements. Agra beckoned again and again.

Over the years, I have visited Agra several times—with friends, with my children, and most recently, with a sheaf of notes copied from the journal of Peter Mundy, a young officer with the East India Company, the hand-written original of which I had discovered one grey morning in the British Library in London as I researched pre-British India. Mundy had arrived in India in 1628, the first year of Shah Jahan’s reign, and kept a detailed record of all that he saw and experienced. I expected to find descriptions of Agra, but imagine my excitement when I found in Mundy’s writings an eyewitness account of the building of the Taj Mahal. It is perhaps the only such account that exists.

Mundy writes that the Emperor spared no expense building the Taj, so “gold and silver [were] esteemed as common Metall, and Marble but as ordinarie stones”. Construction commenced in 1632, soon after the queen died in childbirth. Legend has it that it took the work of 20,000 artisans to create this symphony in marble. Around the tomb was “set a raile of gold”. This palisade, of solid gold and studded with precious jewels, which Mundy saw in 1632, was then valued at six lakh rupees. It was removed in 1642, and replaced by a marble lattice screen, which is what we see today.

Shah Jahan Taj Mahal Agra

Emperor Shah Jahan, credited with building the iconic monument, was considered one of the greatest Mughals. His reign was immortalised in a visual record called Padshahnama that he commissioned. Photo: Fine Art Images/Dinodia

Mundy also writes of the Emperor’s intention to “remove all the Cittie” to the vicinity of the Taj Mahal, building streets, shops and houses close to it. The new suburb and market, to be called Taj Ganj, was to provide revenue for the upkeep of the mausoleum. Merchants, shopkeepers and artisans had already begun to move into the area in Mundy’s time, and in 1643, the shops and sarais there yielded one lakh rupees in the form of rent. Shah Jahan assigned this amount for the maintenance of the Taj Mahal.

Taj Ganj still thrives, no longer a suburb, but in the heart of the city through which hundreds of thousands of tourists who come to see the Taj Mahal must pass. As I leave the Taj behind me, the rain begins to pelt down. I take refuge in a small teashop, selling cigarettes, packets of chips, and a strong, murky brown brew that claims to be ginger tea. I risk the tea, and am grateful for its warmth and sugary kick. I look out upon the crowded streets of Taj Ganj, the tourists, the shops selling crude replicas of the Taj.

Shah Jahan probably wouldn’t have been surprised by the bustle, for the Agra of his time was also a busy, crowded city, “populous by reason of the greate Mogolls keeping of his court here”, Mundy wrote. “Every day there was about the dharbare [darbar], such a number of Eliphants, horses, coaches, Soldiers, peons” and other people that it was difficult to pass through them.

But what was Agra like before the Taj, I wondered. It’s had many avatars. In the 11th century, it was one of the many fortresses sacked by Mahmud of Ghazni on a raid into India. During the last quarter of the 15th century, the fortress was converted into a city by a Rajput king. In 1506, it became the capital of Sikandar Lodi, ruler of the Delhi Sultanate. Agra remained the capital of the Lodis until the fall of the Sultanate in 1526, when the Sultan, Ibrahim Lodi, was defeated at the Battle of Panipat by Babur, a prince from Central Asia, who established the Mughal empire in India.

Though Babur chose Delhi as the capital of his fledgling empire, he spent considerable time in Agra, where he laid out the first of many fine gardens he would go on to build in India. In a letter to his dearest friend Khwaja Kilan, a homesick Babur consoled himself with the beauty he had created in his flower-filled gardens in Agra. “The palas trees which I have had planted, seem to absorb the glow from the dawns and the dusks, and attain the soft hues of Makarana marble,” he wrote. “King­fishers sail carefree over the chinar groves and the marble terraces cradle the velvety lawns. The fountains sing and weep like the sitars…”

Not much remains of Babur’s original gardens. Though the Aram Bagh, Dehra Bagh, and Zahar Bagh, all attributed to Babur, still grace the riverfront in Agra, their original layout has been altered considerably. Be that as it may, the gardens still evoke the memory of Babur. As I gaze upon their regal symmetry and serene grace, my heart goes out to the young emperor, conqueror of Hindustan not so much by choice as by necessity, who tried—with considerable success—to recreate the ordered beauty of his homeland in the hot, disorderly land he had had to make his own.

Diwan-I-Aam Shah Jahan Agra

There are 48 pillars in the many-arched Diwan-i-Aam of Agra fort. On its eastern side is the Takth-i-Murassa or the throne room inlaid with precious stones where Shah Jahan sat when he met his subjects. Photo: Blaine Harrington/Age Fotostock/Dinodia

Agra truly came into its own during the reign of Babur’s grandson Akbar. One of his first acts upon becoming emperor in 1556 was to move his capital from Delhi to Agra. Agra—or Akbarabad, as the new capital was known—became the heart of the powerful Mughal Empire, and an important commercial centre. In the words of Abul Faz’l, Akbar’s vizier and court chronicler, the city was “filled with people from all countries” and became “the emporium of the traffic of the world”.

Appropriate to the strength and majesty of his empire, Akbar built a massive fort in Agra, overlooking the Yamuna. From here, he ruled an empire that extended, at the time of his death, from Kashmir in the north to the Deccan in the south, from Baluchistan and Afghanistan in the west to Bengal in the east. Despite the centuries that have passed, Akbar’s fort still dominates the landscape. Its walls, of red sandstone, rise 70 feet above the banks of the river.

I enter through the Lahore Gate, which takes me through several public areas, including gardens and a marketplace which once served the royal ladies, but today serves the tourist trade with its glittering array of cheap trinkets and flashy souvenirs. Of the 500 or so palaces built during Akbar’s time, only a few remain—of the rest, some were demolished by Akbar’s successors to make way for their own, and others by the British to put up barracks.

Akbar's tomb Mughal Agra

Geometrical mosaics cover the roof of Akbar’s tomb in Sikandra. Akbar was a great patron of the arts, and his tomb reflects influences not just of the Mughals but also of the artists from Bengal, Gujarat, Rajasthan, and other parts of India who worked on it. Photo: Kimberley Coole/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

Akbar also planned his own tomb, and began to build it in Sikandra, a small, crowded village on the outskirts of Agra, several years before his death. It was completed in 1613, eight years after his death, by his son Jahangir. An imposing, three-storeyed structure, it is richly adorned with marble inlay and intricate mosaics of coloured stone. It stands amidst vast manicured gardens where herds of deer graze languidly, and langurs run riot amongst the trees. Contemporary accounts tell us that gold, silver, and precious stones were used to decorate the interior, and costly carpets covered the floor. Peter Mundy paid a visit to the tomb, but was not permitted to enter the chamber where Akbar lay buried, “by reason the Kinge [Shah Jahan] keepes the key of the doore which is alsoe sealed with his signett”. The jewels and costly ornamentation have disappeared but Akbar’s mausoleum retains its stately air.

No matter the mood or mode in which I visit Agra, I am always struck by the almost surreal manner in which the brash and crass co-exist with the gracious. On the city’s narrow streets, diesel fumes and the aggressive blaring of a thousand motor horns assault the senses until I turn the corner and, stepping through an archway, am transported into a world of serene gardens and quiet fountains, trees rustling in the morning breeze, and birdsong.

It wasn’t much different in Jahangir’s day. The city was built without any regular plan, but hidden amongst its higgledy-piggledy alleys lay the magnificent garden palaces of the nobles of the Mughal court. Along the right bank of the river, which is today occupied by modern buildings, stood the palaces of important court officials. Akbar’s fort continued to be the royal residence, where Jahangir and his queens lived in state.

Agra was situated at the junction of several trade routes, and Francis Pelsaert, a young employee with the Dutch East India Company, who arrived in Agra in 1621, and who, like Mundy after him, kept a meticulous account of his time in India, recorded the “indescribable quantities of merchandise”, that passed through the city in the course of trade across the land. These included “immense quantities of grain, such as wheat or rice, sugar, and butter… salt, opium, asafoetida, ‘painted’ cloth called chits [chintz], red salu from Burhanpur, ormesines from Lahore, horses, and large quantities of cotton, which is grown largely between Surat and Burhanpur.”

Taj Mahal Agra Souvenir

Marble inlay work lives on in Agra even today, primarily in the form of souvenirs sold to visitors to the Taj Mahal. Photo: Super Stock/Dinodia

Today, the markets in Agra are still crowded, but not with the vast varieties of goods that Pelsaert describes. Readymade garments, leather footwear and tourism are the city’s main industries. Visitors also seek its petha, the crystallised pumpkin sweet that is such a favourite in northern India, and its dalmoth, a savoury namkeen that usually accompanies tea. I make my purchases from one of the several busy, brightly lit shops in the crowded market. I am almost ready to say goodbye to the city—except that I cannot leave till I have paid a visit to the tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah, Nur Jahan’s father.

Nur Jahan was a formidable woman. As her husband, the Emperor Jahangir, declined in health and power thanks to his dissolute lifestyle and dependence on opium, she took over the reins of the Empire. She was also a great builder. She constructed inns and sarais for the comfort of travellers, and laid out many gardens in and around the city, which can still be seen. Her crowning achievement as a builder though, is the tomb that she had built for her father, Itimad-ud-Daulah, upon his death in 1622.

Taj Mahal Calligraphy Quran Art

Shah Jahan and Noor Jahan’s tombs in the Taj Mahal are covered with calligraphy, which was deeply prized by the Mughals as the primary means of preserving the Quran. Photo: Aldo Pavan/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

The small tomb stands in a large garden on the left bank of the Yamuna, and as I walk up to it, its jewel-like perfection takes my breath away. The perfectly symmetrical building is made entirely of white marble. Its walls are inlaid with semi-precious stones in intricate patterns of trees, fruits and flowers. Pelsaert, who witnessed the building of the tomb, declared that it had already cost ₹350,000, “and will cost a 1,000,000 more before it is finished”.

The tomb represents a transition in Mughal architecture—from the imposing, majestic red sandstone monument of Akbar and his predecessors, to the graceful, poetic white marble beauty of the Taj Mahal. For many visitors to Agra, the delicate beauty of Itimad-ud-Daulah’s tomb surpasses the fairy wonder of the Taj Mahal.

I stand beside the river and gaze out upon its dark waters, made even darker by the rain-laden monsoon sky. A pair of painted storks, a lone egret, some herons, and an adjutant stork stand morosely upon a sandbank. On the far bank of the Yamuna rises the massive bulk of Akbar’s Fort. To my right, out of sight, where the river curves, is the Taj Mahal. I bid goodbye to this city of romance and history. I will be back soon, I promise, to wander down its narrow lanes, to find perhaps a quiet, leafy garden I have not yet seen, and there to lose myself in the grace and glory of a past that has gone forever, but which holds me firmly captive still. The city takes note of my promise, and answers in the shrieking calls of a flock of parakeets flashing brilliant green across the sky.

Appeared in the November 2014 issue as “Time-Travelling In Agra”.

  • Rohini Chowdhury is a widely published children’s writer and an established literary translator. Her interests include mythology, folklore, mathematics, and history.

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