The splendour of AGRA – India’s capital under the Mughals – remains undiminished, from the massive fort to the magnificent Taj Mahal. Along with Delhi, 204km northwest, and Jaipur in Rajasthan, Agra is the third apex of the “Golden Triangle”, India’s most popular tourist itinerary. It fully merits that status; the Taj effortlessly transcends all the frippery and commercialism that surrounds it, and continues to have a fresh and immediate impact on all who see it. That said, Agra city itself can be an intense experience, even for seasoned India hands. The traffic pollution is appalling (some mornings you can barely see the sun through the fog of fumes), and as a tourist you’ll have to contend with crowds at the major monuments, high admission fees and some of Asia’s most persistent touts, commission merchants and rickshaw-wallahs. Don’t, however, let this put you off. Although it’s possible to see Agra on a day-trip from Delhi, the Taj alone deserves so much more – a fleeting visit would miss the subtleties of its many moods, as the light changes from sunrise to sunset – while the city’s other sights and Fatehpur Sikri can easily fill several days.

Agra is huge and disorienting. There’s no real “centre”, but rather a series of self-contained bazaar districts embedded within the formless urban sprawl, which stretches over an area of well over twenty square kilometres. Most of the city’s major Mughal monuments are lined up along the banks of the Yamuna River, which bounds the city’s eastern edge, including the Taj Mahal. Clustered around the Taj, the tangled little streets of Taj Ganj are home to most of the city’s cheap accommodation and backpacker cafés. A couple of kilometres to the west, on the far side of the leafy Cantonment area, lies Sadar Bazaar, linked to Taj Ganj by Fatehabad Road, where you’ll find many of the city’s smarter places to stay, as well as numerous restaurants and crafts emporia. Northwest of Taj Ganj lies Agra Fort and, beyond, the third of the city’s main commercial districts, Kinari Bazaar, centred on the massive Jama Masjid.

The monuments in Agra date from the later phase of Mughal rule and the reigns of Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan – exemplifying the ever-increasing extravagance which, by Shah Jahan’s time, had already begun to strain the imperial coffers and sow the seeds of political and military decline.

Brief History

Little is known of the pre-Muslim history of Agra, but a 1080 AD account describes a robust fort here, with a flourishing city strategically placed at the crossroads between the north and the centre of India. Agra remained a minor administrative centre until 1504, when the Delhi Sultan, Sikandar Lodi, moved his capital here to keep a check on the warring factions of his empire. The ruins of his city can still be seen on the Yamuna River’s east bank. After defeating the last Lodi sultan, Ibrahim Lodi, at Panipat in 1526, Babur, the founder of the Mughal empire, sent ahead his son Humayun to capture Agra. In gratitude for their benevolent treatment at his hands, the family of the Raja of Gwalior rewarded the Mughal with jewellery and precious stones – among them the legendary Koh-i-noor Diamond, now among Britain’s crown jewels.

Agra saw its heyday under Humayun’s son, Akbar the Great (1556–1605), when Agra Fort was built, and it remained the empire’s capital for over a century. Even when Shah Jahan, Jahangir’s son and successor, built a new city in Delhi – Shahjahanabad, now known as Old Delhi – his heart remained in Agra. He pulled down many of the earlier red-sandstone structures in the fort, replacing them with his trademark – exquisite marble buildings. The empire flourished under his successor Aurangzeb (1658–1707), although his intolerance towards non-Muslims stirred up a hornets’ nest. Agra was occupied successively by the Jats, the Marathas, and eventually the British.

After the 1857 uprising, the city lost the headquarters of the government of the Northwestern Provinces and the High Court to Allahabad and went into a period of decline. Its Mughal treasures have ensured its survival, and today the city is once again prospering, as an industrial and commercial centre as well as a tourist destination.

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