Agra’s unending hordes of aggressive hawkers and guides, and eternal heat and dust will extract the last reserves of your tolerance. This is why most tours to Agra ex-Delhi are day trips or 2 days at most. But you should ideally have three days to explore Agra’s many attractions. The Taj and Fatehpur Sikri in particular demand a leisurely study.
The founding of an empire
Earlier, the five raids into India had been but short stabs, pillaging junkets to fill his coffers and feed his army. But in November 1525, setting out from Kabul before the snows blocked the passes of the Hindu Kush, he challenged Ibrahim Lodi at Panipat — who with a hundred thousand troops outnumbered the invaders five to one — and defeated Lodi in a flourish of military genius. One could have expected nothing less: the blood of the Tartar, Timur and that of the Mongol, Chengiz Khan flowed in his veins. "That very day," he writes in his memoirs, "I directed Humayun Mirza... to set out without baggage or encumbrances, and proceed with all possible expedition to occupy Agra, and take possession of the treasuries." At Agra the Raja of Gwalior sued for peace by offering Humayun the Kohinoor diamond. The son in turn offered it to his father, who with characteristic generosity gave it right back. Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur, prince of Ferghana, founder of the great Mughal Empire, was here to stay.
And yet, he was not enamoured by India. "Hindustan is a country of few charms," he complained. The heat was unbearable and he missed the water, the mountains and melons of Kabul. Once, when the fragrance of an Afghan melon had enveloped his table, he wept as he ate it. To assuage his sense of loss, Babur set about trying to recreate the gardens of his homeland in Agra. It was not an easy task. He scouted along the eastern bank of the Yamuna for a suitable site and found "those grounds... so bad and unattractive that we traversed them with a hundred disgusts and repulsions". But with prodigious imagination, Babur transformed these sere lands into beautiful quartered gardens with fruit trees imported from Kabul, lily ponds with cascading waters running into channels, their pavilions and pleasure houses cooled by the river breeze to idle away warm afternoons in.
Today most of these have either disappeared under the slums of the swelling Agra populace, or are in disrepair. Cross over to the eastern bank by way of the narrow Strachey Bridge (1860). Turn left towards the tomb of Itmad-ud-Daula and ask for ‘Ram Bagh,’ a corruption of Aram Bagh, which was originally Bagh-i-Gul Afshan. Built on three levels, this garden is the first of the Islamic charbagh, or quartered garden, in India. The charbagh was supposed to be an earthly reflection of the Garden of Paradise, frequently mentioned in the Quran, which awaits those who are worthy of heaven. The water channels dividing the garden into four parts symbolise the four rivers of paradise: of water, milk, honey and wine; the trees and shade, the abundance in the garden of paradise. Sadly, few trees remain and lack of care has turned the garden into a dust bowl.
Besides the mad cacophony from the nearby National Highway 2, another jarring note was struck a few centuries ago when the Emperor Jahangir decided to make a few alterations to his great-grandfather’s garden. Love-struck, he renamed it after his new and favourite queen, Bagh-i-Nur Afshan, and commissioned two suites on the left terrace by the river. The suites in themselves are beautifully executed. A large stone tank with a mahtab, or island platform, dominates the centre. However, built as it is on the left and not the centre, it disturbs the symmetry of the perfectly balanced charbagh.
Babur was not only an accomplished general and horticulturist, but also a poet, musician and calligrapher. His memoir, the Babur Nama, is a literary masterpiece, candid and delightful. He was deeply distressed by bad writing and often upbraided Humayun for his obscure prose. But he loved his eldest son dearly, finding in him a highly cultivated and loveable companion. In 1530, when Humayun fell critically ill, the emperor offered his own life instead as a propitiation. Mughal chroniclers insist that almost instantly the Prince Royal gained in strength as the emperor’s began to ebb. "For years it has been in my heart to make over the throne to Humayun and to retire to the Bagh-i-Zer Afshan [gold-scattering garden]," Babur confided to his noblemen. He died on December 26th, 1530, and was interred in his favourite garden until 1539, when his remains were taken to his final resting place on the Shah-i-Kabul Hill in Afghanistan.
Babur’s first resting place
To find the historic site of the favourite garden and temporary burial place of the first Mughal Emperor, take the road on the right just before Itmad-ud-Daula. About a hundred yards down, a small lane, which doubles as a pissoir, runs to the left. Skirt the muck till you reach the rusted gate with the rusted lock. Chances are that the chowkidar has just left on an important official errand and won’t be back, alas, until the evening. Looking through the iron gates you will find a large, wan building, now the sporting place of rhesus monkeys. This was once the Chauburj, the emperor’s pleasure pavilion when he was alive, and his burial place later. It was once at the centre of a large and beautiful charbagh. The garden is long gone, part of it taken over by a DDT factory. It is difficult to quell the rising disgust.
Agra’s best-kept secret
To lighten the black mood, a trip to another of Babur’s gardens is a must. Take a right instead of a left after Strachey Bridge and ask for Village Kacchpura. After a couple of kilometres, the road ends at a T-junction, with the village on your left. On the right, on the banks of the Yamuna is Babur’s less celebrated Mahtab Bagh. The emperor could not have anticipated that his great-grandson would one day build the greatest monument to love on the opposite bank! Some ASI official (bless his soul) took it upon himself to breathe life into the garden, and lo! you actually have green turf near fruit trees and Agra’s best-kept secret. Indeed, the best views of the Taj are to be had from this garden, without the milling hordes that invade its precincts everyday.
*Entry fee Indians Rs 5 each at Mariam’s Tomb, Ram Bagh and Mehtab Bagh; foreigners Rs 100 Timings Sunrise to sunset