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May 02, 2019

Just Passing Through Agra

Photographs by Eeshaan Kashyap

A two-day trip to the erstwhile Mughal capital captivates Chef Eeshaan Kashyap, who visits a host of historical monuments with the occasional pit-stop for local delicacies

My earliest memories of Agra are thanks to my mother, who shared many stories of her college days spent at St. John’s College. She smiled every time she spoke of it: “It is the best-known college in Agra, with its striking part Gothic-part Rajput design…and, it’s more than a century-and-a-half old, having been founded in 1850,” she would say, proudly. Completely taken with her stories, I resolved to go to the city myself, one day.

On a crisp morning in January, I drive from Delhi to Agra with a couple of my friends, taking the newly built Yamuna Expressway, where it’s not uncommon to encounter stray cows and scooters heading in the wrong direction. As an aesthete and a trained chef, I am looking forward to setting eyes upon some spectacular structures and indulging in a grand gourmet feast — both of which people from the world over come here to enjoy. Agra did not disappoint!

We get there just in time to sample the quintessential local breakfast, called bedai (usually served between 9 a.m. and noon), which consists of a deep-fried Indian puffy bread with potato curry. Rich in carbs and energy-boosting, it was a totally-worth-the-fat kind of start to the trip. The best place to try the delicacy is Deviram Sweets (Pratap Pura). Another good place that serves the breakfast item is Sri Dauji Mishthan Bhandar (located near cinema hall Bhagwan Talkies), but it’s a little further off. Through with the bedai, we opt for petha, a sweet North-Indian delicacy that one must try when in Agra. For one of the best pethas in the city, visit the Panchhi Petha Store. The outlet closest to the Taj Mahal is located at Noori Gate. It is the most crowded of the lot, but here you will get to witness the art of petha-making, live.

With full bellies, we get busy with some serious sightseeing. We decide to start with the jewel-toned tomb of Itimad-Ud-Daulah — also called the Baby Taj — considered to be the inspiration for the renowned monument everyone comes to Agra to see. It was built by Nur Jahan for her father Mirza Ghiyas Beg, who was given the title Itimad-ud-Daulah or ‘the pillar of the state’ by Jahangir. The unbelievably detailed designs of cypress trees, wine bottles, cut fruits and vases are encrusted with a variety of semi-precious stones including carnelian, jasper, lapis lazuli, onyx and topaz. Light penetrates the interiors through delicate jali screens made of intricately-carved white marble, illuminating the space with a warm, familiar glow, making it a truly special place.

Next on our itinerary is Chini Ka Rauza. Also known as China Tomb, this is the mausoleum of Allama Afzal Khan Mullah, who served as a Persian poet in Mughal emperor Jahangir’s court and later became the vazir during Shah Jahan’s rule. I am enthralled by the glazed tile work on the structure’s exterior, called kashi or chini in Mughal-era buildings. Both Itimad-ud-Daulah and Chini Ka Rauza are good options to start with before making your way to the bigger monuments, particularly because they tend to be less crowded.

We then proceed to the Red Taj Mahal, situated inside the Roman Catholic Cemetery. One of the earliest indications of European presence in Agra, the Red Taj Mahal or John William Hessing’s tomb was built by his wife, Anne, in his memory, and is a miniature replica of the Taj Mahal, made of red sandstone. Also present in the cemetery is the grave of Jerome Veronio, who, according to some records, contributed to the design of the Taj. As I complete my tour with the help of the guard at the graveyard, who is friendly but expects a tip, I can’t help but reflect on the fact that India was a magnet for people of so many different nationalities.

A 30-minute drive from Agra is Akbar’s Tomb at Sikandra. The emperor’s embracing of diverse faiths is reflected in the structure’s unique blend of Hindu, Christian, Islamic, Buddhist and Jain styles of architecture. One of the key aspects of the construction is that it highlights the evolving style of Mughal architecture, and every little detail makes it visually enticing from the moment you enter through the main gates. It is an imposing structure with three-storey minarets on its four sides, typical of Islamic architecture. Upon entering the tomb, we walk down a corridor before moving into a simple unadorned domed room, with a beautiful filigree lamp hanging from the centre.

The guard, who sits beside the grave, demonstrates the echo of the dome by singing a verse from the Quran, making our visit all the more poignant. Post this tiring sightseeing session, we are aching for high tea at The Oberoi Amarvilas. Sipping on the floral-flavoured Earl Grey tea, we gaze out the window and marvel at the glorious Taj Mahal that we are to visit soon.

The following day, we finally arrive at the city’s pièce de résistance, the Taj Mahal from the East Gate, which is comparatively less crowded than the others. This Wonder of the World is open to the public from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. through the week. If you’re not up to walking, electric buses ferry visitors from the parking lot to the entrance gate. Be prepared to elbow your way through the many tour guides — official and unofficial — who will invariably accost you and offer their services. The Taj Mahal was built as a memorial for Shah Jahan’s favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to her 14th child. Construction on the mausoleum and its surrounding buildings and garden started in 1631, and was finally completed in 1648. The structure’s most spectacular feature is the marble dome that surmounts the tomb, often called an onion or guava dome because of its shape. Outside the walls are several additional mausoleums, including those of Shah Jahan’s other wives, and a larger tomb for Mumtaz’s favourite servant. A walk around the gardens of the monument is enchanting, and the museum on the Taj, called the Naubat Khana, is also worth a visit.

Exhausted, we head to our hotel — the Trident — for a nice meal and lots of sleep so that we are well rested for the next day’s activities. After a delicious breakfast, we set out for the red beauty of the city, the Agra Fort. Made with red sandstone, the massive structure was built by Emperor Akbar in the 16th century on the banks of the Yamuna. Later, Shah Jahan used marble to beautify the monument further. The first attraction upon entry is the Moti Masjid (Pearl Mosque). To the right of this is an open arena, the diwaan-e-aam, where the emperors would listen to the pleas of petitioners. A walk up the staircase leads to the Nagina Masjid (Gem Mosque) which was built in the 17th century, and the ladies’ bazaar. From this corridor, you can see the Taj Mahal in the distance. The final attraction at this grand fort is the Jahangiri Mahal (Jahangir Palace), the emperor’s quarters. Opposite the Agra Fort lies the Jama Masjid, also known as Friday Mosque, which is one of the largest in the country.

On the recommendation of our guide, we visit the Mehtab Bagh, situated on the opposite side of the Taj Mahal. This garden is adjacent to the land where the rumoured black-stone Taj replica was supposed to be built, and is considered to be an ideal spot to get a picture of the Taj in all its glory.

Soon after, we drive by the headquarters of the Agra post office. The art deco building is located in the city’s cantonment area and is bathed in an immaculate white, with deep-red trimmings, a nod, no doubt, to the official colour palette of India Post.

Next, it’s time for shopping, so we head to Sadar Bazaar and Mughal Bazaar for hides, fabrics, ethnic clothes and bangles. A visit to Agra would be incomplete without taking home wares and mementoes crafted from Agra marble. And, for local leather footwear, head to Hing Ki Mandi.

The city is also known for its famous chaat (street food), which you can enjoy at any time of the day when you are taking a break between monument-hopping. Giving the street food a miss, we opt instead for the Indian speciality restaurant, Peshawri, at the ITC Mughal. Here, you can partake of the authentic flavours of Mughlai cuisine, even as you watch the meat being barbequed and Indian breads being baked in the restaurant’s display kitchen. Indulge in dal bukhara, paneer tikka, Sikandari raan and naan bukhara — heaven!

Our last stop on this two-day whirlwind tour is the famed city of Fatehpur Sikri, founded by Akbar in 1569 and which served as the capital of the Mughals for 10 years until the lack of water led to the city being abandoned. The first thing that we saw here was the 54-metre-tall Buland Darwaza — the highest gateway in Asia — which commemorates Akbar’s conquest of Gujarat. Next is Salim Chishti’s dargah, which many women visit to pray for a son — as Akbar’s wife did several centuries ago. Then there’s the Panch Mahal, a five-storey structure with carved columns. And finally, the architecture of the Diwan-e-Khas or hall of private audience for the emperor’s ministers and generals is sure to captivate with its intricate carvings.

The visit to Fatehpur Sikri marks the perfect end to our trip, and leaves us feeling both nostalgic and inspired. Since it is located on the outskirts of Agra and in the opposite direction of Delhi, we circumvent the city to reach the Yamuna Expressway and make our way home. This intense trip leaves an impression that is sure to last a long time, also compelling us to dream of another version of reality. While the Taj Mahal is an ode to the love of Shah Jahan’s life, Fatehpur Sikri is an example of how one should live in harmony with fellow men.

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