Agra Beyond The Taj
When we say Agra, what really comes to your mind? We know, what you are thinking, and we certainly don't blame you for that! After all, the grandeur of the Taj Mahal has not only titillated people from India but from around the world! Taj Mahal, accredited as one of Seven Wonders of the World, is one monument no-one wants to miss out on seeing. We, too, wanted to have a tryst with this monument of love, as soon as we stepped into this city.
We did an early morning mission to soak up the magical beauty of the Taj in the first ray of light, and oh, boy! It was splendiferous! Although, we have seen the Taj a number of times before but watching the Makrana marble glisten and change its color to golden-yellow during the golden hour was breathtaking and so worth keeping a weather eye on!
Trust me, I'm getting goosebumps as I'm writing this.
We are sure, some of you all must be wondering, what could be more to Agra than just the Taj, right? We, too, pondered this question, if I'm being honest!
But, we truly want to thank the Tourism Guild of Agra for having us over and helping us witness a very different side of Agra- a side that was raw and honest-to-goodness; a side that was mighty; a side that was humbling; a side that was vibrant; a side that was nurturing; a side that brought a smile on our faces; a side that left us speechless; a side that will always have a piece of our heart!
Thanks to the wonderful team for organizing such carefully curated and orchestrated tours; we ventured into the city as nescients but definitely left far richer in experiences and knowledge!
So, without any further ado, let's talk about the attractions that are often ignored by the quintessential tourist-
“Explore Agra’s Colonial Heritage”
Agra started witnessing the decline of the Mughal empire once the seat of power was shifted from Agra to Delhi & the city, over a period of time, fell to Jats & Marathas. British took control of the city in 1803 when Lord Lake captured Agra Fort for the British. In 1835, when the Presidency of Agra was established by the British, the city became the seat of government and until 1829, the civil administration of the city was conducted by a Collector under the orders of the commissioners of the ceded and conquered provinces. The Presidency of Agra was abolished till 1636 and the city was taken into the North-
Western Provinces. The first Lieutenant-Governor installed in Agra was Charles Metcalfe. During the Indian rebellion of 1857, British rule across India was threatened, news of the rebellion had reached Agra on 11th May and on 30th May two companies of native infantry, the 44th and 67th regiments rebelled and marched to Delhi. The next morning native Indian troops in Agra were forced to disarm. By 3rd July, the British were forced to withdraw into the fort. Two days later, a small British force at Sucheta village, near Agra, was defeated and forced to withdraw, which led to a mob sacking the city. However, the rebels moved onto Delhi which allowed the British to restore order by 8th July. Delhi fell to the British in September, the following month rebels who had fled from Delhi, along with rebels from Central India, marched to Agra but were defeated. Agra remained the seat of government for the province until 1858 when the administration was transferred to Allahabad. In 1903, the North-Western Provinces were renamed the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh (UnitedProvinces for short) and under independent Indian rule, this province became Uttar Pradesh. With Calcutta as the capital during the British Raj, Agra lost its significance, which it once had during the time of powerful Mughal rulers. However, a few Churches and missionaries did come up when the English finally strengthened their hold. Akbar’s Church was built in St. Peters' Church complex, whereas St. Georges Church and Havelock Memorial Church were built in the Cantonment area and should certainly be visited to experience the colonial heritage of by-gone day. The famous Roman Catholic Cemetery, the story of Queen Victoria’s Munshi Abdul & of Begum Samru have survived time as an impression of the interesting heritage of Agra.
The important aspects of the above-mentioned sites are given below and can be covered in a half-day tour of Agra which would not only be a photographers’ delight but would also highlight the built heritage from colonial times in Agra.
Akbar’s Church in St. Peter Cathedral:
Akbar's Church was built in 1598 as the first Catholic Church of Agra which served as Cathedral of Agra till 1848. The Church was built by the Jesuit Fathers under Akbar's order. Mughal Emperors Akbar & Jahangir came to this church to pray. Emperor Shah Jahan had ordered to rebuild the Church in 1636 and had released Jesuit Fathers following a war against Portuguese. On 8th September 1636, the first Holy Mass was celebrated in this reconstructed Church. It underwent great changes during the next two centuries. In 1769, Walter Reinhardt helped to rebuild the Church & this is where Begum Johana Samru, the Begum of Sardhana, was baptized.
Victoria’s Munshi Abdul Karim’s Tomb in Agra:
Abdul Karim, known as the Munshi, was Queen Victoria’s Indian attendant for 1887 – 1901. He was born in 1863 in Lalitpur near Jhansi. His father worked as a clerk in Agra’s Central Jail, where he was also employed as a clerk in the jail. The year of Victoria's Golden Jubilee, Karim was one of two Indians selected to become servants to Queen Victoria, who came to like him and gave him the title of "Munshi". Victoria appointed him to be her Indian Secretary, showered him with honors, and obtained a land grant for him in India. The close platonic relationship between Karim and the Queen, led to friction within the Royal Household, the other members of which felt themselves to be superior to him. The Queen insisted on taking Karim with her on her travels, which caused arguments. Following Victoria's death in 1901, her successor, Edward VII, returned Karim to India and ordered the confiscation and destruction of the Munshi's correspondence with Victoria. Karim subsequently lived quietly near Agra, on the estate that Victoria had arranged for him, until his death at the age of 46 in the year 1909 & was buried in Royal Graveyard of Agra. He ended up donating land for building Queen Victoria Girls College in Agra & even helped to arrange finance for erecting a statue of Queen Victoria in the Victoria Garden near the Taj Mahal in Agra.
Roman Catholic Cemetery:
Agra’s Roman Catholic Cemetery is the oldest Christian burial ground in North India & enjoyed land grant from Emperor Jahangir & houses tombs of earliest Arminian, Portuguese travelers, ambassadors, astronomers, Jesuits & artists who traveled to Agra during reigns of Akbar. The cemetery is like a time capsule, where, we see how cosmopolitan Agra once was, with names like Geneva, Isfahan, Tiflis (Georgia), Venice, and Constantinople, popping up on tombstones. Among the dead are several members of the Bourbon royal family of France. Of the headstones, apart from the ones inscribed in Persian, there is a large number that is in Armenian. Armenian merchants settled in India long before the Europeans got here, and Akbar is said to have encountered an Armenian by the name of Jacob while in Kashmir and invited him to settle in Agra. A large number of headstones are also inscribed in Portuguese and Latin, which makes it challenging to discern anything more than names and dates. Some of the famous tombs area of Tomb of John Hessings, Tomb of Walter Reinhardt, Tomb of Geronimo Veroneo, Tomb of Khoja Mortinepus, & the Tomb of John Mildenhall.
St. Georges Cathedral:
Located in the cantonment area, the St. George's Cathedral is a sterling monument established in 1828. Formerly a church was built primarily as a place of worship for Anglicans in the colonial era, which still continues to draw the Christian population from the nearby areas along with tourists. This Protestant church was built by Colonel John Theophilus Boileau, an army engineer who came to India in 1822 while he was still in his teens. Col. Boileau was responsible for the sterling architectural elements in the building that have been well-preserved over the years. Though simple, the building draws attention with its yellow ochre stucco and white dressings. The interior has a central nave and side aisles with six ionic columns carrying a slightly vaulted roof. The chancel at the east end shows elements of gothic style & altar is adorned with marble inlay work. The cathedral falls within the diocese of Agra and is one of the oldest in the city. This Neo-Gothic style church has not only survived time as a typical cantonment church but also contains several memorials & commemorations to the non-commissioned officers and the Battalion of the soldiers of East Surrey Regiment, who died in battle while serving in India. The Cathedral can be visited every day by seeking permission from the Church Keeper of Agra Dioses. However, on Sundays, a large crowd of local Christians gathers here to participate in Sunday Mass.
Agra’s Head Post Office:
GPO Agra is a heritage Post Office which was built in 1913 & is situated on The Mall, in Cantonment of Agra. This Post Office is one of the oldest Post Offices of India. It is told that it was District Headquarter of Import & Export before starting of Postal operations, which was later on recognized as Post Office. This picturesque British Bungalow style building has two porches on both sides a topped with a 45 feet high dome in the middle of the
building. The building is not only listed as a heritage building, but also runs the manual sorting of letters, Heritage Post Boxes, and a picturesque Philately Gallery despite running fully computerized operations as per modern-day requirements. The building is painted in white and red color that are the official colors of India Post which draws the attention of anyone passing through the area.
St. John’s College, Agra since 1850:
St. John's College, Agra, was established in 1850 by the Church Missionary Society of England through the efforts of the Agra C.M.S. Association which came into being in 1840. The first Principal of the College, Rev. Thomas Valpy French, a distinguished fellow of University College, Oxford, was a man of great vision and missionary zeal. At its inception, the College formulated its own curriculum and conducted its own examination. From 1862 to 1888 the College remained affiliated to Calcutta University and later up to 1927 to Allahabad University. In 1927 with the formation of Agra University, the then Principal of the College Dr. A.W. Davies became its first Vice-Chancellor and the College was affiliated to Agra University. St. Johns College has one of the most beautiful buildings in North India, built-in red sandstone in the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture. The foundation stone of the Centenary Wing was laid by former President Dr. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan in 1958 and was opened by Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, in 1959, with the words, "I have come to pay tribute to this temple of learning."
Taj Ganj Walk – The Complete Story of the Taj Mahal
The Taj Ganj Walk is a 2.5 km heritage trail that traces the development of erstwhile “Mumtazabad” which took shape by the South Gate of the Taj Mahal in the 17th century to house the creators of the Taj Mahal. Even today, direct descendants of those who built the Taj Mahal reside in Taj Ganj and proudly engage themselves in their inherited craft, generations after generation, retaining their Central Asian dependence. The Taj Ganj area even today is characterized by the built heritage of the Mughals as well as the intangible cultural heritage of crafts, cuisine, fairs, and festivals that are practiced even today. The walking trail passes through the dargah of Saint Syed Jalal Bukhari Rehmatullah, who protected the foundations of the Taj Mahal from the evil spirits, Sandali Mosque, wherein the spirits converted in Cats were locked-in by the saint, Katras of the Taj Ganj, Elephant Gates, and Havelis built in the 17th century during Shah Jahan's rule, etc. While at the walk, you have the privilege to view the Taj from different angles and to take pictures which would be a thrilling experience. After finishing this activity, you will find a place on the banks of Yamuna at Dushera Ghat to relax & enjoy some Qawwali, the traditional Mughal melody sung in the honor & praise of the almighty.
Agra City Heritage Walk
The “Agra City Heritage Walk” is a Guided Walk of one & a half-hour, which is designed in consultation with prominent Historians & Academicians of Agra. The best way to enjoy the real Agra is to embark on to the “Agra City Heritage Walk'', which takes you on a live extension of life uninterrupted in Agra. The Walk begins from the gigantic Jama Maszid, only from here you can mingle in the crowds & begin to experience downtown Agra, walk & visit the Silver Lingam of Mankameshwar Mahadev Temple, proceeding into narrow lanes selling articles used for adornment of images of Gods & Goddesses, looking at Ornamental & Decorated Facades in the Spice Market of Rawat Para, where the street is redolent of spices – turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom, and several more, the walk enters into the famous Khoya Gali of Chitti Khana. The walk proceeds into the Namak Ki Mandi, where artisans beat Gold & Silver to make Foils of Gold & Silver for medicinal use in Ayurveda & come in front of the Akbari Mosque to connect to the 16th Century stone-paved Street of Kinari Bazaar. You may notice women haggle over the price of bangles and sarees. The faithful offer prayers in little shrines at roadside corners. The tea sellers (Chai-wallah) create the magic of fresh Indian Masala Tea. Old arts and crafts still flourish in the bazaars. One wonders, how heritage has become the soul of Agra as one walks through these lively streets.
Agra by Cycle
Agra by Cycle offers you the perfect opportunity to experience Agra’s rich heritage from close and the local life in its purest form. The cycle tour starts from your hotel with our expert trip leader, who is a great cyclist and an excellent communicator in English possessing a deep insight into Indian history & culture, will brief you about the route and plan for the day and will guide you about the safety tips before embarking you upon your cycling adventure. Your expedition would commence from the surroundings of the Taj Mahal to the Dashera Ghat of River Yamuna and further leading you in the rural suburbs where you would experience the daily life of rural inhabitants indulging themselves in utilitarian activities, their pet animals, how women fetch water from a water well for their basic needs, how kids play different outdoor games, and how people run their daily life in & around Agra.
Experience bustling streets and busy markets, & enjoy Indian tea and cookies at a local tea stall, also grab an opportunity to visit a primary village school interacting with children, local vegetable market, exquisite historical sites, & some remnants of our lost heritage, etc.
River Front’s Mughal Garden Tour of Agra
One of the most important historic & unique features of the city of Agra is the gardens that line the banks of the Yamuna River. River Front Garden tour begins from “Ram Bagh” – The Babur’s Garden to Chinni ka Rauza, Itmad-ud-Daullah’s Tomb & finally to Mehtab Bagh – The Moon Lit Garden. The Garden Tour provides a unique opportunity to learn & experience that the Mughals were not only the finest water engineers of their times but also had comprehended that how important water conservation was going to be for the next generation & future civilizations.
How to Reach Agra from Delhi
Thanks to the well-knit and coordinated transport system, traveling to Agra from Delhi has never been easier! Here are the four easy ways to travel from Delhi to Agra-
Before 2012, people deferred traveling to Agra, given how the congested roads took a toll on everyone's happiness, but the inauguration of Yamuna Expressway turned out to be a boon. It has not only cut down the distance between Delhi and Agra from 210 km to 165 km but also reduced the traveling time to 90 minutes, thereby bringing the city of love closer to the national capital.
Agra is very well connected to cities like Delhi, Gwalior, Jaipur, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, etc. There are many trains running between Delhi and Agra, taking about 3 hours. There are 5 railway stations in Agra- Agra Cantt Station, Agra Fort Railway Station, Agra City, Raja ki Mandi, and Idgah Railway Station. The Taj Mahal and Agra Fort are very close to Agra Cantt Railway Station. You can take an auto-rickshaw or a pre-paid taxi to get to these attractions!
A convenient and inexpensive way of getting from Delhi to Agra is by bus. Agra has to major interstate bus terminals called Idgah Bus Stand (located in the city center and is 8 km from the Taj Mahal) and ISBT (located 12 km from the Taj Mahal).
The first bus starts at 7:30 am and the last bus is at 9:30 pm, taking approximately 3.5 hours to reach Agra.
The flight from Delhi to Agra is less than an hour long. Agra's Kheria Airport is 13 km away from Agra city. Taking a taxi to the city takes about 15 minutes depending on traffic.
Why Agra is the Ultimate Staycation Spot-
1) Bountiful History and Culture- a paradise for history buffs.
2) It is a Great Value Destination- you can travel as economically or luxuriously as you desire.
3) The Food- from the finger-licking street food to the scrumptious petha (dessert), Agra will surely entice your taste buds.
4) Shopping- from the fascinating handicrafts made from white marble to the shoes stacked high in mounds in markets like Sadar Bazaar or Kinara Bazaar to the vibrant spice market touching not only your hands but also your hearts, Agra is a fairyland for all you compulsive shoppers.
5) A Photographer's Paradise- Agra is sure to tickle every photographer's fantasy, for it makes for that perfect photo op.
With so much to do and see, Agra should totally be on your travel bucket-list!
In the end, we would love to sum this article up by saying, Agra can be beyond or with the Taj, but thanks to the Tourism Guild of Agra, this beautiful city will always have a piece of our heart!