A day in Agra
Taj Mahal seen from Agra Fort
Itmad ud Daulah
Mention Agra – indeed, mention India – and most people will picture the Taj Mahal. And with good reason. It is a beautiful building with a beautiful, haunting story to tell. But Agra is so much more besides.
Agra’s fort is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a significant example of evolving Mughal architecture. The beautiful Itmad-ud-Daulah, sometimes called the “Baby Taj”, is a small jewel, especially when seen in the late afternoon light as we did. And not far away is the abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri, one of my favourites among the many places we visited on this trip.
We only spent a day here – long enough to see the main sights, but too little to feel I really got to know Agra. But I liked what I saw. After the mania that is Delhi, driving Agra’s relatively calm, but still fascinating, streets was a pleasure. Already we were starting to see another side of India, and one that I really liked.
Travelling to Agra
We came to Agra by train from Delhi, a journey of about two hours. It was an early start as the train left Delhi at 6.00 AM, while it was still more or less dark. But the sun was soon up and we enjoyed the views of the surrounding countryside in the misty morning light. It is a flat landscape so there is nothing spectacular to see, but we found it interesting. Taking photos of the passing views wasn't really an option however, as the windows were both dirty and double glazed, making it hard to focus.
We travelled in a 2nd class air-conditioned coach. The ticket price includes a meal served to your seat by "Meals on Wheels" but as we had a packed breakfast provided by our Delhi hotel we skipped that. We were also given newspapers (English language) but we were too busy looking out of the window to bother with those either.
The fare was a little under 800 IR per person – about £8. The train arrived only a couple of minutes late in Agra where we had five minutes to get ourselves and our luggage off the train - no problem! We were met by a rep from the travel company and our driver Mehar who had driven down from Delhi, and we were soon on our way to our hotel.
That hotel was the ITC Mughal Hotel, which is probably one of the best hotels in Agra but didn’t fully live up to our initial positive impression. Our room (one of the standard Mughal rooms) was large and pleasant, with a king size bed, some seating, and all the usual facilities. The bathroom was also good and well equipped with towels, toiletries and a hair-dryer. I like the little touch of rose petals on the towels.
The lobby and our bedroom
The hotel entrance and lobby are rather grand and the décor quite opulent. A shame then that the exterior is so ugly - reminiscent of an English council building perhaps. Of course when you are inside enjoying the facilities you are less aware of that. And the facilities are good - a good sized swimming pool, a spa (we had no time to visit either of these), a large restaurant serving buffet meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and another smarter restaurant, Peshwari, where we treated ourselves to dinner and a bar in the lobby.
The promised view of the Taj Mahal is less than impressive – to see it you must climb several flights of stairs to a small outside terrace from where that famous building can be glimpsed across the rooftops. It is a view, but not one worth choosing this hotel for!
View of the Taj from the hotel's rooftop
We should have really liked this hotel, given its overall quality, but were left with the impression that with the exception of the Peshawri restaurant, it is a little soulless and a little too full of itself – a place that focuses on style more than substance.
Still, we were here to see the sights, and those did 100% live up to expectations!
The Taj Mahal
Our itinerary had specified a sunset visit to the Taj Mahal but when we arrived in Agra our guide, Saurav, suggested going there straight away as the light would be nicer in the morning and the crowds a little less – especially since it was a Sunday and a popular day for Indians to visit. We took up his proposal so were there by about 9.00, but already it was very busy. But crowds or no crowds, it is still an amazing sight and one not to be missed. And besides, in the extensive gardens there are places you can escape the mass of people and enjoy the bird song while reflecting on this magical place.
Shah Jahan's view from the fort
There is possibly no more famous building in the world, so before you visit you will have seen very many photos and think you know what to expect. I was prepared to be disappointed, just in case it didn’t live up to those expectations (I almost wrote, “in case it didn’t live up to the hype” but that’s perhaps a bit harsh). I even half-expected not to be impressed, but of course I was. There’s a reason why the Taj Mahal is so acclaimed after all – it is truly beautiful. And there is a beautiful, if sad, story behind it.
The Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, grandson of Akbar who had built the great fort here in Agra, was a lover of great art and architecture, responsible for some of the Mughal Empire’s most lovely and enduring buildings. As was usual at that time, he had a number of wives, but his favourite among them was Mumtaz Mahal whom he had married more for love than political expedience.
He was grief-stricken when she died in childbirth in 1631, giving birth to their 14th child (as our guide told the story, he also felt guilty that he had expected too much of her in that respect). After a period of mourning in which he shut himself away from the world, he emerged inspired to build a tomb for her that would be a paradise on earth. The Taj Mahal is the result.
But the emperor was not left to mourn his beloved here. Soon after its completion, in 1658, he fell ill. His son Dara Shikoh took on the role of regent but was challenged and overthrown by another son, Aurangzeb. The latter declared Shah Jahan unfit to rule (according to our guide, basing this on his extravagance in spending so much on wonderful new buildings and patronising the arts) and had him put under house arrest at nearby Agra Fort.
There he was forced to live out his remaining years in a few small rooms, from which he could see, but never visit, the tomb of his beloved Mumtaz Mahal. My photo shows the only view he had.
Taj Mahal: the great gate and bazaars
Jilaukhana with Darwaza-i rauza beyond
Arriving at the Taj Mahal you pass first through an outer forecourt, the Jilaukhana. On its northern side is the great gateway to the main tomb complex, while on the other three sides are the gates leading to the outside world. We entered through the eastern one of these. From here, and from the western gate, paths lined with colonnades that once held small shops, the bazaar, lead you to the centre of the courtyard. This area was a sort of buffer zone between the everyday world outside and the paradise Shah Jahan sought to create within. Here visitors would dismount from their horses or elephants and refresh themselves before entering the tomb. And if it seems incongruous to have a bazaar in paradise, the emperor was only thinking to satisfy every possible need of his beloved wife entombed there.
Also in this courtyard are the small tombs of two of Shah Jahan’s other wives, and the sleeping quarters of the tomb attendants. From here you pass through the great gate or Darwaza-i rauza, from where you will get your first glimpse of the mausoleum itself. Our guide likened the gate to a woman’s veil, beautiful in its own right but hiding a much greater beauty within until the point when she chooses to lift it. Certainly if the gate were the only building here it would be considered worthy of our attention. It is built on a grand scale, from red sandstone and white marble, and ornamented with some of the pietra dura or parchinkari work which characterises Moghul architecture under Shah Jahan in general, and the Taj Mahal in particular. Inscriptions from the Koran run around the arches on both sides. These get slightly larger the higher on the gate they are placed, to reduce the appearance of skewing when viewed from below. One of the quotations reads:
"O Soul, thou art at rest. Return to the Lord at peace with Him, and He at peace with you.”
But for most visitors this gate is just a small interruption on their quest to see the tomb itself, and everyone funnels through the narrow space before pausing in wonder and, in this modern age, raising countless cameras and smart phones to capture the iconic view. It reminded me a little of the experience of visiting Petra and getting your first sight of the Treasury as you emerge from the Siq – you know it is there, and you know what it looks like from countless photos, but still it takes your breath away.
View through Darwaza-i rauza
On the steps by the gate
Immediately inside the gate on either side of you are galleried arcades raised on a few steps. These arcades were used during the rainy season to distribute alms to the poor, but nowadays offer shade to weary tourists and a gathering spot for guides waiting for their charges to finish their tour, as well as some great distance shots of the Taj itself as, standing here, you are raised a little above the heads of the throngs of visitors in the gardens below and can frame the tomb nicely in the arches of the arcade (the photo below was taken by our guide, Saurav, to show us his own favourite view).
Taj Mahal: Charbagh gardens
While the setting and surroundings of the Taj Mahal are lovely, you can’t get away from the fact that everyone is here to see one thing – the exquisite tomb itself. This is set at some distance from the great gate, separated from it by gardens in the Persian charbagh style – that is, divided into four parts, and each of these again into four. The outer four squares on each side are planted with trees, while the inner four are lawns. The north-south axis is a long water tank that provides the classic reflection of the tomb building, while the other divisions are pathways. Most people follow the path along the water towards the tomb, being the most obvious and direct route, but Saurav advised that we walk along the path that parallels this on the left, and return by the right-hand equivalent. This has several advantages – you are away from the large proportion of the crowd, you have the shade of the trees (the sun was already very hot at about 9.30 AM), you get some interesting and different perspectives for your photos, and you arrive at the tomb at the point where you need to be to ascend the platform for entry.
Water tank and gardens
The main tomb and the mosque as seen from the gardens
The charbagh style of garden is intended to symbolise the four flowing Rivers of Paradise, which fits with Shah Jahan’s concept of building a paradise on earth in which his beloved would lie. Islamic texts describe paradise as a garden filled with trees, flowers and plants, and with four rivers springing from a single central source. Very often (as in the case of Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi) the tomb would be placed at this central point. But here it is at one side, on the river’s bank, and furthermore, there is no east-west water tank. It is possible that Shah Jahan was signalling a move towards a more compromised secular version of the classic charbagh in which the imperative of design overtook that of adherence to religious belief and tradition. But it is also possible that he conceived of the river as that east-west axis, given that his design encompassed part of the north bank where he built a “Midnight Garden”. If the latter is seen as being part of the Taj Mahal’s charbagh garden, then the classic principles can be seen to be in place.
Taj Mahal: the tomb
And so we arrive at the tomb … This is what we have all come to see, and it doesn’t disappoint, although for me the most magical view of all was the distant one when it appeared to float and shimmer lace-like in the heat of the sun.
Tourists entering the tomb, seen from the Darwaza-i rauza
It stands on a raised marble platform close to the river. At the four corners of the platform are identical minarets (symmetry is everything here). These are over 40 metres tall and are designed as working minarets, with a balcony at the top from which a muezzin can call the faithful to prayer. These are each topped by a canopy or chhatri which echoes those on the main structure. Interestingly the minarets are built to incline fractionally away from the platform on which they stand so that should they collapse they would fall away from the tomb and not damage it.
The tomb, and detail of a minaret
And so to the tomb. To access it you must ascend to the platform on the left side as you look at it. The long queue will probably be of Indian tourists but your much more expensive ticket allows you to bypass this so join the shorter one. Before doing so you must put on the shoe covers that will be issued to you near the foot of the steps – I believe these are more to protect the marble than for any other reason.
Once on the terrace you get your first close-up look at the structure. One thing that may strike you, as it did me, is the intricacy of the work. From a distance, as you emerge through the great gate, the building appears delicate, like the jewel box to which it is sometimes compared. Once you stand at its foot you get a true sense of its size, which, while not massive, is certainly greater than it appeared from afar (although the figures of other visitors in those distant views do give a clue as to the scale). It is 561 feet (171 metres high) and four storeys in total, although one of these is the basement, hidden within the terrace, where the actual graves of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan lie. Its layout is of a square, 180 feet (55 metres) wide, with the corners cut off to form an eight-sided structure.
The figure eight is very significant and found a lot in Mughal architecture. Each side has at its centre a large pishtaq (vaulted archway) with two similarly-shaped balconies stacked one above the other on either side, and again on the chamfered corners. This design is repeated on all four sides of the building – that symmetry again. The marble dome that tops the structure is 115 feet (35 metres) high and about the same in width. The four chhatris, one in each corner, echo its shape as well as that of the ones that top the four minarets.
While the lines and style of this structure are heavily influenced by Persian Muslim tradition, the decoration owes much to Hindu culture, although in line with Islamic beliefs no animal or human figures are portrayed, and the calligraphy is all quotations from the Koran. The decorative elements fall into three main types – carved marble, the aforementioned calligraphy and inlay work known as pietra dura (from its origins in Italy) or parchinkari, sometimes written as two words, parch kari, the Indian term. The designs of the latter are figurative vines with flowers and leaves and the stones used for these inlays include semi-precious ones such as jade (imported from China) and turquoise (from Tibet). Altogether 28 different types of semi-precious and precious stones were used here or in the interior. The carvings on the panels near the base are also mostly floral and are highly polished, while more geometric designs are used elsewhere, e.g. in framing the pishak. The calligraphy is created with inlays of black marble or jasper and is very stylised. Like that on the great gate, the upper panels have a slightly larger script to reduce the effect of distance.
Calligraphy and floral carving on the main tomb
The interior is divided into a network of chambers – a central one holding the memorial cenotaphs (the actual ones are as mentioned in a parallel chamber immediately below) and eight surrounding ones, linked by passages. The reason for this arrangement of actual burial chamber below a symbolic one is two-fold. It allows for the bodies to lie in a relatively plain space, as dictated by Muslim tradition, while their status is reflected above in a gloriously decorated one, and by placing the upper cenotaphs immediately above the lower ones, it also ensures that no one can walk directly above the bodies – also forbidden in Muslim tradition. This is the only place in the Taj Mahal where you will see the symmetry broken. Mumtaz Mahal’s cenotaph occupies the very centre of the chamber while her husband, Shah Jahan, lies to the west of her.
Inside the tomb
The decorative elements of the Taj reach their pinnacle here. The inlay work is done with precious stones and is lit, albeit dimly, by the sunlight filtering through intricately carved window screens. For a small tip (our guide suggested 50 IR) unofficial attendants here will shine a torch on the stones, demonstrating the depth of their glowing colours. Officially no photography is allowed, but I saw that just about everyone was taking pictures and not being challenged so I followed suit with a quick shot – without flash, of course (although some were even using this, it seemed to me both disrespectful and a destroyer of atmosphere).
Pause for a moment here to remember the reason for all of this – the expression of one man’s love for his queen and his grief at her passing. Then, when you have seen your fill of all the richness, you emerge, blinking, into the hot sun on the river side of the platform base.
Taj Mahal: river terrace and other buildings
As you emerge from your visit inside the chamber of the tomb you find yourself on the far side, where the platform overlooks the river Yamuna. Here we found welcome shade immediately beneath the tomb, as did many other visitors, and sat for a while on the cool marble. We also enjoyed the views of the river and on the far side some very down to earth scenes of daily life that contrasted a little oddly with the richness around us (later that day we were to find ourselves on that side of the river, observing the Taj Mahal from a different perspective).
From here you walk around the exterior and back to the front. On either side of the main tomb you see apparently identical mosques in red sandstone and marble, but appearances in this case are deceiving. Only the one to the left of the tomb, as you face it, was built as a mosque (a purpose it still serves today), while the one on the right, known as Jawab (meaning “answer”) was built purely to preserve the symmetry of the complex. It differs from the mosque only in two respects, neither visible from outside – it lacks a mihrab, the niche in a mosque's wall facing towards Mecca, and its floors have a geometric design rather than the mosque’s outlines of prayer rugs. It was formerly used as a guest house for important visitors to the Taj Mahal.
To descend from the terrace, you go back to your starting point at the front but head down the stairs leading to the left of the marble platform, where you can remove and throw away your shoe covers. From this point we followed the shady path on this side of the garden back towards the arcades by the great gate where Saurav was waiting for us, although we had enough time to relax for a while on a bench here and to take our final looks at this iconic building.
Did it live up to my expectations? Yes indeed. And was it among the finest sights we saw on this trip? Again, yes. But interestingly, when we returned to our starting point in Delhi at the end of this trip and were asked by Rajesh what we had most enjoyed or been impressed by, it was not the Taj Mahal I first thought of but instead of the less perfect buildings in Fatehpur Sikri, Bundi and Chittaurgarh. Maybe that says more about me though than about the Taj!
Parchinkari or Parch kari is the term given in India to the technique known In Europe and elsewhere by its Italian name, pietra dura. This involves inlaying marble or another hard stone with small pieces of coloured stones (often semi-precious or even precious) to create a decorative pattern or picture. In India its use reached its zenith in the time of the Mughal Empire, especially under Shah Jahan, and it is seen at its very best as an art form in the Taj Mahal.
Parchinkari detail on the main tomb
Because of this perhaps, the craft is still very much practised in Agra today, and there are a number of workshops in Agra where you can see parchinkari objects being made – and of course sold! We visited one of these after our visit to the Taj Mahal. Even if you don’t plan to buy (and we didn’t, as this work doesn’t really suit our style of décor) it is still worth a visit to one of these as you get a close-up look at the craftsmen and can really appreciate the painstaking work that goes into even a small piece of parchinkari – imagine then the work that went into the Taj Mahal! Every piece of stone has to be cut to a precise shape to fit the exact same shaped indentation on the base stone. Even a small flower can have twelve or more pieces – individual petals, stamen, stem etc. Once all the pieces of a design are in place the object is polished to a very high sheen, making the joins between them almost invisible.
Shaping the stones
Carving the indentations in the marble
Flowers and leaves in separate pieces of stone
Piecing together the flowers
My photos were taken in the workshop, in a special demonstration area set up for tourists to see the technique. Most of the pieces though are made in the workers’ homes as this is very much a cottage industry. While we were welcome to take photos here, it was not allowed in the shop display areas, for perhaps obvious reasons – although many designs are copied from or heavily influenced by those on the Taj Mahal, some are unique to each workshop and they are wary of having these imitated. Having said that, there is nothing to stop you photographing an object after you have bought it and sharing those images!
As you can imagine, the final products aren’t cheap. Prices depend not on the size of the object but the level of detail in the work, with even a small and fairly simple box costing several hundred rupees. But you get what you pay for, and you can be sure hours of work went into making it. If you see something that looks like parchinkari on a souvenir stall for just a few pounds/dollars, you can be equally sure that it’s an imitation, possibly just painted, or at best made with coloured glass rather than stone, and poorly inlaid.
Of course there is far more to Agra than the Taj Mahal, but that is for my next entry …