Saturday, 23 July 2011

Preview: Agra Fort

The city of Agra, in the state of Uttar Pradesh in northern India, is famous for the Taj Mahal. But more-or-less next to the Taj Mahal, in clear view 3 kilometres away, is a building of arguably more historical importance - the Red Fort of Agra, or just the Agra Fort. While the Taj Mahal was the labour of love from an emperor to his late wife, the Agra Fort was the home of the emperor, the seat of his empire, and the base for the Mughal empire for generations before and after.

As said in my preview on the Taj Mahal, the Mughal empire was a hugely powerful empire that reached across the Indian subcontinent. It started in the early-ish 16th Century with the first emperor, Babur, who by his father was a descendant of the central Asian conqueror, Timur, and by his mother was descended from none other than Genghis Khan. By age 14 he had raised an army and successfully stormed the city of Samarkand. When I was 14, I locked myself in my room and looked at the bra page in the Littlewoods catalogue. So Babur could probably have beaten me in a fight. After he and his son, Humayun (who has an early Taj Mahal prototype as his tomb in Delhi, which I hope to visit) got things started, it was the third emperor, Akbar the Great, who took the Mughal empire into the big time.

Age 13, Akbar became emperor, upon his father taking an inopportune and fatal tumble down some stairs. From Babur's time, Agra had been established as the capital of the realm, and Akbar (although he toyed with a couple of other locations) eventually settled on it too. During his reign, Akbar significantly enlarged the Mughal empire, bringing to it glory and wealth and religious tolerance, as well as being a great patron of the arts and sciences. As part of this, he needed a base, and so constructed the Red Fort in Agra.

The first records of a fort in Agra are from the 11th Century, although the fort was reckoned to have been old even then. It was perhaps this fort that Akbar's official historian called "the Fort of Badalgarh", by then just some brick ruins, and which under Akbar's instructions was entirely rebuilt in red sandstone. It was completed in 1573, after eight years of construction by up to 4000 workers daily. It was in effect a small city, 2.5km in circumference in a semi-circular shape, ringed by 21.4-metre high walls, with the flat part of the semi-circle running adjacent to the River Jamuna, the same river the Taj Mahal would be built by a century later (by boat was the designed approach to the the Taj Mahal in fact, as Shah Jahan would travel from Agra Fort to visit his wife's mausoleum). Four gates were built (though only two exist now) to indicate that Akbar's dominion was open to the four corners of the earth.

The massive walls, two gates and a handful of buildings are all that remain from Akbar's day - over five-hundred buildings are claimed to have once been built there - as his son, Jahangir, and especially grandson, Shah Jahan, embarked on their own building programmes during their reigns, often pulling down old buildings in the way. Shah Jahan's influence is much what we see today when visiting, with white marble palaces, towers and mosques, much of it built - it is thought - by the same unnamed architect of the Taj Mahal.

Agra Fort was the primary home and the scene of court life for three generations of Mughal emperor. The wives and concubines of the emperors lived here, hidden away from the world. It was where kings and noblemen from other regions were received, this taking place in a building known as Diwan-I-Khas, or "The Hall of Private Audience", and during Shah Jahan's reign he would have held audience in his famous Peacock Throne. This throne was a quite insane statement of wealth, said to have comprised of 1150kg of gold and another 230kg of jewels, and hopefully some really comfy cushions. It is thought it would have a modern day value of something approaching £1 billion. That is, if it still existed, which it doesn't, as the Persians took it during the Mughal decline in the 18th Century and it was never seen again. Some of the diamonds from it live on however, including the 105-carat/21 gram Koh-i-Noor ("Mountain of Light") diamond, now part of the British Crown Jewels on the Crown of the Queen Mother, and worth tens of millions of pounds alone.

For big events, some poor sods had to drag this gigantic throne to the Diwam-I-Am, the Hall of Public Audience, where Shah Jahan would preside over his subjects and administer justice as required. He would review his soldiers and cavalry, and watch animal processions of horses, elephants, antelopes, rhinos, various dogs and birds of prey. Then he would try out cutlasses on dead sheep. It was quite a life being emperor. This we know because the official chroniclers of the empire liked to record this kind of stuff, while reminding us just how ace the guy in charge was, but they were sadly pretty quiet on all the various buildings and monuments that were being constructed, perhaps not thinking it of interest. This means that in the case of much of the Agra Fort and even the Taj Mahal, other accounts - for example, reports from sometimes-unreliable Western visitors - have to be referenced to put the picture together. And in the years after the decline of the Mughal empire, numerous myths arose which still persist today, from names of buildings to building functions, and a whole ton of Taj Mahal nonsense, which require careful unravelling by historians.

Although the Agra Fort was the main man in its day, these days, after centuries of being taken apart, it is now the poor relation to the Taj Mahal. It has a great role in a fascinating period of history, but that exact role and its own history of construction and use has become a little muddled. I suspect too that it may be closer to a series of buildings surrounded by a big wall rather than one distinct landmark. It takes up a quite a large area - 94 acres - though with most of the significant buildings in one corner. I'm not sure what to expect really. But I do know that by going there, it gives me licence to talk about more Mughal empire history, and I look forward to telling stories such as Akbar's experiment with twenty newborn babies...

I'll be visiting Agra Fort in early-to-mid January, and will give a fuller account of its history as well as my own impressions then.

Reviewed 13th February 2012.

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