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Sightseeing in Agra

Agra: the Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal

The famous Taj Mahal is a mausoleum dedicated to Shah Jehan’s beloved empress Mumtaz Mahal. Its name means the Crown of Palaces and it stands as a symbol of exceptional love represented in its outstanding architectural beauty. Due to its romantic aura and superior structural qualities the Taj Mahal is the most popular tourist attraction in India, and is often claimed to be the Seventh Wonder of the World.

Completed in 1659, the mausoleum became the greatest building project of Shah Jahan. Other well known constructions under his rule include the mosque and pavilion gardens within the Agra Fort, as well as the Red Fort and Jama Masjid in Delhi. It took 22 years to build the Taj Mahal. At the time, the total cost of construction surpassed 32 million Indian rupees (which allowing for inflation since then, is equivalent to around 1 billion US dollars, nowadays). Yet, by today’s standards the Taj Mahal is priceless due to its perfect architectural design, the quality of the materials used for its construction, and the fine craft-work that adorns it. There is an unconfirmed, and probably false story that Shah Jehan ordered that all the craftsmen involved in the construction had their hands cut off so that no one else could build anything so magnificent.

Taj Mahal in Agra

As the day goes by, the white makrana marble of the building displays spectacular nuances of colour with changing light conditions. The Taj Mahal glows magically in the moonlight turning it into a romantic setting making many visitors linger to admire it. Unfortunately, it is not possible to visit the Taj Mahal during the night, and those who want to enjoy the moonlight view, need to stay in a hotel with rooms facing the monument. At dawn and dusk, the Taj Mahal adopts pinkish shades, whilst in the heat of the day it looks dazzling white.

The graves of Mumtaz Mahal and of Shah Jehan are in the lower chamber of the Taj Mahal. Shah Jehan’s sarcophagus is much simpler than that of Mumtaz. It was added later when he died in 1666, after spending eight years in Agra Fort as a prisoner of his son Aurangzeb, who usurped the throne to become the next Emperor.

The Taj Mahal is inserted in a vast architectural complex, which includes a large elaborate garden, a mosque, a guest house and other structures.

Agra Fort

Agra Fort

The Agra Fort was built by the Mughal Emperor Akbar, between 1566 and 1573. Surrounded by 15-meter-high turreted walls and wide moats it used to be a military stronghold of the Mughal Empire. Inside, there is a mix of splendid palaces, built either in red sandstone, or in white marble. They were added by Shah Jahan, a highly creative and productive builder. The jewel-encrusted palaces from that period are linked by numerous pavilions and terraces that were designed to admire the views of the Taj Mahal, and the plains beyond. There are various fairy-tale structures worth a visit. Sheesh Mahal was the Glass Palace for the royal baths and dressing. Its walls and ceiling are adorned with mirror mosaics; the Turkish-style tubs receive water running from marble chutes. In the courtyard, there are stairs that lead to the octagonal Mussaman Burj, or Jasmine Tower. The name derives from the floral pattern mosaics that adorn the tower, where Shah Jehan spent the last years of his life. In the centre of the fort is Diwan-i–Am, which was the hall for public audiences built when Shah Jehan was in power. Forty carved pillars support the pavilion where the emperor once sat consulting with his officials and where petitioners were received. No ordinary person was allowed to move beyond Diwan-i–Am.

Diwan-i-Khas, or private audience hall, was the fort's centre of power. It glittered with solid gold, silver and precious stones. It was the place where the Emperor received foreign ambassadors, dignitaries, and other important visitors.

Close to Diwan-i–Am is the Moti Masjid, the pearl mosque that was used by the royal family and attendants for private praying. From its domed ceiling once hung a huge priceless pearl.

By the mosque, are the sandstone arcades of Meena Bazaar. The bazaar used to take place around New Year. Only women, the Emperor, and a few princes were allowed to enter. Aristocratic ladies would sell exotic wares to the princes, nobles, and even to the emperor himself, giving the proceeds to charity. It was here that Shah Jehan, then a prince, met and fell in love with Mumtaz Mahal.

Fatehpur Sikri

Fatehpur Sikri

Fatehpur Sikri is a gigantic 16th century “utopian” city that lays deserted, 37 kilometres (23 miles) southwest of Agra. The city was planned and built by the Mughal Emperor Akbar as his capital, but was abandoned 12 years later in favour of Lahore, which served as a base to fight the threat of troublesome Afghan tribes. The story behind the foundation of Fatehpur Sikri is related to the fact that 26-year-old Akbar did not have a male heir. All his sons failed to survive, prompting Akbar to seek advice of a Sufi Muslim saint, Sheikh Salim Chisthi, who successfully prophesied that the emperor’s wives would soon produce three healthy male children. The following year, the first boy was born. He was named Salim after the saint. He would become the future Emperor Jehangir. The other two sons were born shortly afterwards. As a celebration of this event Akbar announced that a new royal capital would be built at Sikri, the home of the holy man. The construction started in 1565 and for ten years the place teemed with the empire’s best architects, masons, stone-cutters and sculptors. In 1573, it received the name Fatehpur or “City of Victory” for Akbar’s victory and annexation of Gujarat. The rising sandstone metropolis filled with palaces, pleasure domes, mosques, gardens, courtyards, bathhouses, and stables, enclosed within a circumference of some 14 kilometres. Unfortunately, people would enjoy this grandeur for only 14 years. By 1586, the water supply vanished and the population had to move out, leaving behind a deserted city.

The city has two entrances: Shahi Darwasa and Bulan Darwaza. The last is a massive 54-metres-high gate known as “Gate of Victory”, visible from miles away; it is the biggest gateway in the world. It leads into a large congregational courtyard that contains Jama Masjid, or Friday Mosque, and the white marble tomb of Sheikh Salim Chistni. It was built on the site of the Sheik’s favourite meditation place. Childless women of all religions come to pray at the Sheik’s tomb for his blessings. The mosque and the shrine are located opposite the secular buildings and must be visited separately.

There are many notable buildings in the city. Look especially for the Panch Mahal. This five-storey building was a palace designed for royal ladies and courtesans, where Akbar enjoyed their company in his harem. The top floor offers a beautiful panorama of the surrounding area. Across the royal courtyard is Fatehpur Sikri’s gem: Diwan-i-Khas, or Hall of Private Audience. This single vaulted chamber is dominated by its massive central Lotus Throne Pillar, built in the shape of a circular balcony with Akbar’s throne on top. Here, Akbar used to have audiences with the religious leaders and his nine ministers, or his "nine gems" as it was customary to call a group of nine extraordinary people in the king's court. The pillar is carved from a single stone and adorned with intricate motifs representing various religions and the universality of Akbar’s faith. Simultaneously, it represents the Hindu tree of life, the lotus flower stretching for the heavens, and the royal umbrella that protects the king and his subjects. Akbar’s throne itself was designed in the form of the nail of the river god Indra (Vishnu's toe-nail with which he punctured the end of the Universe, which allowed in a torrent of water that created the river Ganges). From the roof of Diwan-i-Kas, one can see the octagonal Elephant Tower. This tower, spiked with masonry “tusks", is the tomb of Akbar’s favourite elephant Hiran or “the Golden One”. The elephant was not only used for the royal rides, but also as the court's executioner when convicts received their death sentences under the feet of the animal. Next to Diwan-i– Khas is the Imperial Palace, (Daulat Khana) that is, in turn, linked to the Akbar’s throne pavilion in Diwan-i-Am, or Hall of Public Audience. Other notable places that should be visited in Fatehpur Sikri are the Birbal and the Johda Bai palaces, the Treasury, the Sunehra Makan, the Turkish Sultana’s house, the caravanserai and the stables.

Fahterpur Sikri is a vast monumental city and to view it properly one needs a good map and a licensed tour guide. You can find both by the entrance of the Shahi Darwaza gate.

Sikandra

Sikandra

Sikandra is 8 kilometres away from the centre of Agra. It is the place where Akbar the Great is buried. As required by tradition, Akbar himself started the construction of his tomb in 1600, five years prior to his death. The tomb was finished by his son Jehandir, in 1613.

The main entrance to the mausoleum is through the southern gate with its four marble minarets similar to those in the Taj Mahal. Akbar’s mausoleum is an earlier example of Mughal architecture, made of red sandstone enriched with marble mosaics and tiles. The tomb itself is hidden inside a walled enclosure with a visible false tomb in the marble pavilion, while the real tomb is in the basement, beneath it. The tomb’s rich decoration reflects Akbar’s religious tolerance, with motives from Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, and Christian faiths being represented on its walls.

Itmad ud Daula

Itmad ud Daula

Itmad ud Daula is a mausoleum on the east bank of the Yamuna River, affectionately called the “Baby Taj”. Completed in 1628, Itmad ud Daula was the first Mughal tomb decorated with pietra dura, the Persian technique that uses an inlay of semiprecious stones fitted into the marble. This technique was perfected in later monuments, particularly, during Shah Jehan’s reign. This fine craftsmanship can be fully appreciated in the decoration of the walls of the Taj Mahal.

The mausoleum was built as a resting place for Nur Jehan’s father, Mirza Ghiyas Beg. Nur Jehan was the Empress and wife of Jehandir, son of Akbar the Great. Her father, Mirza Ghiyas Beg, was a Persian exiled noble who found his new fortunes while serving the Mughals. Mirza Ghiyaz Beg was awarded the title of Itmad ud Daula, or “the Pillar of the State”, as he was the treasurer of the Mughal Empire.

Many members of this family came into prominence with the Mughals, including Mumtaz, who became the inspiration for the Taj Mahal and who was a niece of Nur Jehan. There are other relics of Nur Jehan’s relatives in this tomb.

Chini-ka-Rauza is another mausoleum, close by, built in 1635. It holds the rests of the scholar and poet Allama Afzal Khan Mullah, who was also Shah Jehan’s Prime Minister.

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