AN OVERCAST OF HISTORY
What hasn’t been said about the Taj! Standing all alone at the banks of Yamuna, its flawlessness has invoked jealousy among, equally significant members of the architectural legacy. Not too far from the Taj stands the Agra Fort, still fighting for its rightful place among the memoirs of the city, whose mention goes bac to Mahabharata but is now content to be known as the City of Taj. The original Red Fort, which is believed to have been built before the year 1000 AD, stands majestic in red sandstone and reflects the collective brilliance of three Mughal emperors — Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan.
Renovated by Akbar The Great in the mid 16th century, the fort was meant to be used for military purposes. It was a century later, during the rule of his grandson that its forbidding exteriors got to guard many opulent structures inside; and hence the extensive use of marble and pietra dura inlay. While Shah Jahan’s signature (the Taj Mahal) was an ornament par excellence, it was this red fort and its Diwan-i-Khas where kings and dignitaries sat under the decorated columns and arches and decided on the course of the history.
AN EMPEROR’S WHIM?
About 40km away from Agra is another World Heritage Site, Fatehpur Sikri. Any Hindi movie lover would remember a distressed Akbar (Prithviraj Kapoor) in Mughal-E-Azam (1960), walking barefoot on sand to seek blessings fro the Sufi saint Sheikh Salim Chishti for an heir. It was at that village that he built a whole new city, after the birth of Prince Salim, who was later bestowed the titled of Emperor Jehangir.
Its Buland Darwaza might put countless ones in the world to shame. With its sheer size and artwork and the fivestorey palace for royal women, inspire desires for luxury, but misfortune followed it close on the heels. What Akbar had desired to make his new capital, ended up being nothing more than a ghost city. The legend says, the city was destined to be abandoned, as it was nothing but the result of an emperor’s whim. Some blame it on the shortage of water and Akbar’s fondness for Agra.
Somewhat equally forgotten and silent are the lands of Sikandara. Akbar, a believer in Tartary customs, wherein one builds his tomb in his lifetime, started the
ruction over 100 t the start of the 17th centuryandwascompletedby his son Jahangir in 1613. The splendid gateway with inlaid marble work and white minarets could have inspired the ones at the Taj.
THE OTHER TAJS
The Baby Taj or hailed as the first tomb in the country made out of marble, Itimad-udDaulah has an interesting story that started in Persia. A certain Mirza Ghiyas-ud-din or Ghiyas Beg wanted to abandon his new-born daughter. But her cries changed his heart and he found his way to Akbar’s court in a caravan. Jahangir made him his chief minister and gave him the title of Itimad-udDaulah (the pillar of the state). His daughter possessed unmatched beauty; the emperor fell in love with her and she came to be known as the empress Noor Jahan, who got the mausoleum made for her father.
If the pristine white is considered as a symbol of husband’s love for his wife, there is another one in Agra which is a case of vice versa. Wandering through the streets of Agra, if you find yourself near the Roman Catholic Cemetry in Civil Lines, don’t forget to take a look inside. For, here stands Red Taj Mahal. Commissioned by Ann Hessing in early 1800, after the death of her Dutch husband John Hessing, who was the commander of Agra Fort, the tomb bears an uncanny resemblance to the Taj Mahal.
A FOODIE’S PARADISE
What Taj has done to others, petha has done to Agra’s food. Apart from the Bedai-Aloo Ki Sabzi and Jalebi, the city boasts of many dishes that you might have never heard of or tasted before. Made during winters, Makkhan Ka Samosa is a melt-in-your-mouth delicacy made of butter as an outer covering and filled with a subtly sweet mix of mawa, cottage cheese and nuts.
Even tinda (round gourd) and parwal (pointed gourd) become delectable here when turned into certain sweets. And then there are non-veg delicacies with Persian influences. If in Tajganj or Nai ki Mandi, gorge on Mughlai food, especially Pasandey. For an uncorrupte version of Aloo Tikki called Bhalla in Agra, you need to head to Seth Gali or Sadar Bazaar. Devoid of pretentious toppings ranging from chickpeas to overpowering onion, these potato balls being shallow fried in ghee will have you salivating. The crispy Bhalla is only topped with sweet and green chutneys and a few slivers of ginger.
And, this is all but a mere sketch, for Agra holds more unknown in its lanes than the known ‘one’.
Buland Darwaza at Fatehpur Sikri; (inset) Red Taj Mahal
(Top) Akbar’s Tomb; (above) Tomb of ItimadudDaulah