Humayun may have been, as Mirza Haider Dughlat wrote, "possessed of so much natural talent and excellence," in battle and in conversation. He was also kind-hearted and generous, a skilled mathematician, astronomer and astrologer, but these qualities did little to save him from the terrible privations he had to suffer after Babur’s death. His name will always be inextricably linked with that of the Afghan, Sher Shah Sur, who battled him for three hard years and then chased him out of Hindustan for the next 15. When not on the run or doing battle, Humayun was absorbed in astrology and astronomy, manifesting his passion in the most eccentric way. The business at court was not conducted according to exigencies of matter on hand but deferred to the planets: Sunday and Tuesday for government, as the sun regulates sovereignty and Mars is the patron of soldiers. Similarly, Saturday and Thursday were devoted to matters of religion and so forth. He even went so far as dressing himself and his ministers according to the colours of the planets associated with particular days.
A stone’s throw from Babur’s Mahtab Bagh, in a field on the banks of the Yamuna, are the remains of Humayun’s observatory. It’s called Gyarah Sidi (11 steps), which refers to the steps overlooking the hemispherical cavities in the ground from which astronomical readings could be taken. Though nowhere close to their size, Humayun’s observatory is an interesting, diminutive precursor to the massive Jantar Mantars at Jaipur and Delhi built nearly 200 years later. At nearby Kacchpura village, a short walk through narrow, interesting lanes and bylanes will bring you to the handsome Panchmukhi (five-arched) Mosque, now partially in ruins and whitewashed by the enthusiastic local imam. An inscription on the mosque dates back to 1530.
Akbar – his exalted majesty
On June 26, 1579, at the age of 37, Humayun’s son startled his subjects by mounting the pulpit of the Jama Masjid at Fatehpur Sikri to deliver the Friday sermon, which he ended with the words, "...Exalted is His Majesty, Allah ho Akbar!" The mullahs howled in protest, for what is the common enough invocation of God is Great, could also be read as God is Akbar, or Akbar = God. It was not the emperor’s vanity which prompted the utterance but a gauntlet thrown to challenge orthodoxy. It encapsulated Akbar’s spirit perfectly: liberal, wise, courageous, resolute and free. It was this spirit which made him abolish the hateful jaziya tax on non-Muslim subjects, caused him to experiment with religion and philosophy to create an entirely new faith Din-i-Illahi, prompted him to marry Rajput princesses, and invite hundreds of artists, litterateurs and musicians to his court. Akbar was illiterate, and yet he had an insatiable thirst for knowledge, having books read to him from his vast library of 24,000 volumes valued at 61/2 million rupees. He maintained a translation department at court, which translated into Persian the Mahabharata, Ramayana and Leelavati, a Sanskrit poetic treatise on arithmetic. It was a glorious age for Agra, and the beginning of a veritable renaissance.
Akbar was the first of the great Mughal builders. Under him Agra became Akbarabad, the old Lodi fort was replaced by a new architectural style of the Agra Fort, built between 1565 and 1573, costing, according to Abul Fazl, Akbar’s friend and chronicler, 3.5 million rupees. Its 2.5 km-long ramparts, which rise up to 70 ft, are cased with perfectly polished red sandstone. Its towers and battlements, gateways and enclosures are not simply features of a well-designed fortress but make for an artistic marvel.
Within the fort your must-see list would include: the Nagina Masjid which housed the harem; Zenana Meena Bazaar, where the ladies shopped; the Shah Burj, or royal quarters; the Musamman Burj from where Shah Jahan spent his last days gazing at his wife’s tomb; the Diwan-i-Khaas and the Hauz-i-Jahangiri.
TIP Entry only through Amar Singh Gate
*Entry fee Indians Rs 20, foreigners Rs 300 Cameras Still free, video Rs 25 Timings Sunrise to sunset
*Son-et-lumiere show Tickets Indians Rs 30, foreigners Rs 75 Timings English 7.30 pm, Hindi 8.30 pm
Akbar’s new city — Fatehpur Sikri
However, the fort proved doubly unlucky for Akbar, who lost all his children in infancy. He pleaded with Salim Chishti, resident saint of Sikri, for divine intervention. The saint obliged, a son was born to Akbar’s Rajput Hindu wife and a grateful father named him Salim after the sage. Not stopping there, the emperor ordered a new imperial capital to be built at the saint’s abode on a hill at Sikri, 39 km west of Agra, and personally supervised its construction. Monserrate, a Jesuit priest, records that the emperor even "quarried stone along with his workmen". After his triumphant campaign in Gujarat in 1572, he returned and named the city Fatehpur Sikri (‘Place of Victory’), building the commemorative doorway of Buland Darwaza at the Jama Masjid.
An astonishing city took shape: pavilions and courtyards, domes, balconies, terraces, gardens, elegant cupolas, tanks, pools and baths. The architecture sheltered the imperial household from the harsh north Indian sun, but it also allowed for the play of filtered or refracted light and air through latticed windows and doors. The complex has geometry, but it is not severe. Fatehpur Sikri is playful and full of surprises: turn a corner and find an enchanted walled garden; climb out of an apartment and find a tree perfectly framed in a window. Earlier you could climb up to the Panchmahal and enjoy the breeze on a moonlit night, but this pleasure has been curbed by an overcautious bureaucracy.
Must-sees include: Buland Darwaza, the highest gate in India; the tomb of Salim Chishti; the palace of Maryamuzzamani; and Birbal Bhawan.
*Entry fee Indians Rs 20, foreigners Rs 260 Cameras Video Rs 25 Timings Sunrise to sunset
The gardens of Sikandra
Akbar’s final years were not easy. His trusted friends had passed away and his heir apparent was champing at the bit to take over his empire, which he had extended to Malwa and Gujarat in the west, Orissa and Bengal to the east, south into the Deccan and north into Kashmir and Kabul. After Salim’s failed insurrection and capture, Dutch sources at Akbar’s court record how, while the emperor had honoured and forgiven his son in public, he had slapped and berated him in private.
Akbar passed away at the age of 63 at Agra. But before he died he designed his own tomb at Sikandra, an architectural marvel of tiered pavilions and elegant chhatris. An inscription on the mausoleum reads: "These are the Gardens of Eden: enter them to dwell eternally." Within the complex are also buried Jahangir’s mother Maryamuzzamani and two of Akbar’s daughters. It is a pleasant resting place for the great emperor. Even today black buck graze peacefully on its grounds. There is not a hint of the violence that took place when irate Jats, revolting against Aurangzeb’s oppression of non-Muslims, in a supreme act of irony, plundered the grave and burnt the bones of the greatest champion of their faith.
*Entry fee Indians Rs 15, foreigners Rs 110 Cameras Still free, video Rs 25 Timings Sunrise to sunset
Jahangir — emperor by proxy
Although the building of Sikandra was started during Akbar’s lifetime, it was only completed in his son’s reign. Jahangir’s talents did not lie in architecture, as has already been observed of his efforts at Aram Bagh. His unfortunate intervention at his father’s tomb at Sikandra is also in evidence: The symmetry of the red sandstone gate is disturbed by the large, incongruous marble minarets. A central dome should have completed the mausoleum, instead there are marble pavilions, lending an almost incomplete air to the building.
What little remains of Jahangir’s contributions are minor additions to Agra Fort. But why must every king be an accomplished architect? His talents lay in extending the peace and prosperity of the kingdom he inherited. He was a prodigious collector of and authority on art, a keen naturalist, a designer of his own clothes and a scientist. Besides, he made up for his lack of building skills by marrying Nur Jahan, who designed and executed architectural wonders of her own.
Nur Jahan — power behind the throne
Nur Jahan was almost abandoned as a newborn by her parents, who fled Persia in 1577 to find employment at Akbar’s court. The infant howled and shrieked so much that her parents were forced to return to collect her. She showed the same indomitable will throughout her life. Jahangir spent more hours intoxicated than not, which left the empress plenty of scope to govern in his stead. The emperor, awe-struck, minted coins in her name with the inscription: "Gold has a hundred splendours added to it by receiving the impression of the name of Nur Jahan, the Queen Begum."
Nur Jahan ruled with the help of her family. Like a skilled chess player, she laid her board carefully: Her father, Mirza Ghiyas-ud-Din Beg was bestowed with the title, Itmad-ud-Daula (Pillar of the Government) and held the position of Lord of the Treasury; Asaf Khan, her brother, was made prime minister and further strengthened his position by marrying his daughter Mumtaz Mahal to the heir apparent, Shah Jahan; she made her father’s brother, Mirza Ismail Beg commander-in-chief of the army. However, her decline began in 1621 with the death of her mother and confidante, and accelerated the following year with the death of her father and Shah Jahan’s revolt. Nur Jahan was down, but not out. She channelled her energies into creating a wondrous mausoleum for her parents.
Tomb of Itmad-ud-daula
Nur Jahan first envisioned the tomb of Itmad-ud-Daula to be in silver but, anticipating theft, chose marble instead. It was a radical departure from the architecture of the age, which favoured the more masculine polished red sandstone. Nur Jahan’s creation is entirely feminine and sits like a beautiful ivory jewel case on the eastern bank of the Yamuna.
*Entry fee Indian Rs 15, foreigners Rs 110 Timings Sunrise to sunset
If you lean out far enough and look upriver to your right from the Bagh-i-Nur Afshan, you will see a ruined tower and chhatri, the remains of Nur Jahan ki Sarai. The empress had acquired this property around 1612 as her jagir. Knowing this to be a strategic location, she built the sarai here and was thus entitled to collect duties on goods before they were shipped across the river. Seventeenth century travellers’ accounts show that it was spacious enough to accommodate 500 horses and over 2,000 men with their retinue. Only the brave should venture there today as it has been turned into a garbage dump.
The roots of destruction
The Mughals were a strange lot. To stay in power was like balancing an egg on your nose in a pit of vipers. Jahangir set the precedent of revolt. He was also the first to blind his own rebellious son, Khusrau, in punishment. Shah Jahan, born Khurram, learnt well. He revolted against his father, and when he became emperor, he had all his rivals executed for good measure. Never before had royal blood been spilt on a Mughal emperor’s accession to the throne, and Shah Jahan would indeed reap the grim rewards of this deed in his dotage.
Shah Jahan — builder extraordinaire
Born to the Hindu princess, Jodh Bai, and favourite grandson of Akbar, Shah Jahan was an enigmatic ruler. He never wrote his memoirs and the work of court chroniclers had to pass through his hands before being made public. But from European sources, a picture emerges of a ruler with poise and authority, a devout Muslim whose orthodoxy was only later tempered by his beloved son Dara’s liberal influence.
Doubtless Shah Jahan had a magnificent artistic vision, for apart from his monument to love, he was also the force behind the delicate marble apartments and the Pearl Mosque in the Agra Fort. He founded the magnificent new capital of Shahjahanabad at Delhi and it was in his reign that the legendary Peacock Throne was created. Made of pure gold and encrusted with the finest jewels of the empire, it expectedly didn’t come cheap: Tavernier, the French jeweller, valued it at Rs 107 million. The Taj, too, which took 20,000 men working incessantly for 22 years, cost a pretty packet. Added to this were Shah Jahan’s expensive military campaigns against Kandahar, which cost a prohibitive Rs 120 million. None of these would have mattered if the Mughal administration had not suffered during Shah Jahan’s reign. And though it was true that with the Taj the Mughal sun had reached its zenith, its journey now could only be one of decline.
Tombs of the courtiers
It was a profligate age. Even minor officials had magnificent tombs built for themselves. On the eastern bank of the Yamuna, not far from Itmad-ud-Daula’s tomb stands the beautiful Chini-ka-Rauza, tomb of the emperor’s favourite poet, Shakrulla Shirazi, brother of the master calligrapher of the Taj. It is worth a visit for its façade of polychromatic glazed tiles — a Persian invention — the only one of its kind in India. Just off the Gwalior Road, in the village of Tal Firuz Khan, stands the unusual tomb of the chief eunuch and caretaker of Shah Jahan’s harem, Firuz Khan. His personal service had been so exemplary that the emperor had rewarded him with a large jagir and rank of 3,000 horses. The Tomb of Firuz Khan is built entirely of red sandstone, and has the unique feature of a main gateway with a broad staircase attached to the eastern side of the building, through which one ascends to the terrace on which lies the sepulchre.
Taj Mahal — tears of an emperor
The emperor, they say, was completely devoted to his wife, Mumtaz. In the 19 years that they were married, the exceptionally fecund queen bore him eight sons and six daughters, of which half survived in equal measures. It was in Burhanpur in June 1631, with the long and painful labour of her youngest daughter, that the 38-year-old Mumtaz died. Her body was interred until the winter, when young Prince Shuja brought her body back to Agra in solemn procession. A plot had been acquired on the banks of the Yamuna from Raja Jai Singh and almost instantly the work on the Taj Mahal began.
Tons of white marble was lugged from the quarries of Makrana in Rajasthan, a hundred miles away; red sandstone for the foundation and gates was brought from Fatehpur Sikri. The precious stone inlay work required lapis lazuli from Ceylon, turquoise from Tibet, jasper from Cambay, malachite from Russia, carnelian from Baghdad, chrysolite from Egypt, as well as agate, chalcedony, sardonyx, quartz, jade, amethyst and black marble. Scores of master craftsmen and jewellers flocked to Agra from all over the empire as well as from Constantinople, Samarkand, Kandahar and Baghdad. Twenty-two years later the emperor’s dream materialised.
Or did it? It still shimmers and floats like a mirage. Take a guide. It is interesting to have the fruits of Mughal genius listed out for one: the perfect symmetry of the charbagh, the baoli near the masjid, the naubatkhana, the height and width of the Taj Mahal, the perfection of the calligraphy adorning its gates. But then get rid of him and spend an hour or two dallying in the pleasant lawns. Watch in silence and let its poetry speak to you. As it undoubtedly did even to the wretch Aurangzeb who, after his father’s death had the magnificent marble screen built around the sepulchres.
*Entry fee Indians Rs 20, foreigners Rs 750 Cameras Still cameras free, video Rs 25 Timings Sunrise to sunset, closed on Fridays
Palace of the mystic prince
Poor Aurangzeb has been condemned by posterity for his Islamic fundamentalism, whose reverberations can be felt even today. So many of us have conjectured idly what India’s fate would have been had Shah Jahan’s legitimate successor, his eldest and most beloved son Dara Shikoh, not been betrayed by Jai Singh of Jaipur and Jaswant Singh of Jodhpur, and allowed to ascend the throne. Dara was a pacifist — kind, compassionate and erudite. He translated the Bhagvad Gita into Persian and was a generous patron of the arts. Dara Shikoh’s Palace has survived the ravages of time and Agra’s people.
Just north of the fort, opposite the Hathi Ghat, a road leaves the main road by the river. Immediately to the right follow a small lane, which leads to a gate, which leads to a courtyard overrun by encroachments. In front is the palace, a handsome red sandstone building built on a tall plinth. A small marble plaque proclaims that the British had converted it into the Municipal Hall of Agra in 1882. A larger tin board insists, heritage or not, it is now a higher secondary school. It was here that Shah Jahan often rested on his return journeys before he made the ceremonial entrance into the fort.
Decline of the Mughals, and of Agra
Dara, the ‘Mystic Prince’, was more inclined towards sufis and sadhus. He had scandalised the ulema by his poetry: "With what name should one call Truth? Every name that exists is one of God’s names". His utterances formed the basis of Aurangzeb’s case of apostasy against Dara, the justification for his war against his father and brothers, and the eventual murders of the latter.
The rest is history. Aurangzeb remained in the new capital of Shahjahanabad at Delhi and his father remained his prisoner in Agra Fort. Shah Jahan died in 1666 and, had he remained emperor, would perhaps have built a matching Taj in black marble across the river from his wife’s mausoleum. He was in fact interred in the Taj beside her. His tomb, not accounted for in the original design, is the only asymmetry in this most perfect of buildings. With his death, India’s history moved elsewhere. Agra became the cemetery of an empire.
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