Say Agra and a pristine white image of Taj Mahal comes to mind. The city of Agra has gradually grown to become synonymous with this famous pearl white structure. But let me remind you that the Taj Mahal was built in Agra because it was the seat of the Mughals Empire in India. Taj Mahal was built in Agra because the Yamuna flows here hence what better place than this to admire its own reflection. Most people want to visit India to visit the Taj Mahal and they stand in long queues to get a glimpse of it. Taj is magnificent and you can admire it for hours and see it play with the sunrays and clouds against a blue sky. However, there is so much more to Agra than the Taj Mahal and one can spend a good 3-4 days in this city soaking in its red and white architecture and its culture that still has its roots in Braj Bhoomi.
My favourite monument in Agra is Itmad-ud-Daula – another building in white with intricate inlay or pietra dura work all over its walls. This building is much smaller in size and hence usually called Baby Taj by tour guides, more so to avoid confusing the tourists with the tongue twister name. It houses the tombs of parents and siblings of Noorjehan – the queen of Emperor Jahangir, famous for her beauty and brains. Her father incidentally is also the grandfather of Mumtaj Mahal – the lady for whom the Taj Mahal was built. This is also the first Mughal building that was built in all white although Jain temples of Rajasthan has a tradition of using only white marbles for building and sculpting. Inlay work in yellow and grey along with painted murals and ornate ceilings are worth noting here. The tomb is small though the total area that it covers with its gardens makes it a huge building too.
On the western outskirts of Agra lies a small village called Sikandra – that is incidentally named after Sikandar Lodhi. This village is what Akbar chose as his last resting place. I found this building very ironic. The giant red sandstone gate is elegantly ornate with bold mosaic patterns. You have to pass through this big gate and walk on a central channel with manicured gardens on both sides where you can see deers jumping around. The tomb is a lovely fusion of Indian and Central Asian architecture where a dome is absent though arches have a prominent presence. You enter the tomb and a small chamber with lovely lattice patterns and rich paintings in bright colours including gold intrigue you. You walk through a vestibule to reach the main tomb that is as simple as it can get. All you see is a plain chamber with an absolutely plain grave, the only decoration I could spot was a brass lamp. The mightiest of king lies in sheer simplicity but the aura around him is still regal.
Fatehpur Sikri, the city that was established by Akbar after he decided to live closer to spiritual master Salim Chisti is a place you can spend a full day exploring. Just the fort is masterpiece and so is Buland Darwaza that was built to celebrate king’s victory in Gujarat. The palaces of the queens who came from different religions including a temple and a palace with paintings of elephants and dancing Ganesha make you think how the royal households functioned. Palace of Birbal brings a smile as the very name signifies wit in India. The platform where Tansen used to sing of course reminds of the filmi compositions of his that we have heard. Diwan-e-khas is a unique building with a seat for the emperor and four pathways leading to it. It is said that Akbar used to listen to philosophical and spiritual discourses. There is red sandstone everywhere here but now where it stands out like the way it does on the open platforms of Panch Mahal – a 5 tiered building.
You have of course heard about these buildings and the Red fort that is often called Agra fort so as not to confuse it with the one in Delhi. However I was happy to discover a small structure in Red sandstone called 11 Seedhi or 11 Steps. These are free standing 11 steps carved in single stone – they were a part of the observatory system here. A step well stands next to it and both these stand on the banks of Yamuna that is home to innumerable birds. The very next day we discovered the Soor Sarovar bird sanctuary that is home to many birds and it is not surprising as this wetland lies quite close to the famous Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary. In fact the Chambal River that is home to crocodiles, gharials, river dolphins and many endangered species of birds is also quite close to Agra. With rivers like Yamuna and Chambal in the region, birds can’t be too far.
I still have a list of places to see in Agra that I could not this time like Chini ka Rouza, Roman Catholic Cemetery, Sadar Bazar for its famous chaat and of course the petha fraternity. Wonder how most of us miss many facets of Agra for that one jewel in its crown.
(Writer is a leading travel blogger from India. You can read her stories at www.IndiTales.com and reach her on twitter