The city of Taj, as it’s widely known, Agra, is abundantly rich in cultural heritage. India’s history peeps through the city’s narrow lanes and speaks itself through glorious tombs and forts comfortably dispersed all around the place. The legacy of the Mughal empire has left a magnificent fort and a liberal sprinkling of fascinating tombs and mausoleums, best of which are mentioned here, which one should not miss while visiting Agra.
Every year, tourists numbering more than twice the population of Agra pass through Taj Mahal’s gates to catch a once-in-a-lifetime glimpse of what is widely considered the most beautiful building in the world. Also one of the world’s seven wonders, Taj was designated a World Heritage Site in 1983 and looks nearly as immaculate today as when it was first constructed– though it underwent a huge restoration project in the early 20th century. The Taj is arguably at its most atmospheric during sunrise. This is certainly the most comfortable time to visit, with far fewer crowds. Sunset is another magical viewing time. Within the Taj complex, on the western side of the gardens, is the small but excellent Taj Museum, housing a number of original Mughal miniature paintings, including a pair of 17th-century ivory portraits of Emperor Shah Jahan and his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal. It also has some very well-preserved gold and silver coins dating from the same period, plus architectural drawings of the Taj and some nifty celadon plates, said to split into pieces or change colour if the food served on them contains poison.
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With the Taj Mahal overshadowing it, one can easily forget that Agra has one of the finest Mughal forts in India. Walking through courtyard after courtyard of this palatial red-sandstone and marble fortress, your amazement grows as the scale of what was built here begins to sink in. The fort was built primarily as a military structure, but Shah Jahan transformed it into a palace. The Yamuna River originally flowed along the straight eastern edge of the fort, and the emperors had their own bathing ghats here. It contains a maze of buildings, forming a city within a city, including vast underground sections, though many of the structures were destroyed over the years by Nadir Shah, the Marathas, the Jats and finally the British, who used the fort as a garrison. Even today, much of the fort is used by the military and off-limits to the general public.
Nicknamed the Baby Taj, the exquisite tomb of Mizra Ghiyas Beg should not be missed. This Persian nobleman was Mumtaz Mahal’s grandfather and Emperor Jahangir’s wazir (chief minister). His daughter, Nur Jahan, who married Jahangir, built the tomb between 1622 and 1628, in a style similar to the tomb she built for Jahangir near Lahore in Pakistan. It doesn’t have the same awesome beauty as the Taj, but it’s arguably more delicate in appearance thanks to its particularly finely carved jalis (marble lattice screens). This was the first Mughal structure built completely from marble, the first to make extensive use of pietra dura and the first tomb to be built on the banks of the Yamuna, which until then had been a sequence of beautiful pleasure gardens. One can combine a trip here with Chini-ka-Rauza and Mehtab Bagh, all on the east bank.
This outstanding sandstone and marble tomb commemorates the greatest of the Mughal emperors. The huge courtyard is entered through a stunning gateway. It has three-storey minarets at each corner and is built of red sandstone strikingly inlaid with white-marble geometric patterns. The mausoleum is at Sikandra, 10km northwest of Agra Fort.
This magnificent fortified ancient city, 40km west of Agra, was the short-lived capital of the Mughal empire between 1572 and 1585, during the reign of Emperor Akbar. The city was an Indo-Islamic masterpiece, but erected in an area that supposedly suffered from water shortages and so was abandoned shortly after Akbar’s death. It’s easy to visit this World Heritage Site as a day trip from Agra, but there are a couple of decent places to stay. In addition to the main attractions, the colourful bazaar in the village of Fatehpur, just below the ruins, as well as the small village of Sikri, a few kilometres north, are worth exploring. The palace buildings lie beside the Jama Masjid mosque. Both sit on top of a ridge that runs between Fatehpur and Sikri. The red-sandstone palace walls are at their most atmospheric and photogenic near sunset.
This article was first published in January, 2018 and has been updated since.