The railway crosses the holy Yamuna river over a large lattice bridge and ends at the so called Fort Station. Already from the station one can see in the East looking back towards the Yamuna river the skyline of the wide-ranging forts, lean towers and minarets.
Crossing Agra in a half hour carriage drive to reach our quarters in a palace provided by the Maharaja of Jaipur, we were wondering from time to time where exactly the city was. Enclosing an area of around 28 km2 within its walls and numbering around 165.000 inhabitants, the old town of Agra, once the capital city and residence of the Grand Mughals and still today after Dehli the largest city on the upper Ganges plain, offers a strange view. Numerous single buildings alternated with small housing complexes, then a pile of debris and ruins, followed by gardens, fields and extended heathlands.
The reason for this strange shape of the city lies in the fact that on the one hand the history and importance of Agra can only be traced back to the Grand Mughals Babur (1494 to 1530) and Akbar (1556 to 1605), who had intended the city to be more extensive, according to the original plans of its builders, than the course of its actual development. On the other hand, an important part of the city lies in ruins. Thus it turned out that Agra with the exception to the groups of houses that line the main avenue and the bazaars has only dispersed single houses distributed over a large area.
The palace we are living in occupies a wild park full of peacocks and parrots as these colorful but loud animals are fed daily in the park on the order of the maharaja. The palace’s exterior is bland but the interior is remarkable by the fact that not a single of the many rooms have a window but are only illuminated by a skylight that scarcely offers a bit of light. During the hot periods of the year this may be practical to keep the rooms relatively cool. During the present time and especially in the exceptionally cool Indian winter temperatures of 1893, we were freezing miserably in these strange prison cell like rooms of the palace.
This aspect which justified my christening the palace in Agra the „inhospitable palace“ confirmed our intention to undertake the planned sightseeing trip in the Agra area as soon as possible. First we went to Sikandra, the grave of Akbar, situated in the Northwest of Agra.
The ride offered us an overview of the location and plan of the city. Located on the right Western shore of the Yamuna, this river rich in water and creating fertile alluvial plains, Agra is today divided into the following parts: the old town, which used to be twice as populated under Akbar as it is today and which only contains a limited number of sights from that period when Agra (1568 to 1658) was the residence of the Grand Mughals of Hindustan; the almost completely ruined suburbs, the English barracks to the South, the civil lines with the high court, the administration, the government college and the central prison in the North; finally at the south-eastern end beyond the old town and next to the station, the fort built by Akbar.
Agra’s history is compressed into a relatively short era, especially for India with its millennial empires. In the year1527, Agra, up to that time a residence of the Muslim house of Lodi, was captured by Zehir ed din Mohammed called Babur (the tiger), the first Grand Mughal of India. Babur is the founder of the dynasty that can be traced back to Timur Leng (Tamerlan) and Ghengis Khan — Muslims of Mongolian descent — who with sword in hand had defeated the princes of India with their hordes of riders and set up the empire of the Grand Mughals which gained great power under Babur, Akbar, Aurengzeb but finally succumbed to the English. Since the period the titular kings became English tributaries but continued to intrigue and rebel against the rapidly growing British supremacy, the Grand Mughals de facto bereft of their power but not of all influence have had an erratic life. The death of Shah Bahadur (1862), the last „Emperor“, a old man of eighty, an the execution of all his offspring after the capture of Dehli by the English (1857) has pushed the dynasty of the Indian Timurids quickly into oblivion.
The heyday of the Mughals were under the rule of Babur, Akbar, Dschehangir, Shah Dschehan and Aurengzeb. Under these princes the splendor of the court attracted ambassadors, scholars, artists, priests from all countries everywhere and their area under their rule and their power was at its peak of all Grand Mughals. The era of decay is characterize by a number of episodes: On the one hand, the rise of British power and the occupation of the lands of the Mughals by the English. On the other hand intrusions by the neighboring princes into the area ruled by the rapidly declining Timurids; intrigues of political nature; excessive luxury, senseless waste and the financial calamities this caused; court cabals, plots and dark deeds in which poison and daggers played their deadly role. All these episodes and many others are proof of the decline of their external power and the inner decadence of the once great dynasty of the Timurids which led to the fall of the Mughal empire and the political end of its dynasty.
I now return to the topic of Agra and the remains of its splendor. The old town offered few attractions during our drive. Still a few mosques and temples as well as the activity of the inhabitants received our attention. When we had passed the old Dehli gate and the bastion and started following the „road of the Mughal Empire“ with its old mile indicators (Kos minar) in the direction of Lahore and Kashmir towards Sikandra. numerous grave monuments and so called Baoli (stepwells with tiny resting places) became visible on both sides of the road. Also I have to pay tribute to a more modern enclosing wall decorated with frescoes whose ornaments showed processions, fights and hunts with elephants playing a big role in them.
All this pales in comparison to the destination of our trip, the tomb which holds the ashes of Akbar. This impressive mausoleum is surrounded by a caravanserai in the form of a wide square. On the exterior it resembles a fortress wall which is interrupted by four giant gates and multiple minarets bereft of their peaks. The caravanserai served as the well known name to us indicates a place for pilgrims and travelers. The gates offer entrance to the inner space enclosed by walls, a well kept garden with palm, mango and banana trees in whose midst stands the mausoleum. If even the view of the gates. high, elegant and profiled buildings with numerous niches and towerlets as well as the mosaics on the stone facades, catches our attention, then we are the more astonished and full of admiration, as soon as we stepped through one of the gates into the inner space and have walked the long straight path of flag stones that is interrupted by large water basins.
There rises the tomb of Akbar; an image of august greatness, clear and calm, despite all the pillars, halls, buttresses, kiosks and artificially inserted facades which decorate the proud building in a lavish style without the decoration disrupting its nature. From the platform made out of white stones that serves as a foundation rise five floors as stepping pyramids whose platforms due to its stair-like construction of the whole building creates open space as terraces on each platform. Around each of these terraces, with the exception of that which covers the top of the square building, runs a domed open gallery with fluted pillars and ogival arches which create at regular intervals square buttresses. Each of these buttresses is covered by a baldachin-like kiosk on a square base whose flat dome and widely cantilevered ceiling stands on ogival arches and pillars with Indo-Corinthian capitals. Protruding balustrades and all kinds of ornamental decorations make the profile of the buttresses all the richer.
The magic of color — the four lower floors consist of red sandstone, all its galleries, kiosks and balustrades and the the top floor are made out of exquisite snow white marble — the fantastic play of ornaments, the delicate grace of the decorations, the splendid masonry of the balustrades cut like laces: All this with its intimate charm creates a fine distinction to the grandiose dimensions and to the overall severe nearly anti-climatic linear arrangement of the rising pyramid of the mausoleum.
Having regained, after the first moments of bliss, the rightful prose of life, I asked where and how the construction material came from that was used to build the splendid tomb which Jahangir, Akbar’s son has erected for his father. The sandstone of Fatehpur Sikri near Agra — and this one has been used to build the mausoleum — is different from its European relatives by its remarkable hardness which permits to cut out very fine meshes out of fine plates. It is speckled with red and yellow or set with yellow veins. The glittering highly resistant white marble of the tomb is from Makrana near Jaipur.
As far as the dimension of the building are concerned it is 33 m high, each of the four fronts is at its base 100 m long. In the middle of the building is a subterranean room accessible by an inclining ramp which holds Akbar’s sarcophagus, made out of white marble and covered with Arab inscriptions. Here lie Akbar’s ashes at rest while in the top floor of the mausoleum stands according to Asian custom a cenotaph, an empty facsimile of the subterranean sarcophagus. In front of Akbar’s cenotaph we discover a small postament which once carried the legendary Koh-i-noor, „mountain of light“, one of the largest diamonds in the world which was handed for three centuries from the Indian treasury to the next, from Akbar’s tomb into the hands of Nadir Shah, the despotic usurper and finally to the East Indian Company until it was incorporated into the British royal treasure in 1850.
On the ground floor are buried four Muslim of Akbar in splendid richly carved and inlaid sarcophagi each of which stands in its own hall covered with marble mosaics and Arab inscriptions.
Each of the already mentioned terraces on the exterior of the mausoleum which can be reached by a small staircase offers something characteristic. The uppermost marble terrace is the most beautiful and truly amazing as it is surrounded by lattices chiseled out of marble plates and turned into arabesques. These lattices show in each piece another drawing of the most rare delicacy. With the exception of the red sandstone of the lower floors everything is out of glittering marble: the lattice, the floor, the galleries, the kiosks and the sarcophagi.
Enchanted by this place of memory to the old splendor and pomp of the Grand Mughals I left the mausoleum to drive to the bazaar of Agra and look for acquisitions for my ethnographic collection as was my custom. The street which constitutes the bazaar is narrow, set with large stone plates and remarkable for the charming fronts of the houses. Nearly every house has artfully carved balustrades, lattices and pillars that are the characteristic sign of Agra. In the rich and active bazaar I found, after much haggling, many outstanding things which will be sent home, well packaged.
As the English commissioner had arrived in the mean time we undertook a visit to the forts and the Taj Mahal in the afternoon. Unfortunately, the weather had turned cloudy. A strong rain drained our joy to see both these buildings in sunshine.
The Fort is a fortified palace of the Mughals and has been built at the end of the 16th and during the 17th century in a large part by Shah Jahan, the son of Jehangir. An extraordinarily strong crenelated wall made out of giant sandstone building blocks with many round corner towers is enclosing the fort. Around it runs a broad water filled moat. The massive external gates with towers allow only entrance through angled side gates of the main wall to the fortification of Agra which now hosts an English garrison.
Entering from the west through the Delhi gate, the first thing one sees are case mates, batteries and in an open space an arsenal of scraped cannon barrels of different weapon systems. Having passed this arrangement of the art of war, one reaches the actual palace of the Mughals which is in relatively good condition and displays elements of the former almost luxurious splendor and pomp. The palace is not a uniform building according to our understanding but rather a row of representative buildings, open halls, verandas, platforms, courtyards, mosques, baths etc. which cover a large area and are connected by paths and stairs. If one takes into consideration that all these buildings if the local red sandstone has not been used, consist of clear white marble which is decorated in gold, paint and artful mosaics made out of semi-precious stones one can imagine approximatively how luxurious this place once has been.
First we were shown the large audience hall Diwan-i-Am in the newer parts of the palace, completed under Aurengzeb and 70 m in length from north to south, a hall open on three sides whose ceiling is borne by three rows of strong pillars which have at the base and the capitals strange ancient Indian forms. On the rear wall of the hall rises in a niche a marble base on which once stood the Mughal throne. Above the niche whose walls are decorated with pietra dura works and reliefs is a marble baldachin inlaid with precious stones. Here the Mughals used to hold court in a grand manner and receive delegations and representatives of foreign princes.
In the courtyard enclosed by a gallery next to the audience hall which on the first floor contains the simply decorated women’s chambers, the Mughal used to fish as a hobby. The water of the fish pond had to be carried there. Later it was pumped up by a special mechanism. A balcony in the gallery of this quiet courtyard used to be the favorite spot of the Mughal ruler who year after year exchanged sword and scepter with the angler’s hook to capture fish in dreams, while the clamors of war were raging and the most royal splendor was offered. He, the tumultuous, a patient angler, he whose crown jewels and booty in the treasury were filled up to the brim, a man content with his floundering catch. And even during these hours of quiet humble joy of the princes, the intrigue of the courtiers and sycophantic treachery seeped in. The chronicle noted that a sycophant of the Mughal had, in order not to cloud the mood by failure, handy swimmers dive and hook up the largest fishes to the bait, a practice known from Nero’s palace baths in Capri.
A beauty is the marble private audience hall Diwan-i-Khas, „the hall of the selected“, that has been built in a smaller scale in a similar manner to the large audience hall but surpassing it in decoration, in the richness of its mosaics and in the elegance of its forms by far. In front of the audience hall is a large platform from where one can view the river towards the east and south, a fertile area and smiling fields on which the Taj Mahal, in spite of the bad weather, makes quite an impression by its majestic calm posture. From this terrace the Mughals could watch tiger and elephant fights that were arranged in the ditch of the wall, protected against any attacks from the excited animals by a high wall.
The throne on which the Mughals rested during these fighting games — a large black stone block burst in the middle — has been conserved and there is a second one opposite it on the same terrace but all in white marble. Superstitious and fantastical as all orientals, the inhabitants of this empire connected the crack in the middle of the plate of the black throne with fairy tale like stories from the military history of the fort of Agra. „Sooner will this hard stone break into pieces“, one of Mughals claimed, as has been told, „than I will break my word.“ But the Mughal’s word was not as firm and the stone sprang in two on the day the Mughal broke his word. Others claim that the crack came from that miserable day when Jowahir Singh, Raja of Bhartpur, having conquered Agra, dared to sit down on the throne of the Timurids.
Even the most recent era of Indian military history has left marks in the disputed stone plate of the black throne of Agra: the remnants of an English cannon ball fired during the siege of Agra in 1857 which lodged itself here, by ricochet it continued and pierced a splendidly carved lattice next to the audience hall. Also on other parts one can identify damage from cannon balls in the ornaments and carvings.
Besides the audience hall are a long row of rooms, paths of pillars and platforms which are parts of the private chambers of the Mughals. To describe them individually would go too far. One could fill volumes about their splendor, their opulence of marble, gold and mosaics, about the histories of the competence, the effort and the sense of forms of the artistic workers and the artistically sensitive artisans who hired by a builder loving luxury had been instructed by domestic and foreign masters to create Agra’s glory as a treasure chest of India’s art of construction and decoration.
The skill for inlaid marble works with arabesques and flower motifs has been preserved by Agra’s artisans to the present day. That foreign artists have influenced the design and decoration of the buildings in Agra and namely Austin de Bordeaux has been at work here in an outstanding manner under Shah Jahan is confirmed by the still existing construction history of the Taj. Despite the strangeness and the original even baroque forms and the oriental opulence in ornamentation in the buildings in Agra, nothing seems to be overladen here or displeasing to the eye. Quite the contrary, everything has been executed in an artistic manner and in unique beauty.
On one of these platforms of the palace I found in the marble floor composed squares and signs made out of differently colored stones. Upon my question, it was answered that the Mughals used to play here a game similar to chess called Pachisi where living humans, most beautiful girls, played the part of the figures. The figures stood on one of the squares and had to move according to the orders of the rulers, move by move.
I may not forget to mention a particularly beautiful protruding bay above the wall that overhangs a kiosk and has been one of the favorite spots of the Mughals. In this place, the ruler tended to accept all pleas without complaints; a circumstance which led to the practice that the petitioners from the people set themselves up in the fortress ditch and pleaded their case to the ruler standing quietly in his bay.
Notable are the the baths in Shish Mahal, „mirror palace“; these are completely without windows amd contain in the middle large marble basins with waterspout fountains and water games while the walls are decorated with grotesque arabesques which are laid out in countless small mirror plates in mosaics.
Still further down than the baths are some sort of caves, the so called summer apartments, dark rooms connected by corridors, which was inhabited by the Mughal and his seraglio during the hot summer months. Small openings in the thick walls offer a bit of light in these rooms.
As in any old palace and fort there was a torture chamber, a dreadful and completely dark room equipped with a cross beam on which delinquents were executed. The body of the executed fell into a pipe-like canal which led to the river as meat for the ravens and vultures.
It seems hardly possible that the Mughals managed to construct such luxurious buildings in a comparably short time with only the primitive technical means of former centuries. It can only be explained by the fact that the princely builders could command thousands of people even if it required it all the working population of a province to assist in the construction of the building and thus had numerous and cheap workers for the task — and that everyone had to comply to the iron will of oriental rulers in view of the the death penalty. For that matter, the Mughals were reasonable and understanding men who hosted many European artists at their court to profit from their knowledge inventive gifts and skills and did not shut themselves off from European culture and art.
The oldest part of the palace is a square building in red sandstone enclosing a large courtyard. Its construction style as well as its pillars, gables and capitals are remarkable as they are imitating the construction of raw wood frames and wood carvings and roof beams. In this courtyard should have taken place that strange audience in the year 1700, in which the first representative sent from England to the court of the Grand Mughals had to approach the Mughal majesty crawling on all fours according to the then current protocol. Since then much has changed in India and the role of the Indian rajas and the British residents has completely switched. Albion’s representative two hundred years ago was forced to approach the palace and court of the Mughals in the manner of a quadruped, one can now see, metaphorically speaking, the heirs of the proudest names of Hindustan bow before the English ruler, truly with a contained fierceness and perhaps in the secret hope in the breast that one future day the wheel of time will turn the history of India again towards the side of the rajas.
This palace too has its ow mosque only is this one, given the splendor of the whole, especially beautiful and mighty. Its name is „pearl mosque“ (Moti Mesdschid), a name which either indicated the preciousness of the mosque or might be derived from the silver color of its domes and pillars. The construction of this mosque is similar to all those buildings in India. Surpassing the walls of the fort by far, constructed by Shah Jahan and ornamented inside with delicious white, blueish and gray marble, the mosque has on its front side a wide courtyard enclosed by an arched hall borne by triple rows of pillars above which stand three domes. The white marble of the domes with golden peaks, the red sandstone of the exterior walls and portals, the decorations, the masonry, the inscriptions inside, its high elevation — everything is united to create a unique attraction to this gem of the Saracen art of building. Inside, everything is white in white what isn’t part of a mosaic, an inscription table and or niches in other colors. Even the floor of the great forecourt is covered with marble plates. Architecturally remarkable is the fact that the great pillar hall sogar with its rows of three pillars and its floor as as smooth as glass. In this floor are inlaid praying places in the direction of Mecca for the believers which in their form as marble mosaics imitate prayer rugs.
I went on the roof to appreciate the view on the numerous beautiful buildings of Agra despite the bad weather. When I looked down on the monuments of a great era which lay at my feet I thought about the changing fortunes of human actions, about the contrast between the „good old times“ of Agra to the present still life of decaying residences of the former courts and palaces. Where once stood the proud Grand Mughals in the splendor of their power, basking in the glittering shine of their court, where colorful, splendid life and strive ruled, mixed in with genial artistic creation: now there are within the secure area of the golden and marble palaces modern batteries of English guns. Silently British soldiers march up and down at their post. One can hear the locomotive’s shrill whistle from the station nearby. For a baksheesh, every foreigner may intrude into the fort and courtyard with a talkative guide, into the secret chambers and into the mosques of the once taboo residence of the Grand Mughals, may dig among the ruins of the niches and pillars, touch everything and look everywhere …. Tempora mutantur!
Out of my thoughts and dreams only one thing awakened me, something that is not difficult to guess, something that haunts all of India today and seems inescapable as if it was a creeping sickness – namely the taking of a picture by a photographic apparatus that had been set up. The owner of this modern torture instrument stood in front of us and pointed out in words the inescapable necessity to have me and my companions in the mosque set as a group for posterity. While one may discuss whether the warning in the Koran „You shall not create an image of the human body“ is applicable to photographic portraits, the proposal of the Muslim photographer to take the picture in the mosque as if we were pious Muslims must have been even more illogical. There was no way to escape the obnoxious artist than to give in to his wish.
After we had seen the fort we were set to see the pearl of all buildings in India, the most charming of all architectural world wonders, the most distinguished destination of all travelers who enter Hindustan, the world famous Taj Mahal (Taj = crown, Mahal = palace, i.e. the „home of the crown“).
Erected on the spot of where Shah Jahan had his pleasure garden on the right bank of the Yamuna stands the Taj Mahal also known as Taj bibi ke Rosa (the tomb of the crowned woman), the mausoleum of the wife of Shah Jahan. When she, Arjumand Banu Begum called Mumtaz-i Mahal, i.e. „the chosen one of the palace“, died in labor giving birth to her eighth child, the prince started building a tomb in the memory of his beloved wife in the year 1630, in which he too wanted to be laid to rest at her side in eternal sleep. The will of Shah Jahan, to consecrate a monument to Mumtaz-i Mahal that is more beautiful as everything else on this earth, speaking in eternity to all about the dear departed, has been completely fulfilled . . .
Nothing seemed too precious, nothing too beautiful to honor the dead. Foreign artists such as the Venetian Gieronimo Verroneo, then Austin de Bordeaux and a Byzantine master have contributed in conjunction of the knowledge and practice of the best local artisans on this building.
During about two decades twenty thousand laborers should have been at work continuously here. The cost were said to have been at 40 millions guiders according to local sources, an incredible sum during that time — even if many of the building materials, many gems and objects of jewelry which decorate the tomb have been contributed voluntarily by the Rajas and Nawabs and the artisans and laborers probably only paid meagerly. Despite all the effort in energy and money invested it appears to everyone who visits the details of the building and considers the enormous difficulties to surpass as a wonder that it could be completed within a time period of two decades.
Who doesn’t recognize the image of the Taj, this snow-white building, its arched gate, its dome, facades and minarets? If the traveler who has seen a hundred times the Taj on canvas and in woodcuts, image and word wood sees the building itself how it rises towards heaven, incredibly beautiful, enclosed by rich green, everything seen up to now pales, stammeringly words fail to describe the building, the pen falls to the ground and the spectator turns silent.
Equipped with the full power of our most splendid buildings, clear like the structure of our most Gothic cathedrals, noble like the most distinguished flowers of the Italian renaissance, impressive like the pearls of Venetian art which enchant simultaneously in the East and West, ornamented with every form of magic which was granted to mankind to give expression to the highest and clearest beauty — the Taj overcomes every mortal who looks upon it.
„A marble dream“, so stands the mausoleum of Shah Jahan in front of us. August images, impressions, feelings rush through the soul of the spectator who can’t get enough views of this human created but not deemed possible even in the wildest fantasy. And this quiet calmness, this supreme harmony of the whole despite the audacity of all forms, this white clarity of the stone. No statue, no image, no altar, no carpet is visible, only stone and stone again, but this stone alone decorates the whole more than any other precious ornament. It is as if the the stone was blooming, living, talking . . .
The Taj stands on an elevated platform which measures 95 m in the square, and has a square foundation with truncated corners (octogon with four longer and four shorter sides), topped by a mighty dome below which are set four smaller domes. Die arched gates and window niches in Moorish style are bordered with chiseled sentences from the Koran and the facades are also decorated with inlaid stones, especially at the bases. On the four corners of the platform stand high minarets. The highest peak of the dome stands 74 m above the garden paths.
Similar to Akbar’s tomb one meets first a high mosque-like gate built out of red sandstone decorated with fine marble mosaics that remind one of a veil. Then follows the splendid park with dark-green trees, blooming flowers and a really straight row of water works and waterspout fountains, which lead from the entrance gate to the stairs of the mausoleum. Very effectively used is an avenue of cedars which frames the white building of the Taj while the sky provides the conclusion.
Probably everyone who enters this splendid building, this monument to sorrow, is overcome by a feeling of melancholy. A mystical semi-dark encloses the two cenotaphs, a quiet echo reverberates the voices. Here too, in the octogon’s hall, no other decoration than stone which is distributed so wonderfully that it looks more decoratively, more dignified and attractive than many paintings and statue. The interior of the mausoleums does in no case give a cold and hard impression, quite the contrary instead, it looks warm and respectful.
The splendor and delicate execution is really amazing. The meshes around the cenotaph made out of huge marble plates are as fine as a spider’s web chiseled out. On the pillars we admire the most beautiful mosaics that can be produced, the most delicate flowers and arabesques made out of semi-precious stones like Carneol, Lapis lazuli, Achat, Jaspis, Malachit. In a subterranean crypt stand marble sarcophagi which hold the mortal remains of Shah Jehans and Mumtaz-i Mahal while the empty cenotaphs in the octogon are copies of the sarcophagi in the crypt. The custom of setting up two stone coffins for princes, a cenotaph and sarcophagus which holds the body, has been respected here as at Akbar’s tomb.
Over a small stair I came to the platform which surrounds the main dome and from where one has a good view on the two mosques that stand between the minarets of the Taj’s long side. Each of these mosques is a precious building of its own but in the proximity of such a marble wonder they are almost completely pushed in its shadow. The material for the two domes is the common red sandstone decorated with marble mosaics.
I returned to the garden to memorize the inscription of the Taj on all sides and all its splendid forms.
An armed walk in the park at Agra should offer me some relief as all the things seen and which had challenged my mind have stressed me. In the morning I had seen marabous (Leptopilus argala) on one of the trees outside the park, These ugly birds, notable by their enormous size and their wing-span as well as their beautiful plumage while their bare heads with the canker and their way of feeding are less beautiful and agreeable. We approached them by the bastard tamarinds an shot six of them two of which are to be marked on my account.
Kinsky suffered again from a fever attack that day and will have to keep to his bed.