There is more to Agra than the Taj Mahal. It is a city rich in history and attained its greatest days during the Mughal reign. It should have become greater than Delhi but somehow Delhi got the better part of progress in the later centuries. Taj Mahal is just one of the monuments here and I have with me a list of many others to be visited.
But Taj Mahal and the other lesser wonders of Agra would have to wait. Travelling is not all come, see and go. Many practicalities have to be sorted out. Only when safety and comfort are ensured, can the traveller go out in ease to see what he has come to see.
I was meant to reach Mathura today but a six hour ride from Kannuaj to Agra has been tiring enough. I get off at ISBT Agra. This bus station is at the edge of town and not a convenient place for staying. I walk a long way along the main road, take a tempo and then a bus to get to Agra Cantonment station. I thought I may find a decent room here. This is another place with little options. I take another tempo and head to Idgah bus station. There are many options here but either the price or the cleanliness is not agreeable. I walk towards Agra Fort bus station and near there I find what I want. It is not exactly a great room that befits the greatness of this historic city but it will have to do.
A lot of Agra is dirty. Monkeys are a problem too near where I am put up. I manage to find a place for meals, the only decent place nearby. I am going to stick to this restaurant for the rest of my stay in Agra. As for all the foreign tourists, I know that they are either in expensive resorts or cheap ones with a view of the Taj.
After two hours of all such boring but necessary chores, I finally head out to experience ancient Agra and imagine history. But at 4 pm it is late in the day for either the fort or the Taj. I will head to the lesser monuments.
Mausoleum of Itimad-ud-Daula
It is convenient to stay close to the bus station at Agra Fort. You can get shared tempos to many parts of Agra from here. I arrive at this mausoleum by a shared tempo without much fuss. The place is still open. Foreign tourists arrive in groups large and small. I get my ticket and enter the impressive gateway at the eastern end.
The eastern gateway is in red sandstone with stone inlay in white marble and grey stone. Chini kanas are executed in this manner of inlays of white marble in red sandstone. A pathway flanking a water channel leads to the monument that stands beautifully in the centre of an enclosed garden. The garden is in the design of a typical char bagh – a garden divided into four parts. The monument stands on a plinth perhaps 4.5 feet high. Fountains on each of the four sides flow down stone slopes into the water channels. The parterres of the garden are just a few inches below the water channels that define the garden. The western gateways opens into a pillared pavilion that affords of the river and beyond.
There mausoleum is square but the rectangular closed pavilion on its higher level gives it the appearance of being rectangular on the whole. Corner octagonals towers rise up to circular domed chhattris. The towers are decorated with panels long and short. A simple low parapet closes the open terrace. There are no further chhattris or domes. Architecturally it is quite simple yet effective.
Sometimes known as the ‘Baby Taj’ this mausoleum is quite unlike the Taj. Built before the Taj, it was commissioned by Jehangir’s wife Nur Jahan in memory of her parents. Her father, who served under Akbar, was given the title Itimad-ud-daulah or Lord Treasurer. It is one of the rare mausoleums that stand without a dome.
Its comparison to the Taj is only on account of its beauty that comes from white marble with beautiful stone inlay work. This inlay work is executed in carefully chosen colours. The designs are floral or geometric. Typical among these are floral bouquets or arrangements, flower vases, wine vases, dish and cup stills and cypress honeysuckle. Some of these are inspired by the plant studies of Ustad Mansur Naqqash, painter in the court of Jehangir.
On the inside, it is a mix of stone inlays and painted murals. Chini kana typical of Jehangir’s period can be seen. Some of these simply superb. Muquarnas can be seen in the cornices. Stone jalis enclose the inner tombs on three sides to which entrance is from the south. Qalib kari, which I like to compare to lierne vaulting of English Gothic architecture, can be seen in many places.
Truly this is a beautiful monument that stands succeeds in art as well as in architecture.
This garden was originally laid out by Babur in 1526, the same year he won the First Battle of Panipat. It is based on two concepts – a hillside terraced garden, the ideal char bagh. I cannot say whether the slopes were naturally present here or artificially created by Babur. There was no hillside spring. Water was pumped from the river Yamuna at the western end, fed into pools and channels through soft rippling cascades from one terrace to another. At the highest terrace are closed and open trabeate pavilions as well as a cold water bath to escape the summer heat of Agra. The garden is further decorated in places with octogonal pavilions. I don’t see it today as an exact char bagh since the raised walkways divide the garden into many sections and not really into four quarters.
These channels and terraces laid on three levels can be seen even today after necessary restoration. In fact, the gardens were first restored by Jehangir in the 17th century and later by the British. Known originally by a different name, it came to be called the Ram Bagh during the British times, probably from aram which means rest or garden in Sanskrit. The British used this place as a resort.
There is hardly anyone here. It is almost closing time. The place is neat with lawns and some flower beds. In Babur’s and Jehangir’s times there would have been fruit orchards and flower plants. Today the water channels are dry and the fountains unused. The place stands less as a garden and more as a restored ruin with a little glimpse of the past.
Agra in Babur’s time was a riverside garden city. Walled-in gardens were laid out in succession along both banks of the Yamuna. Not much of such glorious schemes remain. It is said that Ram Bagh defined the style of gardens for centuries to come. It might be interesting to find out the sort of gardens India had before the coming of Babur.
A little sign along the main road announces the way to this monument. I follow it. I pass some village scenes and arrive at the monument. Firstly, it is not black and makes me wonder about its name. It is square, stands on a high plinth and is very much restored. There is no decoration to it. A dome crowns the top. The river flows behind, beyond mounds of rubbish and modern day garbage. In the courtyard of a house next door, cowdung cakes are stacked up on the ground or neatly laid over mud fences. In a verandah, clay pots, bowls and pans are left out to dry. Some boys are playing cricket. A couple of men are playing cards.
The monument is rather uninteresting. The view of Agra across the river is also not all that spectacular this evening. I can see a bigger monument nearby.
‘Is that Chini ka Rauza?’ I ask one of the men.
‘How do I get there?’ I ask. The monument is just a few paces away but a high wall separates it from the river bank.
‘You have to return to the main road. There is also a little path through the fields,’ he says pointing to the fields I had passed earlier.
The sun has set but twilight in these parts lasts at least 30 minutes after sunset. I make my way to Chini ka Rauza wondering if it is still open.
Chini ka Rauza
The monument is open when I arrive. It is in memory of Shah Jahan’s wazir Shukrullah. There are no tourists in these parts. It is one of the lesser known monuments.
It is a square monument with a dome on top and four arched portals, one on each side. Only the eastern portal leads to the inner space. The others are blind. Interestingly, there are no jalis, jharokhas, chajjas or chhattris. There are no smaller arched niches in multiple levels on the facade. The most we have are little doorways at the corners leading to the corner rooms. In this sense, this is a unique monument in Persian style without any Indian influence. It is a monument well-proportioned and majestic.
Little turrets stand in the four corners of the building. They bear chevron moulding. The arched portals on all four sides, or iwans as they are known in architecture, are truly impressed by the absence of stronger features on the facade. The eastern portal or iwan has some plain chini kana. The coved ceiling here is restored but it might have contained interesting vaulting in the past. The door to the inside is locked but I have read that the concentric muqarnas decorate the dome on the inside.
The really interesting aspect of the building are glazed tile work that cover most of the facade. These are arranged in panels bordered with floral scrollwork. This art is derived from Kashan in Persia and hence it is called Kashikari. A thick layer of plaster was applied followed by a thinner layer on which the design was traced. While still wet, the tiles were fixed to this design. The tiles come in many wonderful colours – turquoise, bright blue, green, brown, purple, white, yellow, orange. It is wonderful to see these original colours after nearly four centuries. In some places the tiles have fallen off to reveal the underlying design traced on plaster.
I take a few pictures. The Yamuna stretches a long way on both side. I note a multi-level octogonal pavilion on the river bank. Chini ka Rauza must have been part of a bigger complex of monuments and buildings properly enclosed by walls and set within gardens. Modern Agra has taken over such things leaving only the monuments to stand in their midst.
On the whole, it is a simple and pleasing monument with no excessive decoration or a confusing mix architectural elements.
I finish my breakfast, get ready and head out for the fort. Some monkeys are fighting on the street over discarded food. The vendors are watchful of their fruits. It is an easy walk to the visitor entrance. The path follows the fort walls and the moat that surrounds it. Along the way I stop at a neem tree. There is a crowd of about 20 people below this tree.
‘What is happening?’ I ask a guy.
‘The tree is dripping milk,’ he says. White sap is dripping from one of the branches. People are trying to collect the same in pots, pails and bottles. Someone has tied a pail to a long wooden pole. Others are just waiting around for their turn or for the sap to be distributed.
‘How long is this going on?’ I ask a lady who has just arrived.
‘About a month and a half. Neem tree has so many uses.’
‘What about this milk?’
‘So many uses – can improve eyesight, reduce headaches and bodyaches.’
People seem to believe that there is something divine going on here. They say this place has been busy day and night for many weeks now. No one knows how long this will last. Muslims and Hindus alike are part of the believing crowd.
When I enter the fort by Amar Singh Gate, it is very clear that I am the first visitor for the day. The ticket counter is just opening up. I have the entire morning ahead of me. The fort and its palaces are all empty so early in the morning. I believe the crowds are at the Taj Mahal across the Yamuna. As I walk up the slope of a long passage, surrounded by gates, bastions and battlements, the ambience is set for a touch of history.
It looks vast today but what we see is only the south eastern part of a bigger complex of Mughal buildings. Many buildings were destroyed by the British to make way for barracks and even today part of the fort is occupied by the military. The magnificent Delhi Gate with three levels of imposing ramparts, accessed by a drawbridge over a moat, presents perhaps one of the best view of the fort walls from the outside.
It is difficult to be descriptive about the fort without filling many pages. No matter how much is written about it, it would be exacting the reader to visualize so much with so little. The fort is a complex mix of courtyards, corridors, palaces, pavilions, halls and mosques. These are executed in various styles from the time of Babur to Aurangazeb. Originally a brick fort it was substantially enhanced by Akbar. Of the later Mughals, the influence of Shah Jahan is apparent.
If the fort walls speak of defence and stoic resistance, the palaces within soften the mood with their richness and grandeur. The earliest palaces of Akbar, executed in red sandstone, catch the morning light and glow golden. Some exquisite brackets here are influenced by those of Gujarat. Shah Jahan in his preference for cool marble, either rebuilt some of the older buildings or converted red sandstone to marble-like appearance by application of white plaster. The false marble walls and ceilings were sometimes painted with murals. Such cheap imitations are apparent in the faded colours, broken plasters and exposed brickwork. They must have passed off as marble and looked wonderful but time has revealed their true worth.
So the glory of the palace is not with cheap conversions but in the original buildings of Akbar and Shah Jahan. The best of the fort are in the white marble creations of Shah Jahan – the Diwan-i-khas or the Muthamman Burj are examples. Muthamman Burj in particular is a masterpiece of stone inlays. This is where Shah Jahan was imprisoned. The Taj is seen from here. It has a delicate softness to its design and coolness in its mood. You can’t enter this place today.
‘It used to open 4-5 years ago. People used to steal semi-precious stones inlaid in the white marble,’ explains one of the guides to a foreign tourist. ‘So they have closed it off to public.’
‘It’s a good thing they have done,’ agrees the tourist with gentle nods.
Diwam-i-am, the public audience hall, impresses by its scale and perspective. It is three bays deep and nine bays along its length. With cusped arches and double-pillared piers facing the courtyard, it provides one of the best effects of Shahjahani pillar. It is a type of pillar with muqarnas in the capital and a base decorated with cusped outlines. The shaft is 12-sided. These pillars are not marble. The more beautiful marble Shahjahani pillars with rich inlays of colourful stones are to be found in the Diwam-i-khas, the private audience hall. This hall is further decorated with marble reliefs bordered with stone inlays. Diwam-i-khas is also a wonderful example of a pillared entrance hall that leads to an inner hall. In this sense, it is a marriage of open and closed spaces coming together rather elegantly.
Moti Masjid within the fort is one of the most beautiful buildings, or so I have read. It is unfortunate that this place is closed for some restoration work. Shish Mahal, Mina Masjid and Hamam are other places closed for tourists. Nagina Masjid on the other hand is open. It is a small marble mosque of three domes and some stone inlays. The inlays are not as rich as elsewhere and befits the purpose of a mosque. Interestingly, the mosque has a curved ceiling derived from the style of a bangla roof. Machchhi Bhavan has a beautiful marble baldachin. Khass Mahal has pavilions with bangla roof topped with finials that follow the curve of the roof. Facing the Angoori Bagh, this mahal completes the refined tastes of Shah Jahan.
After four hours I am still wandering back and forth among the various buildings of the complex. The morning mist has cleared meanwhile and I can see the Taj more sharply across the Yamuna. I have to head to it before it is too late.
I have lunch in the usual place and head back to my room. I have taken so many snaps at the fort that my mobile phone is low on battery. I need to charge it for an hour before I head out to see the Taj.
One may think that this is not the best time to visit the Taj. It is Sunday. The crowds are at every entrance gate into the Taj complex. It is the hottest time of the day. I get a ticket and join the queue to clear security. It is a slow moving queue. Once in a while a guide comes with foreign tourists and unscrupulously joins in the middle. The security guards, all army personnel, keep a watchful eye to see that this does not happen but it does happen anyway.
After a patient wait of 45 minutes I am finally frisked and my bag checked.
‘These are not allowed,’ tells the officer about my set of pencils and drawing book. ‘I will allow them inside but you should not use them. If you are found using them, they will be confiscated.’
This must be the only place in India that allows photography but not sketching.
Taj Mahal is almost a cliche, I think. From a young age, I have been looking at photographs. All tourist brochures overuse it. I have seen many documentaries on it. I know how it looks and I do not expect any surprises. It is an obligatory visit because any tour of India will be incomplete without a visit to the Taj.
The entrance to the gardens and to the first view of the Taj Mahal is from the southern gateway. I can see the monument framed by the arch of the gateway. Tilted and turning heads are silhouetted within the arch in sharp profile against a marble whiteness. Then I walk through the gateway.
What I have seen or heard second hand about the Taj Mahal matters little. Standing in full view of the Taj, is an experience. This is the most beautiful thing I have seen in all my journeys across India. The beauty is overwhelming and almost brings tears to my eyes.
The sun is southwest in the bright blue sky. There is not a cloud in sight. From where I stand at the southern gateway, the Taj is perfectly lit. The form of the dome is brought out in graduated shades. The arches of the facade fall into their recesses. The high arch of the iwan frames the two-level jali work in its own shade and light. The symmetry of the Taj is balanced by the directional lighting of the afternoon sun.
I stand admiring this beauty for a few minutes. I am still at the gateway, standing in a stream of moving tourist crowds. Then I look at the expressions on other visitors as they walk through the gateway. I can see that they are stunned by the Taj. Their eyes tell it all. Unfortunately their little precious moments are lost quickly as they pull out their cameras, turn their backs to the Taj and pose for a picture.
I walked a great deal within the Taj complex. The gateway itself is a wonderful piece of architecture. The details of stone inlay on the Taj make a wonderful study. The mosque at the western end and its mirror image at the eastern end are superb buildings in their own right. Together with the Taj, their domes paint the skyline as you look at them from Agra Fort. This too is one of the greatest views of the Taj which I had seen this morning.
One of the wonderful things of being here is to look at the Taj in various angles, delve into the details of decoration and elements of architecture. I studied the art of calligraphy on the pistaq without being able to read it. I admired the four corner towers, circular and built of curved bricks with their edges highlighted with black stone strips. The main iwans and alcoves on the facade on all sides have chini kana and lierne vaulting but these are not hightlighted by stone inlays. Such highlights are restricted effectively to spandrels, colonettes, high parapet and the base of the main dome.
I joined a long queue of tourists to enter the main tomb. There are always those visitors who are in a rush or impatient. Either way, they jump the queue unscruplously. The marble tombs of both Shah Jahan and Mumtaz are in the centre of an octogonal space. The tombs decorated with superb stone inlay and are enclosed by white marble jali screens. I am relieved to find that this is not a place of pilgrimage. No flowers are being offered. No lamps lit. No prayers are being said. But if someone were to lead the way, I am sure most Indians will follow. Such is there blind belief in most matters of faith.
The Taj Mosque at the western end, and its companion building at the eastern end called Jamat Khanah are buildings that present a perfect mix of white marble and red sandstone. The mosque has mihrabs, minbar, musallahs and zenana not found in the other building. These two effectively flank the Taj and balance its whiteness with their red sandstone facades. These link to 3-storeyed octogonal pavilions. These pavilions have jalied parapets walls supported on brackets, pointed arches, cusped arches and a chajja under the dome. They represent yet another successful mix of Islamic and Hindu styles.
Of the wonderful gardens laid out before the Taj, it is the typical char bagh but not quite like the tomb at Aurangabad. The monument is not at the center of the garden. It is on the northern end with a pool at the center of the garden. At the eastern and western ends are double storeyed buildings with an domed octogonal pavilion.
It has quite an afternoon at the Taj. The crowds did not bother me. In fact, I quite enjoyed being in the crowd, experiencing not just monument but its popularity. As for taking photographs, the Taj looks far better with crowds milling around it. The crowds are wonderful for scale and interest.
Outside, I visit the Fatehpuri Masjid next door and another building facing it across the road. Then I walk by the high walls enclosing the Taj, pass some gardens and reach the river bank. Mounds of garbage here tells the sorry tale of Agra and indeed of India. The river is filthy. Standing on such garbage, I view the Taj from the southwest. Nothwithstanding its beauty, it becomes difficult to ignore the stench and the garbage that surrounds me. As a country, it appears that we don’t believe in cleanliness; or we simply lack the will power to keep things clean. The cleanliness of Taj Mahal is just a show for tourists, motivated only by tourist dollars.
A security guard prevents me from walking along the river bank. I head back to the roads and walk a long way around to reach the northwestern corner of the Taj. Here some foreign tourists are idling in the sunset hour. An Indian comes along, prays to the river, steps into it ritually, sprinkles a few drops on his head and takes a sip. I wait here for many minutes. The sun has set some time ago. The bluish sky darkens as the minutes pass. The domes, turrets and minarets of the Taj complex recede into night with only silhouettes to welcome the stars.
The last thing I see in Agra before I leave for Mathura is the Jama Masjid. It is close to the Delhi Gate of Agra Fort. It was commissioned by Jahanara, the daughter of Shah Jahan.
It is not a mosque that I like so easily as the one at Bhopal. It is also smaller than I expected. It has some interesting styles and designs. Built of red sandstone, the three domes crown the mosque over the prayer hall. The domes are decorated with chevron moulding in white marble. The iwan is mostly of white marble (or polished plaster) which has over the years lost its original lustre. Only one of the minarets of the pistaq is standing. However, the pair on the western pistaq is intact. The interior of the prayer hall is plain. Twisted rope motif border the pointed arches. Dados are plain. Ceiling has vaulting that’s without decoration. The floor has no musallahs. Perhaps this mosque was not completed as originally conceived.
The courtyard is busy with workers chiselling rough stone slabs. It appears that the work is meant to replace the flooring of the courtyard. On the northern and southern ends are arcaded corridors with cusped arches in its bays. White domed chhattris decorate these corridors on the outside. Similar chhattris line the parapet wall of the prayer hall. These chhattris give this mosque much of its unique character. Even the tank for ablutions is decorated with chhattris. This mosque bears a strong acceptance of Hindu architectural elements. These white chhattris of plaster finish are built to pass off as marble.
‘Give something. Your donations will help us maintain the mosque,’ says a guy at the entrance stairway.
‘Who pays you for this restoration work?’ I ask pointing to the workers.
He has no reply and simply expects me to dole out something. I give him something and move on. As I step out of the mosque, I turn right. I enter what appears to be a junkyard. Workers are loading flattened cardboard boxes into trucks. Stone slabs are reclined in a corner along with stacks of red bricks. In the backdrop is a different view of the mosque. A dome peeps from behind a line of chhattris. Corner octogonal chhattris make there presence strongly from this angle. The southern gateway stands with its arches. It has resisted thus far the onslaught of modern buildings but how long can it withstand the siege?