Taj Mahal remains closed, but Agra opens its doors to several other historical gems

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The first time I saw India’s most famous monument, it was nearly 15 years ago on a school trip. When, early this year, I saw it the second time, even if only from a distance, I didn’t know the world would soon go into lockdown.

Taj Mahal remains closed. But as Agra’s doors slowly reopen to travellers, the city beckons you with all its understated glory, offering historical gems beyond the great monument to love.

My last visit was well-timed with a most newsworthy state visit, that by the U.S. President Donald Trump. Several lanes and sites stayed off limits. The city was being hurriedly spruced up like a bride before a shotgun wedding: walls were quickly white-washed, cheery planters placed along road dividers, shiny new bins appeared everywhere and footpaths were scrubbed spotless. But why would anyone complain? The city of love was finally getting some of the attention that the Taj had always monopolised. And in solidarity, I decided to set aside the Taj and explore everything else that Agra had to offer beyond its show-stopper.

A tombstone in the 400-year-old Roman Catholic cemetery

I signed up for a colonial tour led by the very scholarly Mr. Sharma. Our first major stop was a 400-year-old Roman Catholic cemetery, the only one that was used for catholic burials for all of North India at one time. The Agra of today — a mix of ancient Mughal and contemporary U.P. culture — still safeguards this cemetery. And there it stood, this architectural treasure, preserving stories of people long gone: English soldiers, Italian jewellers, Armenian merchants (Mughal harems had Armenian women too), a cultural amalgam often resulting in marriage, reflected also in the union of colonial construction and Persian motifs.

The Red Taj

The cynosure of the cemetery is the Red Taj, the tomb of Dutch traveller John Hessing, who joined the Maratha army. Colonel Hessing died a loyal soldier of the Mughal empire, defending the Agra Fort during an 1803 British attack. The outer mausoleum contains a crypt that holds the grave, kept under lock and key by a vigilant guard who unlocks it for visitors. In a radical reversal of roles, this replica of the Taj was built by Hessing’s grieving widow Anne, to express her love for him. The minarets couldn’t be replicated for the lack of funds, but the red sandstone structure is a close copy of its grand cousin.

The grounds around this main structure are peppered with graves modest and ornate with domes and lattices indicative of the affluence of the families of the deceased. Many of these belong to Armenians who came to India in the 1500s. Among the tombs of Europeans are the graves of Geronimo Veroneo, the Italian jeweller who cut and polished jewels for the Mughals and is rumoured to have designed the Taj, and of adventurer John Mildenhall, one of the first British men to travel to India. Mildenhall’s is the first recorded burial of an Englishman in India. He travelled to India via Persia, and holds the distinction of being the first Englishman to have visited the courts of both Jahangir and Akbar.The grave of Italian Geronimo Veroneo, famous as jeweller to the Mughals, in the Roman Catholic cemetery

The grave of Italian Geronimo Veroneo, famous as jeweller to the Mughals, in the Roman Catholic cemetery

But it is the Samru love story that stands out for me. Begum Samru, the charismatic dancer-turned-ruler, built an octagonal tomb in memory of her beloved ‘Samru Saab’. The fiery lady who enjoyed her hookah, went down in history as the only Catholic ruler to have governed a domain in India. She was married to Walter Reinhardt, a dusky European mercenary who fell in love with her when she was a 14-year-old named Farzana. Nicknamed Le Sombre, or the dark one, Reinhardt eventually came to be called Samru in India. In the 18th century, the duo arranged for guerilla soldiers on hire for war, and Samru was granted the fiefdom of Sardhana near Meerut in appreciation of his services to the Mughals when their kingdom was under siege. The story would have ended when Reinhardt died, except that Farzana was no ordinary woman; she inherited her husband’s territory, which she ruled for five decades as ‘Begum Samru’. Agra, it turned out, had many more women’s voices in its history than I had expected, reflected in another grave I saw at a nondescript graveyard.

Five feet under, in a somewhat neglected Panchkuian Muslim burial ground in central Agra, a rubble-lined walk away from the main road, lies Abdul Karim. A ‘munshi’ or clerk who spent years serving Queen Victoria in England by a twist of fate, he remained loyal to her both as a doting attendant and a rare friend. Their unique friendship was the subject of the 2017 Stephen Frears film Victoria & Abdul, the reason why his very ordinary grave sparks interest. He built statues in her honour that were placed all over town but were moved after Independence to St. John’s library, where they still lie, unattended.Akbar’s Church was demolished by Shah Jahan in 1635 and rebuilt by him again a year later

Akbar’s Church was demolished by Shah Jahan in 1635 and rebuilt by him again a year later   |

Another physical testimony of the Mughal-colonial connection is the rarely visited Akbar’s Church, built under the emperor’s directions in 1598, demolished in 1635 by Shah Jahan and rebuilt by him again a year later. The Gothic St. George’s cathedral is worth a stop for colonial history fans, as is the St John’s College, a photogenic building that looks more like a grand monument than an educational institute.Jama Masjid built for Jahanara, Shah Jahan’s daughter

Jama Masjid built for Jahanara, Shah Jahan’s daughter   |

Sea of spangle

Barely 3 km away is the iconic Agra Fort and bang opposite its north face is a railway stop by the same name, to which few have ventured without the purpose of boarding a train. The Agra Fort station happens to house the oldest post office of Agra, which packs thousands of letters everyday into neat little bags and dispatches them religiously.Agra’s oldest post office

Agra’s oldest post office   |

Climb atop the overhead bridge for an aerial view of the post office platform, and the Agra Fort crown looms over the wall on the other side. Come evening, and the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer; this is the Jama Masjid built for Jahanara, Shah Jahan’s daughter. Skirting it is the entry into another world — old Agra that is known for its eateries, shops, wholesale spice markets, the famous shoemaker stores, and petha giants.Petha-making in old Agra

Petha-making in old Agra   |

The wedding market is a sea of spangle. I was taken back to the Bollywood-esque re-enactment of the Taj love story that cultural museum Kalakriti hosts every night near the Taj, except during the hottest off-season summer months. All that shimmer must have gone into the stage production of the grand show where I couldn’t help but notice the largely foreign audience’s incredulous expressions — was Mumtaz really going to bed in that heavily sequinned dress? We will never know.

Out of the wedding market maze and past the frenzy of suitcase sales, I stop beneath a balcony. Carved into its iron railing are the twin, sombre faces of King George, like a ghost at the balcony, peering down upon a world he doesn’t belong to.

In a quest to dig deeper into this seemingly commonplace destination, I decided to explore Agra on a bicycle. The early morning wake-up call for the ride was self-inflicted, but I did not regret it as I pedalled down the near-empty lanes of Agra. Close to the Taj Mahal I was told that we cannot go further as the cycling route around the monument was closed due to the impending state visit. I end up going down another route, away from the city where parking lots and buildings dissolve into lush corn fields, where women milk cows as smoke rises from their huts, and barefoot children beam at you. A kingfisher is perched by a pond, and drongos are lined up neatly on electricity lines in a refreshingly quiet Agra. In the distance, a white marble monument gleams under the rising sun. It’s a totally unexpected glimpse of the Taj, but not as unexpected as all my discoveries of the city that lay beyond it.