Words AMIT GAIKWAD Photographs MAHESH SAGARI
One of India’s most popular tourist destinations, Agra is home to the Taj Mahal, one of the seven wonders of the world. An architectural masterpiece, it draws around 40,000 visitors daily. However, owing to the immense popularity of this great white mausoleum, the rest of this rich city is often overlooked by visitors.
Think beyond the Taj, and give yourself ample time to rediscover the ancient city at your own pace. Kick off your tour by visiting a structure popularly known as the Red Taj. Made of red sandstone, the Red Taj was commissioned by Ann Hessing in memory of her husband, John Hessing, a military officer with the Maratha troops in 1784. The monument lies deep within the Roman Catholic Cemetery. Believed to be one of the oldest Catholic cemeteries in North India, this site is also the final resting place of a number of European officers, soldiers and artisans. Here, you will find the tomb of another European officer, Walter Reinhardt Sombre, which was erected by his wife Farzana, famously known as Begum Samru. Not too far away is another famous tombstone that belongs to John Mildenhall, a British officer who was one of the first to journey overland to India.
Talking about graves and tombstones is exciting, but so is the next site. The Panchkuian Kabristan is home to around 20,000 graves. What makes this burial site unique is a story that has been popularised in the 2017 Hollywood film, Victoria & Abdul. Here, you’ll find the final resting place of Hafiz Mohammad Abdul Karim. In his twenties, Karim, the munshi, rose from a humble position in court to being one of Queen Victoria’s closest confidantes in England. Sadly, after the queen’s death, he was deported back to his hometown of Agra, where he spent the last few years of his life.
Head next to Agra Fort, an architectural masterpiece that served as a residence of Mughal emperors until 1638. While the fort has two main entrances – the Delhi Gate and the Lahore Gate (now rechristened the Amar Singh Gate), visitors can only enter through the latter. Once inside, check out structures such as Jahangir’s Hauz, the Shah Jahani Mahal, the Diwan-i-Aam, the Diwan-i-Khas, the Khas Mahal, Sheesh Mahal, the Bengali Mahal, Akbar’s Mahal and the Jahangiri Mahal.
Not too far away is the Jama Masjid, also known as Jami Masjid or Friday Mosque Rakabganj. One of the biggest in India, this spectacular red sandstone and white marble structure was built by Shah Jahan as a tribute to his daughter Jahanara Begum, based on the Iranian style of architecture.
Life in the bylanes of Agra reflects the city’s rich culture. Enter the lane just opposite the Jama Masjid, which begins with the wholesalers’ market. Here you will find everything from traditional Indian spices to fashionable clothes. Keep walking to find yourself on Vaidya Ramdutta Galli, a lane named after an eponymous ayurvedic practitioner.
Next up is the Mankameshwar Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva and one of the country’s most ancient temples, with long queues of devotees lined up outside. Make your way, to Johari Galli, where century-old havelis still stand proud. The Uttar Pradesh government has plans to restore these to their former glory; work has already begun on a few.
End your Agra adventures by indulging your taste buds – head to Seth Galli, a few lanes away from Johari Gali, known for its chaats and sweetmeat shops. This is where you ditch your dinner plans to go crazy over the unique flavours of Agra.