Saturday, April 26, 2014

Agra 6: The Old City

A late 19th or early 20th century courtyard, somewhere deep in Agra's fascinating old city.

As odd as it may sound, there is a vast and deeply historical part of Agra, India's most heavily touristed city, which is almost entirely ignored by outsiders. This is The Old City, the bustling, incredibly intense, impenetrable seeming region of Agra north of the Red Fort and west of the Yamuna. Here, beginning in the 16th and 17th centuries, were the great mansions of the Mughal elite and the business communities which profited from the Mughal court's ridiculous expenditures (which apparently largely drove the economy of the entire empire.) 

As the Mughals went into decline, so to did the city, and most of the great mansions slowly fell into ruin and were abandoned. Still, the city remained a major trading center, and went though something of an economic  resurgence in the 19th century under colonial rule. 

In the 21st century, Agra's Old City is a huge and confusing anachronism. It's a place where the 21st century is desperately trying to establish itself and is so far failing miserably. While the grand Mughal mansions have (mostly) long since crumbled into oblivion, smaller buildings from latter centuries have sprung up among the ruins, frequently oriented around the plan of the older buildings. And so, while there may not be any extant physical remnants of the Mughal mansions, their imprints, in the form of the layouts of many of the neighborhoods within the city, remain. 

The Old City is now incredibly congested. Thousands of cars and trucks and auto-rickshaws and motorbikes sharing limited space on streets laid down before the combustion engine was even invented leads to terrible traffic. The city is not easy to explore, and yet, of all the places in Agra, it is perhaps the most rewarding to spend time in. Around every corner there's something interesting, and something very few visitors ever clap eyes on. Yet, unlike the Taj, or Agra Fort, or Sikandra, the Old City is not a museum: It's a place where communities in Agra have lived and worked since before the Mughal period, giving the area an unbroken connection with the past.

As such, I highly recommended visiting. Even more so when one considers that many of the buildings in the photographs below might not exist in a few years time. Also, at least in my experience, other than plenty of staring (that's if you're a conspicuous white foreigner!), I encountered almost no typical Agra type tourist hassles (as in, pushy guides, touts, hawkers, etc. etc.)   There seems to be very little in the way of conservation work being done in the Old City, which is refreshing in a way (nothing destroys a monument quicker than a shoddy restoration job), but it also shows that nobody really seems to care that much about the area in terms of its historical value.

Much of my information comes, again, from Lucy Peck's comprehensive Agra: The Architectural Heritage, though even the details provided there are limited. I visited twice, on two longish walks, though obviously the city still contains plenty of sights that I did not see.

The Agra Jama Masjid, the Old City's most prominent building. Some sources say it was commissioned by Shah Jahan and dedicated to his daughter Jahanara, while others claim it was Jahanara herself who built it. The mosque was once directly linked to the Delhi Gate of Agra Fort via a large market area, though that was obliterated by the British when they ran a rail line through in the 19th century. The British also destroyed the mosque's front gate during the Sepoy Uprising, creating an awkward arrangement where the courtyard of the mosque opens almost directly onto the street. You'll notice that the domes above the mosque seem to be receding behind the building. They were built without drums, and hence don't stand out as much from the rest of the structure as do the domes on most other Mughal buildings. I haven't been able to figure out what happened to the missing minaret above the prayer hall.  

The primary mihrab of the mosque, along with people sitting out the heat of the day. I was there at around 3 P.M., after afternoon prayers, and the whole place was fairly quiet. Local Muslims using the prayer halls in mosques to hang out in the afternoon is a common sight in India.

Perhaps the most striking architectural feature of the mosque are the long lines of chhatris lining either side of the courtyard, seen here. The people at the left of the photo are part of a small madrasa that's run inside of the mosque. 

This is a typical crazy alley in the bazaars north of the Jama Masjid. They seem to be selling everything here from toys to food to jewelry.

A gigantic number of cheap toy guns. There was in a  small alley which sold absolutely nothing but these "Baby Toy Pistols." 

What I think is a temple gateway on Peepal Mandi road, probably from the 19th century. In front is a bike repair shop, a fruit seller, and a man selling funny hats on a stick.

A funny hat seller.

That's what the funny hats blow on a little tube and the tassels fly out. They also make an undignified noise. I had to follow this guy around for a little while to catch him at it. I think the person staring at the camera to the left thought I was strange. In the background is the Jama Masjid. 

Traditional doorway and balcony on a street called Rawat Pada. Note the wood carved figure on the lower right side of the door.

An unusual, probably late 19th century balcony in Rawat Pada, with music playing figures carved into pillars. 

Street selling religious paraphernalia. Rawat Pada.

A traditional balcony, and peeking monkey, above shops. 

Traditional 19th century housing being swallowed up by 21st century commercialism. 

Dilapidated 19th century housing above a cooking ware shop. 

An  interesting Art-Deco building, and monkey, in the middle of rather a shady alley. Just as it did in the west, Art Deco made a fairly strong impression in India during the 20s and 30s, and in many older parts of Indian cities, the last truly interesting buildings come from that period. 

A typical, crumbling, back alley, along with eccentric electrical arrangements. Judging by the slab of red sandstone visible in the side of the building to the left, and some of the other structures in the immediate vicinity, parts of these buildings probably go back quite some time. 

This building, partially obscured by electrical wires, appears to be from rather earlier than most of the surviving historical structures in the city. Stylistically, it looks like it could very well date from the 18th or 17th centuries. 

Small balcony above the street. I was told, admittedly by several drunk fellows, that this was a "thousands years old" temple...It may be a temple, but it's probably not a thousand years old.

An unexpected art galley under the railway tracks.

A very large, interesting gateway deep in the Old City, along with plenty of motorbike traffic. 

Looking south along Kinari Bazaar Road, one of the the main drags of the old city. The red sandstone building to the left is the Akbari Masjid, which is old enough to have needed a major restoration job in the nineteenth century.

Vat Jewelers "Finest Showroom of Imitation Jewelry." A truly bizarre, stylistically mutant, facade at an intersection just north of the Akbari Masjid, probably from the early 20th century. 

Another bizarre early 20th century facade on Kinari Bazaar road, with a mixture of indigenous and Art Deco elements.

Perhaps the most striking structure on Kinari Bazaar road, if memory serves, opposite the Vat Jewelers building. The lower balcony is clearly significantly older than the upper, which may be late 19th or early 20th century. 

Looking straight up at the lower balcony.

Big wedding-light-flower-cart-thing....I have no idea what these are called but I happened across a garage full of them....along with two guys having an argument....

A 19th century gateway, which was obviously once the entrance to a large enclosure, on Kashmiri Bazaar Road.  

Looking back out through the same gateway onto the electrical chaos outside. 

An Old City gun shop.

A small, silver-painted 19th century Vishnu Temple. 

A minaret of the Motamid Khan Masjid, on Kashmiri Bazaar Road, one of the few genuine Mughal buildings in the city, dating from the 17th century. Note the Chini Khana decorations on the lower part of the minaret. 

Another fragment of a genuine Mughal building called the Kala Mahal, a very large, Jehangir period haveli, built for Raja Gaj Singh of Jodhpur. The haveli has largely disappeared, the only surviving remnants being two small turrets, which themselves seem to be well on their way to oblivion. This one is fast disappearing under advertisements for an Akshay Kumar film from 2004 called "Aan: Men at work," which Wikipedia states is "about the life of a police officer fighting crime constantly." An odd fate for the last vestiges of a 17th century Mughal mansion. From what I've seen, in various Old Cities in India, the turrets, towers, or minarets, at the corners of historical buildings are frequently the last things to get obliterated. 

A rather better preserved Mughal corner turret, this one from a garden which has since been filled in with development. This area, where the old city butts up against the Yamuna, was apparently once lined with gardens, all of which have over the centuries disappeared.  

A tower of the Mubarak Manzil, an Aurangzeb period building in the Belanganj area of the Old City, of which, again, very little of the original building survives but the corner towers (for example, those air conditioning units to the right of the tower were not part of the original Mughal conception!). The building was the headquarters of the Colonial Customs House for a while. It has a fairly incredible gateway on the south side, though at the time I visited this was unfortunately partially hidden by another, modern, metallic gateway. 

A large, interesting haveli. This is in the northeast part of the old city, in an area called Belanganj, which was where the most successful merchants in colonial Agra had their houses. 

Closer on one of the corners of the facade of the Belanganj haveli. 

Another large haveli gateway, with a guy carrying a big bag through it.

Haveli gateway detail.

Haveli gateway. 

An interesting, probably late 19th century house.

A haveli gateway partially obscured by potato sellers. In the old city, no effort is made towards making the interesting old buildings visible, and often just getting a photo of the damn things means risking life and limb in crazy traffic. 

An ornate wooden balcony.  The top panels of the left and right windows have carvings in the shape of Gujarati style struts, as seen in Akbari period architecture.

Mata Ka Jagran, and mother goddess. I bumped into a large procession with numerous eclectic floats on my way back out of the Old City the second time I visited. Mata Ka Jagran, which is what it says at the top of the sign, is a form of all night worship...though here it seemed to manifest itself as a large party and parade...


The domes of the Jama Masjid over the city.

The Jama Masjid at dusk, from the stairs that lead up to the old railway station, between the mosque and Agra Fort. 

Jama Masjid evening silhouette. 

While most places one visits in Agra are very controlled environments, the Old City is just the opposite. Going there is a genuine adventure, world's apart from a dawn visit to the well manicured gardens of the Taj, but one well worth having.

I knew the Old City was old, but I didn't realize it was that old.

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