Adventures in Agra

Before heading to India, I of course knew I would want to see the Taj Mahal (it is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World after all) so I decided to book a tour. Since I was going to be traveling alone, I ended up booking a private tour from Delhi to Agra which would cover the Taj Mahal, Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah (aka Baby Taj) and Agra Fort. I booked my excursion through Get Your Guide.

Given the distance to Agra (about a 3.5 hour drive), my driver was set to pick me up very early (like 3:30am early) so I made sure to get to bed early the night before. My driver Pappu was there on time and had his car stocked with water, tissues, and antibacterial wipes for our journey. As we made our way outside of Delhi, fog started to build. At one point, it got so thick you could barely see right in front of you!

Shout out to Pappu for having mad driving skills in that insane fog!

We finally arrived in Agra and picked up our guide (whose name I cannot recall but he was a very lovely man) and headed to our first stop – the Taj Mahal!

The Taj Mahal was commissioned by Shah Jahan in 1631, to be built in the memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died on 17 June that year, while giving birth to their 14th child. The Taj Mahal incorporates and expands on design traditions of Indo-Islamic and earlier Mughal architecture. While earlier Mughal buildings were primarily constructed of red sandstone, Shah Jahan promoted the use of white marble inlaid with semi-precious stones. The tomb is the central focus of the entire complex of the Taj Mahal. It is a large, white marble structure standing on a square pedestal and consists of a symmetrical building with an arch-shaped doorway topped by a large dome and finial.

Like most Mughal structures, symmetry is a key element. The most spectacular feature is the marble dome that surmounts the tomb. The dome is nearly 115 ft high which is close in measurement to the length of the base, and accentuated by the cylindrical “drum” it sits on, which is approximately 23 ft high. The main finial was originally made of gold but was replaced by a copy made of gilded bronze in the early 19th century. This feature provides a clear example of integration of traditional Persian and Hindu decorative element. The finial is topped by a moon, a typical Islamic motif whose horns point heavenward.

The exterior decorations of the Taj Mahal are among the finest in Mughal architecture. The calligraphy on the Great Gate reads “O Soul, thou art at rest. Return to the Lord at peace with Him, and He at peace with you.” The calligraphy was created in 1609 by a calligrapher named Abdul Haq. Much of the calligraphy is composed of florid thuluth script made of jasper or black marble inlaid in white marble panels. Higher panels are written in slightly larger script to reduce the skewing effect when viewed from below. The calligraphy found on the marble cenotaphs in the tomb is particularly detailed and delicate.

On the lower walls of the tomb are white marble depictions of flowers and vines. The marble has been polished to emphasise the exquisite detailing of the carvings. The surrounding frames and archway headers have been decorated with inlays of almost geometric vines, flowers and fruits. The inlay stones are of yellow marble, jasper and jade, polished flush against the surface of the walls.

Muslim tradition forbids elaborate decoration of graves. Hence, the bodies of Mumtaz and Shah Jahan were put in a relatively plain crypt beneath the inner chamber with their faces turned right, towards Mecca. Mumtaz Mahal’s cenotaph is placed at the precise centre of the inner chamber on a rectangular marble base of 4 ft 11 in by 8 ft 2 in. Both the base and casket are elaborately inlaid with precious and semiprecious gems. Calligraphic inscriptions on the casket identify and praise Mumtaz. On the lid of the casket is a raised rectangular lozenge meant to suggest a writing tablet. Shah Jahan’s cenotaph is beside Mumtaz’s to the western side and is the only visible asymmetric element in the entire complex. His cenotaph is bigger than his wife’s, but reflects the same elements: a larger casket on a slightly taller base precisely decorated with lapidary and calligraphy that identifies him. On the lid of the casket is a traditional sculpture of a small pen box. The pen box and writing tablet are traditional Mughal funerary icons decorating the caskets of men and women respectively. 

The Taj Mahal complex is bordered on three sides by red sandstone walls; the side facing the river is open. Outside the walls are several additional mausoleums, including those of Shah Jahan’s other wives, and a larger tomb for Mumtaz’s favorite servant. These structures, composed primarily of red sandstone, are typical of the smaller Mughal tombs of the era. The garden-facing inner sides of the wall are fronted by columned arcades, a feature typical of Hindu temples which was later incorporated into Mughal mosques. The wall is interspersed with domed pavilions and small buildings that may have been viewing areas or watch towers like the Music House, which is now used as a museum.

At the far end of the complex are two grand red sandstone buildings that mirror each other, and face the sides of the tomb. The backs of the buildings parallel the western and eastern walls. The western building is a mosque and the other is the jawab (answer), thought to have been constructed for architectural balance.

Soon after the Taj Mahal’s completion, Shah Jahan was deposed by his son Aurangzeb and put under house arrest at nearby Agra Fort. Upon Shah Jahan’s death, Aurangzeb buried him in the mausoleum next to his wife. The reason Shah Jahan was imprisoned is believed to be because he had planned on building a structure similar to the Taj Mahal across the river, made of black marble for himself once he died. But his sons felt he was spending too freely and had him arrested and held at Agra Fort from 1658 until his death 8 years later. Then his body was brought back to the Taj Mahal and buried next to his wife.

Of course I had seen plenty of photos of the Taj Mahal online but it is even more beautiful in person (and definitely worth the trip to see!). As you approach through the West gate (which is impressive itself), you start to catch a glimpse of the Taj Mahal.

I opted for the sunrise tour, so it was a bit overcast still when I arrived (as you can see from pics above) but we were able to see the rising sun peeking though eventually, making for a beautiful sight.

Sun coming up – such a beautiful sight to behold in person
Shoe covers are required once you get up to the main building – quite the fashion statement!
The sun reflecting on the ground is not from any water – it’s from the marble. So stunning!

After the Taj Mahal, we headed over to Tomb of I’timad-Ud-Daulah, often referred to as the Baby Taj. In fact, the tomb preceded the Taj Mahal. It was built between 1622 and 1628. The mausoleum was commissioned by Nur Jahan, the wife of Jahangir, for her father Mirza Ghiyas Beg, originally a Persian Amir in exile, who had been given the title of I’timād-ud-Daulah (pillar of the state). Mirza Ghiyas Beg was also the grandfather of Mumtaz Mahal, the wife of the emperor Shah Jahan, responsible for the construction of the Taj Mahal.

Located on the eastern bank of the Yamuna River, the mausoleum is set in a large cruciform garden criss-crossed by water courses and walkways. The mausoleum itself covers about twenty-three meters square, and is built on a base about fifty meters square and about one meter high. On each corner are octagonal towers, about thirteen meters tall.

The walls are made up from white marble from Rajasthan encrusted with semi-precious stone decorations: cornelian, jasper, lapis lazuli, onyx, and topaz formed into images of cypress trees and wine bottles, or more elaborate decorations like cut fruit or vases containing bouquets. Light penetrates to the interior through delicate jali screens of intricately carved white marble. The interior decoration is considered by many to have inspired that of the Taj Mahal, which was built by her stepson, Mughal ruler Shah Jahan.

Many of Nur Jahan’s relatives are interred in the mausoleum. The only asymmetrical element of the entire complex is that the cenotaphs of her father and mother have been set side-by-side, a formation replicated in the Taj Mahal.

While not as well maintained as the Taj Mahal, it is still a beautiful complex.

The last stop on this tour was Agra Fort. Built by the Mughal emperor Akbar in 1565 and completed in 1573, it served as the main residence of the rulers of the Mughal Dynasty until 1638, when the capital was shifted from Agra to Delhi. It was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. Since the military still occupies a main portion of the fort, tourists are only allowed through one of the entrances.

While in Agra, I also visited a marble shop with families of the same artisans who helped create the beautiful work at the Taj Mahal as well as another shop. It’s amazing how talented the artists are and it’s definitely worth checking out. We said goodbye to our guide and my driver got me back safely to Delhi, while pointing out many of the agricultural sites we passed along the way. If you ever need a driver, I’d definitely recommend Pappu – he was great! I met him through Get Your Guide but he has his own link so you can directly book with him under JNK India Tours (http://jnkindiatours.com).

In the next blog, I will tackle more of the sights in Delhi! Until next time…..