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Agra: The city built by Mughals didn’t have much of a history before it

Agra acquired its days of glory under the Mughals, and was soon to shed it off with the decline of the dynasty.

Historians believe that though the city existed in some form before and after Mughal rule, it was definitely under the Mughals that Agra shone in its brightest spirit. (Express photo by Ritesh Shukla)

Agra’s Mughal heritage came under scrutiny earlier this month when chief minister Yogi Adityanath announced the name change of the under-construction Mughal museum at Agra that was to showcase Mughal era culture, artefacts, and cuisine. Questioning ‘how Mughals can be our heroes’, Adityanath decided to change the museum’s name after Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. With the decision, officials in Uttar Pradesh are out on the hunt to establish links between Shivaji and Agra. Historians, however, are of the opinion that though the city existed in some form before and after Mughal rule, it was definitely under the Mughals that Agra shone in its brightest spirit.

Also read: Museum’s name changed, Agra officials hunt for Shivaji links

The city that lies on the Ganga-Yamuna doab region had an intriguing political significance in the history of medieval India. While political authority in northern India was largely concentrated in Delhi from the 13th century, Agra emerged as the capital when the Lodi rulers of the 16th century wanted to establish a tight grip over the subcontinent. Towards the end of the Delhi Sultanate in 1504, emperor Sikander Lodi shifted his capital to Agra.

The city of the wondrous Taj Mahal, that attracts the highest number of global tourists each year, is dotted with remnants of everything that the Mughals gave to India. (Express Archive)

It was under the Mughals though that Agra acquired its stature of dominance and beauty. “Agra is pre-eminently a Mughal city,” wrote architectural historian Lucy Peck, in her book, Agra: the architectural heritage’. She further noted that while Delhi and Lahore too were Mughal capital cities, Agra acquired its days of glory under the Mughals, and was soon to shed it off with the decline of the dynasty. The city of the wondrous Taj Mahal, that attracts the highest number of global tourists each year, is dotted with remnants of everything that the Mughals gave to India.

Agra: Before the Mughals glory

It is astonishing how little is known about the early history of Agra, other than the fact that it had been raided by the Turkik ruler Mahmud of Ghazni. “Agra was ravaged by Mahmud Ghazni during one of his raids into India, and he so utterly devastated it that it became one of the most insignificant villages in the land,” wrote historian Abraham Eraly in his book, The age of Wrath: A history of the Delhi Sultanate.
Other early records of the city include a fort built by the Rajput ruler Badal Singh in 1475, which was taken over by Lodi when he moved court to Agra. Archaeological digs have revealed some Mauryan bricks and coins, and a few ancient temples exist carrying forward mythological traditions associated with the city.

Agra: Days of Mughals glory

When Mughal emperor Babur invaded India in 1526, he made Agra his capital, logically because it had been the administrative centre of Lodi rule. However, he was utterly dismissive of the city’s aesthetics. “Babur particularly disparaged the quality of the gardens,” wrote Peck. “He was equally dismissive of most of the buildings, complaining that there is no making of houses or raising of walls. They simply make huts from plentiful straw and innumerable trees, and instantly a village or city is born,” Peck added.

Consequently, he initiated a remodelling of Agra’s urban landscape. One of the first features he introduced to the city was the Persian Timurid garden tradition. “The nucleus of Agra was formed of gardens lining the river Jamna on both sides,” wrote architectural historian Ebba Koch in her article, Mughal Agra: A riverfront garden city. She noted that Babur called his first garden at Agra laid out in 1526, a chahar bagh, like some of the earlier gardens in present day Afghanistan. “The waterfront garden became the favourite plan of the residential gardens of Agra and reached its grandest expression in the Taj Mahal,” wrote Koch. She added that “the waterfront garden became an imperial prerogative.”
“At Shah Jahan’s new city Shahjahanabad, it was used almost exclusively for the gardens and courtyards of the emperor’s riverfront palace, the Red Fort.”

While Babur’s heir Humayun chose Delhi as his residence, Akbar moved court back to Agra in 1558 and the city once again grew in size, wealth and power.

Also read: Explained: 700-plus places in India that bear the names of Mughals today

Under Akbar, Agra came to be called ‘Akbarabad’. He initially lived in the old fort, but in 1565, he demolished the old structure and built a new fort in its place. “We often think of the Red Fort as the one in Delhi. But the first Red Fort was actually built in Agra by Akbar,” explained historian Ira Mukhoty in a telephonic conversation with Indianexpress.com. She explained that Akbar decided to move to Agra since he wanted to be closer to the heart of the country. “Even when Akbar shifted to Fatehpur Sikri, the treasury remained at Agra. Fatehpur Sikri was more of an experimental city where he tried out his religious innovations. But administration continued to take place from Agra,” added Mukhoty.

The Red Fort at Agra built by Akbar between 1565-73. (Wikimedia Commons)

By the time Jahangir took over the Mughal throne in 1604, the riverfront scheme at Agra was fully developed. European travelers and chroniclers wrote in glowing details about the beauty of Agra in the 17th century. The Dutch merchant Francisco Pelsaert, who was posted at Agra in 1618, observed that “the luxuriance of the groves all around makes it resemble a royal park rather than a city”. He listed 33 gardens at Agra, about a third of which were created or remodelled during Jahangir’s reign.

Shah Jahan’s rule from 1628, also saw the development of Agra. The emperor, most famous for his creative building projects introduced the white marble, characteristic of his architectural contributions in Agra, Delhi and Lahore. While the Taj Mahal is of course his most famed creation in Agra, he is also known to have constructed an octagonal bazaar (now lost), linking the palace fortress, the Agra Fort and the new Jami Masjid, which was sponsored by his daughter Jahanara. However, with time, Shah Jahan found the Agra Fort too cramped for his convenience and shifted the capital to Delhi, where he built the grand city of Shahjahanabad in 1639.

Shah Jahan, however, did spend the final years of his life at Agra, where he was imprisoned by son Aurangzeb, inside the fort. Later, Aurangzeb spent most of his time in the Deccan.

Agra: The days of Mughal decline

By the 18th century, and particularly after Aurangzeb’s death in 1707, the Mughal court was in turmoil. A string of weak rulers had followed. Unsurprisingly, the chaos of the regime resulted in Agra changing several hands and eventually the city lost the significance it had enjoyed at the peak of Mughal rule.
“In 1764 it was captured by the Jats under Raja Surajmal of Bharatpur, who sacked the city and tradition has it, shot off the tops of minarets on the gateway to Akbar’s tomb and melted down two doors from the Taj Mahal,” wrote Peck. The city was on different occasions occupied by the Marathas, Jats and Mughals, before being retaken by a Maratha army under a European mercenary, General Perron. Finally, it fell to the British East India Company in 1803.

Agra, main street in 1858. (Wikimedia Commons)

“So many important monuments that shaped the history of the Mughals, and also influenced the way the Mughals shaped Indian history are part of Agra’s heritage,” said Mukhoty. Other than the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort, Mughal rule has also left behind the structures like the Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah, commissioned by queen Nur Jahan, and the tomb of Mariam-uz-Zamani, built by Jahangir. “We must also remember that the very proximity of the city to Mathura, influenced the Mughals with Braj bhasha and the Bhakti culture which seeped into Mughal culture and writings,” explained Mukhoty.

Tomb of Itmad ud daulah (Wikimedia Commons/Daniel Villafruela)

Speaking about the decision to change the name of the museum, Mukhoty said, “It is a dangerous idea to celebrate or not celebrate something based on binary categories of one ruler being good and other being bad. The Mughals are a part of us and our culture in north India.” She added, “There is a lot that the Mughals have given to Agra. It is by definition one of the greatest of Mughal cities.”

Further reading:

The age of wrath: A history of the Delhi Sultanate by Abraham Eraly

Mughal Agra: A riverfront garden city by Ebba Koch

Agra: the architectural heritage by Lucy Peck

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