Agra 101: Beyond The Taj Mahal

Agra, Bharatpur

The sacred river Yamuna, winds along the land of northern India and through the city of Agra. The seat of the Mughal Empire branched out from this riverside, where remains of palatial forts, mosques, and mausoleums shine as beautiful as when they were first built. The Mughals are a Persian-Arabic name for the Mongols—greatly known for their vast empire and fearsome conquests in East and Central Asia. The Mughal era in India spanned from the 16th to 18th century, with six generations of Emperors on the throne. Babur conquered the land, and was succeeded by Humayun, then Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan, and finally Aurangzeb. As a result, perfect symmetry and intricate carvings characterize the palatial architecture of each and every landmark in Agra. The fame of the Taj Mahal eclipses Agra’s many majestic heritage sites, but the ancient city holds many architectural marvels that deserve as much love. Explore beyond its most popular attraction, delve deep into the beautiful riverside kingdom and all it offers!

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Updated a year ago

Taj Mahal

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Agra, India • Recommendation • 

The city of Agra is best known as the home of the Taj Mahal, an iconic figure on the Indian skyline, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, and widely regarded as the most beautiful man-made structure ever built. Chances are, a visit to the Taj Mahal is on most people’s bucket lists. Former Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan had this beauty built as a mausoleum for his most favored wife, Mumtaz Mahal, after she died in childbirth. The story ventures into myth after construction was finished—it is rumored that Shah Jahan had all its builders’ hands cut off so they could never create anything as beautiful. Two red sandstone buildings flank the mausoleum to its east and west, a guesthouse called Mihman Khana and a Mosque—respectively. For a hallowed hall for the departed, this man-made wonder is always teeming with life. Somewhere in the millions of people come from all over the world all-year round flock to the Taj Mahal. A tour of its grounds has no rival, but a few alternative vantage points are in-air on the Air Safari, by the river on the Taj Yamuna View Point, or on a clear day right across the waters in the Mehtab Bagh.

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  • Dharmapuri, Forest Colony, Tajganj, Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India

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Mehtab Bagh

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Agra, India • Recommendation • 

Just across the Yamuna River, a garden blossoms in full view of the Taj Mahal. The Mehtab Bagh translates to The Moonlight Garden, and provides a little haven by the river. Evidence of pavilions and fountains, washed over by years of flood, were unearthed in recent excavations. The grounds have been since been restored, and offer an alternative view of the famed mausoleum across the riverbanks. It was believed the Emperor Shah Jahan would frequent the garden from sunset into night, looking out onto the Taj Mahal across the river amidst flora that shone in the moonlight. A European traveller, named Jean Baptiste Tavernier, mused that a second taj was set for construction, but the plan died with the Emperor before it was ever built.

  • Dharmapuri, Forest Colony, Nagla Devjit, Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India

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Tomb of I'timād-ud-Daulah

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Agra, India • Recommendation • 

A predecessor to the Taj Mahal, this tomb is also known as the “Baby Taj”. A shift in techniques is documented in the very way this mausoleum was built. From top to bottom, the tomb is made of marble, the emperor’s material of choice (a shift from past rulers’ preference of red sandstone). The decorative art of “parchin kari”, where colored stones were laid into the surface to create intricate patterns, was also introduced into the monument. A kaleidoscope of colors hide away in the pristine exterior.

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Agra Fort

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Agra, India • Recommendation • 

Upon arriving, the Agra Fort captures attention at once as it rises in red sandstone. The material was popularly used among Agra’s historical spots, with this fort complex as its most massive masterpiece. Agra Fort housed the royal family, notably the Khas Mahal and Jahangir Palace. It was where Babur sent his son Humayun to seize India’s reins. It was where Emperor Shah Jahan spent his last days, imprisoned by his son in his marble prison. The columned pavilion called Diwan-i-Aam (The Hall of Public Audience) served as a court where people from all walks came to the Emperor with their grievances. With the fall of the Mughal era, and the death of Emperor Auringzeb, the fort was seized and fell from its former glory—until modern-day tourism has brought back life within the walls.

  • Rakabganj, Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India

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Fatehpur Sikri

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Bharatpur, India • Recommendation • 

On the outskirts west of Agra City, Fatehpur Sikri (The City of Victory) was a complex of mosques and courts central to the Mughal Empire. Though Agra Fort was home to the crown, Fatehpur Sikri became its capital for ten years. Emperor Akbar built the city in 1571. The land was favored even by Akbar’s father and grandfather—Humayun and Babur, respectively—away from the bustle of newly taken Agra. The city incorporated Persian, Arabic, and Hindu influences as it was built, reflecting Emperor Akbar’s own character as leader. Visitors can see this for themselves, gazing at the pristine halls, palaces, and yards built in red sandstone.

  • Agra District, Uttar Pradesh, India

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Jama Masjid

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Agra, India • Recommendation • 

As the Taj Mahal was dedicated to Shah Jahan’s most favored wife, the Jāmi Masjid was built for his most favored daughter, Jahanara Begum. It took six years to build and is one of the biggest mosques in India. It welcomes both curious tourists and devout Muslims into its vast courtyards. Where the opulent architecture of the Mughal era is best enjoyed. The central mosque is primarily red sandstone, but features Shah Jahan’s favorite building material—marble—as well. The bulbs atop end in a lotus-like shape and have a zigzag pattern all around, a feature unique to this mosque. Not to be mistaken for the Jama Mosque in Delhi or in nearby Fatehpur Sikri, the Jāmi Masjid is located right outside of Agra Fort.

  • Jama Masjid Road, Kinari Bazar, Hing ki Mandi, Mantola, Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India

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Akbar's Tomb

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Agra, India • Recommendation • 

Regarded as Akbar the Great, the third Mughal Emperor of the Indian subcontinent ascended to the crown at only thirteen years of age. He succeeded in growing the empire through conquest, doubling its size in his lifetime. His leadership of lands already under his rule also earned him the title “Akbar the Great”. He granted equal rights and ended the taxation of non-Muslims (a Muslim himself, he was known as a tolerant leader). In his time, he built the Ibadat Khana—a monument lost in history—in Fatehpur Sikri where scholars of various faiths could discuss religion freely. His tomb features ornate patterns all across the gateway, white flowers blooming from the red stone and geometric shapes arranged in perfect sequence. Inside the mausoleum, the opulent artistry continues with golden details of flowers and calligraphy on the ceilings.

  • Sikandra, Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India

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The Oberoi Amarvilas

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Agra, India • Recommendation • 

After a tour of Agra’s historical sites, stay in a luxury villa as lovely as the palaces of old made for the modern-day traveler. Its architecture owes much of its beauty to centuries of architectural traditions. Tiers of arches and pillars rise up over the gardens and pools. Marble inlay tables and Indian textiles decorate the rooms as, just outside the window, a view of the Taj Mahal in the distance keeps you company day in and out. Oberoi Amarvilas is far from a historical monument, but it’s truly a palace worthy of today’s royalty, their guestlist having included Prince William and Kate Middleton.

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Kalakriti Cultural and Convention Center

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Agra, India • Recommendation • 

Witness the region’s performing arts in a spectacular show at Kalakriti! The stage comes to life each night with colorful dresses and graceful dance. Inspired by the lore of the Taj Mahal, their “Mohabbat the Taj” show weaves the tale of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal. The show is a spectacle with 80 performers taking stage against lights and the lavish theater. Hindi and Urdu are the main languages spoken throughout the show but translations are available for the English-, French-, and German-speakers in the audience. Headphones will be provided.

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Akbar International

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Agra, India • Recommendation • 

Watch masterful artisans at work, chipping away at marble, much like the craftsmen of the Taj Mahal would have done all those years ago. The techniques they employ have been passed down for generations, sustaining them as livelihood. Intricate patterns and colorful motifs adorn the creamy surface of stone. Tiles, table tops, coasters, vases and even elephant statuettes are crafted everyday for tourists to take home. Own a piece of the history and craftsmanship that placed Agra on the map.

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Shilpgram

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Agra, India • Recommendation • 

A variety of local handicrafts are available at Shilpgram, if marbled works aren’t to your liking. Find leather goods, textiles, ceramics, woodwork, and so much more in this artist’s village-style market. Shilpgram is an initiative headed by the Uttar Pradesh Government, but it is the local craftsmen that keep the traditions alive. Time your trip from the 18th to 27th of February for the Taj Mahotsav, a ten-day festival celebrating Agra’s distinct heritage influenced by the Mughal era. After roaming the stalls, contemplate your shopping list over some traditional delicacies available in this open-air market.

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Kinari Bazar

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Agra, India • Recommendation • 

The frenetic energy and flow of urban life doesn’t get more potent than at the local market. Kinari Bazar’s stalls sell goods specifically for ceremonies and special events. Everything from traditional dress to “puja samagri” (prayer items), overflow from the stalls. Embroidered textiles, stringed beads, and floral wreaths are strewn throughout the market, attracting designers and brides-to-be. Bargain for better prices. Merchandise at Kinari Bazar already go for much lower than in the boutiques, so whatever you manage is already a good deal!

  • Kinari Bazar Road, Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India

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Soor Sarovar Bird Sanctuary

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Agra, India • Recommendation • 

The palatial forts and marbled mausoleums aren’t the only majestic sights of Agra. Soor Sarovar Wildlife Sanctuary is a haven for local and migratory birds. The sprawling wetlands surrounding Keetham Lake—a manmade lake—teem with fluttering birds, preening peacocks, and other wildlife. The sarus crane, with its long neck and a shock of red, elegantly roams the grounds. Common teals and pintail ducks nestle comfortably on the surface of the water. Nature is at peace here, and so can you be. Steal away for a few hours from the man-made marvels bust with tourist spots and enjoy Agra’s natural beauty as well.

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Agra Bear Rescue Facility

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Agra, India • Recommendation • 

The sloth bear was used as entertainment during the Mughal era, forced to “dance”. The practice continued in the local villages even after the age of Emperors. The rescue of the 1,200 exploited bears was a collective effort of Wildlife SOS, various partner organizations, and government officials. The bears were led to dance and walk around by a rope latched onto their muzzle. Sometimes the rope was attached to a heavy rod, like cruel puppetry. They stood on their hind legs, performing and nuzzling up to tourists. Some bears were blinded as a result of the gruesome muzzling process. These days, the sloth bears have been rescued and live peacefully in the Agra Bear Rescue Center and other sanctuaries in India. The rescue center is tucked within the Soor Sarovar Bird Sanctuary, but is managed separately by the organization, Wildlife SOS.

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Korai Village

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Bharatpur, India • Recommendation • 

When the Himalayan black bears and sloth bears—both endangered species—were rescued from a life of harsh labor, the local villages were stripped of livelihood. The Kalandar -- or Qalandar tribe, as they are known -- have since then turned away from their bear-rearing practices and now anchor their income in taking tourists through the humble rural life of Agra. The life is simple, but the people are generous with what little they have. Homes are sparse earth and thatched structures. Some of their animal-performing traditions remain, however, and the men occasionally perform with a monkey when they’re not going through a routine of magic tricks. Agra is a city rooted deeply in its heritage and a welcoming glimpse into India’s rich history. A vibrant landscape exists outside of the Taj Mahal’s manicured gardens, if tourists are only open enough to explore.

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