Agra: Shah Jahan’s Legacy

Shah Jahan's Taj Mahal in Agra, India

The crenellated sandstone walls rising up behind the wide moat were supposed to be impregnable but no one ever dreamed of an assault such as this. The arrow slits and murder holes that once spelled doom for invading soldiers now assist the progress of the advancing scourge. The ornate gates, built to withstand the onslaught of siege elephants merely provide more handholds for these nimble fingers as they scale the walls in seconds. Like many places in India, Agra is home to a host of urban wildlife and the macaques that cavort across the rooftops of Agra Fort are sure to catch your eye.

Although they live in relative harmony with the locals, these cheeky monkeys are always ready to raid the eating areas and litter bins for scraps whilst keeping a sharp eye out for the stick or boot that will inevitably come swinging their way when their latest dastardly plot is discovered.

Monkeys invading Agra Fort in India

Agra Fort, Shah Jahan's Prison

The early Mughal emperors who ruled from this city favoured the local red sandstone for their impressive structures but Shah Jahan was partial to marble. Although he kept the external fortifications of Agra Fort, this Mughal emperor had several of the original buildings destroyed to make room for more elaborate palaces and pavilions.

One of the more impressive examples of Shah Jahan's taste is the Musamman Burj inside Agra Fort. This palace was originally built for Shah Jahan's wife but was later inhabited by the Emperor himself when he was imprisoned here by his own son. Every inch of the columns, arches and walls are covered with red, green and gold floral designs which also adorn the fountain that stands in the centre of the main room. On the upper level, the octagonal tower offers a clear view along the Yamuna river. It's easy to understand why Shah Jahan cherished this spot. In the distance, the white marble of India's most famous landmark shimmers like a mirage against Agra's dusty red horizon, a lasting monument to a life cut short.

Decorative marble pillar at Agra Fort, India

Musamman Burj Pillar

India's Golden Triangle

Agra is part of India's Golden Triangle, a popular tourist route.  The other points of the triangle are Delhi and the pink city of Jaipur.

Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan's Masterpiece

Commissioned as a tomb for his late wife, the Taj Mahal is the masterpiece of Shah Jahan's reign, a time regarded as the golden age of Mughal architecture. The towering facades of the main mausoleum are inscribed with elegant calligraphy whilst floral motifs, inlaid with semi precious stones, add flashes of colour as they twist and turn around the edges of the wide, vaulted arches. A great white dome crowns this ornate tomb as four minarets stand sentinel around it.

The architect was clearly a perfectionist, paying great attention to symmetry. Each of the four sides of the main building is identical making the whole structure perfectly symmetrical from several angles. The principles of symmetry are apparent throughout the complex from the geometric tiling on the floor, to the grid pattern of the carefully manicured gardens and the positioning of the various pavilions and gate houses. The mosque standing to the west of the mausoleum would have offered mourners a place to pray.  The building to the east of the mausoleum, known as the Jawab, is the mirror image of the mosque but it could never be used for worship as it faces away from Mecca. Although this building is often referred to as the guest house, symmetry was very likely its main purpose.

Perspective was also a major consideration in the design of the Taj Mahal. The minarets and the walls were engineered to lean slightly outwards so they would appear perfectly straight to someone peering up at them. In addition, the Arabic calligraphy adorning the walls gets gradually larger higher up so it appears perfectly uniform from ground level.

Arch at Shah Jahan's Taj Mahal in Agra, India

Taj Mahal Arch

An early visit to the Taj Mahal is a good way to avoid the crowds and you may have romantic ideas of the first rays bathing the polished marble in a warm orange light.  In reality however, you may need to enlist the services of a guide to even find the mausoleum as the entire site may well be shrouded  in a dense, chilly fog.  This will usually evaporate after a few hours.

India's Wonder of the World

As one of the world's most iconic buildings, the Taj Mahal has been declared one of the New 7 Wonders of the World.  Other famous landmarks on this list include the Great Wall of China and the Colosseum in Rome.

In order to reduce pollution, there's a large area around the complex where motor vehicles have been banned. As a result, a number of carriages pulled by horses or camels stand ready to ferry tourists the last five hundred metres or so to the entrance. These animals are all equipped with nappies which seem to serve a dual purpose. As well as keeping the streets clean, the dung can be collected, dried and used as fuel. In some parts of the city you may see dung pancakes drying in the sun.

Dung pancakes drying in sun in Agra, India

Dung Pancakes

What to Eat in Agra?

The food around Agra has also been heavily influenced by its Mughal heritage. The characteristic Mughlai curry sauce is rich and creamy, often enhanced with a sprinkling of cashews and sweetened with dried fruit such as raisins. This curry goes very well with malai kofte, dumplings made from paneer, a fresh Indian cheese.

Visits to the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort can be squeezed into a single exhausting day but as with anything in India these things can take longer than you expect so it's best to give yourself some extra time. If you have a little longer, a day trip to Fatehpur Sikri, Emperor Akbar's imperial capital, is highly recommended. And keep an eye out for the local wildlife, which may well provide some added entertainment.

Cow eating rubbish in Agra, India

How to Get to Agra

By Car: Hiring a car and driver in India is reasonably inexpensive and is a very convenient way to get door to door.  It also gives you the freedom to stop en route if there's somewhere in particular you want to visit.

By Train:  Take the train from either Delhi or Jaipur to Agra Cantt.  There are lots of auto rickshaws waiting at the station in Agra ready to transport you onwards.

By Bus: It is possible to take a bus from Delhi or Jaipur to Agra.  Bus travel in India is notoriously risky due to the number of accidents.  A common scam in this area is for someone to board the bus at a stop outside the destination city and tell tourists that the bus does not go any further.  If you leave the bus, you will then be expected to pay an extortionate taxi fare to get into town.  It's best to watch the locals.  If they stay on the bus, you can be pretty sure that it's not the last stop.

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