12 Hour Guide to Agra, India
With Moghul architecture, Nawabi cuisine and conservative Hindu and Muslim population- Agra is a city frozen in time.
Are you in the Indian Capital of Delhi busy working away and need a weekend off from the stressful life of the city? Head to Agra, situated on the banks of the river Yamuna only 3 and a half hours away from Delhi, Agra is a historic and world famous city- popular for the Taj Mahal and many other mosques and forts built in the Mughal era. The moment you enter Agra the sweet melody of ‘ajaan’s(religious Islamic songs) will transport you back in time. Walking around in the quaint living quarters of the people and visiting the palaces of the Kings will give you a taste of the two extremes of life in 17th century North India.
1) Taj Mahal
The most popular and obviously most crowded tourist location in India, the Taj Mahal was a mosque built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan for his wife Mumtaz. As the Islamic traditions of those times, Shah Jahan had plenty of wives but Mumtaz was his favourite. He began the construction of the monument because he wanted his love for his wife was undying. But unfortunately Mumtaz died in childbirth and could not see the structure that made her world famous. Today her body is kept in the inner tombs of the Mahal, tourists were allowed to visit her shrine before but it is closed now. Legend says that after the construction of the Taj Mahal in 1653, Shah Jahan cut off the hands of all the 20000 workers lest they create another such beautiful structure to compete with his Taj Mahal. Made of pristine white marble and breath-takingly scribbled with verses from the Holy Quran in Urdu the Taj Mahal is a testament to the power of unconditional love that is remembered through generations.
2) Agra Fort
This formidable red sandstone structure was built in 1000 but was renovated by Emperor in 1565. But it wasn’t used as a palace until Shah Jahan transformed its interior into a lush and opulent castle fit for the King of India. Inside the structure there is the Moti Mahal (Pearl Mosque), Diwan-e-Khas (the hall were Emperor Akbar’s political proceedings took place) and Diwan-e-aam (the hall where the ordinary people in Agra could interact with the emperor). There is also a separate palace used for Emperor Jahangir and a hall of mirrors similar to the one in the palace of Versailles. The emperor who gave Agra Fort its glory, Shah Jahan, was imprisoned in it by his son Aurangzeb and it is said he longingly looked at the Taj Mahal from his prison for 8 years before he died in them. Agra Fort has a bloody history of violence but it was also the centre of culture and power and tells untold stories of heroism on the battlefields but also extreme family comflicts for power.
3) Fatehpur Sikhri
Also built by the Emperor Akbar as a second headquarters, the building was abandoned when there was a shortage of water supply for thousands of people employed in the palace. Named after the battlefield of ‘Sikhri’ on which vital war against Rana Sangha was won by Mughal Emperor Babar, before Emperor moved his headquarters to Agra Fort he built a number of opulent structures here. The Buland Darwaza (the lofty gate) was built by Emperor Akbar to commemorate his victory over Gujarat in 1601. Surprisingly, a red sandstone plate on the front gate of the gate has a quote by Jesus Christ inscribed on it indicating the religious open-mindedness of the Emperor.
Within 12 hours it is very easy to cover the grandeur of Agra but it is quite obvious that you will have to miss out on some incredible places. To anyone who wants to make the most of their short trip to the city, instead of going to ten different places in 12 hours go to only four or five places but spend plenty of time in those places individually. Immerse yourself in the experience and take your time instead of focusing on covering all the spots. There are also many other places to visit but the above three are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and therefore, the most important. Other places to visit include:
Sometimes called ‘Baby Taj’ this structure was built by Empress Nur Jahan for her father and chief minister of the Enperor Jahangir, Mirza Ghalis Beg. Located on the left of the river Yamuna this building is in the form of a large cruciform with criss-crossing walkways and waterways.
5) Akbar’s Tomb
Following the Turkic custom of constructing one’s tomb in one’s lifetime, Emperor Akbar choose Sikandara, only 13 kilometres from Agra Fort to built a simple yet intricately designed mosque for himself. Made of red sandstone, white marble and polished with carvings of animals and verses from Islamic scriptures, the tomb displays a homely side of the brave Emperor.
This stunning mosque is one the most crowded muslim religious locations in India. Built in 1648 by Shah Jahan for his daughter Jahanara Begum- contrary to popular Islamic customs this mosque does not have minarets.
If within 12 hours you manage to cover these 6 spectacular destinations, head to other such as Mankameshwar Temple, Gurudwara Guru ka Taal, Chini ka Rauza, Ram Bagh, Mehtab Bagh, Miriam’s tomb and Kheetam Lake. Agra has plenty to offer for tourist, here is a small list of things to do:
• Go for a Mughal Heritage Walk- Organized by Agra Municipal corporation, USAID and an NGO; Center for Urban and Regional Excellence, joining this walk means getting accurate information from educated and experienced guides.
• Visit the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception- There is something stirring about visiting a church (that too the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Agra) in a city with a mosque on every street.
• Try ‘Agreka Petha’- A sweet dish popular all over India, Agreka Petha is a savoury sometimes colourful, sometimes transparent sugary delicacy found on every street.
• Attend a festival in Agra- Agra has a variety of festival both religious and cultural held around the year such as Taj Mahotsav, Ram Barat, Taj Literature festival, Kailash Fair, Bateshwar Fair and Gangaur Fair.
With a variety of amazing opportunities to offer, Agra- a small city cramped with historical importance, heritage architecture, Islamic lifestyle, opulent street food and a booming small scale industry pf handicrafts is still a shadow of the same cultural and trade capital that it was 400 years ago. Simply wandering on the streets in the evenings and listening to the noise of the traffic at rush hour, the raise voices at market places and the friendly greetings of people can give you a glimpse of spiritual peace. No wonder Agra was the inspiration for hundreds of Sufi poets.