While India is a big country in South Asia, Agra is always on the bucket list of the first-timers because of the Taj Mahal. I mean, hello, you can’t really say that you have visited India without setting foot on the Taj Mahal, the one national monument that is basically the symbol of the entire country in the modern world. In my last post, Pilgrimage to Jewel of the World, Taj Mahal, is the ultimate guide to Taj Mahal, with useful tips, the best time to visit, how to get there (and around), stories, history, architecture, and many travel tips. Having said that, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t any other places to see and do in the city. In fact, today’s India was divided into various kingdoms over thousands of years and plenty of heritage sites remained. After visiting the Taj Mahal in the morning, we continued our journey in the Golden Triangle, visiting a couple of places in Agra (which is a rather small city, as compared to the other two cities in the Triangle, Jaipur, and Delhi), and stopping by two rather impressive places that you shouldn’t miss on your way to Jaipur – and I will reveal them later in this post, and stay tuned!
Something About… Agra
Agra is located on the banks of the Yamuna river with a size of roughly about 120 square kilometers and a population of 1.5 million. For about 100 years in the 16th to 17th century, Agra was the capital of the Mughal Empire, under the rule of Emperors Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan, until the capital was moved back to Delhi.
Today, tombs, palaces, forts, mosques, and temples could be seen all over India. (On a side note, one of the most famous tombs that I have seen was in Hyderabad, where the Qutb Shahi Tombs is the largest in India, with all kings in the dynasty buried in one place). Look at the Google Map, and when you see a place called “Masjid” in India, it means “Mosque” in Arabic; “Mahal”, on the other hand, means a mansion, or a palace. Many other European countries have colonized India in the past, you could find different styles of architecture in different regions. Here in Agra, it has the best manifestation of the Mughal Architecture, in which I have given a brief description of the design and characteristics in my earlier post about the Taj Mahal as well.
The Mughal Empire was founded in 1526, started off by Babur, a Central Asian ruler of Turco-Mongol descent, who expanded his ambitions to the south in India. The Empire finally consolidated its power and established its ground with years of warfare and diplomacy with Persia. The 17th century was actually the golden era of the Mughal Empire and that’s why various art forms blossomed during this peaceful and thriving period of time. During that time, the Mughal Empire was the wealthiest empire, and also the most powerful military force in the world. They basically ruled the entire South Asia, which takes up to 23% of the world’s population. Great patronage of painting, literary forms, textiles, and architecture took place, especially under the reign of Shah Jahan. That’s why Delhi and Agra are the best places to see some of the best places to appreciate the manifesto of Mughal architecture among UNESCO World Heritage Sites including the Agra Fort, and, the one and only, Taj Mahal.
The Mughal Empire collapsed rather rapidly between 1707 and 1720; while historians didn’t have a clear explanation of how it happened, it was believed that it was caused by a series of money problems, which led to a decline of the authority of the emperor, and there came the rebel. The king was eventually overthrown by his Mughal successor.
Enough with the history, let’s talk about some practical information about traveling in Agra. Since the city is a popular travel destination, there is no lack of hotels and all kinds of travel accommodations in the city. If you are backpackers, I would suggest staying in a hostel located as close to the Taj Mahal as possible. Of course, the prices vary according to the quality, environment, and location; while where to stay depends on your own preference and budget, I suggest to select the ones that are in the middle of your price range and check out the reviews (especially about the safety) before booking. You don’t want to, let’s say, for example, due to blackouts or water shortage during your few days stay in the city, and it could happen.
As for me, I stayed in the Trident Hotel Agra – not the most luxurious resort in the city, but with a decent pool and restaurants that we could enjoy our breakfast or dinner in. The resort also has a gym room, and a barbecue night by the pool if you are up for it. I stayed in the Deluxe Pool View Room and I liked it in general because it’s clean and comfortable.
We hired a driver to take us around the city. Still, if you want to get around the city without the river, the best way is by auto-rickshaw. Their small size gives them the advantage to travel in between the busy streets and alleys at a reasonable price. Given that Agra is not so big, it’s easy to hop on any of the rickshaws that are lining up outside any popular travel spots – but always negotiate and agree on prices before starting your trip.
While I was asked, and also talked about the cleanliness of traveling in India basically in every post about India. I found it is generally safe to dine in any reputable restaurants or at the hotel, and you don’t want to miss the chance to have a taste of the famous chai tea while you are in India. Our tour guide took us to a local joint for some chai tea that was literally a street stall with irregular shaped clay mugs stacked in a cart. Luckily, our stomach didn’t get upset afterward. I guess I am not saying that we could eat and drink anything as we please on the street (Our guide told us that some street food in Delhi would probably be too dirty). Always use common sense and have the local guide to tell you where and which places are safe. All in all, it’s generally safe to stay and eat in a hotel.
Jama Masjid and the Bazaar
If you type “Jama Masjid” in Google you will probably get the results first for the one located in Delhi. While there’s one that has the same name in Agra, too. The mosque is located on the opposite side of the Agra fort, overlooking the Agra Fort Railway Station. It is popularly known as the Jami Masjid, or “Friday Mosque”, and it’s one of the largest mosques built in the Mughal Empire. The mosque took 5,000 workers and six years to build. What’s more interesting to me, is the Kinari Bazaar that’s around the mosque. We visited the bazaar at night and the bazaar was still vibrantly active. Well yeah, this is the favorite spot for both the locals and the tourists.
You can find all sorts of handicrafts, souvenirs, local goods, and even some finest jewelry in the many stores and shops that lined up in the streets. However, watch out for the overwhelming traffic and the busy crowd while you are exploring the area, as you may sometimes even see a big cow walk by. While I was not in the pursuit of some souvenirs and gifts, I sampled some local snacks (which are super sweet in my taste), and some local snacks as well.
The Sadar Bazar is another market that’s popular in Agra. It’s located in the south of the city but still in close proximity to the Agra Fort. The traditional market is a wonderful place to see fabrics, souvenirs, and leather products. If you love stones and gems, visit one of the handicraft workshops where it takes you on a tour about how these gems and rocks are polished, washed, and turned into a beautiful tabletop or wall display.
India is the principal producer of stones in the world with a share of about 27% of the world’s production. 90% of Indian’s stone exports are by rough granite and marble blocks. Rajasthan is the supplier of over 90% of the country’s marble. Now, the government set a target of raising this to 50% over the next 5 years.
It was until I visited the workshop that I learned each mosaic consists of so many different kinds of gems. Each kind of inlay gives a different color to the palette. Lapislazuli is blue, chameleon is orange, jasper is brown, pearl is white, malachite is dark green, variscite is parrot green, conch shell is milky white, amazonite is spotty green, black onyx is black, and jade is green; Snail shells and paunch shell give the shine.
The Agra Fort is the second most visited attraction in Agra because of its scale and importance of the role it has played in the history of the ancient Mughal Empire. Completed in 1573, the complex served as the residence of many emperors of the Mughal Dynasty until 1639, and the capital was moved to Delhi. Marathas was the very last king in India to occupy the site before British colonization. Agra Fort also named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.
The fort covers an area of 94 acres and is in a semicircular layout, meaning the center of the fort lies in the center of the fort in front of the river Yamuna, with its peripheral in the surrounding embrace.
There is a broad and deep moat that runs around the fort and four gates in different directions of the complex. Abul Fazal recorded that about 500 beautiful buildings were constructed inside the fort. Some of them were demolished by Shah Jahan to make room for his new white marble palaces. Many others were destroyed by British rulers for raising barracks, and only about 30 Mughal buildings remained on the riverside today. As we walked through the Delhi Gate, the main entrance of the complex, our journey to Agra Fort began. Let’s go over some of the highlights in the fort.
Jahangir’s Hauz is a monolithic (one stone) tank and it was used for bathing. The outside of its rim has a Persian inscription: “Hauz-e-Jahangir”. It was first discovered near the courtyard of Akbar’s Palace in 1843, later placed in front of Red Fort (Diwan-e-Am), and then again, moved to the public garden in 1862. The stone was badly damaged through history, and Sir John Hubert Marshall, an English archaeological surveyor, returned it to Agra Fort.
The Muthamman Burj & Jharokha is a beautiful palace located on the largest bastion of Agra Fort, offering an unobstructed view of the river and the Taj Mahal. It was originally built of red stone by Akbar who used it for jharokha darshan (jharokha means an overhanging balcony and darshan means a public address) and for daily sun worship at sunrise. Jehangir, the 4th Mughal Emperor, also used it for his jharokha, which could be seen in his painting created in 1620. Owing to its octagonal shape, the place was called “Muthamman-Burj”; it has also been called the “Shah-Burj”, or the Jasmine Tower or “Samman-Burj” as recorded by the contemporary historian Lahauri is a misnomer. It was rebuilt with white marble by Shah Jehan around 1632-1640. He also used it for jharokha darshan which was as indispensable as a Mughal institution, same for “Durbar”, a public reception.
The building has five external sides of which make a dalan (a veranda) overlooking the river. Each side has pillar and bracket openings, the easternmost side projects forward and accommodates a jharokha majestically. The west side of this building is a spacious dalan with Shah-Nashin, a shallow water-basin is installed in its pavement. A series of rooms leading to Shish Mahal. The north side opens a court which has a Chabutara projected by a jali screen. The south side is a colonnade with a room attached.
Looking at the entire building, it’s an impressively ornamented structure built entirely of white marble. It has deep niches on the walls. Dados have repetitive stylized creepers inlaid on borders and carved plants in the center pillars, brackets, and lintels, which also have exquisite inlaid designs. This palace is directly connected to the Diwan-i-Khas, Shish Mahal, Khas-Mahal (Red Fort), and other palaces and it was from here that the Mughal emperor governed the whole country. This Burj offers a full and majestic view of the Taj Mahal.
Shah Jehan spent eight years (1658-1666) of his imprisonment in this complex, and he died here, his body was taken by boat to the Taj Mahal and buried. Look through the windows, you will have a taste of what it’s like looking at the monument from the fort.
The Shish-Mahal is also called “the glass palace” or “the palace with mirrors”, it was built by Shah Jahan, the Mughal emperor, as a summer palace. It has two tanks with fountains, interconnected by a canal and a waterfall. These water devices kept the palace cool and comfortable in Agra’s scorching heat. The distinctive feature of this palace is the applique mirror work on all its walls and ceilings. Convex mirror pieces have a high reflective quality. As the building is made up of thick walls with only a few openings, the semi-dark interior required artificial light, which glittered and twinkled in a thousand ways through this mirror-work, creating an ethereal atmosphere. These mirrors were imported from Haleb (Aleppo in Syria) which is why Shah Jahan’s historical Lahauri has referred to it as “Shisha-i-Halebi”. Mirror mosaic was originally a Byzantine art, and Shah Jahan built such palaces also at Lahore and Delhi but this is his finest Shish-Mahal.
Anguri Bagh is another fantastic sight as a historical courtyard sprawling in front of the Khas Mahal, it is a formal Charbagh-style garden.
Guru ka Tal
The historic and religious building dates back to the 17th century and is located near Sikandra in Agra, dedicated to the memory of the ninth Guru Sri Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji. The Gurudwara (a place of assembly and worship for Sikhs), was built over the place where the Guru Tegh Bahadur offered voluntary arrest to Aurangazeb, the Mughal Emperor. While it serves a different purpose and function than other historic landmarks in the Mughal Empire; the Tal had twelve towers (with eight of them left standing) and these red stone structures shared similarity to many other Mughal structures nearby.
Tomb of Akbar the Great
A little further east of Guru Ka Taal, the Tomb of Akbar the Great is another important site and landmark in Agra. The site is the tomb of Humayun’s son and Babur’s grandson, Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar. He is considered the greatest kind of the Mughal Dynasty who riled from 1556 to 1605, the prime time of the Mughal Empire. At that time, the empire expanded tremendously from Kabul to Assam, and from Kashmir to Ahmednagar; it was achieved by a sound principle of peaceful co-existence with his non-believing subjects and was based on such secular institutions as the Mansabdari system – a bureaucratic administration system. He united the country under a uniform cultural, political, and administrative system. He planted his kingship in the Indian soil and made it an indigenous thing. He thus earned the honorific epithet Chakravartin. He made a nation out of a mob, which is why he is named “Akbar the Great”.
He was a great builder who is responsible for a number of the most important sites in Agra. He rebuilt the Agra Fort by raising numerous Palatial Mansions, he also established Fatepur Sikri, which I will introduce a bit later in the post. Here, he planned his own tomb by selecting a site near the Jamuna River, at Sik and Ara which was renamed Bihishtabad (The heavenly abode). He died in 1605 when its construction had just begun, and the tomb was completed by his son Jehangir in 1612, based on Akbar’s original design.
The south gate of the tomb is two-storeyed, it’s 61-feet in height and flanked by double alcoves on both of its north and south sides. The whole exterior has been beautifully finished in mosaic and inlay of colored stones in different patterns. The most important feature of the gate is a set of four circular and tapering white marble minars where usually the chhatris (dome-shaped pavilions) would have been placed. Each minar is in three stories separated by balconies. It was a novel design that was believed to be inspired by the minarets of the Charminar of Hyderabad built by Muhammad Puli Outb Shah in 1591 (Check out my post: Hyderabad City Guide: What to See & Do in a Day). Like other Mughal important sites, it has Persian inscriptions on the gate, carved on the south and north iwans, and inside of the hall. If you look closely, you will find a lot more Persian couplets, inscriptions, and ornamental touches inside the hall. This gate would already be seen as an independent monument on its own.
So… what is a Charbagh Garden? The Tomb is planned in the center of a vast garden, enclosed by high walls on all sides with a monumental building in the middle of each one – the gateway is located in the south of the building. The layout is a classic example of Mughal Architecture, like what we had seen in the Taj Mahal. The garden is one of the most impressive parts of the tomb, as it is divided into four equal quarters on the Charbagh-style plan (remember Agra fort?). Each quarter is separated by a high terrace or causeway of stone masonry of 75 feet in width with a small water channel running in its center and raised walkways on the sides. They are distinctly raised from the garden, from which they are approached by staircases with cascades and lily ponds. There are no cypress avenues or flower beds rising above the channels on the causeways. Therefore, though the tomb structure has been presented in a beautiful garden setting, it has a character full of dignity and sobriety thoughtfulness rather than opulent grandeur, in accordance with Akbar’s personality.
Walking to the tomb through the gardens, the main tombs is an impressive sight even many of the original features were badly damaged. The look of ruin only set the mood on the fact that we were actually visiting a tomb of a very important figure in India’s past. The tomb has a unique design with a square plan and five receding stories. The ground floor has spacious Dalans with an iwan portal in the middle of each side. Visitors’ may ascend to the terrace and have a higher look at the surrounding gardens. Walk around the structure as there are different chambers to be seen from inside and out. It is one of the finest masterpieces of the Mughal Empire, and the monument served as the memory of a great king – it was once badly damaged in the 18th century, and was eventually restored by archaeological surveyors between 1902 and 1911.
Fatehpur Sikri Fort
While some visitors may not be aware of this fort, it is a popular stop-over if you are on a road trip from Agra to Jaipur. The UNESCO World Heritage site is a fortress also designed and founded by Emperor Akbar. Fatehpur Silki, the City of Victory, was the capital of the Mughal Empire for briefly 10 years from 1571 to 1585 after Agra; it is a red palace with elaborate monuments.
Diwan-i-am, or Hall of the public audience, is a historical building that consists of cloisters of one hundred and eleven bays. The walls of the cloisters are carved with deep recesses, which may have been originally painted, Akbar’s heard petitions and dispensed justice here sternly and impartially, “but without harshness or ill-will”. The emperor visited this hall also for reviewing the animals of the royal stables. The huge stone rings at the foot of the colonnade opposite the imperial pavilion may have been used for fastening elephants.
The treasury is composed of three rooms and wrongly designated as “Ankmmichauli” or a blind man’s ruff house. This building was most probably the imperial treasury of gold and silver coins. Its notable features are the struts supported on corbels projecting from the walls. The struts spring out from the jaws of the trunked monsters in the form of serpentine scrolls, derived from the Jain temples of western India.
The Jewel House is a unique building in the entire range of Indo-Islamic architecture, raised on a square plan, outwardly giving the appearance of a double-storeyed structure, it consists of a single vaulted chamber open from floor to roof, with an opening on each profusely carved column supporting a colossal bracketed capital. Four narrow balustraded passages radiate from the top of the capital to the corners of the chamber. This structure was intended for a special purpose which has been variously conjectured as Ibadat-Khana (Hall for religious discourses) or Diwan-i-Khass (Hall of private audience) some consider it as a hall meant for Tuladana (weighing ceremony) for the emperor and princes on the Persian new year’s day.
The Turkish Sultana’s House is an elegant pavilion, it consists of a small chamber surrounded by a Cerandah supported on richly carved columns. Its exterior, as well as interior, has ornamental relief of geometric and floral designs in red sandstone which gives the impression of timber decoration. The ornamented shelves of the chamber are also remarkable for their attractive design and finish. The plain colonnades at the northwest and southeast were subsequently added to connect it with “Abdar khana”. It was completed before 1575 when an important religious discussion is recorded to have taken place in this pavilion.
The Jodhbai’s Kitchen is richly carved and it may have been an annex of the Haramsara, the cloister adjoining it has not survived. Its sloping roof has been subsequently replaced by a flat one. The outer walls are carved with floral and geometric patterns and bands of Jhumka earrings and brick-like pellets of stone (Mat design). This building is noteworthy for its refined surface ornamentations.
The Maryam’s Mansion is a residential building of the Haramsara. It is profusely embellished with paintings and hence was designated as Sunahra Makan. It has four rooms, and oblong one running north-south and three others from which a staircase leads to the flat roof surmounted by an open pavilion which is supported on eight square pillars and was used for sleeping purposes in the summer night. The brackets are adorned with sculptures on the north side is a carved Rama attended by Hanuman. While other brackets show a band of Kittimukhas (Lion Heads) and a pair of geese and elephants. The building also has mural paintings, while Persian inscriptions are painted on the beams of the Verandah. Containing verses of Faizi, the Poet Laureate of Akbar’s court.
The Jodhbai’s Palace is an imposing palace comprising the principal Haramsara of Akbar has been wrongly ascribed to Jodh Bai who has nothing to do with Sikri. It is the most impressive of all the royal edifices. It consists of a large open quadrangle on the sides of which are suites of single-storied rooms with double storied blocks in the center and corners to blocks in the center and corners to break the skyline. The central block on the east forms a vestibule to the main entrance of the building and on the west is a small shrine supported richly for keeping images of Hindu deities and a platform for the principal deity. The azure-blue glazed tiles of the roof of this palace are also noteworthy. It was most probably built between 1570 and 1574.
Jama Masjid is a great mosque near the fortress and doesn’t forget to visit there, after walking through the fortress. It is yet another great example of Mughal architecture, built in the 1570s by Emperor Akbar. The Emperor personally directed the build and it stretches over 165 meters in length. Again, this is also referred to as the “Friday Mosque” and it is one of the largest mosques in India, and one of the most sought after pilgrimage location. The Buland Gate, which I selected to be the cover of this post, is the most eye-catching structure, and the mosque marks the phase of transition in Islamic art, as ingenious architectural elements were blended with Persian elements.
Chand Baori Stepwell
The Chand Baori Stepwell, or Abaneri, is one of the oldest in Rajasthan. It was built by King Chanda of the Nikumbha Dynasty who ruled Abaneri of ancient Abha Nagari during the 8th to 9th century. This well is 19.5 meters deep in a square shape. It is provided with a double flight of steps on three sides. The northern side is the entrance and consists of a multi-storeyed corridor supported on pillars and two projecting balconies enshrining beautiful images of Mahishasurmardini and Ganesa. The enclosure wall, side verandah, and the pavilion were later added to the structure. While the well is the lifeline to the locals in the past, it is also a beautiful design that visitors can create lovely pictures for their Instagram today. It is also best known for being featured in Christopher Nolan’s Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, where the Batman’s (Christian Bale) prison.
The Harshshat Mata Temple was right across the stepwell and it was built by King Chand of the Chahamana Dynasty in the 8th and 9th centuries. This east facing temple was built on a raised platform originally in Mahameru style. On the plan, it has a Pancha Ratha sanctum, Sandhara Garbha-Griha Pillared Mandapa, crowned by a domical ceiling. Each niche of Garbhagriha has beautiful Brahmanical deities. The main attraction of the temple is its deep relief carved sculptures, placed in the niches around the plinth of the upper terrace.