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Beyond the Taj Mahal

Jan/10/2023 / by Sugato Mukherjee
Taj Mahal
One of the iconic symbols of India, Taj Mahal took 16 years to be completed in 1648.

The streets of Agra are a rich ode to art, history and culture

Rabindranath Tagore once compared it to a teardrop in the face of time. The iconic Taj Mahal has been the most recognizable monument of India for more than four centuries, and in today’s parlance, the most Instagrammable. However, in the popular imagination, Agra has remained the home of the Taj, and nothing more. 

The city itself is an eclectic mix of cultures and traditions blended with elements of modernity. Without the folklore, the street scenes and and breathtaking architecture tucked away in the folds of the city’s labyrinthine alleys, the Agra experience is incomplete.

On the Mughal Trail

Agra was an unknown town of little importance on the banks of river Yamuna till the mid-16th century. It developed into an architectural paradise, a pivot of political activity, and a buzzing trading centre of the Indian subcontinent under Emperor Akbar. And it is fitting that the great ruler was laid to rest at Sikandra, six miles from the capital of his sprawling empire. The red sandstone mausoleum is a piece of architectural splendor, with its towering gate, minuscule minarets that make it look like a dainty Rajasthani palace more than an Islamic tomb, and the manicured gardens where you can spot a few deer ambling about!

Another beautiful tomb is I’timad-ud-Daulah, the  stunning white maqbara of Emperor Jehangir’s Persian minister. Standing tall and proud on the banks of the Yamuna, the mausoleum marks the transition of the Mughal school of architecture from red sandstone to white marble. Historians consider it to be the blueprint on which the Taj was designed.

An extraordinary ensemble of Mughal-built heritage can be traced in the gardens that line the banks of the Yamuna river. These gardens were created over a period of more than 100 years as sanctuaries of respite from the sweltering heat. While some of the gardens are in various states of disrepair, others, like Ram Bagh, Chinni ka Rauza and Mehtab Bagh, still bear testimony of brilliant Mughal landscape traditions with their neatly laid out planting patterns. The garden of I’timad-ud-Daulah still enjoys the ancient water system of channels and walkways, and the marble water slides and chutes are still impeccable.

St. George's Cathedral
Located in the cantonment area, the St. George’s Cathedral is a splendid architecture that was originally built as an Anglican Church in 1828

The Colonial Legacy

Agra fell into the hands of the British in 1803 and became one of their most important seats of power for the next century and a half. During this time the city witnessed tumultuous upheavals, including India’s First War of Independence in 1857. The built heritage of Agra’s colonial past lives on in the immaculately maintained Roman Catholic cemetery, the grand Indo-Saracenic St John’s College, and the Gothic Agra College. The beautiful St. Georges Cathedral, with its yellow ochre stucco and white dressings, and ionic columns carrying a slightly vaulted roof, along with tourists, draws the Christian population from the nearby areas.

A nearly forgotten relic of the city’s colonial past is Abdul Karim’s tomb, a pagoda-like mausoleum built in the memory of Queen Victoria’s favourite munshi. Two centuries have passed but the relationship between the empress who controlled India and her Indian assistant who lies interred here in this simple monument remains the subject of debates, speculations and even a blockbuster film!

St. John's College
Established in 1850, St. John’s College boasts of one of the finest buildings in North India, built with red sandstone in Indo-Saracenic style of architecture.

Tajganj

Taj Mahal was being built from 1632 to 1648, when the sprawling neighborhood of Mumtazabad took shape by the south gate of the mausoleum, where the masons and architects found their homes. Three-and-a-half centuries later, the labyrinthine lanes of the neighborhood (known as Tajganj since long) still accommodates the descendants of the creators of the Taj in their 17th-century homes. Many of these command magnificent views of the iconic ivory-white monument from the rooftops. Tucked in this atmospheric locality is the dargah of Syed Jalal Bukhari Rehmatullah, who protected the foundations of the Taj Mahal from evil spirits. The three-arched, single-dome Sandali mosque, built in memory of Kandhari Begum, the first wife of Shah Jahan, is also worth a visit for the mystical stories that shroud the monument and its feline residents.

Into a Time Warp

The quintessence of Agra is concentrated in its bustling streets and busy bazaars. A walk through the spice streets of Rawatpara redolent with the strong smell of turmeric, cinnamon and cardamom can be a sensory experience, heightened at the nearby Khoya Gali. The curious traveler next walks into Namak ki Mandi, where artisans fashion gold and silver foils for Ayurvedic medicine. The green and white Akbari mosque is nearby, and the stone-paved street of Kinari Bazaar leads you into a time-warp: a kaleidoscope of roadside shrines, tea stalls, vendors of knick knacks, all of which look as old as the street that dates back to the 16th century. 

The Roman Catholic cemetery houses tombstones of earliest travellers to Agra from all corners of the globe in search of making a fortune in one of the wealthiest global empires during the reign of the Mughals in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Crafts & Cuisine

Agra has retained its living traditions of handicrafts with a deep and interesting history. The most famous craft that has been passed down generations for more than 350 years is the marble inlay work. A classical art form that was brought to Indian subcontinent by Italian travelers in the 16th century, it involves etching very precise and minute patterns on marbles.

Legend has it that Emperor Akbar once issued a decree that all his soldiers must wear shoes. Shoemakers from all over the empire were called to Agra and an indigenous leather industry burgeoned there. The city remains one of Asia’s largest shoe manufacturing hubs.

Embroidered textiles with intricate motifs of gold and silver threads, popularly known as the zardozi design is another homegrown industry of Agra. A Central Asian import, the art has been modified here by craftsmen who use a combination of copper wire, golden or silver polish, and silk strands.

The rich legacy of Mughlai cuisine lives on in Agra. While authentic Mughlai dishes are served in its upmarket restaurants, its vibrant streets and chaotic bylanes whip up some of the best dalmoth in the country. This is a crunchy snack paired best with a cup of piping hot masala chai, and succulent jalebis, typically served with bedhai, a fried puffy bread that comes with a small bowl of vegetables and a dollop of curd. But the crowning glory of Agra street cuisine is petha, a dessert made from white pumpkin or ash gourd, and imbued with different flavors. 

It’s a sweet end to the explorations into the nuances of this medieval city, whose textures now seamlessly blend into India’s Smart Cities Mission urban renewal program, with its great traffic management, surveillance system, solid waste management and environmental sensors. 

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