Interior of Akbar's Tomb

Agra: Beyond the Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal is undoubtedly the reason that draws millions of visitors to Agra. Yet it’s not the only monument built in the former imperial capital of the Mughal empire. Early rulers, from Akbar, Jahangir to Shah Jahan, preferred the city over Delhi. They furnished it with an imposing fort and a sprinkle of magnificent tombs and mausoleums.

Unlike what many people assume, the Taj Mahal is not a stand-alone attraction. Its perfect design didn’t come out of the blue. Instead, it was the cumulation of several architectural achievements running throughout the Mughal period; many of which were located in and around Agra. Despite today’s dusty and chaotic appearance, the city was the crown jewel of early emperors. Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty, acquired it from Delhi Sultan after the first Battle of Panipat in 1526. He built the oldest Mughal garden in India which was named Aram Bagh, or “Garden of Relaxation”.

The golden age of Agra actually began with Akbar – Babur’s grandson and the third Mughal emperor. He created a city on the right bank of the Yamuna River and connected it to various parts of the vast kingdom. As the result, Agra flourished into a center of commerce, with huge amounts of trade happening through its bazaars. It also became a political center, as well as a hub of learning, arts, and religion. The city continued to see some building activities under the reign of Akbar’s son, Jahangir, even though this emperor loved Lahore and Kashmir more than Agra.

Yet the person that immortalized Agra in the world’s history is Shah Jahan who had already shown himself to be a great builder. He gave the city its most treasured monument, the Taj Mahal – a lavish expression of sorrow at his wife’s death. Aside from that, Shah Jahan reconstructed the Agra Fort by adding one new section made of marble. After Aurangzeb had completely relocated the capital to Delhi, the city and its prosperity started declining rapidly. Nevertheless, Agra’s cultural importance remained unaffected after all those years, reflected through the majestic Agra Fort and other impressive tombs.

Agra was the crown jewel of early Mughal emperors.

1. Agra Fort

Facing the Yamuna River, Agra Fort is among the finest strongholds in India. Its history dates back to as early as the Delhi Sultanate period, but the fort only got its present layout under the reign of Akbar. The emperor rebuilt a dilapidated fortification with red sandstone and raised its towering ramparts. Later, his son Jahangir and grandson Shah Jahan added many new structures to the fort, contributing to its current state. For over a century, Agra Fort had served as the seat of the Mughal court, in addition to being an imperial residence and a military base. Even today, much of the fort is under the control of the military and thus inaccessible to the public. Together with the Taj, it has been designated as a UNESCO Heritage Site since 1983.

Agra Fort has been considered an amalgamation of architectural styles. Some parts were reminiscent of Persian and Timurid architecture, while others clearly took inspiration from Jain temples and Hindu palaces. The fort is a city within a city, consisting of several palaces, audience halls, and two mosques. The largest among them is the Jahangiri Mahal constructed by Akbar for his Rajput wives as private residences. The color of red sandstone dominates here, with a few exceptions being built under Shah Jahan. Unlike his predecessors, Shah Jahan tended to have structures made from marble. For example, the Khas Mahal – the emperor’s private residence – was made entirely of white marble. Its walls are inlaid with thousands of flowers; once depicted by precious stones.

Agra Fort – a massive structure of red sandstone
Jahangiri Mahal – the largest palace in Agra Fort
Khas Mahal – Shah Jahan’s private residence

2. Tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah

Before the romantic splendor of the Taj Mahal came to life, there was a delicate-looking monument that incorporates white marble, inlay works, and intricate lattice screens into its design. That’s the tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah – a vizier and also the father-in-law of the fourth Mughal emperor, Jahangir. The tomb was commissioned by his daughter Nur Jahan and completed in 1628, after seven years of building. It has a rectangular form, with elaborate octagonal towers at four corners. A classic Mughal garden embraces the tomb, featuring waterways, pathways, and lines of trees.

The moment I saw Itimad-ud-Daulah, I immediately thought of an exquisite jewelry box. Its ivory-white marble walls are beautified with semi-precious stone ornaments that take the shapes of flower vases, wine bottles, and arabesques. Meanwhile, the interior is wonderfully adorned with various flowers, bouquets, and geometric patterns. Unfortunately, most of the gems were gone, leaving only the colorful paintings. In order to bring light into the tomb, jaali works were added on all sides of the tomb. In comparison to other Mughal imperial mausoleums, Itimad-ud-Daulah is markedly smaller. Yet the lack of size is compensated by the high level of artistry. In fact, many decorative elements of the Taj are said to have been inspired by this tomb.

Tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah
Excellent jaali work at Itimad-ud-Daulah

3. Akbar’s Tomb

Another monument that’s worth seeing is Akbar’s Tomb in Sikandra, just outside the city. Though dedicated to one of India’s greatest rulers, only a handful of tourists pay a visit to this place. Even my local guide told me that he himself hadn’t been here for over three years. He explained that the Taj Mahal outshone everything in Agra, so most people come to see it and then leave, without realizing there are other mausoleums in the city. That’s such a shame because Akbar’s Tomb is special in its own way.

Akbar’s Tomb is special in its own way.

Following Timurid traditions, Emperor Akbar started to build his final resting place while he was alive. Yet he had died even before the tomb was finished. Thus, the task was passed over to his heir Jahangir and he completed the construction by 1613. The mausoleum resembles a pyramid which is totally done with white marble and red sandstone. It has four stories, topped with a finely crafted pavilion containing the illusory tomb. All chambers, except for the basement, are richly embellished with sophisticated geometrical and floral patterns. The ninety-nine names of Allah can also be found inside this tomb.

Akbar’s Tomb is set amidst a vast garden landscape and enclosed by a massive red sandstone wall; each with a large gateway. The southern gate is, however, the largest and is characterized by a spectacular archway. Its arched recess is framed with inlaid flowers and arabesques that are made from white marble. The gate also features four towering minarets surmounted by chattris (domed pavilions) which are very much similar to those of the Taj.

The tomb of Akbar the Great
The southern gate of Akbar’s Tomb
Sophisticated decoration of Akbar’s Tomb

Tips for visiting Agra

  • As in the Taj Mahal, tickets to all the above-mentioned attractions are purchasable online at the Archaeological Survey of India’s website. The same discount applies, and the ticket is valid for one whole day. You don’t have to worry about the morning or afternoon slot.
  • At Itimad-ud-Daulah, you have to remove your footwear when entering the mausoleum. Hence, it is advisable to prepare a shoe cover or a bag to store your footwear. You can also buy the shoe cover at the site, but the price will be higher than outside.
  • At Akbar’s Tomb, you can enter the basement where the real grave is, passing through a narrow walkway. The room is plain, with little to no decoration. There is a copper lantern hovering above the sarcophagus. On the other hand, the false tomb on the top floor is off-limits to the public.
  • Photos are prohibited inside Akbar’s tomb, except for the central cenotaph room.


11 thoughts on “Agra: Beyond the Taj Mahal”

  1. Monkey's Tale – Two Canadians travelling the word. Join us as we climb, trek, dive, snorkel, sight-see, and eat our way from Singapore to Sri Lanka.
    Monkey's Tale says:

    You’re right the architecture around Agra is so beautiful. It would be a great destination even with out having the Taj. We didn’t visit Itimud-ud-DUlah’d tomb. It looks atleats as mpressive as the other buildings. Maggie

  2. Bama – Jakarta, Indonesia – Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.
    Bama says:

    Your architectural photos are always so beautiful and delightful to look at! Those historical sites in Agra are already impressive. But the way you captured their beauty really gave these places a sense of grandeur.

  3. Image Earth Travel – Global – Global travel writer/photographer capturing the globe with words and lens. Travelled to over 60 countries across 6 continents in 30-plus years of adventure!
    Image Earth Travel says:

    Great write-up and lovely photos Len!
    I visited in 1985 when I was solo backpacking around the world for 12 months. The month in India (mostly Rajasthan) was amazing!

    1. Thanks for the kind words! I guess Taj Mahal was not so crowded back then 🙂 Where have you been in Rajasthan? Jaipur and Ranthambore are my first two destinations. Both are amazing.

      1. Image Earth Travel – Global – Global travel writer/photographer capturing the globe with words and lens. Travelled to over 60 countries across 6 continents in 30-plus years of adventure!
        Image Earth Travel says:

        It was crowded back then also, but probably not as much as today.
        Jaipur, Udaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, and think Ajmer but I’d have to read through my old journals. They’re back in Australia and I’m travelling in Bosnia right now. One day I’ll get around to digitising those journals.
        I finished digitizing the 4 months in Indonesia from the 1998 trip (check my site), but I’m too busy writing about my current trips. 😉

      2. Haha it takes time. How did you digitize your old photos? Did you scan or photograph them? I got trouble with the reflection when trying to photograph the old photos. Cannot avoid them 100%. Btw, have a nice time in Bosnia! 🙂

      3. Image Earth Travel – Global – Global travel writer/photographer capturing the globe with words and lens. Travelled to over 60 countries across 6 continents in 30-plus years of adventure!
        Image Earth Travel says:

        Before I left on the last 6-year long travel, I scanned over 4,000 film/slide film/photos film photos, but with a new scanner, I didn’t do a great job.
        Many of the the old photos/negs were ruined as they were in storage for a couple of decadaes.
        I’ve never tried photographing photos before. I’d suggest scanning if you can.
        Thank you! 🙂

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