Agra, the city so renowned for its beautiful monument built for love, has two histories – one of a city so ancient it is lost in the legends of gods and the heroes of the Mahabharata and the other, the city founded in 1558 on the right bank of the river Jumna, by the Mughal emperor, Akbar.
During the age of the Greek astronomer, mathematician and geographer Claudius Ptolemy, who wrote “Geographia” it was first referred to as Agra. That there was a settlement here well before Ptolemy ever wrote his epic work in 2 AD, is suggested by the discovery of cave paintings discovered in the area. The region is referred to as Arya Griha in ancient literature and as “Agravan,” in the Mahabharata, the territory of lord Krishna’s father, the border of the forest. However, as interesting as this might all be, the city which interests us is not the one established in the 16th century by Sikandar Lodhi of the Lodi dynasty in the Delhi Sultanate but the capital of the Mughals.
Agra was acquired, so to speak, by the Mughals after the defeat of the Lodis at the first battle of Panipat in 1526 by Babur. He was inordinately fond of prettiness – Agra struck him as a desolate wasteland and he was determined to change that. In his memoir, the Baburnama, he writes,
“It always appears to me, that one of the chief defects of Hindustan is the want of artificial watercourses. I had intended, wherever I might fix my residence, to construct water wheels, to produce an artificial stream, and to lay out an elegant and regularly planned pleasure ground. Shortly after coming to Agra, I passed the Jumna with this object in view and examined the country, to pitch upon a fit spot for a garden. The whole was so ugly and detestable, that I repassed the river quite repulsed and disgusted. As a consequence of the want of beauty and the disagreeable aspect of the country, I gave up my intention of making a char-bagh; but as no better situation presented itself near Agra, I was finally compelled to make the best of this same spot. First of all, I began to sink the large well which supplies the baths with water; I next fell to work on the piece of ground on which are the amble (Indian tamarind trees), and the octagonal tank; I then proceeded to form the large tank and its enclosure; and afterwards the tank and talar, or grand hall of audience, that are in front of the stone palace. I next finished the garden of the private apartments, and the apartments themselves, after which I completed the baths. In this way, going on, without neatness and without order, in the Hindu fashion, I, however, produced edifices and gardens which possessed considerable regularity. In every corner I planted suitable gardens; in every garden, I sowed roses and narcissus regularly, and in beds corresponding to each other. We were annoyed with three things in Hindustan: one was its heat, another was its strong winds, and the third was its dust. Baths were the means of removing all three inconveniences. In the bath, we could not be affected by the winds. During the hot winds, the cold can there be rendered so intense, that a person often feels as if quite powerless from it. The room of the bath, in which is the tub or cistern, is finished wholly of stone. The water-run is of white stone: all the rest of it, its floor and roof, is of a red stone, which is the stone of Biana. Khalifeh, Sheikh Zin, Yunis Ali, and several others, who procured situations on the banks of the river, made regular and elegant gardens and tanks, and constructed wheels after the fashion of Lahore and Debalpur, by means of which they procured a supply of water. The men of Hind, who had never before seen places formed on such a plan, or laid out with so much elegance, gave the name of Kabul to the side of the Jumna on which these palaces were built.’“
Only the vestiges of Babur’s city Charbagh are to be found at Ram Bagh, said to be the oldest Mughal garden in India, five kilometres from the Taj Mahal on the east side of the Yamuna. Resplendent with fruits, flowers, palaces, baths and watercourses, Babur had transformed Agra forever. The present design of Ram Bagh, however, though probably established by Babur, was done by Nur Jahan, the wife of Jahangir.
Unfortunately, his son, Humayun was defeated at Kanauj in 1540 by Sher Shah Suri ( a descendent of an Afghan adventurer who had been recruited by Shah Bahlul Lodhi) who had submitted to Babur but was not going to carry over the compliment to his son. Sher Shah established the rather short-lived Sur Empire and he was not particularly fond of gardens. He preferred razing cities to the ground and building new ones on their ruins in his own name, purportedly he was responsible for the destruction of the 6th city of Delhi, which was being constructed by Humayun.
At the height of its power, the Sur Dynasty controlled nearly all Mughal territories from Balochistan in the west to Bangladesh in the east. Unfortunately, the Mughals, though defeated, were not beaten. Following his death by cannonball in Kalinjar, the throne of the Sur dynasty was handed over to his son, Islam who managed to maintain the rule of the territories until 1553 but upon his death, the Sur dynasty fell apart through the squabbling of the various claimants. Sikandar Sur was defeated by Humayun in 1555 who repaid the compliment of destroying Sher Shah’s city when he retook Delhi. The second battle of Panipat in 1556 sealed the fate of the Sur Dynasty; there would be no more Afghan rulers in northern India. and the Mughals once again took up the reigns of power.
When Emperor Akbar arrived in Agra in 1558 he recognised the city was also strategically important. He ordered the renovation of the existing fort of the Lodis with red sandstone; his chronicler, Abul Fazl who left behind a detailed account of the construction, recorded the buildings within it were built utilising the best regional styles, with influences from Gwalior, Gujarat and Rajasthan. In all, it took 8 years to complete. It was to be not just a military bastion, but a royal residence fit for emperors. During his rule, Agra became the centre of arts, commerce and religion. He also built a new city, called Fatehpur Sikri on the outskirts of Agra. Described by Ralph Fitch as “… two very great cities, either of them much greater than London, and very populous. Between Agra and Fatehpur are 12 miles (Kos) and all the way is a market of victuals and other things, as full as though a man were still in a town, and so many people as if a man were in a market.” Fitch was an early gentleman merchant from London who eventually became a consultant for the EICo in 1591 – a most remarkable Elizabethan adventurer. (Further reading: Ralph Fitch, England’s Pioneer To India And Burma: His Companions And Contemporaries, (1899), John Horton Ryley).
After Akbar, a litany of emperors ruled from Agra and each left his mark on the city. While Akbar built the fort and the nearby city Fatehpur Sikri, Jahangir built more palaces and monuments within the fort itself and the city and continued a legacy and love for flowers and gardens. Shah Jahan, who shifted his capital to Shahjahanbad near Delhi, left behind the Taj Mahal. He had an almost insatiable love of architecture and endowed Agra with not only the Taj Mahal (a mausoleum for his favourite wife) but the Moti Masjid and the Jami Masjid. His son, Aurungzeb however, moved his capital back to Agra when he murdered his brothers and usurped his father Shah Jahan who he then imprisoned in Agra Fort from where it is said, he could gaze on the tomb of his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal. On his death, 7 years later he was buried next to her.
Aurangzeb was neither interested in flowers nor architecture – he ruled with a firm hand and though a man of intellectual strength, energy and courage he was “wanting in imagination, sympathy and foresight…” His interests were more of a distinctly political bend and he spent much time checking the excesses of the court and surrounding himself with a particularly bigoted set of religious zealots. Most of the great artists who had received patronage under Shah Jahan were dismissed as heretics and many “noble monuments were mutilated by Emperor’s fanatical followers on the ground that they contravened the precept…which forbids the representation of animate nature in art.” Aurangzeb ruled for 7 years from Agra – he then shifted his capital to Aurangabad in the Deccan. However, he only remained at Aurangabad until 1684 when the city turned into the primary military outpost of the Mughal Empire, and quickly gained status as an important centre of trade.
When he died in 1707 at the age of 89, the Moghul Empire, surrounded by hordes of enemies of his own making, was crumbling. The British had already started setting their mark in India and 17 years before his death, Aurungzeb granted to Job Charnock a piece of land at Sutanati, one of three villages which would merge to form the city of Calcutta.
The Mughal treasury had already begun to diminish under the rule of Aurungzeb, and with anarchy and dissension raising their unpleasant heads, it spelt the death knell for the empire. Between 1707 and 1784 a succession of Mughals continued to occupy the throne but in 1793, the Persians raided India and ransacked Delhi, marking an end to the unified Mughal state and by the 19th century, India was no longer under their rule. With the end of Bahadur Shah’s reign in 1857, the Mughals were consigned to history
As for Agra, it too declined. It sank to the position of a provincial city, harrassed intermittently by the Jats who took it over briefly in 1761 under Suraj Mal and Walter Reinhardt (another adventurer, better known by his native name, “Samru” or Sombre). The Jats captured Agra and looed the Taj and generally played havoc with the palaces in the fort. As for Walther Reinhardt, he gained infamy as a mercenary who had sold his services to anyone who paid him and he assisted in the murder of the British Resident and other Europeans at Patna. To show his fickle nature, he took up with the Mughals and was rewarded with a grant of land near Meerut.
“This European executioner of Asiatic barbarity is generally believed to have been a native of Treves, in the Duchy of Luxemburg, who came to India as a sailor in the French navy. From this service, he is said to have deserted to the British and joined the first European battalion raised in Bengal. Thence deserting he once more entered the French service; was sent with a party who vainly attempted to relieve Chandarnagar, and was one of the small party who followed Law when that officer took command of those, who refused to share in the surrender of the place to the British. After the capture of his ill-starred chief, Reinhardt (whom we shall in future designate by his Indian sobriquet of “Sumroo,” or Sombre) took service under Gregory, or Gurjin Khan, Mir Kasim’s Armenian General. Broome, however, adopts a somewhat different version. According to this usually careful and accurate historian, Reinhardt was a Salzburg man who originally came to India in the British service, and deserted to the French at Madras, whence he was sent by Lally to strengthen the garrison of the Bengal settlement. The details are not very material: Sumroo had certainly learned war both in English and French schools. He again deserted from the Newab, served successively the Principal Chiefs of the time…” (Keene, Henry George (1876). The Fall of the Moghul Empire: An Historical Essay. London. p. 135). Sombre raised his own mercenary army and briefly served as the governor of Agra and then a position as ruler of Sardhana, a position bequeathed to him by Shah Allam II. He died in 1778 in Agra and was buried at the Roman Catholic cemetery. His widow, Begum Sumru took control of his mercenary army and subsequently as ruler of Sardhana.
The Jats were ousted by the Mahratas but they in turn were driven out by Najaf Khan, a celebrated commander of the Mughal army. He was appointed regent of the Mughals in 1779 and died a rather miserable death in 1782, suffering “pain and suffering, spitting blood.” He was replaced by Muhammed Beg as governor of Agra; he in his turn was besieged by the forces of the emperor Shah Alam and Mahadji Sindhia. Sindhia took Agra in and held it until 1787 when he was attacked by the imperial troops of Ghulam Khan and Ismail Beg. It took General de Boigne (this time a French military adventurer – for more, read Compton, Herbert (1892). “De Boigne”. A particular Account of the European Military Adventures of Hindustan, from 1784 to 1803. London: T. Fisher Unwin. pp. 7–108) to raise the siege by trouncing them in a battle near Fatehpur Sikri in 1788.
The Mahratas remained in Agra until 1803 but following their singular defeat by Lord Lake at the Battle of Patparganj during the Second Anglo-Maratha War in the same year, Agra passed into the hands of the EICo.
Under East India Company, Agra became a frontier fortress and in 1835, when the new Presidency of Agra was founded, the city was chosen as the seat of government, although the Board of Revenue and all principal courts remained in Allahabad until 1843 when they too were moved to Agra. Its history henceforth was unremarkable – the beautiful architecture aside, Agra was neither a hub of intrigue like Lucknow nor did it have the magnitude of Calcutta or the interest of Delhi. It was at best, a provincial capital. Then, of course, came 1857.
agra under the east india company
By 1857, Agra had 5 churches, the earliest was St. George’s in the Cantonment which was built in 1828 and consecrated in 1835. Not to be outdone, the Roman Catholics put up their pile in 1848. It was a centre of education, Agra College was founded in 1823 with an endowment from the EICo, and St Peter College, a Roman Catholic institution was founded in 1841, followed shortly by St John’s College set up by the Church Mission Society in 1850 and the Medial College opened in 1855 to train Indian hospital assistants.
Agra was the centre of some of the earliest missionary enterprises in India and the Roman Catholic Mission was established in the city in the 16th century in 1620 the Jesuit College was opened. Northern India was constituted in the Apostolic Vicariate in 1822, the headquarters of which was in Agra. John Mildenhall, who arrived in Agra in 1603 to the court of Akbar with a letter from Queen Elizabeth I complained he was “much thwarted by the friars, ” and only received a permit to trade three years later from Jahangir. Mildenhall could not have been too opposed to the Roman Catholics, seeing as he murdered his two companions, seized their goods and became a Roman Catholic in only to be poisoned shortly after, in 1611, in Agra. He holds the distinction it seems, of being the first Englishman buried in India.
Several distinguished authors of Persian and vernacular literature hailed from Agra in the 19th century, among them Mir Taki and Shaikh Wah Muhammed (Nazir), while the poet Asad-ullah Khan, known as Ghalib, resided in Agra. The British appeared to have their own fascination with architecture – British draughtsmen trained local artists in pen-and-ink and watercolour techniques to produce detailed architectural studies of Mughal monuments – although these are idealised views of what the buildings would have looked like when they were first built, it would appear they were produced as working drawings for EICo engineers assigned with the task of upkeeping and restoring the Mughal buildings. These drawings are often referred to as “Company Paintings” and many of the early subjects were of buildings in Agra and Delhi.
Although Agra has been a major centre of rug and carpet production since the Mughal era, during the 19th century it experience a revival when beautiful handmade rugs started to appear as exports from India combined with a renewed interest in Persian designs. Inmates in Indian jails were trained in carpet weaving, a profitable business with free labour attached, and Agra Central Jail soon became the most famous of these weaving centres. Due to the inmate’s skill and ability to produce high-quality carpets with beautiful designs, in 1877, just such a carpet was gifted to Queen Victoria on the occasion of the Delhi Darbar. While original 19th-century Agra rugs are a collector’s item today, and the writer has been informed are the envy of rug enthusiasts, weaving continues up to the present times in the Agra Central Jail, which now specialises in flatweave or Dari Weaving.
It was in all, a city of quiet development, cultured, not as high-nosed as Calcutta or as scandalous, but peaceful and progressive. In 1833 however, a former resident of Agra had this to say:
“To a lover of the picturesque, Agra is one of the most delightful stations in India…a residence amid the splendid monuments of Moghal power is not considered desirable, in consequence of the alleged heat of the climate, and the high prices demanded for the bungalows. It possesses a garrison…the military cantonments are the ugliest in India, being situated upon a wide bare plain, enlivened only by a few Parkinsonias, trees which are too uniformly covered with yellow flowers to appear to advantage when not mingled with others of more varied foliage. The Jumna is completely hidden from view by intervening sandbanks, which also shut out the beauties of the Taj Mahal, with the exception of its silvery dome, and the exteriors of the bungalows, with a few exceptions, are hideous. They are usually built of bricks, a material amply supplied by the ruins in the neighbourhood, the gateless and sometimes fenceless compounds have a desolate appearance, and the handsome church is the only redeeming feature in the scene. The houses, however, have good gardens, though the latter are not made ornamental to the landscape; and their interiors are remarkable for the elegance of fitting up, an abundance of marble furnishing chimney pieces, cornices, and plasters of a very superior kind of chunam, instead of bare white-washed walls, the apartments are decorated with handsome mouldings and other architectural ornaments.
The civil lines, at a distance of two miles, are much more beautifully situated, amidst well-wooded ravines, which during the rainy season, are covered with a verdant carpet of green, and watered by numerous nullahs. The roads are excellent and kept in the finest order by the labours of gangs of convicts who are employed upon the public works…Many of the houses belonging to families of civilians are pucka, and built in the style of those of Calcutta; others assume a more fanciful aspect, the centre being composed of an abandoned mosque, with wings spreading on either side.
The distance between the military and civil lines at Agra constitutes a very considerable obstacle to the social intercourse of the station; throughout India there exists a degree of jealousy on the part of the former, which renders them tenacious of appearing to shew too much deference to the superior wealth of the judges and collectors, whom they fancy must look down upon the poorer class…but generally speaking, the civilians, being few in number, are glad to pay attention to all the military in the neighbourhood…they made far less difficulty in coming over to the balls in the cantonments than was raised by the families of the officers…This sort of pride is very detrimental to the society of small communities, and at Agra, it always appears to be in full operation, the station never having had a reputation for gaiety….it is in the city of Agra and its environs, that intellectual persons must seek gratification…” (The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register for British and Foreign India, China and Australasia, Vol X, New Series, January- April 1833)
Agra had left its glorious past behind and was now just a shell of its former self – a staid, provincial town, unremarkable in everything but its beauty. All that would soon be forgotten when Agra would be catapulted into the Mutiny. Suddenly, this fading station would realise its importance again.