INTRODUCTION: Agra, famously known as the city of the Taj, ushers tourists from all over the world with its aura of love that dates back to the era of the Mughal Emperor Shahjahan. It harbours the Taj Mahal, one of the seven wonders of the world (now also a part of the newly declared seven wonders), and many other significant tourist attractions.The precise geographical location of the city is on the banks of the river Yamuna in the state of Uttar Pradesh in the northern part of the Indian subcontinent. This beautiful city is at a distance of about 201 km from New Delhi, the capital city of India. As boundaries, Agra has Mathura on the north, Dhaulpur on the south, Firozabad on the east, Fatehabad on the south-east and Bharatpur on the west. The intricate architectural design of the mausoleums, the forts and the palaces bear testimony to the affluence of the powerful Mughals, who made Agra their capital in the 16th and the early 17th centuries. The reputed legacy of inlay work on marble and soapstone is continued by craftsmen who are descendants of those who were occupied under the Mughals. As recorded by the UNESCO, there are three world heritage sites in this city, namely, the Taj Mahal, the Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri. The magnificent view of the Taj, the symbol of eternal love, is an experience to cherish for a lifetime!
HISTORY: A city with such rich heritage sites as the Taj Mahal is bound to have a rich history. Popular belief goes that Sultan Sikandar Lodi, the Ruler of Delhi Sultanate established this city in the year 1504. After the demise of Sikandar Lodi, his son Sultan Ibrahim Lodi succeeded him. He continued ruling his Sultanate from Agra till the year 1526, when he was overpowered by Babur in the First battle of Panipat. The city, flourished under the Mughal rule and was the capital city of three successive Mughal emperors, Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan till 1649, when Emperor Shah Jahan moved his capital to Shahjahanabad, for more efficient administration. Then known as Akbarabad, this city was embellished by the Mughals with beautiful constructions. Babar, the forefather of the Mughal reign established the first Persian garden on the banks of river Yamuna, which is known as Aram Bagh or the Garden of Relaxation. Akbar, the most powerful of the Mughal emperors patronised the development of arts, commerce and religion in Akbarabad besides constructing the great Red Fort and establishing the city of Fatehpur Sikri (a city near the suburbs of Akbarabad). Akbar’s son Jahangir, a lover of plants and wildlife, decorated the Red Fort with many gardens. But the city of Akbarabad or Agra got its most awe inspiring edifice, the Taj Mahal, from Shah Jahan, the emperor who was known to be a connoisseur in architecture. This magnificent monument was built in the memory of Shahjahan’s beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal, and is also her mausoleum. Shah Jahan afterwards moved his capital to Delhi. However, his son Aurangzeb again made Akbarabad his capital and locked up his father Shahjahan in the Fort there. In the year 1653, Aurangzeb moved his capital to Aurangabad in the Deccan. With the gradual decline of the Mughal Empire, the Marathas and the Jats took possession of the city and named it Agra. Finally in 1803, the city was occupied by the British and was under their control till India got her independence.
HOW TO REACH: Reaching Agra is not a very arduous task. The city has a good network of railways and roads through which it is connected to other cities (including Delhi, from which it is 200 km apart) and tourist spots. Other railway stations include the Agra Fort railway station close to the Agra Fort and the Raja Ki Mandi railway station in the center of the city. The main railway route is from Delhi to Agra. Apart from the regular trains, a deluxe train named the ‘Palace on Wheels’ has been introduced exclusively for the tourists which has Agra as one of its destinations. Moreover the tourists can also avail of bus service from New Delhi to Agra. One can also travel by bus from Jaipur via National Highway 11, from Gwalior via National Highway 3 and from Kanpur via National Highway 2. For taking a tour of the city, taxis and rickshaws are always at your service.
ACCOMMODATION: The city of the Taj provides comfortable accomodation to every traveller according to his means. Some of the populat five star hotels include the Jaypee Palace Hotel, the Welcomegroup Mughal Sheraton, Hotel Amar Vilas, Hotel the Trident, Hotel Clarks Shiraz, Hotel Agra Ashok and Hotel Taj View. The main four star hotels are Howard Park Plaza International and Hotel Holiday Inn while Hotel Amar, Hotel Deedar E taj, Athithi Hotel, Mansingh Palace, Grand Hotel and Hotel Kant are the chief three star hotels.
PLACES TO VISIT: There are a variety of tourist spots in Agra to enthrall the tourists. The most famous and striking among them is the Taj Mahal, which has withstood the ravages of time to stand firm as the symbol of eternal love. Completed in the year 1653, it is in fact the final abode of Shahjahan’s beloved queen Mumtaz Mahal. This beautiful monument is the result of years of hard work put in by Mughal artisans (the chief architect was Ustad Isa) under the patronisation of Shahjahan. The Taj Mahal appears like a mirage from the Agra Fort, the place where Shahjahan spent the final eight years of his life imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb. This chimerical effect is brought about by skillful application of lime, brick and white marble. As one enters through the main gate one comes across the verses of the Holy Koran (the religious book of the Muslims) and 22 small domes. The number 22 is suggestive of the number of years it took the artisans to build the monument. The entire structure, embellished by exquisite stones, lies on a marble platform which in turn is built on a sandstone platform. The tomb of Mumtaz Mahal as well as that of Shahjahan (erected after his death by his son Aurangzeb, next to Mumtaz Mahal’s tomb) lies benath the most graceful dome of the Taj. Each minute detail of this magnificent marble edifice, from the minarets to the beautifully laid garden adorned by the fountains is as harmonious as the melody of love. This man made beauty juxtaposes perfectly with the beauty of the ever-changing sky to provide a fantastic view. Another attraction is the Agra Fort, which is semi-circular in shape and lies on the right bank of the river Yamuna. The Mughal Emperor Akbar started the building of the Agra Fort in the year 1565. However, structures were incorporated until the reign of his grandson Shah Jahan. One of the exquisite features of this fort is its double wall made up of red sandstone (which gives it the name Red Fort). The external wall rises to a height of about 40 feet while the inner wall has a height of 70 feet. A wide and deep moat encircles the fort. The fort constitutes battlements with towers and bastions at calculated intervals. Two of the bastions, onlooking the river Yamuna, are known as the Shah Burj and the Bengali Burj. There are four gateways, namely the Delhi Gate on the western side, which constitutes the chief entrance to the fort, the Amar Singh Gate or Akbar Darwazah on the southern part (nowadays, visitors enter the fort through this gate), the Jal Darwazah or Water Gate, a gate exclusively meant for the women and the fourth gateway facing the northeastern side. Various structures within the Agra fort include the Akbari Mahal, the Anguri Bagh, the Diwan-i-am, the Diwan-e-khas, the Jehangiri Mahal, the Khas Mahal, the Machchhi Bhawan, the Mayura Mandapa, the Mina Masjid, the Moti Masjid, the Musamman Buri, the Nagina Masjid and the Shish Mahal. Each structure is beautifully carved to serve its respective purpose. Then there is the Sikandra, the mausoleum of emperor Akbar started by Akbar himself, and was completed by Jahangir in the year 1613. The architectural style perfectly blends Hindu, Islamic, Christian, Buddhist and Jain design and themes and is an apt manifestation of Akbar’s religious broadmindedness. The entire building is a five storeyed truncated pyramid while the chief tomb has a square shape. It comprises of delicately carved three-storeyed red sandstone minarets. The ground floor is traversed by many airy passages. The southern part has a vestibule, richly adorned with carvings and paintings. The other tombs in this enclosure include those of Shakrul Nisha Begum and Aram Bano, the daughters of Akbar. Itmad-ud-Daulah, another tourist attraction in Agra, is actually a tomb constructed by Nur Jehan, the queen of Mughal Emperor Jehangir, for her father Mirza Shiyath Beg. When Jehangir married Noorjahan, her father came to hold the position of the Prime Minister of the Empire and acquired the title of ‘Itimad-ud-Daulah’, which literally means ‘Treasurer of the Empire’. The characteristic marble work of this tomb was later to be used by Shahjahan in building the Taj Mahal. The unique feature of this tomb is that it is shaped like a silver jewel box. Close to Agra is the city of Fatehpur Sikri. This beautiful city was built by Akbar to express his gratitude to the saint Sheikh Salim Chishti when his (Akbar’s) son was born. The artistic marble tomb of Sheikh Salim Chishti in this city attracts numerous tourists and devotees who come here to be blessed by the saint. Another tourist spot, the Radhaswami Samadhi, is the official centre of the followers of the Radhaswami religion. This holy place, where the ashes of the forefather of the Radhaswami religion lie, has a temple with exquisite stone carvings of different flora. The Chinni Ka Rauza is the tomb of Mulla Shukrullah Shirazi, who was a renowned poet (wrote poetry under the nom de plume of ‘Allami’) as well as the Prime Minister of Mughal emperor Shahjahan. This tomb was built by Afzal Khan, an administrator belonging to the court of Shahjahan. The structure which incorporates glazed tiles is a perfect manifestation of Persian artistic excellence. One can also visit the Jama Masjid, built in the year 1648, by Jehanera Begum, the daughter of Shahjahan, in order to commemorate Shiekh Salim Chistti and his grand son Islam Khan. This building, with an open courtyard, reflects the use of Iranian architectural patterns. Then there is Mariyam’s tomb, built by Jehangir for his mother who was the Rajput queen of Akbar. Akbar gave her the name of Mariyam Zamani, which means ‘compassionate to the world’. The tomb is built of red sandstone in the characteristic Mughal architectural style. Apart from all these, other monuments in the city of Agra include the Battis Khambah, the Chhatri Rani Hada, Hessing’s tomb, Humayun’s mosque, Sarai Nurjahan, the tomb of Itibar Khan, the tomb of Salabat Khan and the like. There are also many other religious places, namely the Kailash temple, the Mankameshwar temple, the Balkeshwar temple, the Prithvinath temple, the Rajeshwar temple, the Guru kr Tal Gurudwara, the Baptist Church, the Catholic Church and the Digambar Jain Mandir. Agra also provides scope for excursions to other tourist spots outside the city, like Bateshwar, Keetham Lake, Mathura, Vrindavan, the Keoladeo National Park in Bharatpur, the Patna Bird sanctuary etc.
FESTIVALS: The city of Agra is a festive place with many fairs and festivals held throughout the year. The most popular among these is the Taj Mahotsav, which paints the entire city in colours of joy. It involves a ten day long celebration in the month of February of the glorious tradition of Uttar Pradesh’s culture, crafts, arts, cuisine, dance and music. The celebration venue is Shilpagram, almost close to the Taj Mahal. The festival starts with a procession reflecting the Mughal grandeur. It seems as if the era of magnificence established by the Mughals has been brought back to life again. Another significant fairs include the Kailash fair, the Sheetla fair, the Bateshwar fair, Urs and Ram Barat.
HANDICRAFTS: As if all these tourist attractions are not enough, the city produces exclusive handicraft works such as Zari Zardozi, Strone carving and Inley work as well as carpets with various types of decorations and leather shoes. To add a feather to the cap there are two Padam Shree Award winners for handicrafts, Mr. Sekh Samruddin and Shri Hari Kishan Badal. The monuments, the festivals, the handicrafts, everything combine to make Agra, a perfect blend of culture, heritage and harmony, which finds its ultimate personification in the Taj Mahal.