The timeless charm of Agra extends beyond its pièce de résistance, the Taj Mahal. Pockets of colonial candour can be found at every turn, if only one were to stop and notice. By Ananya Bahl
“What if I told you I could show you another Taj Mahal in Agra?” asks my guide, Yogesh, enthusiastically. I’m struck by the magnanimity of this relatively tiny North Indian city—just how many historic structures can it hold within its limited premises? He continues, “Not just that, I’ll take you to a few lesser-known spots in the city that are very significant in Agra’s colonial past”. The fact that Agra can hold its visitors in rapt attention—and not just with the Taj Mahal—makes me sit up and take notice. I buckle up and get ready to explore the historic city’s oft-overlooked neighbourhoods. And I am in for several surprises.
Our first stop is the Roman Catholic Cemetery, which is home to the graves of some prominent Dutch and French businessmen who died in India in the 1700s and 1800s. Even though the tombs are of Catholics, they exhibit Islamic motifs and Persian epitaphs inscribed mostly on red sandstone. It is here that we see the other Taj Mahal that Yogesh had mentioned earlier in the day. The Red Taj Mahal, made of red sandstone sourced from Fatehpur Sikri, was commissioned by Ann Hessing. She was the widow of John William Hessing, a Dutch mercenary who once served the Maratha chieftain Mahadji Scindia (1730-1794). He was also the commandant of the Agra Fort. Needless to say, his wife lacked the means of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, but she spent around INR 1 lakh and commissioned this smaller, red version of the Taj Mahal as an ode to her late husband. Another differentiating factor is that the Red Taj Mahal doesn’t have freestanding minars like the original.
Persian inscriptions and jalis adorn this gorgeous structure, and we climb a few stairs to see the tomb located under the dome. Opposite the Red Taj Mahal is the octagonal Ellis Family Tomb. Its most notable feature is a glistening metallic cross on the top of an Islamic dome—a remarkable fusion of Christian and Mughal architectural motifs. As I walk around the Roman Catholic Cemetery, a silence envelops me; it’s devoid of the eeriness one might expect in final resting places. I’m also intrigued by Marty’s Chapel and the grave of John Mildenhall, the first recorded Englishman to be buried in India.
As we drive around the city, Yogesh points out various historic sites that now house ordinary businesses. Among them is the land that was once owned by a certain Abdul Karim. The 2017 movie Victoria & Abdul, starring Judi Dench and Ali Fazal as the titular characters, recounted the camaraderie of Queen Victoria and Agra-born Abdul Karim, who was one of her servants. She fondly called him ‘Munshi’, and he travelled with her frequently. She gave him land grants and arranged for an estate for him to live in on his return to India. However, his grave, in the Royal Graveyard of Agra, is a far cry from his stately position under her rule. It’s a long walk into the cemetery, and we manoeuvre through tall, unruly grass to reach a green tomb. It is disheartening to see his grave in abject ruin, sheathed in a century of dust. A caretaker mutedly shows us the epitaph, and I feel a lump in my throat. I learn that Karim also donated land for the construction of the Queen Victoria Girls College in Agra.
On our drive back into the city, we stop for a quick glimpse of the sprawling St John’s College, Agra. Established in 1850, it displays the same Indo-Saracenic style of architecture as the Roman Catholic Cemetery. Set up by the Church Missionary Society of England in conjunction with the Agra C.M.S. Association, it is considered to be one of the most beautiful buildings in North India. Gorgeous lawns complement the splendour of the complex. Yogesh and I also swing by Agra’s Head Post Office. Painted in white and red, the building was built in 1913 in the style of a delightful British bungalow on The Mall Road in the Cantonment of Agra. Today, it enjoys the status of being a heritage post office, and boasts a 13.7-metre-tall central dome and a philatelic gallery showcasing a wide collection of postage stamps.
The best way to end our tour of Agra’s colonial wonders is by saying a prayer. We decide to do so by visiting two prominent churches. The first stop is the intriguingly named Akbar’s Church. First built in 1598, it was Agra’s first Catholic church and also served as the city’s main cathedral until 1848. It was constructed under the orders of Mughal emperor Akbar, who is said to have had great regard for the Catholic faith and its priests. It is believed that both, Akbar and his son Jahangir, visited it regularly. In 1632, Jahangir’s son, Shah Jahan, declared war on the Portuguese, after which the church was pulled down. Later, in 1636, Shah Jahan helped rebuild the church. Over the course of two centuries, the structure underwent major changes but it remains standing to this day, within the St Peter’s Cathedral complex, as a testament to the Mughal rulers’ acceptance of different faiths.
We end our exploration at St George’s Cathedral. Established in 1828, it is located within the Cantonment of Agra. A spectacular spire that shoots into the sky, ochre stucco, and white dressing draw architecture lovers to this singular structure. As I gawk at the wondrous cathedral in front of me, it suddenly hits me: I’ve gone an entire day in Agra without once thinking of the Taj Mahal.
The international airport closest to Agra is in New Delhi. Connected with the Taj Express Highway, Agra is about 231 kilometres away from the capital. Agra Cantonment is the major railhead in the city and is well connected to most Indian cities by daily train services.
Hotel Clarks Shiraz offers recently-renovated rooms, unparalleled hospitality, and delectable cuisine (starts from INR 4,500/USD61). Courtyard Agra offers easy access to Agra’s legendary attractions (starts from INR 6,449/USD88 per night).
October to March
A colonial tour is recommended for history and architecture fiends.
Visit the Jama Masjid, built by Shah Jahan in 1648 as a tribute to his daughter Jahanara Begum; drop by the Mankameshwar Mahadev Temple to see a Shiv linga covered in silver; savour the aroma of the spice market in Rawatpara; haggle for knick-knacks at Kinari Bazaar; and walk through Namak Mandi, where artisans make gold and silver foil. For a tryst with rescued sloth bears, head to the Wildlife SOS Bear Sanctuary. The organisation allows visitors to volunteer as well.