In the shadows

Beside the Taj Mahal, the Agra Fort stood as an impregnable bastion under the Mughal Empire.


In 1565, Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar, the third ruler of the Mughal Empire – which controlled large parts of India in the 16th and 17th centuries – built the main constructions of the Agra Fort. He erected walls around what became a fortified city. The provincial city of Agra became the empire’s capital.

In 1627, Akbar’s grandson, Shah Jahan, became the empire’s fifth ruler. Years later he moved to Delhi. He constructed the Taj Mahal, the famous white marble monument, in memory of his deceased wife Mumtaz Mahal. He built it only a few kilometres from the Agra Fort.

Jahan fell ill in 1657 and resigned his throne to Dara Shikoh, the eldest of his four sons. His brothers were jealous. They attacked the Agra Fort and defeated Shikoh. The third son, Aurangzeb, appointed himself ruler and locked his father inside the fort. “He did it because Shah Jahan didn’t want Aurangzeb to become the ruler,” says Ruknuddin Mirza, conservation architect at the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage. “It wasn’t revenge, but more about taking the power by force.” It is said that Jahan could see the Taj Mahal from his balcony. He died after eight years in imprisonment.


The Agra Fort was listed by UNESCO in 1983 and lies in northern India about three kilometres from the Taj Mahal. Its cultural heritage is unquestioned – particularly because of its mixture of Hindu and Islamic architecture – but its white marble neighbour has stolen some of the limelight. Distractingly, visitors can eye the Taj Mahal on the horizon. On various websites, the fortress dominates lists detailing underappreciated heritage sites. The shadow of Taj Mahal looms large.

Under Akbar’s rule, some 4,000 people slaved away on this red sandstone bastion. They spent eight years. When completed in 1573, towers, pillared halls and decorated hallways arose from the ground. The complex was vast: some say about 500 different buildings resided within the walls. Decades later Jahan added beautiful mosques and courtyards. He also introduced white marble. The fortress has later been reconstructed, but the influences of its past remain.


The architecture carries a notion of defensiveness. The surrounding sandstone walls cover 2.5 kilometres (1.95 miles) and are 21 metres high. From the foundations to the battlements, the fortress is made of hewn stone so finely polished and craftily joined together that, according to one saying, “the end of a hair could not find a place between them”. A moat circles the walls and is crossed by four gateways.

But the city had other functions too. “It wasn’t only for military purposes,” says Mirza. “It was also for residential purposes. Akbar used to stay there and a lot of buildings were made for secular and public activities. It was a fort that was inhabited by locals as well.“ In later years the British, and the Indian army have all controlled the fort. It is now visited by those who go beyond the Taj Mahal.

Photos: Krishna.Wu, Mr.D, Rechitan Sorin [all via].