While one of the highlights of President Trump’s recent visit to India was a stop at the enchanting Taj Mahal—I happened to discover a whole new dimension of the timeless city which is its home. While most visitors (especially ones from neighbouring Delhi) make quick day trips to Agra—and that says a whole lot about the impressive expressway connecting the two cities—they often miss out on some of the city’s relatively lesser known treasures. It was some of these rare gems that I happened to explore during my recent visit—and the experience was an eye opener to say the least.
Agra has some of the most exquisite riverfront Mughal gardens, on the banks of the Yamuna river. One such garden is the Aaram bagh, the first garden built by Babur. Babur wanted to create gardens using the water system from the flowing river—the kind he had seen existing in Samarkand. It was in Aaram bagh for the first time that the terraced and four-quartered garden plan was introduced. In 1878, the British renamed it as Ram Bagh, or the honeymoon garden, and used it to stay and even auction fruits of the several trees growing there, such as orange, guava, dates, gooseberry, papaya, tamarind and pomegranate. The garden even has some Cypress trees growing in it—a symbol of sadness—as they were also used for funeral purposes.
Planned and built as an integral part of the Taj Mahal’s original design, is another garden called the Mehtab bagh. In fact, Shah Jahan built it with the primary intention that no one builds anything behind the Taj Mahal. Also known as the moon garden, it is the place where the emperor would sit on a moonlit night for a special view of the Taj Mahal. This garden too consists of a variety of flora, including wood apple, hibiscus, bottle brush and frangipani. Further, Chini Ka Roza contains the tomb of Shukrullah Shirazi Afzal Khan, a scholar and poet who was Shah Jahan’s Prime Minister. Using glazed ceramic tiles that pictorially depict various flowers, such as jasmine, tiger lily and crown imperial, the monument was restored by Lord Curzon in 1899.
About a kilometer away, lies the beautiful I’timād-ud-Daulah. Popularly known as the Baby Taj, it was built by Nur Jahan as a resting place for her parents, Mirzā Ghiyās Beg and Asmat Begum. Built in the 17th century, it was for the first time in Indian architecture that marble was used for a tomb. The 22nd wife of Emperor Jahangir, Nur Jahan was known to be his favourite and ruled the Mughal empire from behind the curtain for 16 years (1611-1627). At one time, her face was even imprinted on coins. Also known as the cobra queen, she had once been protected by a cobra as a baby. The structure has a gold painted ceiling and its intricate pietra dura inlay work resembles that of an ornamental jewellery box. The garden still has the ancient water channel system intact, complete with walkways and chutes.
Further, Agra also offers a quaint heritage walk in the old city, which reminds you much of the cluttered by lanes of Delhi’s Chandni Chowk. Up first is the Jama Masjid built by Shah Jahan in 1648. Just opposite is the city’s old railway station that has been in existence since 1853. Then, there are several iconic local spots, such as Agra’s oldest poori shop that has been open since 1840 and the city’s very first X-ray clinic. Scattered around are also dozens of shops selling locally produced milk cakes, homemade pickles, flowers and paan shops that source betel leaves from nearby towns such as Benaras and Mahoba. There is also the ancient Mankameshwar Mahadev temple dedicated to Lord Shiva nearby. People believe it was here that Lord Shiva stayed when he came to meet Lord Krishna when the latter was born in Mathura.
Further down the walk, one encounters several late 19th century havelis, where a number of people continue to live and run businesses till this day. The oldest haveli in the area has a board outside it that reads Kokamal Market. Kokamal was a very rich banker who would lend money to the British. The British got a grill from England to be put outside his haveli long before iron work started in India. As one walks down, you come across a spice market, selling everything from turmeric to nutmeg, coriander, cinnamon, cardamom and cumin. Further down is the Seth gali, consisting of several printing shops.
Agra is also an absolute gastronomic delight. Some of the street food one should not miss out on when in the city, is the deep-fried kachori that is eaten with alu ki sabji; the lip smacking tikki chaat; and the small, crispy jalebis. If you’re a fan of Mughlai cuisine, then you’ll be spoiled for choice, with everything on a platter from galouti kebabs, shammi kebabs and sikandari raan. Some of the popular local delicacies to carry back home are the dal moth namkeen and petha (from Panchhi or Gopaldas Pethe Wale). It is believed that Shah Jahan’s chef wanted to commit suicide after he was dismissed. When he saw a pumpkin floating on the river, he decided to make a petha out of it, which the emperor really liked. That was how petha became synonymous with Agra. Everything about Agra reeks of the history of a bygone era, and one need not dig too deep for an untold story to emerge from somewhere beneath the surface…