Agra (210 kilometers east-southeast of Delhi) is a typical, dirty, Indian industrial city with narrow-vehicle-clogged streets and 1,750 factories within a 30 mile radius of the Taj Mahal. About half of Agra’s residents live in slums. Many visitors to the city loath it with an intensity that almost equals their passion for the Taj Mahal. Agra is the fourth-most populous city in Uttar Pradesh and 24th in India, with 1,585,704 people in the city and 1,760,285 in the Metro area according to the 2011 census
Situated on the right bank of the Yamuna River in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Agra is an important commercial center and rail junction known for its glass products, shoes, carpets, and handicrafts. Agra is a major tourist destination because of its many Mughal-era buildings, most notably the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri, all of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, are located here. Agra is included on the Golden Triangle tourist circuit, along with Delhi and Jaipur; and the Uttar Pradesh Heritage Arc, a tourist circuit of Uttar Pradesh, along with Lucknow and Varanasi. Agra is in the Braj cultural region.
Steeped in history, Agra is dotted with monuments, architectural wonders and beautifully landscaped gardens, which are remnants of the Mughal reign's majestic legacy. The city was once the capital of Mughal Empire. Between admiring the grand monuments visitors can explore the bustling chowks and bazaars, shop at malls and plazas, and enjoy local delicacies at upscale restaurants. The city has a fair number of luxury hotels and many cheap places to stay.
But Agra is also a typical motor-rickshaw-filled Indian city. Jeffrey Bartholet wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “Near a decaying sandstone arch called the Delhi Gate” we “headed for the river, dodging vegetable carts and motorized rickshaws, kids and stray dogs. Sometimes drivers obeyed the traffic signals; other times they zoomed through red lights. We crossed the Jawahar Bridge, which spans the Yamuna, and made our way into a greener area, then took a turn where men and women were selling repaired saris on the side of the road. Eventually we arrived at a spot opposite the Taj.” [Source: Jeffrey Bartholet, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2011]
Agra is in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous and politically powerful state (with 80 of the 543 seats in parliament). With 200 million people it has more people than all but seven nations in the world. It also one is one of the poorest, most backward states in India. In the mid 1990s only one of every five women was literate, the mean age for women at marriage was 16.7 years, the average woman had 5.4 children, and 13 of every 100 infants died before their first birthday. These figures are better now but the average per capita income is $860 , about on third India's national average. Website: www.up-tourism.com
Uttar Pradesh state covers 243,290 square kilometers (93,930square miles) and has a population density of 820 people per square kilometer, which is roughly equivalent to cramming two thirds of all U.S. residents into Colorado. About 80 percent of the population lives in rural areas. The mud huts and grass roof villages scattered across the state are reminiscent of what you see in Africa. Most villages are centered around a stone temples. Lucknow is the capital and largest city, with about 2.8 million people.
Uttar Pradesh was originally formed as the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh during British rule. Today it is the anchor of the Hindi-speaking cow belt. Caste beliefs, purdah and traditional Hindu beliefs are very strong here. Many people live in the great plain that surround the Ganges. Aga, the Taj Mahal, Varanasi, Allahabad and Lucknow are all within Uttar Pradesh.
Uttar Pradesh is one of the states that aesthetically defines India and its rich history that’s as ancient as the time known. This is the land wherein great sages have emerged, religions evolved and two great epic of India: Ramayana and Mahabharata have been inspired from. With each progressing century, the state has vouched for the secularity of India by giving home to various religions: Hindu, Jainism, Islam and Buddhism
History of Agra
Agra was a major city under the Mughals. With he arrival of the Mughals under the leadership of Babur in 1526, Agra grew in prominence when almost all of India came under Mughal rule. Agra reached its zenith between 1556 and 1658, under the Mughal emperors Akbar, Shah Jahan and Jehangir, when it was the center of art, science, commerce and culture on the Indian subcontinent. Many of the building from this period remain intact and many of the "new" buildings are at least a 100 years old.
The history of Agra before the Delhi Sultanate is unclear. It was mentioned for the first time in 1080 AD when a Ghaznavide force captured it. The 11th-century Persian poet Mas'ūd Sa'd Salmān wrote of an assault on the fortress of Agra. It is said that Agra was mentioned in the 2,500-year-old epic Mahabharata, where it is referred to as ‘Agraban’ or an integral part of the Braj Bhumi or the land of Lord Krishna. Sikandar was the first sultan to move his capital from Delhi to Agra, in 1504. He died in 1517 and his son, Ibrāhīm Lodī, remained in power there for nine more years. Several palaces, wells, and a mosque were built by him in the fort during his period. He was finally defeated at the Battle of Panipat in 1526. Between 1540 and 1556, Afghans, beginning with Sher Shah Suri, ruled the area. It was the capital of the Mughal Empire from 1556 to 1658.
Babur founded the Mughal Empire in 1526. He was a patron of arts and is believed to have sent the first skilled craftsmen, artists, statesmen, warriors and nobility to Agra. He laid out the first formal Persian garden on the banks of the river Yamuna. The garden is called the Arām Bāgh or the Garden of Relaxation. Bbut was mainly Babur’s progeny — emperors Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan — who created the city’s grandeur, wealth, and incredible architectural marvels. The present city was established by Akbar, who built a stone fort — Agra Fort — here in 1564 and after that he, Jahangir and Shah Jahan transformed Agra — then known as Akbarabād — into a hub of art, culture, learning and commerce.
Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal but also shifted the capital to Delhi during his reign, but his son Aurangzeb moved the capital back to Akbarabād, usurping his father and imprisoning him in the Fort there. The city frequently changed rulers during the decline of the Mughal empire until it was annexed by the British in 1803. It served as capital of the Northwest Provinces from 1835-62.
Food in Agra
A number of delicacies and dishes are associated with associated with Agra and the city’s Mughal heritage can still be tasted in its food. Bedai is a deep fried puffy bread, which is accompanied by a spicy potato gravy and a helping of yoghurt. It is of two types — sweet and spicy - and is often eaten with jalebi (syrupy sweet). In areas around Delhi, it is known as bedmi and makes for a sumptuous breakfast meal. Fried patties of potato called aloo tikki are Agra’s version of bhalla. It is served with chickpea gravy, condiments and green coriander chutney. The tikki is stuffed with moong dal and then fried. Once it is sufficiently crisp, it is garnished with pomegranate pearls and grated radish, and served with yoghurt. It is truly a refreshing burst of tangy, sweet and sour flavors in the mouth.
Kebabs, naans (leavened flatbread) and tikkas (cutlet or piece of meat) are considered Mughlai (Mughal) food. They can be found all over the city in its budget eateries as well as expensive restaurants. Some of the more popular dishes include the sherbat, which is a sweet fruit-flavored drink much loved by emperor Shah Jahan, and Murgh Musallam, which is a masala-coated chicken cooked whole and stuffed with a spicy mixture of minced meat.
Dal Moth is a savoury snack made with fried lentils (moth lentils). It is spiced and mixed with sev, which is fried strips made of gram flour. It also includes nuts and is crispy and slightly greasy. It makes for a tasty tea time treat. Petha is a candy made with ash gourd (or white pumpkin). It is prepared with bits of the vegetable, water and sugar. It mostly comes in the plain variety but can also be flavored with saffron and nuts. The city of Agra is famous for pethas - from the plain dry kind to angoori petha and kesari petha. The concoction of pethas is believed to be 350 years old when they were curated in Mughal emperor Shah Jahan's kitchen. Flour paste is deep-fried in swirls and dipped in a sugary syrup to make jalebi, a sweet snack. It is usually accompanied by rabri, a thickened and sweet concoction made with milk. It is served with bedai (fried bread) as traditional breakfast.
Chaat is a spicy, sweet snack that comes in many varieties. It can be raj-kachori (a crispy fried snack served with yoghurt, chutney, tamarind sauce, condiments, sev), Dahi-Bhalla (a snack prepared by soaking vadas in yoghurt) etc. One can head to the famous chaat wali gali in Sadar Bazar to indulge in some evening snacks. Bhalla in Agra is a chickpea patty and fried potato that is crushed and topped with grated radish, ginger and sweet tamarind sauce.
Shopping In Agra
Agra is chock-a-block with simple, inexpensive souvenirs and luxurious testaments to the city’s artisanal heritage, from intricate marble and soft stone inlay work, leatherware and brassware to carpets, jewelry and embroidery work. It is said that Mughal empress, Nur Jahan, personally looked into the development of arts and handicrafts here. It is said that she was an expert in zari embroidery herself. There are several local markets that offer a variety of things you can take home as memorabilia. Some of the most popular among these are Sadar Bazaar, Subhash Bazaar, Kinari Bazaar, Raja-ki-Mandi, Sanjay Place, Fatehabad Road, Munro Road, Shilphaat, and the Taj Mahal Complex.
Sadar Bazaar, located close to the Taj Mahal, features hundreds of small shops that sell ethnic accessories, clothes and local handicrafts. It is particularly renowned for its leather products, including excellent quality shoes at reasonable prices. Subhash Bazaar is known for silk products, especially saris. Kinari Bazaar, a favorite with locals and tourists alike, is popularly believed to offer some of the best jewelry in Agra. From delicate trinkets to heavy silver earrings and neck-pieces, it offers you plenty of choices and styles. You’ll also find fabric, spices and marble work here, alongside a series of snack stalls to keep you going as you shop to your heart’s content.
For a slightly different experience, you can also head to the Shahganj Bazaar, which includes one of the best vegetable markets in the city, or Hing Ki Mandi, the city’s famous shoe market. Shopping at Government Emporia is recommended for authenticity and better prices. Shops to visit include U.P. Handloom at meters.G. Road, Rajasthali at Taj Mahal Complex, UPICA at Sanjay Palace, and Gandhi Ashram Khadi Bhavan at the Raja-ki-Mandi.
Getting to Agra
By Air: Agra’s Kheria Airport is a seasonal airport which is mostly only connected to New Delhi. Flights do not always ply on this route. Other ways to reach Agra include flying into New Delhi which is about 210 kilometers away from Agra. The other cities one can fly into include Gwalior, Jaipur, and Lucknow. Air India and its subsidiary, Alliance Air, fly to Agra airport. Zoom Air was slated to start flight operations to Jaisalmer and New Delhi from Agra Airport. Indigo was supposed to start flights between Agra and Bangalore and direct flights from Lucknow, Varanasi and Bhopal to Agra Airport in March 2020.
By Bus and Road: Agra is connected via regular bus services to New Delhi (about 210 kilometers away), Jaipur (about 238 kilometers away), Gwalior (about 120 kilometers away), Lucknow (about 336 kilometers away), and Kanpur (about 276 kilometers away). These could be operated by private companies, the UPSRTC or other state road transport corporations. Inter-State Bus Terminal (I.S.B.T.), Idgah Bus Stand, Taj Depot and Fort Depot are the major bus stations in Agra, connecting Agra to most of the bigger cities in northern India. Agra is a major junction of highways with three national highways and two expressways (Yamuna Expressway & Agra Lucknow Expressway) originating from Agra.
By Train: Agra is connected via regular railway services to many big cities like New Delhi, Mumbai, Allahabad, and Jaipur. The train stations here include Agra Fort, Agra Cantt., Agra City, Raja ki Mandi, Idgah, and Yamuna Bridge. Agra is on the Central Train line between Delhi and Mumbai and between Delhi and Chennai and many trains like the Bhopal Shatabdi, Taj Express, Doon Express, Malwa Express, Gondwana Express and Jabalpur - Jammutawi Express connect Agra with all major Indian cities like New Delhi, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Visakhapatnam, Bengaluru, Pune and Bhopal, A new semi-high speed train — the Gatimaan Express — that reduces travel time between Delhi and Agra to about two hours began service in April 2016.
Transportation in Agra: is mostly by taxi and auto rickshaw. It is easy to get around on foot. Many restaurants and hotels are near the Taj Mahal. It takes about 45 minutes to walk from the Taj Mahal to Agra Fort. Polluting vehicles are not allowed near the Taj Mahal. You can ride a camel cart there.
Sights in Agra
In addition to the Taj Mahal, sights in Agra include the substantial Agra Fort, Sikandra (Akbar's Mausoleum), the Moti Masjid (the Pearl Mosque). Among the other places of interest are Itmad-ud-Daulah, Chini Ka Rauza, Dayal Bagh and the abandoned sandstone city of Fatehpur Sikri.
Musamman Burj (in the Agra Fort Area) is an octagonal tower built by Shah Jahan for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal. It was here that his son Aurungzeb imprisoned him until his death, with his daughter Jahanara Begum. The tower was constructed between 1631-40 and offers panoramic views of the famous Taj Mahal. The pavilion is also a beautiful sight and boasts a lotus tank with a fountain. It is inlaid with semi-precious stones.
Chini-ka-Rauza (on the Yamuna River, 350 meters south of Jawahar Bridge) is the mausoleum of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan's vizier, Afzal Khan Aalmi, who was also known as Maula Shukrullah, Shirazi. The tomb is believed to be the first structure in India to have been embellished extensively using glazed porcelain tiles, and is regarded by many as a significant landmark in Indo-Persian architecture. The mausoleum was built in 1635 in Etmadpur and is just a kilometer away from the tomb of Itmad-ud-Daulah. The monument is situated amid beautiful gardens, and is renowned for its blue glazed tiles. These tiles were made using porcelain, believed to have been brought from China. They were called ‘chini mitti’ (Chinese clay) at the time. While some of these are partially intact on the mausoleum’s façade, the interiors are fairly well-preserved, and feature floral designs that are unique to a signature Persian art style, which eventually found a home in Agra The most striking feature of the structure is said to have been the tomb, which is now in ruins. Originally, it was round, very similar to the style of Afghani tombs.
Radhasoami Samadhi is the mausoleum of Huzur Swamiji Maharaj, the founder of the Radhaswami Faith, and is also called the Soami Bagh Samadhi. The building is about 110 feet high and is made of white marbles. It boasts numerous pillars and fine pietra dura inlay work that is done on the inner walls. Near the mausoleum is Bhajan Ghar, which is the place where Soamiji Maharaj did his spiritual practices. As the tomb of the founder of the Radhasoami faith, this samadhi is visited by thousands of devotees.
Sikandra and Mariyam's Tomb
Sikandra (five kilometers northwest of central Agra) the ornate palace-like mausoleum of Mughal emperor Akbar. Finished by his son, Jehangir, in 1613, it is a red sandstone and marble tomb built by the emperor himself. Akbar is believed to have selected the site of the tomb during his lifetime and planned the structure himself. The interior of the tomb bears calligraphy reflective of the tenets of Din-e-Ilahi, a religious movement founded by Akbar that brought together Islam, Hinduism and several other faiths. The mausoleum is a symbol of the Mughal ruler’s philosophy and secular worldview, bringing together the finest in Hindu and Islamic architectures. It is also one of the most well-preserved monuments in the region, retaining most of its original glory. The tomb lies within a charbagh, which is a beautiful addition to the complex.
Mariyam's Tomb (near Sikandra) is a unique red sandstone tomb was built in the memory of Mughal emperor Akbar's wife, Mariam-uz-Zamani Begum, also known as Hira Kunwari, Harka Bai or, most popularly, Jodha Bai. She was originally a Rajput princess, and was the first Rajput wife of emperor Akbar. While the Mughal ruler already had several other wives before he married her, she went on to become the mother of the heir to the Mughal throne, Jehangir. Jodha Bai was also referred to as the Queen Mother of Hindustan during Akbar’s reign as well as during the reign of her son, Jehangir.
The longest-serving Hindu empress in the history of the Mughal empire, she holds a significant position in the medieval history of India. Her marriage to emperor Akbar, while marking a radical step in terms of a cross-religion alliance, also marked the beginning of a gradual shift in Akbar’s religious as well as social principles and, subsequently, policy. As such, she holds the distinction of being a symbol of the Mughal empire’s religious tolerance during the reigns of her husband and her son, as well as its inclusive, egalitarian policies during the period. Her mausoleum lies barely a kilometer away from Akbar’s tomb in Sikandra, and is located near Fatehpur Sikri. It was built by emperor Jehangir in 1623.
Itimad-Ud-Daulah's Tomb (on the Yamuna River, 150 meters north of Ambedkar Yamuna Bridge) is beautiful marble tomb is dedicated to Mirza Ghias Beg, the father of Mughal empress Nur Jahan. He was accorded the title of Itmad-ud-Daulah (pillar of the state) during his time at the Mughal court. The empress is believed to have commissioned the construction of the mausoleum in his memory between 1622 and 1628.
The story goes that Mirza Ghias Beg was a poor Persian merchant who was on his way to India with his wife when she gave birth to a girl. Since the family was stricken with poverty, the parents decided to abandon the child, but were eventually forced to return to her after hearing her helpless cries. As it turned out, she was a bringer of good fortune to her family – they soon found a caravan that took them to the court of emperor Akbar. As the years passed, Beg rose to become a minister in the Mughal court, as well as a trusted treasurer. He continued to rise in the court even after Akbar’s demise, under the rein of emperor Jehangir, who bestowed him with the title of Itmad-ud-Daulah and eventually married his daughter.
Located on the banks of River Yamuna, the structure exhibits strong Persian architectural influences, and is built entirely using white marble, inlaid with semi-precious stones. Local lore says that this edifice was considered by many a precursor for the Taj Mahal. This is why it is sometimes referred to as ‘Baby Taj’. The marble lattice screens, known as jaalis, lend to it a softer, more delicate air as compared to the red sandstone mausoleums that preceded it in the region. This is also the first Mughal structure to have used pietra dura work, as well as the first tomb to be built on the banks of River Yamuna. Chini-ka-Rauza and Mehtab Bagh are very close by, and a quick round up of all three spots can be done within a few hours.
Agra Fort (two kilometers west of the Taj Mahal) is an impressive looking structure built on the right bank of the Yamuna River. Also known as the Red Fort of Agra), it was begun in 1565 and contains architecture from the periods of three great Mughal emperors, Akbar, Jehangir and Shan Jahan. The various styles of architecture demonstrate the boldness of the Akbar era, the refinement of the Jehangir period and the subtleness of Shah Jahan's rule. Agra Fort lies on the northwest extremity of the Shah Jahan Gardens which surround the Taj Mahal When the Yamuna floods during the monsoon season, Agra fort sometimes becomes an island it tree-dotted lake.
Agra Fort is a majestic sandstone structure and a magnificent example of Mughal architecture. Within its 2.5-kilometer-long enclosure walls is a stunning imperial city widely considered to be a masterpiece of planning, design and construction. Agra Fort was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. According to UNESCO: “This bastioned fortress, with walls of red sandstone rising above a moat and interrupted by graceful curves and lofty bastions, encompasses within its enclosure walls of 2.5 kilometers, the imperial city of the Mughal rulers. Like the Delhi Fort, that of Agra is one of the most obvious symbols of the Mughal grandeur which asserted itself under Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan.
“The Red Fort and the Taj Mahal bear an exceptional and complementary testimony to a civilization which has disappeared, that of the Mughal Emperors. Agra's history goes back more than 2,500 years, but it was not until the reign of the Mughals that Agra became more than a provincial city. Humayun, son of the founder of the Mughal Empire, was offered jewelry and precious stones by the family of the Raja of Gwalior, one of them the famous Koh-i-Noor. The heyday of Agra came with the reign of Humayun's son, Akbar the Great. During his reign, the main part of the Agra Fort was built.
“Several of the buildings are made from pure marble with beautiful carvings; all of these monuments mark the apogee of an Indo-Muslim art strongly marked by influences from Persia which already manifested itself in Timurid art.Emperor Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal, was imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb in Agra Fort, from which he had a view of the building erected for his deceased wife. Shah Jahan is said to have died in the Musamman Burj, a tower with a beautiful marble balcony.”
The Department of Tourism, Government of Uttar Pradesh has initiated a sound and light show at Agra Fort that not only provides a peek of the fortress' glorious history but is also a visual treat. Agra Fort is also known as the 'Lal Qila', 'Fort Rouge' or 'Qila-i-Akbari' and is an unmissable site in the city.
Components of Agra Fort
Agra Fort is shaped like a crescent, with its eastern wall flanked by River Yamuna. The Jehangiri Mahal has a colonnaded courtyard and a huge colored-tile entrance and looks like a long domed res sandstone mosque. Other impressive buildings in the complex including the Anguri Bagh, the Palace of Mirrors the Khas Mahal and the Moti Masijid, and Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audience). The Diwan-i-aam (Hall of Public Audience) was once home to the legendary Peacock Throne that was eventually taken to Red Fort in Delhi when Shah Jahan shifted his capital there. There are two prominent mosques inside the fort - Nagina Masjid was built by Shah Jahan as a private mosque for the ladies of the court and Mina Masjid is believed to have been built by him solely for his own use.
There were originally four gates for entrance, two of which were walled up and only one is open today – the Amar Singh gate. The first thing that captures one's attention as they enter is Jehangir (Jahangir) Mahal, a palace said to have been built by Akbar as the women’s quarters and named after his son, Jehangir (Jahangir). Simple and elegant, it is home to a large stone bowl upon which are carved Persian verses. Local lore holds that this bowl once contained rose water. Adjacent to Jehangir (Jahangir) Mahal lies the palace built for Jodha Bai, said to be Akbar’s favorite queen. Overlooking the Khas Mahal inside the Agra Fort is the Anguri Bagh, a beautiful four-plot garden replete with stunning fountains. The floral patterns that once adorned the building made with white marble have faded over time but still exude charm.
According to UNESCO: “This powerful fortress of red sandstone encompasses, within its 2.5-kilometer-long enclosure walls, the imperial city of the Mughal rulers. It comprises many fairy-tale palaces, such as the Jahangir Palace and the Khas Mahal, built by Shah Jahan; audience halls, such as the Diwan-i-Khas; and two very beautiful mosques. The wall has two gates, the Delhi Gate and the Amar Singh Gate. The original and grandest entrance was through the Delhi Gate, which leads to the inner portal called the Hathi Pol or Elephant Gate. But now the entrance to the fort is only through the Amar Singh Gate. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website]
“The citadel comprises a large number of fairy-like palaces: the Khas Mahal, the Shish Mahal, the octagonal tower of Muhammam Burj, as well as reception rooms: Diwan-i-Khas, built in 1637 and the many pillared Diwan-i-Am (Hall of Public Audience), constructed in 1628, under the reign of the luxury-loving Shah Jahan (1630-55). Within the palatial complex, there are two very beautiful mosques of white marble, the Moti Masjid or the Pearl Mosque, constructed in 1646-53 by Shah Jahan and the Nagina Masjid built under the reign of Aurangzeb (1658-1707).”
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: India tourism website (incredibleindia.org), India’s Ministry of Tourism and other government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.
Updated in August 2020