Agra may be home to the iconic Taj Mahal, but there is so much more to see and discover in this Indian city.
The north Indian city of Agra is an eclectic mix of cultures and traditions of the bygone era amalgamated with hues of modernity. The erstwhile capital of the mighty Mughal Empire has been a witness to the extravagant splendor of the dynastic rule and its decline, followed by British imperialism. The Taj Mahal is the first attraction that captivates a traveler here. But unfortunately, in the popular imagination, Agra remains the home of the Taj, and nothing more. But the city is resplendent with rich Mughal, colonial, and cultural legacies; it tucks away breathtaking architectural gems within its nuanced textures.
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St. George's Cathedral
Located in the cantonment area, the St. George’s Cathedral has splendid architecture that was originally built as an Anglican Church in 1828. Designed by Colonel J. T. Boileau, a military engineer, the simple and elegant structure with its white dressings is one of the finest examples of colonial-era architecture in India. This Neo-Gothic style church nestles several memorials and commemorations to British soldiers who died in battles. The ornate altar is adorned with exquisite marble inlay work.
St. John's College
Established in 1850, St. John’s College boasts of one of the finest buildings in North India, built with red sandstone in the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture. The college admits both undergraduates and postgraduates and awards degrees in liberal arts, commerce, sciences, and business administration under the purview of Agra University.
The Red Taj
The Roman Catholic cemetery houses tombstones of the earliest travelers to Agra from all corners of the globe in search of making a fortune in one of the wealthiest global empires during the reign of the Mughals in the 16th and 17th centuries. The tombstones, of varying shapes, sizes, and decorations, have inscriptions in Armenian, Persian, Portuguese, Italian, and English. The pièce de résistance of this serene, leafy enclave is the storied Red Taj, a miniature version of the iconic Taj Mahal. Just like the real Taj, this elegant monument is a love story etched in stone. This is the tomb built by the grieving wife of Colonel John William Hessing, a Dutch military officer who had died while fighting against the British in the Anglo-Maratha War in 1803.
St. Peter’s Cathedral
Built by Jesuit fathers in 1598, St. Peter’s Cathedral was the first church of the city that operated as the Cathedral of Agra till 1848. Mughal Emperors Akbar and Jahangir often visited this church to offer their prayers and Jahangir’s son Shah Jahan carried out an extensive renovation of the church in 1636.
Located on the right bank of the River Yamuna, Agra Fort is a 16th-century red sandstone citadel established by Emperor Akbar. The fortress had served as a royal residence and military base of the mighty Mughal Empire till 1638. The fortified ramparts of this UNESCO World Heritage site have a circumference of about 1.5 miles and rise to a height of 70 feet.
One of the finest examples of Mughal architecture, Fatehpur Sikri was a short-lived capital of the Mughal Empire, where Akbar built a majestic walled city about 23 miles from Agra in 1571. The sprawling palace complex consisted of a magnificent Diwan-i-Khas (the hall where the Emperor held his private conferences with ministers and dignitaries); the palace of his favorite queen, Jodhabai, that showcases the finest blend of Indo-Islamic architecture in its stone-carved details; and the monumental Buland Darwaza, a 60-yard-high red sandstone gate to commemorate an important Mughal victory. However, the city was abandoned by Akbar in 1585 due to water scarcity and was later used by the British as an army outpost.
Located on a quiet street behind Taj Mahal east gate, the Sandali Mosque is a 350-year-old place of worship. Here lies buried Kandahari Begum, the first wife of Emperor Shah Jahan, who had built the Taj Mahal in memory of Mumtaz Mahal, his queen consort. Overshadowed by the Taj, the Archaeological Survey of India-protected monument stands forlorn and half-forgotten amid a leafy compound, and is a safe haven for over a hundred feline residents. Legend has it that Kandahari Begum, who died in 1666, was very fond of cats.
Munshi Abdul Karim’s Tomb
Another obscure but storied monument of Agra is Munshi Abdul Karim’s tomb. He started his career as an employee in Queen Victoria’s retinue and became a close confidante of the queen, who was very fond of him. The intimacy between Victoria and the Indian secretary has always sparked controversy both within the Royal household and in the public sphere. After Victoria’s death in 1901, the next king, Edward VII, sent Karim back to India and confiscated his correspondence with the queen. Back home, Karim led a quiet life in his estate in Agra till his death in 1909, and he was buried here in his estate’s graveyard.
The Taj Mahal
One of the iconic symbols of India, the Taj Mahal took 16 years to be completed in 1648. The chief architect of the architectural masterpiece was Ustad Ahmad Lahori, who led a huge team of masons, stone-cutters, painters, and calligraphers requisitioned from all corners of the Mughal Empire and also from Armenia, Iran, and Central Asia to carve out one of the Seven Wonders of the World. A tribute of a grieving emperor in memory of his beloved wife, the Taj Mahal remains, to this day, the epitome of romance.