Travel Bucket List: India – Uttar Pradesh Part 3

Fatehpur Sikri

Located close to Agra and about 65 km south of Mathura, Fatehpur Sikri was founded as the capital of the Mughal Empire in 1571 by Emperor Akbar, until 1585 when Akbar abandoned it because of a campaign in Punjab and was later completely abandoned in 1610. The name of the city is derived from the village called Sikri which occupied the spot before. An Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) excavation from 1999 to 2000 indicated that there was a habitation, temples and commercial centres here before Akbar built his capital. The region was settled by Sungas following their expansion and was briefly controlled by the Sikarwar Rajputs in the 12th century. Akbar’s son Jahangir was born at the village of Sikri in 1569 and the same year, Akbar began construction of a religious compound to commemorate the Sheikh who had predicted the birth. After Jahangir’s second birthday, he began the construction of a walled city and imperial palace here. The city came to be known as Fatehpur Sikri, or the City of Victory, after Akbar’s victorious Gujarat campaign in 1573. After occupying Agra in 1803, the English established an administrative centre here and it remained so until 1850 and in 1815, the Marquess of Hastings ordered repair of the monuments at Sikri. Archaeological evidence points to settlement of the region since the Painted Grey Ware period. Today, Fatehpur Sikri is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The town sits on rocky ridge, 3 km in length and 1 km wide is surrounded by a 6 km wall on three sides with the fourth bordered by a lake falls roughly into the shape of a rhombus. The dynastic architecture of Fatehpur Sikri was modelled on Timurid forms and styles and was built massively and preferably with red sandstone. Gujarati influences are also seen in its architecture and in the decor of the palaces with the architecture reflecting both Hindu and Muslim form of domestic architecture popular at the time. The town is accessed through gates along the 8 km long fort wall, namely, the Delhi Gate, the Lal Gate, the Agra Gate and Birbal’s Gate, Chandanpal Gate, the Gwalior Gate, the Tehra Gate, the Chor Gate, and the Ajmeri Gate and contains the summer and winter palaces for Queen Jodha.

Set into the south wall of the congregational mosque, Buland Darwaza or the Gate of Magnificence is 180 ft high, gradually making a transition to a human scale in the inside. The gate was added around five years after the completion of the mosque, in 1576-1577 as a victory arch to commemorate Emperor Akbar’s successful Gujarat campaign. Made up of red sandstone and decorated with white and black marbles, the gate carries two inscriptions in the archway. The central portico comprises three arched entrances, with the largest one, in the centre, is known locally as the Horseshoe Gate, after the custom of nailing horseshoes to its large wooden doors for luck. Outside the giant steps of the Buland Darwaza to the left is a deep well.

Jama Masjid was It was a congregational mosque and was one of the first buildings erected in the town. Built-in the 17th century, it mosque is a UNESCO World Heritage Site today and is also known as the Friday Mosque. It was built in the manner of Indian mosques, with iwans around a central courtyard. A distinguishing feature is the row of chhatri over the sanctuary. There are three mihrabs in each of the seven bays, while the large central mihrab is covered by a dome, it is decorated with white marble inlay, in geometric patterns. It is constructed in a transition style in a mixture of Islamic architecture and Persian styles. The interiors are embellished with watercolor paintings with corbelled pendentives supporting the dome in comparison to squinches which support the domes usually.

A white marble encased tomb of the Sufi saint, Salim Chisti within the Jama Masjid’s sahn or courtyard. The single-storey structure is built around a central square chamber, within which is the grave of the saint, under an ornate wooden canopy encrusted with mother-of-pearl mosaic. Surrounding it is a covered passageway for circumambulation, with carved Jalis, stone pierced screens all around with intricate geometric design and an entrance to the south. The tomb is influenced by earlier mausolea of the early 15th century Gujarat Sultanate period. Other striking features of the tomb are white marble serpentine brackets, which support sloping eaves around the parapet. On the left of the tomb, to the east, stands a red sandstone tomb of Islam Khan I, son of Shaikh Badruddin Chishti and grandson of Shaikh Salim Chishti, who became a general in the Mughal army during the reign of Jahangir. The tomb is topped by a dome and thirty-six small domed chattris and contains a number of graves, some unnamed, all male descendants of Shaikh Salim Chishti. The tomb is known for blessing childless couples and devotes come from all over the country to pray for children with devotees tying threads over the marble screens as a reminder of their prayers to Salim Chisti.

The Diwan-i-Khas or Hall of Private Audience, is a plain square building with four chhatris on the roof. However it is famous for its central pillar, which has a square base and an octagonal shaft, both carved with bands of geometric and floral designs, further its thirty-six serpentine brackets support a circular platform for Akbar, which is connected to each corner of the building on the first floor, by four stone walkways. It is here that Akbar had representatives of different religions discuss their faiths and gave private audience.

The Diwan-i-Aam or Hall of Public Audience, is a building typology found in many cities where the ruler meets the general public. In this case, it is a pavilion-like multi-bayed rectangular structure fronting a large open space. Standing on 49 pillars, the Diwan-i-Aam consists of a Jharokha type chamber which is also known as Takht-i-Murassa. This place has beautiful decorations all over its pillars and walls. Made of Marble is the Bethak where the ministers were to sit. Two gateways and three aisles divide the hall. South west of the Diwan-i-Am and next to the Turkic Sultana’s House stand Turkic Baths.

Constructed in 1575, the Ibadat Khana or the House of Worship was a meeting house where Akbar had laid the foundations of Din-e-Ilahi. Here spiritual leaders of different religions gathered to conduct discussions of the teachings of their respective faiths.

Anup Talao was built by Raja Anup Singh Sikarwar and is an ornamental pool with a central platform and four bridges leading up to it. Some of the important buildings of the royal enclave are surround by it including the Khwabgah or the House of Dreams, Akbar’s residence, Panch Mahal, a five-storey palace, the Diwan-i-Khas or the Hall of Private Audience, Ankh Michauli and the Astrologer’s Seat, in the south-west corner of the Pachisi Court. It is also said to be the residence of Akbar’s muslim wife, although this is disputed due to its small size.

Also known as Harkabai or Jodhabai, Mariam-uz-Zamani was the wife of Emperor Akbar. The building of Akbar’s Rajput wives, including Mariam-uz-Zamani, is built in a fusion of Rajput and Mughal architecture with Gujarati influence and is built around a courtyard, with special care being taken to ensure privacy. It was on the eastern side of the court.

Also known as the Naqqar Khana or drum house, Naubat Khana is where musicians used drums to announce the arrival of the emperor. It is situated ahead of the Hathi Pol Gate or the Elephant Gate, the south entrance to the complex, suggesting that it was the imperial entrance. There are rich carvings on the sandstone walls.

Panch Mahal is a five-storied palatial structure, with the tiers gradually diminishing in size, till the final one, which is a single large-domed chhatri. Originally pierced stone screens faced the facade and probably sub-divided the interior as well, suggesting it was built for the ladies of the court. The floors are supported by intricately carved columns on each level, totalling to 176 columns in all. With design elements of a Buddhist temple, the pavilion gives a splendid view of the fort. Panch Mahal has a pool, the Anoop Talab in front of it which once was a setting for musical concerts.

Akbar’s favorite, Birbal was a Hindu minister in his court. His palace finds its place near the northwest corner of Jodhabai’s Palace. It contains four rooms interconnected with open doorways. Two oblong porches are also there. These have a pyramidical roof with a triangular roof. The interiors are full of single bordered designs, Arabesque geometrical designs, and floral designs. The first floor has beautifully decorated Jharokas and Chajjas. The domes have carvings of inverted lotus and Kalash designs and tile work. The building also has horizontal sloping sunshades or chajjas and the brackets which support them.

The Hiran Minar, or Elephant Tower, is a circular tower covered with stone projections in the form of elephant tusks. Traditionally it was thought to have been erected as a memorial to the Emperor Akbar’s favourite elephant. However, it was probably a used as a starting point for subsequent mileposts.

A precursor to modern-day offices, the Daftar Khana was Akbar’s record room. It was a place given to the important files and documents associated with his reign. Built on a high platform, the building has facades on all four sides. There is a room inside which has three doorways on its north and beautifully carved tracery work on red sandstones on its south.

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The Pachisi or Chaupar Court is a square marked out as a large board game, the precursor to modern day Ludo game where people served as the playing pieces. Built by Kabar in 1572, the emperor and his court played the game of Pachisi, similar to that of modern-day ludo and chess. The game instead of being played with original tokens were played with human beings with servants dressed as tokens of the game and the players instructing the pieces to make the moves.

One of the most beautiful complexes in Fatehpur Sikri, Khwabgah acted as the Emperor’s personal place. It had space for the Emperor to hold meetings, a Kitab Khana or library, a small bathroom, and a bedroom. The bedroom had covered connections with the Panch Mahal and the imperial harem. Where the ground floor is quite simple, the first floor, which was the emperor’s personal space was decorated with geometrical and floral carvings with mural and paintings on the walls depicting court scenes along with Persian inscriptions which are today faded.

Beside Queen Jodha’s palace and opposite Birbal’s palace lies the Lower Haramsara. The reason behind its construction is ambiguous as for some historians it was a stable and for others was a place of servants. The entire structure consists of floral paintings both inside out. The columns here are a mix of Indian and Islamic designs.

Other buildings in Fatehpur Sikri include the Taksal or royal mint, the Karkhana or royal workshops, the Khazana or treasury, the Hammam or Turkish baths, the Darogha’s or security quarters , stables, caravanserai, Hakim’s or doctors quarters.

Agra

Moving on, lying about 36 km east of Fatehpur Sikri is the city with the monument which speaks of eternal love, the city without visiting for which many, their trip to India is incomplete, Agra, on the banks of the Yamuna and home to the Taj Mahal. With a population of roughly 1.6 million, Agra is the fourth-most populous city in Uttar Pradesh and twenty-third most populous city in India.

During the rule of the Mughals, Agra began it’s golden age and was the foremost city of the Indian subcontinent and the capital of the Mughal Empire under the Mughal emperors Babur, Humayun, Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan. Under Mughal rule, Agra became a centre for learning, arts, commerce, and religion, and saw the construction of the Agra Fort, Sikandra and Agra’s most prized monument, the Taj Mahal, built by Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his favourite empress.

The name Agra is explained by three different derivations. The most accepted one is that it had its origin from the Hindi word agar meaning salt-pan, a name which was given to it because the soil in the region is brackish and salt used to be made here once by evaporation. Others derive it from Hindu mythology claiming that the Sanskrit word agra which means the first of the many groves and little forests where Krishna frolicked with the gopis of Vrindavan. Another version is that when Sikandar Lodi was sailing down the Yamuna in his royal yacht he asked his steersman to point out a site that was fit for a building a city. Out of the many mounds all around, the steersman pointed to the one directly ahead, supposedly using the Sanskrit word agra or front to express what he meant.

Agra has two histories: one of the ancient city on the east, or left, bank of the river Yamuna, going back so far as to be lost in the legends of Krishna and Mahabharata and reestablished by Sikandar Lodhi in 1504-1505; the other of the modern city, founded by emperor Akbar in 1558, on the right bank of the river which is associated with the Mughals, and known throughout the world as the city of the Taj. Of ancient Agra little now remains except a few traces of the foundations. It was a place of importance under various Hindu dynasties previous to the Muslim invasions of India, but its history is unclear, and possess little historical interest. Akbar built the modern city of Agra on the right bank of Yamuna, where the majority of its part still lies. He converted the city into a great centre of political, cultural and economic importance, connecting it with the various parts of his vast empire. Before his death, Agra had become probably one of the biggest cities in the east, with huge amounts of trade and commerce happening through its bazaars. Shah Jahan later shifted the capital to Shahjahanabad, now known as Delhi in 1648, followed by his son Aurangzeb moving the entire court to Delhi in 1658. With this Agra began rapidly declining, but it continued to be referred to as the second capital of the empire.

In the late 18th century the control of the city fell successively to the Jats, the Marathas, the Mughals, the ruler of Gwalior, and finally the British East India Company. After the decline of the Mughal Empire, the city came under the influence of another post-Mughal Empire power, the Marathas, before falling into the hands of the British East India Company in 1803. Between 1834 and 1836, Agra was the capital of the short-lived Presidency of Agra and then the capital of the North-Western Province from 1836 to 1868 and once of the centres of the Indian rebellion of 1857.

Post India’s independence, Agra has gradually developed into an industrial city, with a significant contribution to the state’s economy. The city is now a popular tourist destination with the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Today, the Taj Mahal is a symbol of India and Agra has developed into an industrial town, with a booming tourism industry, along with footwear, leather and other manufacturing.

One of the new seven wonders of the world, the Taj Mahal is located on the southern or right bank of the Yamuna river, on the easten part of Agra, about 1.6 km east of Agra Fort. Built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan as a memorial for his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, it also houses the tomb of Shah Jahan himself. Constructed entirely out of white marble from Makrana in Rajasthan in the 17th century, the Taj Mahal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Covering an area of approximately 42 acres, the construction of the Taj Mahal began in 1631 with upwards of twenty thousand workers from India, Persia, the Ottoman Empire, and Europe and took 22 years before completion. It is distinguished as the finest example of Mughal architecture, a blend of Indian, Persian and Islamic styles. Designed as a unified entity according to the principles of Mughal architecture, the five principal elements of the complex were the main gateway, garden, mosque, jawab literally meaning an answer, a building mirroring the mosque and the mausoleum, with its four minarets.

The Taj Mahal can be be observed from Agra Fort from where Emperor Shah Jahan gazed at it for the last eight years of his life, a prisoner of his son Aurangzeb. Verses of the Quran are inscribed on it and at the top of the gate are 22 small domes, signifying the number of years the monument took to build. The Taj Mahal was built on a marble platform that stands above a sandstone one with it’s back to the Yamuna river. Each corner of the platform is graced with 40m high white minarets. The most elegant and largest dome of the Taj Mahal with a diameter of 60 feet and a height of 80 feet is where the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal lies directly below. Shah Jahan’s tomb was erected next to hers by his son Aurangzeb. These tombs are false tombs as the real tombs of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan lies in a locked room below the main chamber. The four indistinguishable faces of the Taj Mahal are in perfect symmetry, featuring impressive vaulted arches containing pietra dura inlay work, incorporating semi-precious stones and quotations from the Quran. The whole structure is topped off by four small domes.

The Taj Mahal can be accessed through east, west and south gates with tour groups entering through the east and west gates and independent travellers through the south gate. Inside the grounds, the ornamental gardens are set on the classic Mughal charbagh or in the formal Persian garden style. The garden begins at the entryway and spreads across to the base of the mausoleum. Unique to the construction of this garden is the usage of the number four and its multiples as four is considered as the holiest number in Islam. The garden is divided into four parts, with two marble canals studded with the fountains occupying the centre. Each quarter portion of the garden has 16 flowerbeds each of which was planted with 400 plants.

The best time to visit Taj Mahal is during sunrise when it looks the most majestic and the most comfortable time because of fewer crowds. Another magical time to visit the Taj at sunset. One can also visit it for five nights including a full moon night and two nights before and after the full moon. The dates and timings are decided by the Archaeological Survey of India and night viewings take place between 8:30 pm and 12:30 am in eight batches of about 50 people each for 30 minutes each time with only 400 visitors allowed on a single night. The entry tickets for this time is limited though, and it must be bought a day in advance from the Archaeological Survey of India office.

Other attractions in the complex include the twin mosque buildings placed symmetrically on either side of the mausoleum, gardens, and a museum. However, air pollution caused by emissions from foundries and other nearby factories and exhaust from motor vehicles has damaged the Taj Mahal, notably its marble facade. A number of measures have been taken to reduce the threat to the monument, among them the closing of some foundries and the installation of pollution-control equipment at others, the creation of a parkland buffer zone around the complex, and the banning of nearby vehicular traffic, and more recently, use of a mud pack therapy. Most importantly, the 10,400 sq km Taj Trapezium Zone has been created around the Taj Mahal and other nearby monuments where strict pollution restrictions are in place on industries, following a 1996 Supreme Court of India ruling.

The Taj Mahal opens 30 minutes before sunrise and closes 30 minutes after sunset and is closed on Fridays when it is accessible to practising muslims to attend the prayers in the afternoon. Entry fees for Indian is INR 45, for SAARC and BIMSTEC citizens, it is INR 535 and for other foreigners, it is INR 1050 with children below the age of 15 having free entry. For all visitors, including children, there is an additional fee of INR 200 to see the main mausoleum. The ticket price include a 500 ml bottle of water and shoe covers. Visitors can also pick up an audio guide for INR 118 from the ticket counter.

The Agra Fort is a large 16th century fortress of red sandstone first established by the Emperor Akbar and served as the seat of royal government when Agra was the capital of the Mughal empire in addition to being a military base and a royal residence. Built on the site of an earlier fortifications by Islam Shah Suri, the son of Sher Shah Suri. Agra Fort lies on the right bank of the Yamuna river and is connected to the Taj Mahal which lies downstream, around a bend in the Yamuna, by a stretch of parkland. The fort was commissioned by Akbar in 1565, taking around eight years to build. Though much of the structure of the fort was founded by Akbar, both the interior and exterior underwent considerable changes under his son Jahangir and grandson Shah Jahan, who added many new structures, often of marble. The red sandstone walls of the roughly semi-circular structure have a perimeter of about 2.5 km, rise 21 metres high, and are surrounded by a moat. There are two entrances in the walls, the Delhi Gate facing west, the original entrance, situated nearly opposite to the Agra Fort railway station and Jama Masjid, and decorated with intricate marble inlays; and the Amar Singh Gate, also known as Hathi Pol or Elephant Gate facing south, presently the only means in or out of the fort complex. The complex of buildings in the fort is reminiscent of Persian and Timurid architecture with great inspiration from Jain and Hindu architecture and forms a city within a city. Today Agra Fort is the second UNESCO World Heritage Site in Agra, after the Taj Mahal.

Among the major attractions in the fort is Jahangiri Mahal, the largest residence in the complex, built by Akbar as a private palace for his son Jahangir. This was adjacent to Queen Jodha’s palace and is built in stone and simple in its design with Persian verses carved out in a large stone bowl used for storing rose water. In the Diwan-i-Am or the Hall of Public Audience where the emperor would listen to public petitions and meet state officials. The Diwan-i-Khas or the Hall of Private Audience was used for receiving distinguished visitors. The famous Peacock Throne was once kept there, before Aurangzeb took it to Delhi. This hall was intricately decorated with marble pillars studded with floral patterns of semi-precious stones. Adjacent to the Diwan-i-Khas stands the Musamman Burj, an octagonal Tower which was the residence of Shah Jahan’s favourite empress, Mumtaz Maḥal. The Moti Masjid or the Pearl Mosque, constructed by Shah Jahan, is a structure made entirely of white marble. The emperor’s private residence was the Khas Mahal, whose marble walls were once adorned with flowers depicted by precious gems with classical Persian and Islamic influences with a touch of Hindu motifs in its construction. Located to its northeast is the Sheesh Mahal or Palace of Mirrors with its walls and ceilings inlaid with thousands of small mirrors and employs the most sophisticated water engineering designs. Mammam-E-Shahi or the Shah Burj was used as the summer retreat, while the Nagina Masjid was built by emperor Shah Jahan as a private mosque for the ladies of the court while the Mina Masjid was the private shrine of Emperor Shah Jahan. Today some parts of the Agra Fort is used by the Indian Army and is off-limit to public access. The fort also served as a prison for Shah Jahan when Aurangzeb, his son and successor as emperor, had him confined there from 1658 until his death in 1666. The fort is open between sunrise and sunset and entry fees for Indians is INR 40 while foreigners pay INR 550. Children below the age of 15 enter free and entry into the fort is only allowed through the Amar Singh gate.

Often referred to as the Baby Taj Mahal, the tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah is a Mughal mausoleum and is the first tomb in India made entirely of marble. The tomb was commissioned by Nur Jahan, the wife of Jahangir, for her father Mir Gheyas Beg, later known as Itimad-ud-daulah, A minister in the court of Jahangir. The tomb marks the transition from the first phase of the Mughal architecture to the second. This was the first structure to make use of pietra dura and the first to be built on the banks of the Yamuna River and consists of Indo-Islamic architecture, with the use of arched entrances and octagonal shaped towers. A bird’s eye of Itimad-ud-daulah Tomb shows  it looks like a jewel box set in a garden. Located on the left bank of the Yamuna river, the mausoleum is set in a large cruciform garden, criss-crossed by water courses and walkways. On each corner are hexagonal towers, about thirteen metres tall. The walls are white marble from Rajasthan encrusted with semi-precious stone decorations made of cornelian, jasper, lapis lazuli, onyx, and topaz in images of cypress trees and wine bottles, or more elaborate decorations like cut fruit or vases containing bouquets. Light penetrates to the interior through delicate Jali screens of intricately carved white marble. The tomb is made of white marble and placed on a large red sandstone platform, which can be accessed by four monumental gateways. The inner space of the tomb is divided among 9 Chambers, with the central chamber being the largest of all and accessible only from the southern side. There are cypress tree and other floral decorations on the wall, that give off an essence of the Persian architecture. The origin of lattice jali is from Gujarat and has been used extensively during the Mughal reign. The Eastern gate is the main entrance, the Western gate, a waterfront pavilion and the Southern and Northern gates are to just maintain symmetry. These gates are made with red sandstone and have geometric designs and chine khana designs on white marbles. The square-shaped tomb has four turrets which are adorned with small domed kiosks known as Chattris. These Chattris, one on each corner rise from an octagonal base. There are jali works from the arched entrance of the tomb to the centre of the mausoleum. The garden around the tomb is square in shape and divided into 4 quadrants, with the tomb in between. The garden includes walkways and water channels. The garden is also symmetrically maintained and each of its quadrants represents each sea of paradise. The garden also comprises of 4 rectangular pools with fountains, which enhances the beauty of the overall area. The tomb remains open from dawn to dusk and one can visit anytime during the day. However, to catch the monument at its best, it is recommended to visit during sunrise or sunset.

The final resting place of the Mughal Emperor Akbar, is situated in Sikandra on the outskirts of Agra, about 13 km from the Agra Fort and spreads over an area of 119 acres. Built entirely out of sandstone and white marble between 1605 and 1618., the four-storied tomb combines both marble and sandstone in its exterior. The construction of Sikandra was commenced in Akbar’s reign, and was completed by his heir and son Jahangir in 1613. The tomb, built in a mixture of Hindu Rajputana design and gothic Mughal style is set amidst a large garden, and is enclosed by four battlemented walls, each with a large gateway. The shape of the tomb is pyramidal and has four storeys and a marble pavilion, which contains the false tomb with the true tomb in the basement. The 99 names of Allah have been inscribed on the tomb. The tomb has seen some damage to its minarets and other aspects, which was inflicted by the Jats of Bharatpur. The vast gardens around Sikandra are inhabited by several Blackbucks, which are in the process of being shifted to the Etawah Safari Park. The ground floor is surrounded by walkways all around except at the centre of the southern side, which is the way that leads in from the main gate. These arcades are divided by huge arches and piers that divided the walkways into many bays. The next three storeys are square with arcades and clusters of kiosks on each side. In the second storey, some of the kiosks have marble roofs in pyramidal shapes. The rest of the kiosks are crowned by cupolas. Every end of the third storey has a small square shaped room. The top storey that is, the pavilion is made entirely of white marble. It has an open-to-the-sky square court. Slender arches and piers have enclosed the central courtyard, dividing it into many bays. A square platform lies at the centre of the courtyard over which the false tomb is laid out, made of marble. The tomb had floral patterns and arabesque beautifully carved on to it. Unlike other muslim kings, Akbar’s Tomb faces towards the rising sun instead of Mecca. The tomb is open from sunrise to sunset every day except Fridays when it is closed. Entrance fees includes a development authority fee of INR 5 for Indians, with citizens of SAARC and BIMSTEC countries paying INR 25 as well as a toll tax from the Agra Development Authority of INR 10. Other foreigners pay INT 110 and children under the age of 15 enter free. Foreigners who purchase the Agra Development Authority toll ticket of INR 500 for Taj Mahal, do not need to purchase any other toll ticket if they visit Akbar’s Tomb on the same day.

Chini ka Rauza is the tomb of Allama Afzal Khan Mullah, the Prime Minister of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. Also known as China Tomb, it was built between 1628 and 1639 and has a marvellous fusion of the Indo-Persian style. It is the first monument of its kind to be decorated by glazed tile work, known as chini. The tomb is located 1 km north of Itimad-ud-Daulah’s tomb, on the banks of the river Yamuna and is is built facing Mecca. The tiles for the mausoleum are known to have been imported from China. The rectangular building has striking features, the most alluring of which are the turquoise, orange, yellow and green coloured tiles also known as kashi or chini. It’s dome has been elevated to give a two-storeyed effect to the building. The chief chamber is octagonal in shape, has eight arched clefts and is connected to the four side halls. Built-in the Afghan style of architecture, Chini ka Rauza is believed to be the only building in India with Persian architectural designs. The interiors of the shrine are adorned with intricate paintings and inscriptions from the Quran.

One of the last Mughal gardens in Agra, Mehtab Bagh is a charbagh or four garden complex located just north to the Taj Mahal and overlooking the Agra Fort on one side and the Yamuna river on the other. Perfectly aligned with the gardens of Taj Mahal, Mehtab Bagh provides a picture-perfect view of the Taj from the fountain at the front of the entrance gate and is a popular sunset photography spot. The garden has four sandstone towers, one each at the corner with a huge octagonal tank right in the centre. It is believed that Shah Jahan got the bagh designed so he could admire the beauty of Taj Mahal. On the moonlit nights, the clear reflection of the wondrous Taj Mahal in the waters of the park is a sight worth seeing. The Bagh has scores of vibrantly blooming floral plants and medicinal herbs, besides fruit trees. Originally built in 1530 by the Mughal Emperor Babur, the garden fell into disrepair until Shah Jahan renovated it into a moonlit pleasure garden in the Persian style layout with plastered pavilions elevated walkways, ornamental fountains and pretty pools. In 1994, excavations carried out by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI unearthed an octagonal tank, 25 water fountains and a four-complex divided compartment. The garden compound is constructed with red sandstone, brick and lime plaster. There is a stepped waterfall present in the north that feeds the octagonal pond on the southern end. this pond. Of the four towers, only one tower stands today, towards the south-east side and a large water tank on the east, with many water channels. The garden also houses two ruined structures which are presumed to be the garden pavilions that did not survive the passage of time and an aqueduct in the north that waters the garden. Mehtab Bagh is open between 6 am to 6 pm and Indians and SAARC nation visitors pay INR 30 as entrance fees while other foreigners pay INR 200.

Built by emperor Shah Jahan in 1637 as his personal leisure garden, Anguri Bagh is a sprawling charbagh or four compartment styled garden complex, on the premises of the Khas Mahal in Agra Fort. Originally popular for the thick creepers of grapes, the garden came to be called as Anguri Bagh or the Garden of Grapes. The structure in the garden is made of fine white marble which was painted and gilded in gold and adorned with beautiful paintings. The main part of this structure consisted of a hall with a recess and rooms in a surrounding semicircular pattern and a huge courtyard in the front with tanks, fountains and hammams overlooking the garden. Anguri Bagh is open between sunrise and sunset and the entry fee for Indians is INR 40 while foreigners need to pay INR 510.

The Aram Bagh, commonly known as Ram Bagh today, is one of the oldest Mughal garden in India, and was built by the Mughal emperor Babur in 1528 on the bank of the Yamuna. It lies about 2.3 km (1 mi) north of the Taj Mahal. The original name of the gardens was Aram Bagh, or ‘Garden of Relaxation’, and this was where Babur used to spend his leisure time.

Also known as the Friday Mosque, the Jama Masjid is a seventeenth-century structure and one of the largest mosques built by the Mughals in India. Constructed under the reign of Shah Jahan in 1648, the Jama Masjid is dedicated to his favourite daughter Jahan Ara Begum. This splendid monument is visible from the Agra Fort with the Agra Fort Railway station right between the two structures. Built mainly of red sandstone and white marble , the mosque has a fountain at the centre and is supported by four kiosks in the courtyard. The interior walls have scriptures in the Persian style praising Shah Jahan and Jahan Ara and the inlaid panels are similar to that of Taj Mahal. Every Friday, special prayers are conducted and the Tomb of Salim Chisti is a part of the mosque compound. The Jama Masjid has many domes, out of which the prayer dome is the largest. The Buland Darwaza is forty meters high and is built of red sandstone and is semi-octagonal in pattern and contains three massive domes at the top. These domes are followed by three smaller domes and twelve tiny domes at lower levels. The impressive arches at the courtyard are supported by pillars covered in red sandstone. The domes are decorated by an inverted lotus and are ornamented by a Kalash at the top. The designs on top of these domes are made of alternating stripes of marble and red sandstone. Entry to the Jama Mosque is possible through five entrances with the gateway embellished with small layers of sandstone. The Iwan or the rectangular hall walled on three sides has a central arch with several geometric patterns. Jama Masjid is open from 7 am to 12 noon and then from 1:30 to 6:30 pm. While entry is free, photography charges are INR 30. Feet are expected to be covered and women are expected to cover their heads while inside the mosque.

Located inside the Taj Mahal complex, the Taj Museum was established in 1982 on the western end of the Taj Gardens. The tiny but terrific depository is a double-storeyed building with a quadrangle projection outside. Situated a little left on the main gate of the mausoleum inside the Jal Mahal, the museum provides the wonderful opportunity to have a close look at the blueprints, art and artefacts used in the construction of the monument. Spread over two floors, the museum boasts of three galleries in addition to the main hall. The main attraction is the 17th-century ivory portraits of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan and his beloved queen Mumtaz Mahal. Other than that, there are a dozen paintings, frescoes and sketches of the planning and designing of the Taj Mahal, in addition to umpteen antiques, miniature paintings, manuscripts, government decrees, arms, utensils, specimens of inlay works etc. The first gallery is a depiction of the brainstorming involved behind the construction of Taj, site plans, and various letters sent to and fro between Shah Jahan and Raja Jai Singh of Jaipur ensuring the smooth supply of makrana marble. The second gallery showcases some jade and porcelain objects including a jade Quran stand, beautifully ornamented vase of the same material, nifty celadon ware utensils, arms and specimens of other semi-precious stones etc. The third gallery is a display of documents, farmans, famous calligraphy works and the paintings of the monument post completion. The museum also houses many original Mughal miniature paintings. As well as some Caledon plates which are said to split into pieces or change colour if the food served on them contains poison. The museum is open between 10 am and 7 pm and is closed on Fridays. Entrance charges are INR 20 for Indians and INR 750 for foreigners.

Established in 1995, Wildlife SOS is a non-profit organisation that rescues and rehabilitates wild animals and forests. Its Agra Bear Rescue Facility is the largest sloth bear rescue facility in the world housing 130 sloth bears. The Elephant Care and Conservation Centre, located halfway between Agra and Mathura, rescues and rehabilitates abused and captive elephants. To visit any of the conservation facility of Wildlife SOS, one must email or phone in advance to book a time slot. There are 3-4 slots available per day with the package facilitating a guided tour of the area and the presentation of a well-informed documentary showcasing the rescue of dancing bears and their recovery. Wildlife SOS is open between 9 am and 1 pm and then between 2 to 6 pm with the entry fee for one being INR 6500, for two INR 5600,  for three people INR 5500 and for 4 or more people it is INR 5300 per person.

The Keetham Lake Bird Sanctuary also known as the Sur Sarovar Bird Sanctuary is situated within the Surdas Reserved Forest and has nearly two dozen varieties of migratory and resident birds.

103 km south of Agra lies the National Chambal Wildlife Sanctuary, home to the Gharial, red crowned turtles, Gangetic Dolphins and Indian skimmers, among others. Surrounded by the Chambal river, the cleanest river in the country, the sanctuary provides visitors with an unpolluted habitat, abundant wildlife, amazing landscapes, medieval temples and magnificent ancient ruins. Tourists usually rent a motorised boat to go up and down the river as it flows through the ravines which provides visitors an up close and personal view of the birds and animals. Walks around the river and ravines are also organised and alongside the normal jeep safari, this national park offers visitors with a river safari, bicycle rides, camel safaris and horse safaris. The Chambal River Safari is the highlight of the sanctuary, almost 3 hours long and the best way to enjoy the view of the sanctuary. The Chambal river is the lifeline of the forest and meanders its way across the states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Boats with a seating capacity of few more than a dozen people are arranged by the Chambal Safari Lodge which carry visitors through the river and also have guides. The endangered Gharial and the Ganges River Dolphin are the major attractions of the sanctuary with other inhabitants including Muggar crocodiles, Bengal Foxes, Indian Grey Mongoose, Smooth-coated Otters, Striped Hyaena and the Indian Wolf. Chambal is also home to 8 out of 26 rare turtle species found in India and a haven for many migratory birds.

Garhmukteshwar

Moving on from Agra, we now travel 265 km north to Garmukteshwar, a popular pilgrim spot situated on the banks of the River Ganges. A popular day trip from Delhi, it is the closest where one can take a dip in the Ganges during the Ganga Mela held here on the full moon nights in the month of Kartika during October and November when devotees bathe in the waters of the Ganges to cleanse themselves of sins. The Ganges river in Garhmukteshwar is also known for its sightings of the Ganges River Dolphins. Garhmukteshwar is an ancient place that is mentioned in the Bhagavata Purana and the Mahabharata. There are claims that it was a part of ancient Hastinapur, the capital of the Pandavas. An ancient fort, repaired by the Maratha leader Mir Bhawan, became, under the British, the headquarters of the tehsil. The name of the town is derived from the temple of Mukteshwar Mahadeva, dedicated to the Goddess Ganga who is worshipped there in four temples. The town has 80 sati pillars, marking the spots where Hindu widows are said to have become Sati-Mata. The town also has a mosque, built by Gays-ud-din Balban, that bears an inscription in Arabic dating to 682 Hijri or 1283 AD.

In the next part, we will explore some ancient and historic towns in Uttar Pradesh.

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