This is a time which can be well spent reading and telling stories, so here we are sharing one with you. Did you know the Taj is not the only eternal love story of Agra? We tell you the one behind a certain Red Taj.
Everyone knows the pristine white beauty that stands at the banks of Yamuna defining glory. Its stature and the forever love story have easily dwarfed all the other structures of Agra, bigger or smaller. Yet, in the forgotten lanes of Agra, there is on in Civil Lines, near the popular Bhagwan Talkies, that furthers the city’s claim to being the seat of eternal love. For, on the grounds of Roman Catholic Cemetery stands a symbol vice versa of the Taj: a wife’s love for her husband.
The Dutch mercenary, John William Hessing, was born in the Netherlands’s Utrecht in 1739. He came to the then Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1757 and took part in the fourth Anglo-Dutch war. As the British win resulted in them taking over the Dutch territories, Hessing is said to have returned to his homeland, only to come back to India in 1763 as a professional soldier. After serving the Nizam of Hyderabad for many years, he joined the service of Maratha chieftain Mahadji Scindia and continued to serve even after his death, under his son Daulat Rao. Hessing attained the rank of Colonel in 1798 and assumed the command of Agra Fort till his death in 1803 due to either a prolonged illness or while defending the fort against the British.
His grieving wife, Ann, decided to commission a memorial tomb for him. At a time when it was particularly rare for a woman to go to great lengths to build a memorial, Ann tried to do her best. But unlike an emperor (Shah Jahan) with unlimited resources at his disposal, she had around a lakh of rupees. Hence, marble was not affordable and the reduced-scale version of her very own Taj for her husband was built in red sandstone at the Roman Catholic Cemetery, one of the oldest Christian burial grounds in India and the oldest in north India. The oldest tombstone here is from 1611, making it difficult to ascertain whether the land was granted by Akbar or his son Jahangir. Though it is said that it was the latter who made it rent free in 1609.
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Among the myriad tombs bearing names of the cities like Geneva, Venice, Tiflis, Constantinople, London and more, symbolising the melting pot that Agra was, the Red Taj of Hessings stands apart. Like the white Taj, the Hessing tomb not only stands on high platform but also consists of two graves – an ornamental one under the dome on the upper deck and the real one on the lower level. The double-domed structure sports a sheath of lotus petals just like its illustrious precursor. Its turrets are, however, topped with Rajasthani styled chhatris which are quite a predominant architectural style in this Christian resting place shunning European traditions for a mix of Mughal and Rajasthani architectures.
It is said that the original Red Taj’s design also included four minarets à la the Taj Mahal. Ann, though, had to let go of this part of her dream as she is said to have ran out of funds and settled for four cupolas at the four corners. Ann died 28 years after her husband John, in Barrackpore, while generations of Hessings are said to have lived in India and plied their various trades, perhaps passing down the tale of Red Taj.
And when the roads are safe to travel again, you could also go and explore an Agra that exists beyond the Taj and boasts of more such fascinating stories.