Agra: Beyond the Taj

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    In spite of the fact that Agra is probably India’s biggest tourist destination, it does not receive any more than a day or two on most tourist itineraries. Most overseas visitors are happy to see the Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri and then move on, sandwiching Agra between Delhi and Jaipur in the very popular ‘Golden Triangle’ tour plan. In the popular imagination, Agra remains the home of the Taj, but little more. But Agra has been the capital of the Mughal Empire, an important military stronghold for the Mughals and the Marathas and the first city in North India to have a Christian settlement. For explorers and history enthusiasts, there is enough in Agra and its surrounding areas, to occupy an entire week. Here is a taste of just a few of Agra’s lesser-known monuments.

    Mehtab Bagh

    The Mehtab Bagh is a Mughal garden built on the eastern bank of the Yamuna overlooking the Taj Mahal. It is the site which is intrinsically connected with the historically incorrect story that Shah Jahan planned to build a Black marble Taj Mahal here. Mehtab Bagh was the last of the 11 Mughal gardens built on the eastern bank of the Yamuna.

    The name Mehtab does not refer to any person, but means ‘light of the moon’. The spot was identified by Shah Jahan and was built to line up exactly with the Taj Mahal on the opposite side of the river. The garden appears to have been used as a viewing platform to see the Taj Mahal by moonlight, hence its name. The Yamuna frequently flooded and there is a reference to Aurangzeb reporting on the flood damage to the garden, in 1652 in a communication to his father.

    The garden was abandoned and completely forgotten for many years and the resultant mound led to the famous rumours of the existence of a ‘Black Taj’ to mirror the white one on the other side of the river. Although excavation in the 1990s uncovered the truth and the ruins of the garden, the Black Taj rumour has refused to die. Along with the ruins of the garden, charred remains of 6 plant species were also discovered, at least one of which was thought to have been imported by the Mughals. The garden is now popular with tourists and is usually recommended for sunset viewings of the Taj Mahal.

    Jacob’s Chhatri

    While most people would think of Agra as a Mughal city, there was also a substantial Armenian population in the city, which played a significant part in the city’s history. Agra was, in fact, the first city in India to have an Armenian colony. In his later years, Emperor Akbar married an Armenian woman by the name of Mariam, appointed an Armenian named Abdul Hai as his chief justice and took on an Armenian woman doctor, Juliana, to look after his family.

    Among the Armenian residents of Agra (much later) was a Major John Jacob. Jacob’s family had been in the service of the Scindias of Gwalior until he moved to Agra in 1850. He was killed 7 years later in the skirmish in a mutiny, in the Shahgunj area of Agra. William Dalrymple wrote about how early European settlers in India adopted the ways of the natives in dress, food and other matters, in his book White Mughals. From the architecture of his tomb, which is more Mughal than Christian, it certainly seems like Major John Jacob was one of them. The chhatri is now inside the Cottage Industries complex and Major John Jacob’s house, adjacent to his tomb, now serves as the showroom!

    Ram Bagh

    Ram Bagh is the oldest Mughal garden in India. Built by Babar in 1528 CE, at his favourite place in Agra, the name of this Mughal garden has changed thrice. It was originally called Bagh-i-zar-Afshan, after the river which fed Samarkand, which Babar is said to have yearned for. After his death, it was renovated, probably under the orders of Queen Nur Jahan and therefore came to be known as Bagh-i-Nur Afshan. After the capture of Agra by the Marathas in the 18th century CE, it was renamed Ram Bagh. The classic Mughal char-bagh has one unusual arrangement. On its western side is a raised platform with two buildings which aren’t centrally placed. The buildings contain taikhanas and steps which lead to the river. Much of the garden was renovated in the 19th century CE, which makes it somewhat difficult to guess what it looked like during Nur Jahan’s time. Nonetheless, it is in good shape and worth visiting.

    Jama Masjid

    Agra’s Jama Masjid was built under the orders of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in 1648 CE. The mosque’s three bulbous domes have a unique zigzag pattern created by alternating sandstone and marble. Just like the Taj Mahal, there is Islamic calligraphy on the three sides around the mosque’s central arch. The mosque is built on a raised plinth and has a large open courtyard with the prayer chamber on the western side and cloisters on the other three sides for scholars and caretakers. In the centre of the courtyard is a pool and a fountain which serves as the wazu-khana, for ritual cleansing before prayer. There is a clear overall similarity in tone with the Taj Mahal, which makes this an interesting monument to visit. However, the ‘Tripola Chowk’ which once stood between the gate of the mosque and the Agra Gate of the Agra Fort was demolished to build the Agra Fort Railway Station.

    Jaswant Singh Ki Chhatri

    Jaswant Singh Ki Chhatri is one of the few Hindu monuments in the city of Agra and is somewhat like a Hindu replica of the Mughal tomb gardens found all along the banks of the Yamuna. This is actually the spot where Amar Singh Rathore was cremated. Amar Singh was a nobleman in Shah Jahan’s court and is said to have murdered his Mir-Bakshi, Salabat Khan over some minor disagreement in the presence of the Emperor. Shah Jahan immediately ordered Amar Singh’s execution and his body was handed over to his family members. He was cremated on the banks of the Yamuna and his widow immolated herself on his funeral pyre, following the Hindu custom of sati. The rectangular building contains intricate jaali screens and ornate columns that fuse together Hindu and Islamic styles of architecture. It is known by the name of Jaswant Singh, Amar Singh’s brother, who built the chhatri and also served under Shah Jahan.

    Idgah of Agra

    The spectacularly proportioned Idgah of Agra, unfortunately had no foundation stone or inscription and neither is there any reference to it in any contemporary texts. From the architectural style, it would appear to be from Shah Jahan’s time. The massive mosque, made of red sandstone is situated within a high walled compound and lies to the west of a garden with water channels dividing it into quadrants. Its sheer size means that once one steps into the garden, one is completely insulated from the traffic noises and chaos of the city outside, making it the perfect place for a relaxed stroll. There is a rather large cemetery to the south of the Idgah, containing some interesting looking tombs.

    Tomb of Mariam-al-Zamani

    Located in Sikandra, in the middle of a perfect Mughal garden, the red sandstone tomb of Mariam-al-Zamani follows the pattern of Jahangir and Nur Jahan’s tombs in Lahore. Mariam-al-Zamani was Akbar’s wife and mother of Emperor Jahangir. Popular belief is that she was Akbar’s Christian wife or according to some versions, Armenian, but there is no evidence to support this claim. She was probably Hindu and the daughter of the ruler of Amber (Jaipur). The exterior of the tomb has lost much of its original sandstone embellishment, though some remains. An arched entrance on each side leads into a labyrinth of passages, at the center of which is a staircase, giving access to the tomb below. Scattered around Mariam-al-Zamani’s tomb are several severely dilapidated tombs which may be explored on foot.

    Chausath Khamba

    These two tombs are of a father and son who served under Mughal Emperors. The white octagonal tomb is of Saadiq Khan, who was one of Akbar’s best officers. He is said to have been a nephew of Itmad-ud-Daulah, father of Mughal Empress Nur Jahan. The original tomb must have once stood on an elevated platform at the centre of a Mughal style char bagh, but no trace of this now remains. The tomb itself is elegant and is built in an early Mughal style.

    Adjacent to it is a red sandstone hall, containing 64 columns, giving it its name – Chausath Khamba. The hall stands on a raised plinth, with Mughal style chhatris on each corner. This is said to be the tomb of Saadiq Khan’s son, Salabat Khan, who served as Mir Bakshi or commander under Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan and had some 6000 men serving under him. Salabat Khan is said to have been killed by Amar Singh Rathore, after whom the entrance gate of the Agra Fort is named.

    Jhun Jhun Katora

    Inside the civil court complex is the octagonal early Mughal style tomb known as Jhun Jhun Katora. The name literally means rattling bowl, which probably comes from the water carriers who lived around the tomb and would rattle metal bowls as they walked around. While some texts say it was the tomb of a certain Maulana Hassan who died in 1549 CE, local legend is that it is the tomb of a water carrier or bhishti, who once saved Humayun’s life. The story goes that Humayun, defeated in battle by Afghan chief Sher Shah Suri, was retreating with the remnants of his army, when his horse slipped and he fell into the river. He was spotted by a water-carrier named Nizam, who inflated his buffalo-skin water pouch and used it to save the Emperor from drowning. A grateful Humayun rewarded Nizam by making him Emperor for half a day. Nizam used that half a day to order that coins be made from leather along with announcing a bunch of other measures to make water more easily accessible to the people. Whether or not there is any truth to this story, it is impossible to verify, but the legend has survived and locals insist that it is true.

    The Church of St. John In The Wilderness

    The district’s oldest Protestant Church is almost literally in the wilderness and receives few visitors, which is a pity because its gothic architecture is quite striking. Located a mere 200 metres to the east of the tomb of Mariam-al-Zamani, wife of Emperor Akbar and mother of Emperor Jahangir, the Church of St. John In The Wilderness once owned massive swathes of land around the building and during a famine in 1838 CE, missionaries set up an orphanage and a school inside the tomb of Mariam-al-Zamani.

    Cheeni Ka Rauza

    Cheeni Ka Rauza gets its name not from sugar, but from the multi-coloured ceramic tiles that once covered the entire tomb. Remnants of the tiles may still be seen, especially on the northern wall. This is said to be the tomb of Afzal Khan, brother of Amanat Khan, the calligrapher who worked on the Taj Mahal. Amanat Khan died in Lahore in 1639 CE, but is said to have been buried here. Although most of the exterior ornamentation has been washed away, exquisite decoration may still be seen on the inside. What makes Cheeni Ka Rauza unique is the fact that it is the only tomb on the eastern bank that has been aligned with Mecca, as opposed to the river, which places it at an odd angle to the bank. Right next door, on the southern side, is a plain domed tomb known as Kala Gumbad.

    Buland Bagh

    Buland Bagh is named after Buland Khan, an eunuch in Jahangir’s court who had the garden built. The garden is very difficult to access, except through a path by the river. Although the divisions of the garden are somewhat visible in satellite images, the garden itself is now completely overgrown. The only two structures that still survive are one corner turret and the Battis Khamba. This is a fine looking 4 storeyed octagonal pavilion, so named because of its 32 pillars. Visible from here is the chhatri of Jaswant Singh on the opposite bank of the river.

    Zahara Bagh

    Probably built around 1635 CE under the orders of Mumtaz Mahal and left to her daughter Jahanara (from whom it gets its name), this now-ruined Mughal garden is located to the south of Cheeni Ka Rauza. Parts of it have been obliterated by NH2 and the only prominent landmarks are a few chhatris, especially the one on the southwest corner. These chhatris may have been later additions, probably built during Jahanara’s time. The water channels are still in use and river water is pumped through them to water horticulture plots within the garden. The area is somewhat difficult to access, except on foot and receives almost no visitors.

    Taal Firoz Khan

    Firoz Khan, also known as Firoz Khan Khwajasara, was the caretaker of Emperor Shah Jahan’s harem. According to some accounts, he was an eunuch. He died in 1647 CE and was buried in the red sandstone tomb that he had built during his own lifetime. The tomb itself has a high, octagonal plinth and a large sandstone gateway with broad steps leading up to the terrace, on top of which is the domed structure. Firoz Khan also seems to have had a very large pond dug in front of his grave, which was thought of as a considerable act of piety. The pond and the village around it, is still known as Taal Firoz Khan.

    There are many more monuments all over Agra, however, apart from the handful that are promoted, most are in extremely bad shape and even accessing them can be a huge problem because the roads simply do not exist. However, here, social media can play an important role, encouraging more people to go off the beaten track, to explore Agra beyond the Taj Mahal.


    Deepanjan Ghosh is a broadcast professional from Kolkata, India. A history buff, a landscape and architecture photographer and blogger, he has has been writing about Kolkata since 2013 and hopes to release a book on Kolkata's history soon.

    Marble inlay work or Parchinkari is a great legacy of Mughal Art. Artisans today have kept this ancestral legacy alive and now you can buy Marble Coasters which have the same inlay work as the renowned Taj Mahal, only on our history shop, Peepul Tree India, click here.

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