The purple Taj Mahal and different hidden treasures of Agra

A Taj Mahal of purple sandstone, with slender turrets and a dome, rises above the bushes. It dawns on me that although it resembles the unique monument of affection, this one has no minarets. I’m in Agra, the so-called Metropolis of Love and the Taj Mahal—however the Taj Mahal that I’m is a tomb constructed by a loving spouse for her lifeless husband, not the opposite means round. 

Historical past echoes from each nook of this well-known metropolis. In 1803, the British invaded Delhi, after which Agra, commencing 150 years of colonial rule within the subcontinent. Most individuals solely affiliate the town with the Taj Mahal and the Mughal rulers, however in addition to the British, folks from different nationalities additionally made it their residence down the ages, from Italian jewelers, Dutch ship-owners to artisans from Central Asia. 

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I’m seeing a unique aspect of Agra, the capital of the Mughals for over 100 years. My information, Yogesh Sharma, is taking us on a colonial tour via the town. We begin on the Roman Catholic Cemetery in Civil Strains, which is the oldest Christian burial floor in North India, with many of the graves courting again to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This land was granted by Emperor Jehangir via a firman (edict) in 1609. Probably the most magnificent construction right here is “the Pink Taj Mahal”, commissioned by Ann Hessing, in reminiscence of her husband John Hessing, who was a Dutch soldier serving within the Maratha military in Agra.

John, who was given command of the Agra Fort and the garrison in 1799, was killed when the fort was attacked in 1802. “Ann was not rich however spent virtually all her financial savings on this tomb with turrets and niches; she ran out of cash whereas constructing the minarets,” explains Yogesh. Contained in the tomb is a headstone with inscriptions in Persian. 

This cemetery, studded with graves and memorials, is a journey again in time to when Agra was residence to overseas merchants and mercenaries, who got here right here to make their fortunes. One of many headstones belongs to Geronimo Veroneo, an Italian jeweler who died within the metropolis in 1640, and there are tales of him having ‘designed the Taj Mahal.’

I stroll via the graveyard, inscriptions. A number of the oldest graves (and the only ones) belong to Armenians with inscriptions in Armenian, Latin and Persian. The Armenian merchants have been invited by Akbar to Agra (who even had an Armenian spouse). One other purple pyramid-shaped dome has a plaque that reads ‘Youngsters of Basic Perron’. He was a French sailor who reached Agra, made a reputation for himself, and joined the military defending the territories of the Scindia rulers. I think about him returning to his nation, a few years later, leaving the graves of his kids in an alien land.

The Roman Catholic cemetery in Agra.
(Kalpana Sunder)

Not removed from right here is the octagonal tomb of Walter Reinhardt, a mercenary and “turncoat”. He fell in love with a 14-year-old nautch lady referred to as Farzana Zeb-un-Nissa, who later grew to become often known as Begum Samru. Walter died in Agra in 1778 and is buried on this cemetery. “Begum Samru grew to become the primary lady Catholic ruler (and possibly the one one) in India reigning over Sardhana close to Meerut,” factors out Yogesh. “When she died, her private wealth was equal to virtually $40 billion in the present day.”

One other gravestone belongs to John Mildenhall, a British adventurer, who left England in 1599, visited the courts of each Akbar and Jahangir, died in Ajmer in 1614, and was dropped at Agra for burial. His tomb is important as it’s the “first recorded burial of an Englishman in India”.

What I like in regards to the cemetery is that although many of the tombs look Mughal, it’s really a Christian burial website. Within the early days of European contact with India, it was typical for them to undertake many Indian customs, from garments to meals and structure. Lots of the graves have a cross on prime; a few of the buildings have a lotus and a cross—to me, it showcases one of the best of Indian syncretism. Yogesh explains how Akbar, although illiterate, met Jesuit clergymen who got here to Agra in 1580 and was at all times interested by studying about different religions. He even had the Jesuits train his kids.

Our subsequent cease on the colonial path is the Church of Pieta, additionally referred to as Akbar’s Church, courting again to 1599, for which the emperor had granted land to Jesuit clergymen. This was the Cathedral of Agra until 1848. It was destroyed by Shah Jahan in 1635 when he fell out with the Portuguese. Later he rebuilt the church when relations improved. It’s mentioned that Akbar and Jahangir used to go to the Christmas crib on the church yearly.

The Wazirpura space close to Akbar’s Church is filled with Christian establishments like St Peter’s School and St Patrick’s Junior School, housed in good-looking buildings. We drive previous St John’s School that dates again to 1850, constructed within the Indo Sarcenic fashion with domes and jharonka home windows in purple sandstone. As soon as among the best faculties within the nation, Jawaharlal Nehru referred to as it “a temple of studying”.

St John’s School, constructed within the Indo-Saracenic fashion.
(Kalpana Sunder)

Agra has one of many best-preserved cantonment areas within the nation, sprawling over an space of over thousand hectares, with large roads and colonial bungalows with porches. We drive there to go to the stately St George’s Cathedral, established in 1828, a Protestant Church, constructed by a British military engineer. With yellow ochre stucco and a vaulted roof, this neo-Gothic church holds the graves of many British officers. One other colonial magnificence is Agra’s Head Publish Workplace, constructed within the art-deco fashion in 1913, painted purple and white, which nonetheless stands tall. Wealthy in postal historical past, it’s the place from which India’s first telegram was despatched.

Probably the most transferring tales on this path lies hidden within the unkempt wilderness of the Panchkuin Muslim burial floor. We stroll previous bushes and heaps of damaged gravestones to a pistachio-green tomb, festooned with prayer flags, standing on a raised space. It’s the grave of Munshi Abdul Karim, who died in 1909 and was as soon as a clerk in Agra Jail. 

The tomb of Abdul Karim, Queen Victoria’s favorite attendant.
(Kalpana Sunder)

For these acquainted with the film Victoria and Abdul, he’s the trusted and most favorite attendant of Queen Victoria in it. Within the 12 months of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, he was certainly one of two Indians to serve Her Majesty. She made him her secretary and showered favours on him. 

 Their relationship was frowned upon by the British and even her circle of relatives, however she bought him a grant of land in Agra, the place he retired after her dying in 1901. Abdul Karim put in as many as 9 statues of the Queen all around the metropolis, which have been pulled down after Independence. As we end our colonial path right here on this nondescript graveyard, virtually swallowed up by the city sprawl of Agra in the present day, I muse on the numerous tales that this enigmatic metropolis hides.

Kalpana Sunder is a Chennai-based freelance journalist.

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