The splendour of Agra – India’s capital under the Mughals – remains undiminished, from the massive fort to the magnificent Taj Mahal. Along with Delhi, 204km northwest, and Jaipur in Rajasthan, Agra is the third apex of the “Golden Triangle”, India’s most popular tourist itinerary. Although it’s possible to see Agra on a day-trip from Delhi, the Taj alone deserves so much more – a fleeting visit would miss the subtleties of its many moods, as the light changes from sunrise to sunset – while the city’s other sights and Fatehpur Sikri can easily fill several days.
Most of the city’s major Mughal monuments, including the Taj Mahal, are lined up along the banks of the Yamuna River, which bounds the city’s eastern edge. They date from the later phase of Mughal rule and the reigns of Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan – exemplifying the ever-increasing extravagance which, by Shah Jahan’s time, had already begun to strain the imperial coffers and sow the seeds of political and military decline.
Most budget travellers end up in Taj Ganj, the jumble of narrow lanes immediately south of the Taj. With their unrivalled rooftop views and laidback cafés, the little guesthouses here can be great places to stay, although checkout time is usually 10am. There are more modern and upmarket lodgings along Fatehabad Rd, southwest of Taj Ganj, while the leafier Cantonment area and the adjacent Sadar Bazaar have places to suit every budget.
Agra is the home of Mughlai cooking, renowned for its rich cream- and curd-based sauces, accompanied by naan and tandoori breads roasted in earthen ovens, pulao rice dishes and milky sweets such as kheer. Taj Ganj has innumerable scruffy little travellers’ cafés, though standards of hygiene are often suspect and the food is generally uninspiring, with slow service the norm. Taj Ganj’s saving grace is the rooftop cafés, many with fine Taj views, which cap most of its buildings. Local specialities of Agra include petha (crystallized pumpkin) – the best is the Panchi brand, available at various outlets all over town, particularly in the row of petha shops in Kinari Bazaar along the northeast side of the Jama Masjid (past Chimman Lal Puri Wale). Look out too for ghazak, a rock-hard candy with nuts, and dalmoth, a crunchy mix made with black lentils. Agra’s restaurants – including even apparently reputable places – are not immune to the epidemic of credit-card fraud. It’s best not to pay by credit card except in the city’s five-star establishments, or, if you do, to supervise the operation carefully.
Agra is renowned for its marble tabletops, vases and trays, inlaid with semi-precious stones in ornate floral designs, in imitation of those found in the Taj Mahal. It is also an excellent place to buy leather: Agra’s shoe industry supplies all India, and its tanneries export bags, briefcases and jackets. Carpets and dhurries are manufactured here too, and traditional embroidery continues to thrive. Zari and zardozi are brightly coloured, the latter building up three-dimensional patterns with fantastic motifs; chikan uses more delicate overlay techniques. Shopping or browsing in Kinari Bazaar and Sadar Bazaar is fun, but be prepared to haggle; tourist emporiums are worth avoiding. A lot of private shops try to disguise themselves to look like state-run “cottage” or “handlooms” outlets – an indication of their level of integrity.
Agra sees a large amount of credit-card fraud; be wary of ordering anything to be sent overseas, never let your credit card out of your sight, even for the transaction to be authorized, and make sure that all documentation is filled in correctly and fully so as not to allow unauthorized later additions. A list of stores against whom complaints have been lodged is maintained by the local police department. Remember that if you arrive at any shop in a rickshaw or taxi, the prices of anything you buy will be inflated (and not by just a little) to cover the driver’s commission. If you’re planning on buying, ask to be dropped off nearby, and then walk to the shop (not allowing your driver to see where you are going).
Clustered around the Taj, the tangled little streets of Taj Ganj are home to most of the city’s cheap accommodation and backpacker cafés. A couple of kilometres to the west, on the far side of the leafy Cantonment area, lies Sadar Bazaar, linked to Taj Ganj by Fatehabad Road, where you’ll find many of the city’s smarter places to stay, as well as numerous restaurants and crafts emporiums. Northwest of Taj Ganj lies Agra Fort and, beyond, the third of the city’s main commercial districts, Kinari Bazaar, centred on the massive Jama Masjid.
The high red-sandstone ramparts of Agra Fort dominate a bend in the Yamuna River 2km northwest of the Taj Mahal. Akbar laid the foundations of this majestic citadel, built between 1565 and 1573 in the form of a half-moon, on the remains of earlier Rajput fortifications. The structure developed as the seat and stronghold of the Mughal Empire for successive generations: Akbar commissioned the walls and gates, his grandson, Shah Jahan, had most of the principal buildings erected, and Aurangzeb, the last great emperor, was responsible for the ramparts.
The curved sandstone bastions reach a height of over 20m and stretch for around 2.5km, punctuated by a sequence of massive gates (although only the Amar Singh Pol is currently open to visitors). The original and grandest entrance was through the western side, via the Delhi Gate and Hathi Pol or “Elephant Gate” (closed to the public), now flanked by two red-sandstone towers faced in marble, but once guarded by colossal stone elephants with riders which were destroyed by Aurangzeb in 1668. Access to this and to much of the fort is restricted, and only those parts open to the public are described here.
Every night after sunset (in English at 7pm in winter, 8.15pm or 8.30pm in summer), a sound-and-light show takes place at Agra Fort in front of the Diwan-i-Am. The show lasts an hour, during which time lights play on various parts of the fort as a commentary takes you through the history of the great Mughals. It’s fun, but nothing spectacular. Tickets can be bought at the gate.
Entrance to the fort is through the Amar Singh Pol, actually three separate gates placed close together and at right angles to each other to disorientate any potential attackers and to deprive them of the space in which to use battering weapons against the fortifications. From here a ramp climbs gently uphill flanked by high walls (another defensive measure), through a second gate to the spacious courtyard, with tree-studded lawns, which surrounds the graceful Diwan-i-Am (“Hall of Public Audience”). Open on three sides, the pillared hall, which replaced an earlier wooden structure, was commissioned by Shah Jahan in 1628. The elegance of the setting would have been enhanced by the addition of brocade, carpets and satin canopies for audiences with the emperor.
Heading through the small door to the left of the throne alcove in the Diwan-i-Am and climbing the stairs beyond brings you out onto the upper level of the Macchi Bhavan (Fish Palace), a large but relatively plain two-storey structure overlooking a spacious, grassy courtyard. This was once strewn with fountains and flowerbeds, interspersed with tanks and water channels stocked with fish on which the emperor and his courtiers would practise their angling skills, though the maharaja of Bharatpur subsequently removed some of its marble fixtures to his palace in Deeg, and William Bentinck (governor general from 1828 to 1835) auctioned off much of the palace’s original mosaics and fretwork.
On the north side of the courtyard (to the left as you enter) a small door leads to the exquisite little Nagina Masjid (Gem Mosque), made entirely of marble. Capped with three domes and approached from a marble-paved courtyard, it was commissioned by Shah Jahan for the ladies of the zenana (harem). At the rear on the right, a small balcony with beautifully carved lattice screens offers a discreet viewpoint from where members of the harem were able to inspect luxury goods – silks, jewellery and brocade – laid out for sale by merchants in the courtyard below, without themselves being seen.
The raised terrace on the far side of the Macchi Bhavan is adorned by two thrones, one black slate, the other white marble. The white one was used by Shah Jahan, the black one by the future emperor Jahangir to watch elephant fights in the eastern enclosure. It now serves, somewhat less gloriously, as a favoured perch for couples posing for photos against the backdrop of the distant Taj.
To your right (as you face the river), a high terrace overlooking the Yamuna is topped with a sequence of lavish royal apartments designed to catch the cool breezes blowing across the waters below. The first is the delicate Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audience), erected in 1635, where the emperor would have received kings, dignitaries and ambassadors, and is one of the most finely decorated buildings in the fort, with paired marble pillars and peacock arches inlaid with lapis lazuli and jasper.
A passageway behind the Diwan-i-Khas leads to the tiny Mina Masjid, a plain white marble mosque built for Shah Jahan and traditionally said to have been used by him during his imprisonment here.
Beyond, the passageway leads to a two-storey pavilion known as the Musamman Burj, famous as the spot where he is said to have caught his last glimpse of the Taj Mahal before he died, and the most elaborately decorated structure in the fort. Its lattice-screen balustrade is dotted with ornamental niches and with exquisite pietra dura inlay covering almost every surface. In front of the tower a courtyard, paved with marble octagons, centres on a pachisi board where the emperor, following his father’s example at Fatehpur Sikri, played pachisi (a form of ludo) using dancing girls as pieces.
Beyond the Musamman Burj, another large courtyard, the Anguri Bagh (Grape Garden), is a miniature charbagh, its east side flanked by the marble building known as Khas Mahal (Private Palace), possibly a drawing room or the emperor’s sleeping chamber. The palace is flanked by two so-called Golden Pavilions, their curved roofs covered with gilded copper tiles in a style inspired by the thatched roofs of Bengali village huts.
In front of the Khas Mahal, steps descend into the northeast corner of the Anguri Bagh and the Shish Mahal (Glass Palace), where royal women bathed in the soft lamplight reflected from the mirror-work mosaics that covered the walls and ceiling; the building is currently locked, so you can only peek in through the windows.
South of the Khas Mahal lies the huge Jahangiri Mahal (Jahangir’s Palace), although the name is misleading since it was actually built for Jahangir’s father, Akbar, and probably served not as a royal palace, but as a harem. Compared to the classic Mughal designs of the surrounding buildings, this robust sandstone structure has quite a few Hindu elements mixed up with traditional Mughal and Islamic motifs.
From the central courtyard, a gateway leads out through the main gateway into the palace, whose impressive facade shows a characteristic mix of Mughal and Indian motifs, with Islamic pointed arches and inlaid mosaics combined with Hindu-style overhanging eaves supported by heavily carved brackets. Immediately in front of the palace sits Jahangir’s Hauz (Jahangir’s Cistern), a giant bowl with steps inside and out, made in 1611 from a single block of porphyry and inscribed in Persian. Filled with rosewater, it would have been used by the emperor as a bathtub, and it’s also believed that the emperor took it with him on his travels around the empire – though it seems difficult to credit this, given the bath’s size and weight.
Given the Mughal tradition of magnificent tombs, it is no surprise that the mausoleum of the most distinguished Mughal ruler was one of the most ambitious structures of its time. Akbar’s mausoleum complex is entered via its huge Buland Darwaza (Great Gate), surmounted by four marble minarets, and overlaid with marble and coloured tiles in repetitive geometrical patterns, bearing the Koranic inscription “These are the gardens of Eden, enter them and live forever”. Through the gateway, extensive, park-like gardens are divided by fine raised sandstone walkways into the four equal quadrants of the typical Mughal charbagh design. Langur monkeys may be seen along the path, while deer roam through the tall grasses, just as they do in the Mughal miniature paintings dating from the era when the tomb was constructed, lending the whole place a magically peaceful and rural atmosphere.
Top image: Red Fort in Agra, Amar Singh Gate, India © Rafal Cichawa/Shutterstock