The Christian mausoleums of Agra

You know that moment when you are looking for something, but end up finding something else? Something you were not expecting to find? Something you didn’t even know you wanted to find? I had one such moment about 10 days back.

I was headed to Agra the next day for a conference and hoped to squeeze in a visit to the Agra Fort. While checking the Fort timings on it’s official website, I came across a link to lesser known monuments in the city. Curious to know more, I clicked on the link and my eyes were immediately drawn to the photograph accompanying the second entry on the page — a red domed structure with four minarets in each corner, not unlike a Taj Mahal, but red in colour.

Roman Catholic Cemetery 2

Wondering which Mughal prince or noble was buried in this very obvious example of Islāmic architecture, I proceeded to read the description. And then read it again just to make sure that what I had read was indeed what I read the first time.

The Red Taj Mahal or John William Hessing’s Tomb was built by his wife in the memory of her husband. If Taj Mahal is known for the love of a husband for his wife, then on the other hand, the Red Taj Mahal is known for the love of a wife for her husband…

This was no mausoleum of a Mughal prince or noble or even a Muslim; this was a Christian’s tomb located in the Agra’s Roman Catholic Cemetery. Reading about this rather intriguing place, I was surprised that I had neither heard of nor come across the Cemetery and the ‘Red Taj Mahal’ before, in spite of having visited Agra in 2011! There was only one way to remedy this. Visit it.

And that’s exactly what I do when I visited Agra earlier this month. :)

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Agra’s other Taj: The tomb of I’timad-ud-Daulah

The guide was sulking, the mid-day sun was relentlessly hot and I could feel my skin burn. But I was oblivious to all but the shimmering marble structure in front of me—the tomb of I’timad-ud-Daulah, with the local sobriquet of Baby Taj or Mini Taj.

The tomb of I'timad-ud-Daulah

Located on the western bank of the Yamuna river, the tomb complex was built by Noor Jehan (queen of Emperor Jehangir, the fourth Mughal Emperor) for her father, Mirza Ghiyas Beg and mother. Mirza Beg started off as an accountant in the Mughal court and rose to the rank of Lord High Treasurer or I’timad-ud-Daulah. And therein lies the name of the tomb, which was built between 1622 and 1628.

The tomb is rather squat and broad in appearance with hexagonal towers in each corner. Built on a low sandstone platform with marble inlay work on all four sides, like all Islamic structures, this one too is symmetrical. It is the presence of the two very different-sized and shaped trees on either side of the tomb that lessens the severity of the symmetry and actually gives it a slightly quirky look.

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Akbar’s mausoleum: Forgotten, but not neglected, at Sikandra

Photo Source: Wikipedia

The basement room is cool and dark, and it’s whitewashed walls are bare. The only light in the room comes from the passage leading to the room and an overhead lamp, hung directly above a marble sarcophagus placed in the centre of the chamber. The simplicity of the sarcophagus, and the bare unadorned room belies the achievements and greatness of the person buried there — Jalal-ud-din Mohammad Akbar, the third Mughal Emperor.

I am in the burial chamber of Akbar’s Mausoleum at Sikandra. The fragrance of incense and marigold flowers is pleasant, and instead of the claustrophobia one would associate with underground and enclosed spaces, I feel only peace here. There is nobody in the room, save the caretaker who offers to say a prayer on my behalf, and soon a sonorous prayer fills the room, a prayer that continues to echo in my mind for a long time afterwards.

Akbar’s Mausoleum is in Sikandra, a suburb of Agra. Today, it has become so synonymous with the town’s name, that it is called Sikandra.

Located on the busy and perennially jammed, historical Grand Trunk Road or the NH2, “Sikandra” is about 10 km from Agra city. It was nearly 9 in the morning when I arrived at Sikandra, guide in tow, following a visit to the Taj Mahal and after negotiating horrendous traffic and road rage incidents.

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The Taj Mahal: An ode to perfection and symmetry

The Taj Mahal is, without doubt, one of the most talked about, photographed, and written about monuments in the world. From academic critiques on its symbolism or its architecture to essays on love using the Taj Mahal as a metaphor to haiku poetry, you have it all.

For Indians, the Taj is a national treasure beyond any other, and for many international tourists the Taj Mahal is India and vice versa. The Taj has inspired countless brands from hotels to tea to inner-wear to tiles to… just about everything. Its enduring legend and its status as one of the 7 modern wonders of the world has ensured that everybody has an opinion on the Taj Mahal, whether they have seen it once, twice, many times, or not at all. :-)

I was in Agra last month and the Taj, not surprisingly, was on my list of sights to see. Though I had never seen the Taj Mahal before, I had an image of what it would be like, and even what it should be like. My mental image of the Taj was also influenced by a lot of unsolicited comments and advice from friends and family members, who had seen the Taj and were keen to share their two bits with me. A sample:

“Taj Mahal is so beautiful and romantic. You’ll love it”

“What? You stay in India and you haven’t seen the Taj? Are you sure you are an Indian?

“Look, Sudha. See the Taj with an open mind. Just empty your mind of all emotions and prejudices of what you think it should be like when you go there. Otherwise, you’ll hate it.

“I didn’t like the place at all. It is over-rated and thanks to excellent marketing it has become what it is today.”

I recall all this as I stand in a queue  with countless others waiting to  enter this modern “wonder of the world”.  Though I tell myself that I should regard this visit to the Taj with an open mind, it is difficult not to be affected by my own prejudices plus the influence of all that I have read about or heard about the Taj.

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Poetry in red sandstone: Fatehpur Sikri

Imagine a city.

A city built entirely out red sandstone and protected by a 11 km wall on 3 sides and a lake on the fourth.

A planned city, perhaps the region’s first, by an Emperor to honour a Sufi saint.

A city whose royal quarters housed the Emperor, his 3 queens, his harem, his favourite minister, and included a mosque, a temple and a giant game board, among many other structures.

A city that was abandoned 14 years after construction began.

A city that is a ghost city today.

A city that was named Fatehabad, but is known today as Fatehpur Sikri.

Imagine that city.

Part of Fatehpur Sikri’s original city wall is visible through the trees

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Lajawaab Lucknow

Lucknow is a beautiful city.

That’s what my friends from Lucknow would always say. For many years, I experienced Lucknow and its famed culture through their eyes and stories about their city. I improved my spoken Hindi (or Hindustani as they preferred to call it) by speaking the language with them, and over the years came to speak the language like a native of Lucknow. At least that’s what my friends would say. But I never managed a visit a visit to Lucknow in all these years. Till last month, that is. :-)

When I got off the overnight train that brought me to Lucknow from Varanasi at 7.00 am that October morning, I didn’t feel like I was in a strange place. Instead, I felt like I was in a familiar place, with the stunning red and white Char Bagh station welcoming me like an old, old friend.

Lucknow’s red and white Char Bagh Station glows in the soft morning light

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