Agra Fort: A prelude to the famous Taj Mahal

posted in: Asia, Heritage, India, Uttar Pradesh | 54

It had been several years, rather over 2 decades that I had visited the Red Fort in Agra – popularly referred to as Agra Fort. Naturally, when an opportunity presented itself in form of Agra being a pit stop on our return from the Indo-Nepal trip, I was keen to refresh my memories.Agra Fort seemed done and dusted for the Delhites in my team but for me, it was one unmissable place. Even more than the Taj Mahal – for this is where the story really began!

Agra fort - A prelude to Taj Mahal

The Agra Fort perpetually lives in the shadow of glorious neighbor – Taj Mahal. For most travelers to India, it comes second in Agra. This is where I urge them to start their tour of the city with the Agra Fort. It is a befitting prequel to what they would see later and most likely will help them to understand and appreciate the story of Taj Mahal better. It was the powerhouse of the Mughals – where wars were fought, romance was born and power struggles witnessed. As I walked through the grounds of the Agra Fort, I could well envision all those tales that I had read and by the end of it all – I was ready for the Grand Finale of the tale at the Taj.

Let me take you on a journey through the most important parts of the 94 acres of this Mughal powerhouse. While you will see a lot more than these, here are my 10 major highlights of the epic Agra Fort.

History of the Agra Fort

The bastion and the outer walls of Agra Fort

Delhi was the capital of Mughal Dynasty in India while Babur and Humayun were the rulers. However, even they considered this as a strategic city and used an old brick fort as their stronghold when in Agra. It was Akbar who shifted the capital to Agra from Delhi and ordered a Red Sandstone fort to be built. The fort took around 8 years to construct and was built around the same time as the grand tomb of Humayun in Delhi. It had over 500 buildings within it and remained a powerhouse of the Mughal till Aurangzeb ruled.

The combination of red and white at Agra Fort

While Akbar was the one to build it, it was his grandson Shah Jahan who changed a few things around and brought it to its current state. Where the grandfather – Akbar favored red sandstone, his grandson – Shah Jahan loved white marble – which is of course, evident in his most epic monument – the Taj Mahal. Shah Jahan broke down quite a few structures within the Agra Fort as well to rebuild some as white marble palaces. It is this glorious combination of red sandstone and white marble that you must see as the story that led to the Taj.

The Agra Fort was the epicenter of not just the Mughals but was later used by the Marathas. During the British era, it became a center for the East India company and also, a point during the 1857 rebellion. Today, part of the Agra fort is used by the Indian Army while the rest has been converted to a UNESCO heritage site that is open to the public.

10 highlights of the Agra Fort

1) Amar Singh Gate at Agra Fort

Amar Singh Gate at Agra Fort

The Agra fort has four gates of which the most strategic one is no longer open to the public. This gate called the Delhi Gate was the one favored by Akbar and was known for its defense. A drawbridge over a moat full of crocodiles led to another smaller gate called the Hathi Pol (Elephant gate) where the guards were on elephants. The entrances were at 90 degrees and had an elevated slope that ensured that the enemy was vulnerable even before they entered the fort. This gate is now in the Indian Army section of the fort and one can only imagine its glory.

The 2nd gate after the main entrance with its colorful tiles at Agra Fort

What you can enter from is the Amar Singh Gate, a smaller version of the Delhi gate – with a similar layout to give you an idea of what the main one looked like. This is where we entered as well. The first thing that you notice is the colorful tile work along the 2nd entrance. Around the same facade, through those windows, flowers were showered down on the visitors to the fort.

The elevation after the second entrance of Agra Fort

The gates are tall enough for an elephant to enter and walk through. As you pass the guard rooms after the 2nd gate, you have to walk an elevation. This was another defense mechanism as if you were the enemy you were sure to be crushed by rolling boulders even before you reached the end of the elevation. At every gate, don’t miss the holes from which the unassuming enemies were doused in hot oil.

2) Jahangari Mahal at Agra Fort

Jahangari Mahal at Agra Fort

We were not the enemy and thus, were peacefully escorted through those gates to one of their main palaces – the Jahangiri Mahal. As the name suggests, this was the palace of Jahangir. However, this was built by his father – Akbar and thus, you can still see it in red sandstone that he favored.

Jahangari Hauz at Agra Fort

Before you step into the Jahangari Mahal, you will pass this huge bath tub called Jahangari Hauz. 5 feet tall, it has a Persian inscription that says “Hauz-i-Jahangir“. The interesting thing about it is that this is monolithic and was found in Akbar’s palace. The giant tub has small steps that lead into it on one side and is said to have been made for Jahangir.

Entrance to the Jahangari Mahal at Agra Fort
Along the walls of the Jahangari Mahal at Agra Fort

Once you pass this, you come to the main entrance of what actually was the residence for the women of Akbar’s home. As you look at the facade, you will be able to see the distinct Islamic and Hindu styles of architecture and design. The most obvious being the arched gateway that is very Islamic in its design while the jharokha windows are distinctly Rajputana styled. The intricate work along the walls are quite Persian in their style while the floral patterns of its windows remind you of the palaces of Rajasthan.

Courtyard of Jahangari Palace, Agra Fort

The Jahangari Palace smells of Bat dropping and has a very deserted look now. However, back in those days, the courtyard came alive with song and dance as colored curtains separated the women watching from the enclosures from the men who graced the occasion.

One of the rooms of the Jahangiri Mahal, Agra Fort
Red sandstone pillars Inside Jahangari Palace, Agra Fort

Every door, window and pillar still have the remnants of its original design and the sheer number of them made me wonder, what patience the workers had back them to have done it all so precisely and beautifully.

Akbari Mahal in ruins at Agra Fort

While the main part of the Jahangari Mahal is what is open to you, the part next to it seems closed and in ruins. This was called the Akbari Mahal and was destroyed over various wars. Together along with the Jahangari Mahal, it was referred to as the Bangali Mahal. The name also, came in from the Bengali styled ceiling and architecture of these rooms.

3) Khas Mahal at Agra Fort

Khas Mahal in Agra Fort
Front Facade of the Khas Mahal

Set between two Golden Pavilions is a gorgeous white palace called the Khas Mahal. Complete with fountains and stunning inlay work, this palace was the bed chambers of Emperor Shah Jahan.  Every inch of the place is covered with floral etchings. The rich alcoves with their Jhali (net) styled windows is where you can creatively position your camera eye to get that first glimpse of the Taj Mahal. Best I let you take the photo tour of the same with the slide show below.

The fountain in front of Khas Mahal at Agra Fort
The outer Verandah of the Khas Mahal in Agra Fort
View from the main bed chamber or the middle chamber of Khas Mahal
Outer most chamber with the carved alcoves in Khas Mahal, Agra Fort
The fountain in front of Khas Mahal at Agra Fort
The outer Verandah of the Khas Mahal in Agra Fort
View from the main bed chamber or the middle chamber of Khas Mahal
Outer most chamber with the carved alcoves in Khas Mahal, Agra Fort
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The Khas Mahal was built after destroying the original Sandstone structure made by Akbar. The cool interiors and the breeze from Yamuna river gave us a good respite from the summer heat, making me wonder how lovely it might have been with those fountains and the whole palace lit with candles on a full moon night. Magical!

Capturing the Taj through the windows of Khas Mahal, Agra Fort
A glimpse of the Taj Mahal from the Khas Mahal Jhali windows at Agra Fort

4) Anguri Bagh

If you thought that fountains at Khas Mahal were magical, what went beyond it was just mesmerizing. A gorgeous garden called as the Anguri Bagh (Grape garden) completes the landscape of the Khas Mahal. In glory days, the water from the fountain flowed along a white water slide to form an artificial stream through a garden of flowers.

Anguri Bagh at Agra Fort

Along the sides is the Zenana section of the palace where various ladies of the Harem stayed in complete privacy. The area was enjoyed by the royal ladies at certain times.

One of the Golden Pavilions along the Anguri Bagh of Agra Fort

Before you leave this section, spare a look at the two golden pavilions – one on either side of the Khas Mahal. These are named after Shah Jahan’s daughters – Roshanara and Jahanhara. These give a beautiful view of the Taj Mahal. They say that these were actually the bed chambers of the daughters. The rooms did seem small for a princess but my guess is that the rest of the verandah too, formed a part of their mini palace. I sure would not have minded these small rooms, for the view from them was just spectacular!

5) Shish Mahal of the Agra Fort

The Glass or Mirror Palace of the Agra Fort is no longer open to the public and you can only see it from the entrance. However, even then the glimmer of the Syrian mirrors in the Shish Mahal does not fail to dazzle. Our guide explained that this was the Shahi Hammam or the Bathroom of Mumtaz Mahal. As amusing as this was, it was not true as challenged by the signboard next to it.

Shish Mahal of Agra Fort

This was the summer palace of Shah Jahan, complete with water fountains and streams that aimed at not just beautifying the palace but cooling its interiors. They say that a single lamp lit within the palace twinkled through its many mirrors to light up the entire structure. There is no way to ascertain that right now but you sure can admire the gorgeous interiors even from that restricted entrance.

See also: The Shish Mahal at Amer Fort in Rajasthan

6) Musamman Burj

This is by far the most important part of Agra Fort. The place where Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his own son – Aurangzeb, where he spent the last 8 years of his life, pining for his dead wife. It is here that he breathed his last while gazing at his beloved Taj Mahal.

Musamman Burj, the gilted prison of Shah Jahan

The Musamman Burj is an octagonal chamber that you can only see from a distance. A sunken fountain greets you at the entrance which in its simple white marble form adds to the rich interiors of the place. I was quite mesmerized by the grandeur of the walls that are completely covered with floral engravings. The small grooves seemed like the place to hold candles while at the far end I could spot the balconies that had the Taj Mahal in clear sight.

Musamman Burj, from the Diwan-i-Khas of Agra Fort

I got an even more clear view as I stepped up to the Diwan-i-Khas. The Musamman Burj with its octagonal pavilion atop its terrace and open balconies below seemed perfect for the cool Yamuna breeze in the evening. I could well imagine how gorgeous theTaj would have looked at the early morning light making it glow pink. Something that I think Shah Jahan found peace in while being locked in.

7) Diwan-i-Khas of Agra Fort

Diwan-i-Khas of Agra Fort

The Hall of Private Audience of the “Diwan-i-Khas” was my next stop from the Musamman Burj. Climbing up the stairs, past Shah Jahan’s private mosque – Meena Masjid, I emerged to a lovely white structure with tall pillars, placed at a height. Intricate marble work with flower designs over tall arched doorways beckoned me to enter, except that this area too, could only be inspected from far.

The outer and inner chambers of Diwan-i-Khas in Agra Fort
Close up of the Floral windows of Diwan-i-Khas, Agra Fort

A close shot of the same decor showed Persian scripts etched on the walls. The writing was in praise of Shah Jahan who was responsible for this lovely hall. The Diwan-i-Khas was used in two parts – the outer hall for dignitaries that were important but less so and inner hall for the high-level meetings. The famous Peacock throne of India which no longer is with us, used to be kept here as a throne till it was shifted to Delhi.

Yamuna Gate of Agra Fort

A glimpse over the low walls of the palace allowed me to see the Yamuna entrance gate. It is from here that Shah Jahan’s body was taken in a boat over to the Taj where he was finally buried with his beloved.

8) Macchi Bhawan

Macchi Bhavan in Agra Fort

The large terrace adjoining the Diwan-i-Khas along with its hallways of various chambers is what is referred to as Macchi Bhawan. Macchi means Fish and the name came from the various pools and fountains here that were home to fish. A large marble platform overlooks the entire area and the purpose of it, as per our guide, was to allow the Emperor to see the proceedings of the courtyard below.

Jahangir's throne near Diwan-i-Khas of Agra fort

In the terrace itself, you can see a black throne that overlooks the Musamman Burj. This black onyx throne is associated with Emperor Jahangir. There was a time when he defiantly became a traitor and opposed his father Akbar. He sat on this throne and declared himself King until he was overthrown by Akbar’s army.

Gate leading to the Zenana Area of Agra Fort

A large gate at the far end leads to the Zenana Area of the fort. The place was originally built by Akbar and modifications made later by Shah Jahan. An evidence of this being in the fact that the pillared hallways on the first floor are all white marble while the ones below have red stone.

9) Diwan-i-Aam in Agra Fort

The Emperor's seat in Diwan-i-Aam of Agra Fort

The Hall of the public audience lies on the ground floor of Agra Fort. If Diwan-i-Khas was about impressing the other royals, the Diwan-i-Aam was about flooring the common with its majestic proportions. The Emperor’s seat is in white marble at a height that overlooks the large red hall below. This is where the courtiers stood. Far beyond on the grounds is where the subjects stood with their woes. A clear distinction of a class is visible here.  For the king – his seat provided an overview of his world and for the peasants, clear respect and class of their OverLord.

An emperor's perspective of Diwan-i-Aam, Agra Fort
A common man's perspective of the Diwan-i-Aam, Agra Fort

Within the grounds, you will also, find a large cannon left from the days of the British as well as the grave of John Russel Colvin, a British who died in the 1857 rebellion. There are gates that lead you out of the palace on either side but one of them is closed to the public for it leads to the Indian Army area.

Grave of John Russel Colvin at Agra Fort

10) Nagina Masjid

The Nagina Masjid is the mosque for the women of the Zenana and can be seen from behind the cannon in the grounds of Diwan-i-Aam. One can visit this mosque but I missed out on it owing to the closing time of the fort. They say that below the masjid is the Mina Bazaar where the women could buy their wares. The Mina Bazaar is where the romance between Jahangir and Nurjahan bloomed. While you can no longer visit this area, a glimpse of it is sure to take you back in time to what might have been a bustling market for the women.

The British Cannon and a glimpse of Nagina Masjid behind it, Agra Fort

There are plenty of more gems within the Agra Fort that you can well see. And then there are some which you can’t like the mysterious underground passages. However. the place gives you the right background of how life was when Shah Jahan lived happily with his Beloved, how he spent his evenings with her, how he ruled the place, where his childhood was and finally, where he ended his life. This was the place where he was the happiest and also, the saddest. If you are in town to see the epic monument of love, don’t forget to start with the Agra Fort – the place where it began and it ended – the prelude to the famous Taj Mahal.

Agra Fort

How to reach Agra Fort?

  • Agra is well connected to the rest of India by road, rail and air. There are plenty of flights to Agra from various parts of India. Same is the case with railways, where you can find regular trains from any part of India to Agra.
  • By road, Agra is just 230 km from Delhi. The roads are excellent and you can reach here in 3 and half hours.
  • There are regular tourist buses as well as Uttar Pradesh Government buses from Delhi to Agra.
  • The Agra Fort can be found at this location on the map. Any autorickshaw or taxi can get you here.

Where to stay in Agra?

  • Agra is a fairly big city with plenty of stay options – to suit all kinds of budget.
  • There are plenty of hotels in Agra that are located close to Agra Fort. You can book these online through various websites.

Travel Tips:

  • Here is the official website of the Agra Fort. You can get the details on the tickets through the site. The Agra Fort timings start at Sunrise and end at Sunset on all days of the week.
  • It is advisable to take a guide as the fort has several aspects that can be well explained by them. However, please ask to see their id before you hire them
  • You can even visit the Agra Fort in the evening for a light and sound show.
  • Cameras are allowed in. However, please ensure you have a valid ID proof to show inside.
  • Plenty of walking to be done here and thus, flat comfortable shoes are recommended. Summers are quite hot here while winters are equally chilly. Thus, dress appropriately.
  • Carry plenty of water with you.
  • There are restrooms available within the Agra Fort.
  • Beware of pickpocketers. Do not leave any of your belongings unattended.
  • A few areas of the fort are out of bounds. Kindly respect the privacy and do not force entry.

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