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See more than the Taj Mahal

India day two continued


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Akhbar’s fort

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As if it were not enough to have the marvellous Taj Mahal in your city, Agra has another UNESCO World Heritage site, Agra Fort. This is part defensive structure, part royal palace – indeed, a considerable part of it is still used by the Indian military. Visits therefore focus largely on the palace buildings.

This fort was built over a period of time by various Mughal emperors, although an earlier brick fort had also occupied this site. It was Akbar, the third emperor, who had that by-then ruined fort rebuilt in red sandstone when he made Agra his capital in 1558. Later his grandson, the fifth emperor Shah Jahan, added to and altered the fort. His preference (as we can see from his most famous architectural legacy the Taj Mahal) was for white marble over red sandstone, and so we have the sort of contrast seen in my photo above.

You enter through the Amar Singh Gate, also known as the Lahore Gate, as the Delhi Gate, the largest of the fort’s four gates, is off limits to tourists as it falls within the military area of the fort. But like the latter, the Amar Singh Gate is carefully designed to maximise the fort’s impregnability, with the twisting path making it difficult for the enemy’s elephants to charge and break through the gates.

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Fort walls and lamp above the gate

The first part of the fort you come to is a large garden area on one side of which is the Diwan-i-Aam or Hall of Public Audience, one of Shah Jahan’s additions (Akbar and his successor Jahangir had received petitions and held audiences in wooden structures within the fort). Despite its appearance it isn’t built in his favourite white marble but of sandstone plastered with ground white shells to resemble it. It is open on three sides and divided into three aisles. On the rear, closed side is the marble chamber or jharokha from where Shah Jahan would address the people.

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Diwan-i-Aam

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Fort visitors in the garden

The main area of the fort that we focused on during our relatively brief visit was the Khas Mahal (private palace) and neighbouring pavilions. This is one of Shah Jahan’s additions, built as his private residence, and was also known as Aramgah-i-Mualla (the Exalted Place of Rest) or Aramgah-i-Muqaddas (the Holy Resting Apartment). It is a small palace suite, with three main chambers behind an open platform. The suite of rooms includes the private sleeping quarters, which consist of bedrooms for Shah Jahan and his queen linked by a central larger chamber. At its north-eastern corner is an octagonal tower, the Musamman Burj, beautifully decorated and with terraces at the back overlooking the river Yamuna.

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Inside the Khas Mahal, and view through the Musamman Burj to the terrace beyond

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Decorative details of the Khas Mahal complex

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Shah Jahan's only view of the Taj Mahal

There are great views from here of the Taj Mahal. No doubt the emperor chose this spot for his private rooms in part at least for that reason, a decision that was perhaps to haunt him. Towards the end of his life his son Aurangzeb declared his father unfit to rule, probably with little foundation, and had him put under house arrest. This small suite of rooms became his prison, apart from when he was allowed out to pray at the mosque in the fort. From here therefore he would be constantly reminded of the Taj Mahal where his beloved Mumtaz Mahal was buried, but could never visit it to mourn her as he had intended.

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The central chamber of the Khas Mahal is built from Shah Jahan’s preferred white marble and shows some of the same decorative touches as the Taj Mahal, including pietra dura or parchi kari flowers and vines, and carved marble friezes. The side rooms though are of red sandstone covered with white plaster made from ground shells, like the Diwan-i-Aam. They have colourful frescoes, traces of which remain, and golden roofs built in the curving bangla style which imitates the shape of Bengali thatched huts and is characteristic of 17th century Mughal architecture.

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Side pavilion roof detail

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The Khas Mahal overlooks a garden, Anguri Bagh, seen in my photo below. This is laid out in the charbagh style, i.e. divided into four, and within each section low red sandstone walls separate beds of ground cover plants. It is assumed that grapes once grew here, giving it its name (angur = grapes).

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Anguri Bagh, with the Khas Mahal on the left

Around the remaining sides of the garden courtyard are living quarters, thought to be those of the harem, some of which still have their original wooden doors.

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Itmad-ud-Daulah

At our guide Saurav’s suggestion we took a break after visiting the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort, returning to our hotel (where we hadn’t been able to check in earlier) for a rest – very welcome after our 4.30 AM start to the day in Delhi! So it was late afternoon when we arrived at the Itmad-ud-Daulah, which proved to be a perfect time to see it, although at first I was concerned as the front was largely in shadow. This though was more than compensated for by the beautiful light on the remaining three sides and the relatively low numbers of other tourists, as I hope my photos will show.

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View of Itmad-ud-Daulah from the main gate, in shadow

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The main gate from the grounds

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View from the river

Often nick-named the "Baby Taj”, the Itmad-ud-Daulah was built between 1622 and 1628, commissioned by Noor Jahan, wife of Jahangir the fourth Mughal emperor, for her father Mirza Ghiyas Beg. He was a Persian who had been given the title of Itimad-ud-Daulah (Pillar of the State) in return for his service at court – hence the tomb’s name. Mirza Ghiyas Beg was also the grandfather of Mumtaz Mahal, the wife of Shah Jahan whose death inspired him to build the Taj Mahal.

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Corner minaret

The tomb marks the transition between the earlier Mughal architecture, which was primarily of red sandstone with marble decorations (for example Humayun's Tomb in Delhi) to its later phase introduced by Shah Jahan, the fifth emperor, which featured white marble with pietra dura inlay, as in the Taj Mahal. Compared with the latter this is an intimate building set in a charbagh style garden on the east bank of the Yamuna river. It is built from white Rajasthani marble inlayed with semi-precious stones including cornelian, jasper, lapis lazuli, onyx and topaz to create geometrical designs, vases of flowers and more – inside and out. As well as being the first tomb in India to be built entirely from marble it is also one of the first buildings to blend Islamic and local Indian influences; largely Islamic in style, it omits the dome more usual in such buildings in favour of an Indic-looking kiosk with a roof ornamented with lotus flowers.

Although built for her father, a number of Noor Jahan's other relatives are also interred in the tomb. Her father and mother lie side by side in the central chamber, where the asymmetrical arrangement of the cenotaphs (mother in the centre, father to one side) also presages the Taj Mahal. The cenotaphs in the side chambers are those of the remaining family members buried here.

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Inside the tomb

There is a lovely story told about Noor Jahan and her father. Mirza Giyas Beg was a poor merchant living in Persia who moved to India with his pregnant wife and three children in search of a better life. On the way they were attacked by robbers who stole all they had. It was around that time that his wife gave birth to a girl. They did not have enough money to feed their new born baby, Mehrunnisa, and took the tough decision that they must abandon her. Before they could do so they found a caravan travelling to India, which they joined. They ended up at the court of the Mughal emperor, Akbar, who made Giyas Beg a diwan – a treasurer. He did well in this role and his status at court grew, serving both Akhbar and his son and successor Jahangir, leading to the award of that title of Itmad-ud-Daula – “Pillar of the State”. The daughter grew up to become the wife of Jahangir and took a new name, Noor Jahan: the Light of the World.

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I have read that the gardens that surround the tomb of Itmad-ud-Daula were planted with flowers, but when we visited they were being dug up and replanted. However we didn’t mind too much because when we went round to the rear side of the mausoleum, facing the river, we saw that there were lots of macaque monkeys in the garden, whose antics gave us lots of pleasure.

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These are Rhesus Macaques, common throughout India. They are brown or grey, with a medium length tail (usually a little over 20 cm) and a pink face. They live in large troops (up to 200 in number) and their native habitats are grasslands and mountains, but they have become very comfortable living alongside humans and are increasingly moving into urban areas, as we saw. And while we may find them cute and fun to watch, for the locals they pose something of a problem, stealing food and other items too. No doubt here they pick up plenty of scraps dropped by visitors and may also have been searching for seeds etc. thrown up as the gardeners worked. They were also grabbing a drink from a leaky hose, although the one in my second photo, who had mistaken some dropped tissues for food, may have bitten off more than he could chew!

While the Taj Mahal may be your main object in coming to Agra, do make time to visit this tomb too. As well as contributing to your understanding of the Taj’s architecture, it has a quiet beauty of its own and a rather special atmosphere.

Mehtab Bagh: another side of the Taj Mahal

If you cross the Yamuna river to the site where legend has it that Shah Jahan planned to build his own black marble mausoleum to face the Taj Mahal across the water, you can get an alternative view of Agra's most famous sight. To enter this area costs 100 IR per person (you can apparently get similar but slightly less good views for free a little down the road). We came here late afternoon, when the sinking sun gave the marble a warm glow. Note though that proper sunsets here are rare as moisture rising from the river as the air cools slightly causes the sun to disappear into the haze before it reaches the point of sinking. Nevertheless it is worth coming here to see the Taj Mahal in a different light.

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Taj Mahal at sunset

You can also see the remains of the old city walls here, and will probably also get some good people shots, if these interest you, as the local women herd their goats homewards after a day's grazing.

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Around Mehtab Bagh

Saurav told us that Shah Jahan planned to build a mirror image of the Taj Mahal but in black marble on the other side of the Yamuna to be his own tomb, but was overthrown by his son Aurangzeb before it could be built. I have since read though that this story is probably just a myth, based on the discovery of blackened marble ruins across the river in the Moonlight Garden, Mehtab Bagh. Excavations carried out in the 1990s found these to be merely discoloured white stones that had turned black. I loved the story of the black mausoleum though when Saurav told it to us, and the picture it conjured up, so I’m loath to let it go completely!

Local people in Agra

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As everywhere we went on this trip, I enjoyed taking photos of people here in Agra - for the most part, candid photos of locals shot on the street or of Indian tourists visiting the same famous sites as ourselves. Unlike many countries we have visited, I found everywhere in India that even if people spotted my camera they seemed happy to let me continue to snap away, only occasionally indicating that I should refrain from taking their photo. Of course, with a long zoom I often went undetected, and some of these photos were taken from the car when passing through residential parts of the city.

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Dinner at Peshawri

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Murgh Makai Kabab and naan bread
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Kulfi and rice pudding

We were quite tired on the evening of our day in Agra, having been up since 4.30 AM to catch the train from Delhi, so we decided to eat in the hotel and to treat ourselves to dinner in Peshawri, the more upmarket Indian restaurant (as opposed to the multi-cuisine buffet restaurant). The food in Peshawri is all based around the tandoor oven, so there are a lot of kebab dishes and grills. We asked the waiter for advice and he recommended some dishes for us to share, including their "signature" dish, Murgh Makai Kabab - chicken pieces flavoured (I think marinated) in cream cheese, vinegar, green chilli and coriander before being grilled in the tandoor. This was absolutely delicious - succulent chicken pieces with a wonderful smoky flavour from the oven. There were six large pieces - plenty for the two of us to share. With these we had another recommended dish, Dal Bukahara, which was also very good, and some tandoori naan bread. We shared a large Kingfisher beer, and later had desserts - kulfi for Chris and a cardamom and pistachio flavoured Basmatii rice pudding for me - again, delicious.

This isn't a cheap option by Indian standards, although we could easily pay more for a less good meal at home in London - in fact it was by some way the most we paid on this trip, but it was worth the splurge and made for a lovely evening to cap our time in Agra.

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Peshawri restaurant in the ITC Moghul Hotel

Posted by ToonSarah 16:04 Archived in India Tagged buildings india fort taj_mahal agra

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Comments

I can see why you would have been tired by dinner time. You packed a lot in...dinner looks delicious.

by Wabat

Thanks Albert - I think it was the early start as much as anything but on reflection, yes we did pack a lot into this day!

by ToonSarah

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