Marvels of the Mughals

You have traveled all the way to see the Taj Mahal—now what? Fortunately, the city of Agra is dotted with spellbinding architecture

Agra Fort
© David Noton Photography / Alamy

Agra Fort

Agra Fort
(© David Noton Photography / Alamy)
There is some evidence, including a mention of a fort in an 11th-century collection of poems, for scholars to believe that Agra Fort has been around for more than 2,500 years. But the appearance of the structure as it stands today, a Unesco World Heritage site, is mostly credited to Akbar the Great, the third Mughal emperor of India, who ruled from 1556 to 1605. As the story goes, Akbar arrived in the city of Agra in 1558 and led a renovation of the then-dilapidated fort. Every day for eight years about 4,000 builders worked on the 94-acre imperial city and its 70-foot-high, 1.5-mile-long double-reinforced walls.

Nearly a century later, Akbar’s grandson, Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal just two miles away from Agra Fort on the opposite bank of the Yamuna River, added white marble palaces and mosques amid the city’s red sandstone buildings. To visitors, the castle-like fort and its many reception rooms might seem like a luxurious place to live—and, of course, to some it was. But for others, held there against their will, it was a prison.

In 1658, Aurangzeb, Shah Jahan’s third son, killed his two brothers and jailed his father in the fort’s Musamman Burj, a tower with a balcony that overlooked Shah Jahan’s precious Taj Mahal. Shah Jahan remained there eight years until his death.

Fatehpur Sikri

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(© Aivar Mikko / Alamy)
In the 1560s, Akbar the Great visited a Sufi saint named Salim Chishti, 25 miles west of Agra. Two of Akbar’s sons had died, but the sage foretold the birth of another. In 1569, Jahangir, Akbar’s son and heir, was born. Two years later, before work on Agra Fort was even complete, Akbar broke ground on the construction of a dazzling complex, built in honor of the saint, on the ridge where he lived. He made the site his personal residence for 15 years, and then abandoned it because of water shortages and the threat of nearby aggressors.

Within Fatehpur Sikri, as its called, is Jama Masjid, a massive mosque built to hold 10,000 worshipers; the white marble tomb of Salim Chishti, who died in 1572; and, interestingly enough, one of the first known Pachisi courts. Pachisi—or Parcheesi, as it is known in the Western world—is a board game with origins in ancient India. Legend has it that Akbar set up a courtyard so that he could play it on a grand scale, with slave girls as game pieces. Life-size boards, including his, are the earliest evidence of the game being played.

Akbar's Tomb

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(© Steve Allen Travel Photography / Alamy)
Akbar the Great was a patron of the arts and a religiously tolerant leader who effectively combined disparate fiefdoms into a cohesive empire that controlled the Indian subcontinent for hundreds of years. Designing a fitting resting place for such a highly esteemed emperor would be a challenge. Luckily, Akbar weighed in on the plans. Construction of the tomb complex began in 1602, three years before dysentery took the emperor’s life, and was completed by his son Jahangir around 1613. Just six miles north of Agra in a suburb called Sikandra, the grounds take the form of a square, walled garden, with the tomb in its center. Four paved pathways, with narrow channels of water set into them to represent the four rivers of paradise, lead from gates in the center of each wall to the tomb. They divide the space into four quadrants, in the style of a charbagh, or Persian garden (“char” means four and “bagh,” garden, in Persian).

The tomb itself is five stories high and resembles a stepped pyramid, with each level smaller than the previous one. Most of the building is made of the area’s red sandstone, but the top floor is a pavilion with latticed walls of carved white marble. Akbar’s tomb subscribes to Mughal tradition, in that is has a cenotaph, or “empty tomb,” on its highest story for the public to visit, while the actual sarcophagus is buried in a private crypt in the basement.

Itmad-ud-Daulah's Tomb

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(© ARCImages India / Alamy)
In Agra, on the Yamuna River just north of the Taj Mahal, Jahangir’s wife, Empress Nur Jahan, commissioned a tomb for her father, an official who served under both Akbar and Jahangir. Sometimes called the “Baby Taj,” the small, 250-square-foot tomb, built between 1622 and 1628, is a departure from the red sandstone architecture that came before it and the first example of the white marble style that Shah Jahan would become so taken with. The marble exterior of the mausoleum, which actually holds both Itmad-ud-Daulah and his wife entombed side by side as well as other relatives in adjoining rooms, is inlaid with semi-precious stones placed in intricate designs of trees, bouquets of flowers, wine glasses and fruit.

Mehtab Bagh

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(© Alex Fox / Alamy)
An archaeological excavation in the mid-1990s confirmed what paintings and manuscripts from the 1600s hinted at—that in the fields just across the Yamuna River from the Taj Mahal, there once was a Mehtab Bagh, or “Moonlight Garden.” From the silt and sand, archaeologists unearthed parts of a large octagonal pool with 25 fountain jets, marble arches from the garden’s entrance and one of four suspected towers in the garden’s corners. Similarly, paleoethnobotanists found evidence that suggests cypress, red cedars, jujube trees and lotus flowers grew on the land during Mughal times.

The width and alignment of the garden, extrapolated from the structural remnants discovered, match the layout of the Taj Mahal, and so it is now thought that the Mehtab Bagh was a part of the monument’s overall design. Scholars think that Shah Jahan created the garden to be a pleasant viewing point for the Taj, particularly at night under the moon, when its white marble facade is especially luminous. The perfectly placed octagonal pool would have made for a dramatic reflection.

Unfortunately, the garden, set in a low-lying area at a bend in the river, succumbed to flooding. In a letter to his father Shah Jahan in December 1652, a hopeful Aurangzeb reports damages to the Mehtab Bagh: “The Mahtab Garden was completely inundated, and therefore it has lost its charm, but soon it will regain its verdancy. The octagonal pool and the pavilion around it are in splendid condition. It is surprising to hear that the waters of the Jumna have overflowed their banks because at present the river is moving back to its old course and is about to regain it.”

Today, visitors to the site can walk through a restored botanical garden, where groups have cultivated plants that might have originally grown there.