I remember the first time I started to really appreciate historical places. In 2009, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to visit the Syrian capital of Damascus. The Ancient City, with its narrow lanes and brilliant street culture, was just begging to be explored. Knowing that I was walking the lanes of one of the world’s longest inhabited cities thrilled me in a way that no other city ever has, and since then I have found myself fascinated by historical monuments and the secrets that they hold within them.
Therefore, I was eagerly awaiting the opportunity to explore some of the Mughal monuments of India. I first became interested in Mughal history when I came face-to-face with an Akbar Mughal painting at the V&A in London. I was instantly intrigued by the work’s original style – the boldness of the colours and the incredible detail of what was going on in the scene jumped out at me.
The Mughals originated in Central Asia, and were proud of their heritage – they descended from the Mongol ruler Jenghiz Khan and Timur. Memories of past glory during Timur’s raids on India is what spurred Babur, the first emperor of Mughal, to invade and conquer the country again in 1526.
During their reign, they built great cities in Delhi and Agra, and many of these monuments still stand today, allowing us to glimpse into the grandeur of this empire. What interests me the most about the Mughals was their dedication to art. Akbar, who reigned from 1556-1605, was one of the major Mughal emperors. He had an active interest in paintings, and employed mainly local Hindu artists. Mughal paintings began to bear their distinctive style, which was a blend of the sophisticated techniques of Persian artists alongside the strong colours and boldness of Indian artists.
The emperors who reigned following Akbar also had a keen interest in the arts; Jahangir, who was less interested with expanding the empire and more interested in enjoying his riches, was a connoisseur of jewels and paintings, while Shah Jahan – best known for building the Taj Mahal – had a love of jewels. Shah Jahan was imprisoned and deposed by his son, Aurangzeb, who had no interest in the arts and was obsessed with money and power. Under his rule, paintings and decorative arts declined, and subsequently the empire also crumbled.
Mughal architecture was a mixture of Islamic, Persian and Indian styles. All buildings have a uniform pattern of structure and character, and examples can be found in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Babur erected many buildings, though few have survived. Akbar also built widely – some of his buildings include Agra Fort, a tomb for his father Humayun, and the fort-city of Fatehpur Sikri. As already mentioned, Shah Jahan built the glorious Taj Mahal.
A Tour Through Mughal India
We decided to venture to Agra to see some of the Mughal buildings which still stand – the aforementioned Agra Fort, Fatehpur Sikri and Taj Mahal. While we were in New Delhi, we also paid a visit to Humayun’s tomb, completing a small tour of some of the country’s major Mughal monuments.
We decided to start our tour with Fatehpur Sikri (the City of Victory) – a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city was founded in 1569 by Akbar and served as the Mughal capital from 1571 to 1585, which, when you consider its grandeur, was a very short time frame.
The city is located approximately 40km away from Agra, so we had to drive there. It is believed that Akbar visited the village of Sikri to consult a Sufi saint. The emperor was without an heir and the Sufi predicted the birth of a son. When the prophecy became a reality, Akbar built the new capital. However, the Indo-Islamic masterpiece was abandoned shortly after Akbar died.
It is incredibly well-preserved; Akbar’s tolerant religious views is reflected in the charismatic blend of Islamic and Hindu influences in the city’s design. We were in awe of how to this day all the detail can still be seen on the buildings of the city.
Within Fatehpur Sikri, we also visited Buland Darwaza, which is considered to be one of the highest gateways in the world.
Built by Akbar, Agra Fort encompasses the imperial city of the Mughal rulers. It includes fairytale palaces, such as Jahangir Palace, and audience halls such as the Diwan-i-Khas. While the city of Agra today is a shadow of its former glory, monuments such as the red sandstone walls of Agra Fort hail to an era of grandeur.
Inside the fort, we got to see the various buildings, such as Khas Mahal, which was a private palace built by Shah Jahan for his daughers Roshnara and Jahanara.
Most spectacular of all is the fact that from the fort you can catch a glimpse of the Taj Mahal. Knowing that we were due to visit the next day made it even more exciting to see it from a distance. It is believed that when Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb in the fort, he had a view of the building, which he had built for his deceased wife. Talk about torture!
Possibly the most easily recognised landmark on earth, the Taj Mahal is as firmly on the beaten track as you can get. And yet, despite the fact it’s a tourist trap – 12,000 visitors a day, to be precise – I was ridiculously excited to see it. Add to the fact that my mum has always wanted to visit, and the sentimental side of me was in overdrive – “I’m here for my mummy, too,” I told myself. Our trip to the Taj Mahal was one of the things I was looking forward to most during our visit to India.
Ankit has already written a beautiful photo essay on our visit here, so I’ll just write a few of my impressions. The Taj Mahal really is the most majestic structure I’ve ever seen. It’s ethereally beautiful, and when you see it during the first light of day it feels like it glows.
Yes, there are tourists everywhere, but get there early enough and you can avoid a bit of the rush. You’ll never be alone, though, so you just have to try and zone everyone out and enjoy it for what it is.
Our final Mughal monument visit was made in New Delhi. Humayun’s Tomb was built in 1570 and is of particular cultural significance, as according to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites website it was the first garden-tomb on the Indian subcontinent. It also inspired various architectural innovations, which then culminated in the development of the Taj Mahal.
Humayun was the Mughal emperor who preceded Akbar, and this tomb was commissioned by his widow, Biga Begum. It’s an impressive structure, and it was the first of a long series of tombs which contributed to the evolution of Mughal architecture.
The best time of year to visit Agra and Delhi is anytime between October and April. I can highly recommend visiting in October; the weather is warm but not hot, and there’s no winter mist, which can sometimes hamper people’s visits to the Taj Mahal.
Entrance tickets to the Taj Mahal cost Rs750 for foreigners, which includes free covers for your shoes and a bottle of water. All other monuments mentioned in this post cost Rs250.
Agra is approximately 200km from Delhi, and can be reached within three hours via the expressway. Trains run frequently between the two cities and it takes approximately two to three hours to get there. You can find detailed train information, schedules and prices here.
Which historical era intrigues you? And why?