Monday, March 17, 2014

Agra 2: Agra Fort

Red sandstone carvings in the Jehangiri Mahal of Agra Fort. 

Because of its proximity to the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort is the second most visited historical site in Agra. The fort is one of the most extensive, and also most intact, collections of Mughal architecture in India. The Delhi Red Fort is similarly spectacular, and may have at one point been just as impressive as the fortified city in Agra, but unfortunately time has not been kind to the fortress in Delhi, which, due to the British clearance of large parts of the compound after their crushing of the Sepoy uprising, is little more than a hollow shell of itself. Nearby Fatehpur Sikri, the short lived capital city of Akbar, also contains a large concentration of the greatest buildings of the Mughal period, but they were all built within a relatively short period of time and all reflect the Indo-Islamic architectural tastes of Akbar's reign. Agra Fort on the other hand contains a mixture of buildings in both the Akbari style and in the later, more austere, style of Shah Jahan. Thus it is perhaps the only place in the world where one can see the very different architectural styles of the Mughal empire's two most prominent builders literally side by side.

The site of Agra Fort is known to have been fortified at least as early as the 11th century, while the city itself seems to go back much further. The last rulers of Delhi before the Mughals, the Lodis, shifted their capital to Agra at the start of the 16th century. After Babur, the first Mughal emperor, defeated the Lodi's at the battle Panipat, he occupied the fort and made Agra his capital. However, over the course of the next hundred years the Mughal court would shift several times back and forth from Agra, until Shah Jahan finally decided to move it permanently to Delhi.

The fort that exists today is largely the work of Shah Jahan and Akbar, the original, pre-Mughal fort having been replaced early in Akbar's reign. Akbar's son Jehangir may have made some additions to his father's work, but it was Shah Jahan, Akbar's grandson, who made the most lasting impression on the fort, demolishing many of the Akbari buildings, and anything that might have been built by Jehangir, and building many of the fort's most remarkable structures. 

I visited the fort first thing in the morning, having woken up well before dawn and walked there from Taj Ganj, next to the Taj Mahal. I was the first tourist in the fort, and unlike the Taj, Agra Fort isn't a madhouse at 6 A.M. I didn't start seeing giant crowds until around 8:30, by which time I was leaving. 

As a place to visit, the fort is a little frustrating because a number of it's most impressive sites are off limits. All but around a quarter of the enclosure is occupied by the army, and a large part of that quarter is not open to visitors. The historical main entrance to the fort, which, even from a distance, is clearly as impressive as the Lahori Gate of the Delhi Red Fort, is closed to the public, as is the white marble Moti Masjid, or Pearl Mosque, which, dating from Shah Jahan's reign, is said to be for mosques what the Taj Mahal is to tombs. 

The outer walls of the fort, and their reflection in the moat, on the way in. Guides like to tell stories about the moat having been once full of bloodthirsty crocodiles. 

The Amar Sing Gate, historically a secondary gate to the fort, though it's now the main way in for visitors. It was once known as Akbar Darwaza, or Akbar's gate, and served as his private entrance. 

Close on the well preserved remains of tile work on the exterior of the Amar Sing Gate. Though it's the smaller of the fort's two gates, it's still an exceptional piece of architecture.

The Diwan-i-am. Built by Shah Jahan, this is where the emperor would address the public. A similar, though rather less grand, structure exists in the Delhi Red Fort.

Arches in aches, plus a security guard, in the Diwan-i-am. 

The Diwan-i-am was built out of red sandstone, though, in-keeping with Shah Jahan's love of white marble, the red rock was covered in white plaster to make it look, at least from a distance, as though the building was made solely of marble. 

The Takht-i-Murassa, or throne room, in the Diwan-i-am, from which Shah Jahan would address the public.

The closest thing one can get to a view of the Moti Masjid, from the Diwan-i-am. From what little one can see of it, the Moti Masjid is clearly the most spectacular mosque in Agra, though it's apparently been off-limits since at least 2008. 

The rather out of place looking grave of John Colvin, in front of the Diwan-i-am. John Colvin was the British lieutenant governor of the Northwest Provinces during the Sepoy Uprising. He found himself trapped in Agra, and with the rest of the Europeans and Christians in the city was forced to withdraw to the fort, which had since been taken over by the British army. He died there of cholera before the end of the uprising.

The western wall of the fort, in the first real sunlight of the day. The Yamuna used to flow just outside of the outer wall, which you can see to the right of the picture, though the river has since shifted further to the west. 

Jahangir's black marble throne, with the Taj and the Shah, or Musamman, Burj in the background. That crack is said to have been made by a Jat ruler who briefly occupied the fort in the 18th century.

View towards the Khas Mahal, shortly before the sun came out. The Khas Mahal, built in the 1630s, was Shah Jahan's sleeping quarters in the fort. Like most of Shah Jahan's other signature buildings, it's largely made out of marble. The two smaller building to either side are said to have been for Shah Jahan's favorite daughters Jahanara and Roshanara. 

Khas Mahal, after the sun came out. This was just after seven o'clock, while I still had the place to myself. A few minutes later and this area was swarming with other tourists.

Looking towards a window facing east. Notice the translucent niches just above the window. 

Looking in the opposite direction. 

Arch netting in the Khas Mahal

A view towards the southwestern corner of the fort, towards a bastion of the Akbari Mahal, the earliest and least visited part of the complex. 

Looking into the Jehangiri Mahal. The Jehangiri Mahal, which is directly south of the area of the fort that contains Shah Jahan's pavilions, was rather confusingly built not by Jehangir, but by his father Akbar. It dates from around 70 years before the Khas Mahal, though it is stylistically so different that it seems like it should be from another period entirely. The structures here were constructed before the introduction of marble into Mughal buildings, while the emphasis on arches as structural elements is less than in more typical Islamic architecture. Instead, they employ the principals of post and lintel construction, which were well established in India even before the first Islamic invasions. The result is that a number of the rooms in the Jehangiri Mahal would not look out of place in Rajput fortresses. This fusion of architectural forms was unique to Akbar's reign. While Shah Jahan's buildings were innovative in their own way, they present a very different, and more thoroughly Islamic, aesthetic from those of his grandfather. 

Riverside courtyard of the Jehangiri Mahal. 

A richly carved bracket in a courtyard inside of the Jehangiri Mahal. Unfortunately, when I visited many of the rooms inside the Jehangiri Mahal were under restoration, hence the pipes. Still, this bracket gives one a good idea of the very different sensibilities at work inside the Jehangiri Mahal as opposed to in the later buildings. Here the focus is on very fine carvings, rather than inlay work, while many of the carvings themselves would not look out of place in a Hindu temple. The use of such brackets is of course unnecessary if one is using arched construction.  While the white marble buildings of Shah Jahan's time get more attention, I find the intricate carvings and Indo-Islamic building styles of Akbar's time to be rather more interesting. Certainly, Akbar's buildings are much more alien, and, because of their eclectic range of influences, unlike anything else out there.

The outside facade of the Jehangiri Mahal. Most people apparently start their walk through the fort here, though I went in the opposite direction. 

Carvings on the outside of the Jehangiri Mahal.

More carvings on the outside of the Jehangiri Mahal. Note that the decorations on each panel, above and below, are different. 

The Shah, or Muthamman, Burj. Originally built by Shah Jahan for his beloved Mumtaz Mahal, it became his prison at the end of his life after his son Aurangzeb took the throne. Shah Jahan would see essentially this view every morning for the duration of his imprisonment. While he was confined within the fort, he was allowed a  great deal of luxury, though he was prevented from exercising any sort of political power. After eight years, he died here, within sight of his wife's mausoleum. Unfortunately, again, visitors are prevented from going inside the Shah Burj, and have to be content with seeing it from a distance. 

Agra Fort unquestionably is one of the greatest collections of Mughal buildings in North India, and those that can be seen are truly sublime. It is a little frustrating, however, that so many of the grandest parts of the fort are off limits. It is easy to blame the A.S.I., or whatever body administers the fort, for this. However, this would not be entirely fair. It's likely that at least the Shah Burj is off limits because of the disgusting habit of many visitors (going back as far as pre-British days) to scratch their names into and otherwise damage the monuments. It's well documented that early on during the period when British soldiers were stationed inside the fort, they damaged it quite badly, while modern visitors to other, less well protected monuments, seem to like noting better than declaring their love by scratching permanent marks into them. Frankly, given the massive array of threats that these truly wonderful buildings have faced over the centuries, it's a wonder anything of genuine historical value exists in modern times at all......

....Though that doesn't make it any less frustrating. The truth is that most of the fort's most significant buildings, such as it's main gate, it's primary mosque, and it's most romantic palace, are off limits. That, however, doesn't mean that the rs. 250 I expended seeing the place was ill-spent. Far from it. If the fort only contained the structures that are now open to the public it would still be worth traveling across the world to see. Hopefully one day not too far in the future the Shah Burj, Moti Masjid, and the main gate, will be open for visitors.

"Thank you for not scratching on the Monument." 

[Lucy Peck's "Agra, The Architectural Heritage," was invaluable in putting together this post.]

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