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A view of the Taj Mahal from the Agra Fort | Coastweek

Coastweek --  A view of the Taj Mahal from the Agra Fort. The river used to flow right up to the Agra Fort when it was constructed. PHOTO - AJUM ASODIA

Four renowned Indian emperors have lived in mighty Agra Fort

 ARTICLE TWO  -- OF A THREE PART INDIAN TRAVELLOGUE WITH ANJUM ASODIA

Coastweek -- We failed to see the Sheesh Mahal which was under renovation. This room is made up of so many mirrors that a single candle would reflect in the mirrors and light up the entire room.

Four emperors have lived in this fort which also houses the Takht-i-Jahangir (throne of Jahangir).

This throne, made of black onyx measuring 10 feet 7 inches long, 9 feet 10 inches broad and 6 inches thick was constructed by Jahangir (Akbar’s first son Salim and heir to his throne) in Allahabad.

Wanting to become emperor before his father’s death, he made this throne which ordained him as king and emperor, in defiance of the living Akbar.

Agra Fort was also the last abode and incarceration for Shah Jahan who had been overthrown by his son Aurangzeb who had declared his father incompetent to rule.

Shah Jahan’s first daughter Jahanara, voluntarily stayed at the Fort looking after her father for eight years until his death.

It was from the Muasamman Burj, a tower with a marble balcony, from which Shah Jahan gazed out wistfully to the Taj Mahal, until his last breath.

Among his many wives, he loved the Persian noble woman Arjumand Banu Begum with whom he had 14 children, the most and the two were inseparable.

Her beauty and intelligence enamoured the emperor so much that he re-named her Mumtaz Mahal (the chosen one of the palace).

When she died at the age of 40 giving birth to her last child Gauhara Begum, Shah Jahan was devastated.

He decided to construct a monument in her memory that was unsurpassable by any and would be the final and befitting resting place for his beloved.

In 1653, twenty two long years later, the Taj Mahal (crown of palaces) designed by an architect from Iran, Ustad Ahmed Lahauri, was complete – this time span denoted by 22 small minarets (eleven on either side) on top of the entrance gate.

Ordained an Unesco Heritage Site in 1983, the Taj Mahal is also one of the seven wonders of the world.

Built entirely with the finest marble brought in from Makrana in Rajasthan, it combines elements of Mughal, Islamic, Persian, Ottoman Turkish and Indian architectural styles.

Every bit of this building, that cost 32 million rupees at that time and had 20,000 craftsmen working on it, is intricately carved and the design is a perfect symmetry with perfect proportions, an obsession of Shah Jahan.

The marble octagonal structure stands on a square plinth, with four minarets, 40 metres tall, at each corner of the plinth.

The minarets were constructed slightly outside of the plinth so that, in the event of collapse, (a typical occurrence with many tall constructions of the period) the material from the towers would tend to fall away from the tomb.

On top of the main building is an onion (or amrud - guava)-shaped dome whose height at 35 metres is exactly the same as the length of it’s base.

Passages from the holy Koran have been used as decoration throughout the tomb.

Abd-ul Haq was the calligrapher who laid out the verses in such a way that the letters look like they are exactly the same height as you look at them going up the long walls, but they are not.

Inside the building, you will see a replica of the tombs of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan side by side.

The actual tombs are below ground level but have been closed to public viewing due to graffiti by people who visit the mausoleum.

Throughout the interior you will see inlay work in precious stones on the marble.

Light penetrates the best pieces of marble even if it is two feet thick, giving the interiors a surreal look when the bright sun shines through.

Both tombs are encircled by an octagon-shaped marble screen that has been very finely decorated.

At the centre screen, just behind the tombs you will see a vertical line on the centre of that panel.

Look through and you will see the magic of symmetry that was used in this construction of the entire Taj.

There is a perfectly straight visual line that runs from this line, through the centre of Mumtaz’s tomb, through the fountains in the garden outside, the marble tank in the centre, all the way to the entrance gate - a good 500 metres from where you are standing.

Four square gardens front the Taj, and a raised marble water tank at the centre of the garden, half way between the tomb and gateway has a pool on a north-south axis reflects the image of the mausoleum.

In Mughal times, paradise was described as a garden of abundance with four rivers flowing from a central spring or mountain, separating the garden into north, west, south and east, thus the design

Other mausoleums have been built around the Taj and there is a mosque where locals still come to pray, keeping the Taj Mahal closed for public viewing on Fridays.

In 1857, the Taj Mahal was defaced by British soldiers and government officials, who chiselled out precious stones (diamonds, rubies, lapis lazuli) from its walls and the tombs, while the pure silver doors to the mausoleum were also stolen.

British viceroy Lord Curzon embarked on a restoration programme in the 19th century, not just for the Taj but many other historical monuments within India.

To limit pollution ruining the marble, the government of India has declared a fairly large area around the monument where strict emissions standards are in place.

Attracting about three million visitors a year, it can get crowded at peak times, making a morning visit on a weekday your best bet.

We made the mistake of going on Sunday evening when even the locals come out in the hundreds.

Though foreign tourists and locals pay a separate entry fee and queue in separate lines, there is just one entrance door and when there are many people there is a lot of pushing and shoving.

Once inside, you are herded round the tombs and screens by guards who keep blowing whistles to keep you moving, very much like traffic policemen.

This constant whistling is so annoying as you want to enjoy the peace and tranquillity of this beautiful symbol of love that was built by a man for his wife, a monument that I can guarantee will not fail to leave one with a feeling of awe and wonder.

You can also visit the mausoleum on a full moon night and be dazzled by the beauty of this amazing piece of architecture that has also been called "a love poem in marble"

Despite being the home for one of the world’s most beautiful and wondrous piece of architecture, Agra remains relatively dirty and I am told people in Agra love their paan and paan masala and spitting the red juices from the paan anywhere and everywhere is very common.

Amber or Amer Fort, built into the Aravalli hills |Coastweek

Coastweek --  Amber or Amer Fort, built into the Aravalli hills. PHOTO - AJUM ASODIA

To be nearer to the saint, Akbar decided to move his capital from Agra to Fatehabad

FATEHPUR SIKRI - We left for Jaipur the next morning and stopped at Fatehpur Sikri about a 45 minute drive from Agra. Akbar, the greatest Mughal emperor was a lover of art and culture under whose reign not only did the Mughal empire triple in size, but also the economy.

He established many centres of learning and was very tolerant to all other faiths, especially Hinduism, celebrating Diwali with great pleasure.

Of his many wives his first three were his favourite.

Ruqqiya, his first wife and also first cousin, married to him at the age of nine, was very learned and intelligent but bore him no children.

Salima, the widow of Akbar’s most trusted general Bairam Khan, was married to the emperor who also happened to be his cousin.

His third, and the one that changed Akbar’s thinking on religious and social policies, was Heer Kanwari or Harkabai also known more popularly as Jodhabai.

An Hindu Rajput princess from Amer / Amber this marriage was a political alliance made to gain support from the Rajput royals and gain access to Rajasthan and eventually Gujarat (a feat achieved only by Akbar and no other Mughal emperor).

With no heir in sight, Akbar heard of a religious man in Sikri (where the stone artisans lived).

Legend has it that he walked the 37km. barefoot to Sikri from his capital in Agra, falling at the feet of the Sufi saint Salim Chishti imploring him to bless him with a child.

Salim Chishti predicted that within the year, Akbar would have a male heir to carry on the dynasty and as foretold, a male child was born to Akbar and Jodhabhai, within that year.

Salim, named after the saint, who had an acrimonious relation with his father especially due to his addiction to alcohol and opium, was later named Emperor Jahangir.

To be nearer to the saint, Akbar decided to shift his capital from Agra to Fatehabad (Fateh is victorious and Abad is abode or city) on the Sikri ridge and construction of the walled city, in red sandstone commenced in 1569, taking 15 years to build.

His three favourite wives were housed in three different quarters but after the birth of Salim, it was Jodabhai, now given the title of Mariam-uz-Zamani (Mary of the Age) who was now the Malika-e-khaas (favourite wife).

She was given the largest apartments and even had her own separate kitchen, since she was a staunch vegetarian.

The kitchen is decorated on the outside with carvings of earrings and women’s ornaments denoting it as an area only for ladies.

While Ruqqiya and Salima’s apartments had Persian and Islamic design, Jodabhai’s which also had her temples built for her, were of Hindu design.

Jodhabai’s (there is conflict if that was really her name as she is not mentioned as such in any of the historical chronicles) nephew Raja Man Singh was one of the Navratnas (nine jewels) in the court of Akbar.

Children were housed and schooled in yet another area and Akbar had his bed, made of a stone slab at an elevation of about five feet.

Every night he would climb onto his bed and the ladder would be removed to keep the emperor safe from any attacker.

One central hall, Diwan-i-khaas (Hall of private audience) was built with a beautifully carved octagonal shaft that went up to a central landing, supported by 36 serpentine brackets, from which four bridges or walkaways connect to the four corners of the room.

Akbar, who was not very tall at just over five feet, would sit in the centre piece while his ministers would sit on the bridges and important meetings would be held here.

Ibadat Khana (house of worship) was where the foundations of a new syncretistic creed derived from Islam, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity, Din-e-Ilahi were laid by Akbar.

Din-e-Ilahi which portrayed Akbar as a prophet angered the Muslim clerics and the orthodox Muslims for whom the last Islamic prophet was Muhammad (SAW).

Despite being a Hindu all her life, Jodabhai was buried under Islamic custom and as per Akbar’s wish, his only wife that is buried next to him.

Other important buildings at Fatehpur Sikri are Birbal’s house – Akbar’s favourite minister who was an Hindu; Buland Darwaza – the stupendous 55 metre entrance to the fort gradually making a transition to a human scale in the inside; Anup Talao - ornamental pool with a central platform and four bridges leading up to it, used for evening performances by musicians and dancers; Pachisi court – now known as Ludo, a square marked as a board game where the playing pieces were humans, usually slaves; Taksal (mint); Daftar Khana (Records Office); Karkhanas (royal workshop); Khazana (treasury), Hamams (Turkish styled Baths).

Paanch Mahal (five palaces) is an imposing structure that is five floors of decreasing size with the ground floor, having 84 columns and the top a single large umbrella-shaped dome.

The pillars on each floor originally had jaali (latticed screens) between them supporting the whole structure.

Built very close to the harem or women’s quarters, queens and princesses would enjoy the cool breezes and splendid views of Sikri from the top floor.

Another feat we noticed not just here but all these old forts that we visited, is the very straight channelling for rain water.

Today’s artisans could not hold a candle next to these centuries old monuments.

When Salim Chisti died, an elaborate mausoleum, in marble, was built on the grounds of the fort where people still visit, to tie a thread and ask for blessings to have their wishes come true.

Due to lack of water the fort was abandoned almost after it was completed and is now a ‘ghost town’.

Wherever you go hawkers really pester you and even ask for your used tickets hoping to make a few rupees from re-selling it.
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JAIPUR - Our next stop was Jaipur, capital city of the state of Rajasthan, built by Sawai Jai Singh and among the first of India’s planned cities. Beautifully laid out gardens and parks, heritage hotels, colourful bazaars that delight in Rajasthan handlooms and trinkets.

Made up of three parts, it has the old city at Amer (or Amber), pink city (painted thus for a visit by the British royal family a century ago) and the new city.

We have now entered the world of the Hindu and Rajput maharajahs, which was equally as opulent as the Mughals.

Amer (also known as Amber after the Goddess Amba ) Fort or Palace set on the ridge of a hill, is ascended on foot or by elephants, just like royals did four hundred years ago.

These elephant rides can only be taken as per the season.

During the winter and cooler time of the year (November to March) each elephant is allowed five round trips, while during the much hotter summer they can only take one round trip each.

Fronting the fort is the Maota lake surrounded by beautifully laid out gardens whose design was taken off a Persian carpet.

Built by Raja Man Singh (nephew of Akbar’s wife Jodhabai) in the late 16th century, it is located in the area of the Aravalli hills and is a mixture of Hindu and Islamic architecture.

Entry through the Sun (Pol) Gate takes you into the first courtyard where armies would form victory parade after a battle won and the women would watch the parades and throw flowers onto the victors from Suhag Mandir (latticed windows high up on the Ganesh (Pol) Gate).

Named after the Hindu god Ganesh who removes all obstacles in life, this gate gave entry to the private palace of the maharajas.

In the first courtyard you will see a small but very beautiful temple to Sila Devi (an incarnation of Kali – Goddess of death and Durga – the invincible Goddess).

It is here that animal sacrifices were done on the eighth day of Navratri (the nine holy nights in a Hindu calendar which are devoted to the Goddess Amba), a practise which has been banned since 1975.

People still come to worship at the temple.

Diwan-i-Am or the Public Audience Hall, in the second courtyard, is a raised platform with 27 colonnades, each of which is mounted with elephant shaped capital with galleries above it.

In the private quarters of the Maharaja and his family in the third courtyard, there are two buildings opposite each other, separated by a garden laid in the fashion of the Mughal gardens.

To the left is the Jai Mandir also known as Sheesh Mahal (mirror palace) where mirror mosaics and coloured glass would reflect the light of one candle like a glittering jewel box.

Glass inlaid panels and multi-mirrored ceilings even on the outside gives it an even more beautiful look.

Unfortunately the inner part of this room was closed to the public due to renovations.
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SEE ALSO:
 

 PART THREE

Royal family, many concubines and mistresses lived in 'Zenana'

 PART ONE

Travelling across beautiful India should be an all year experience

 

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