Monday, 16 January 2012

16. Wonder: Agra Fort

(For the Agra Fort preview, please click here.)

These days, Agra Fort's fame lies with the Taj Mahal. It is the "B" attraction for Agra, being visited by the tour groups either as precursor or prelude to Agra's main attraction. Even the lasting image of Agra Fort that most leave with is related to the Taj Mahal. That is of the imprisonment of Shah Jahan, the Mughal emperor who built the Taj Mahal in tribute to his beloved late wife. A few years after the completion of the now world famous tomb, he fell ill. One of his sons, Aurangzeb, seized the moment. His father weakened, Aurangzeb and his forces went into battle with and effected the death of two of his own brothers, before entering into a showdown with his elder brother and heir apparent Dara Shikoh. Aurangzeb was a hardline Muslim of the kind that you'd usually want to sidestep at parties, known for being brutal and intolerant of anything beyond his extremist views. Music, dance, and, naturally, alcohol, were banned under him. Dara, on the other hand, was intelligent and religiously tolerant, in the way of his predecessors, and much better at parties. In a pivotal battle between the two, Aurangzeb defeated Dara, and history - not to mention the party scene across India -  was made for the worse. Dara was marched in chains and executed in Delhi; Shah Jahan, recovering from his illness, was imprisoned in Agra Fort for the next eight years until his death while Aurangzeb began a brutal reign that deftly undid all the good work of the previous five generation of Mughal emperors. The popular tale goes that Shah Jahan spent his final years in imprisonment, his sons dead and his empire crumbling, gazing into the distance at the Taj Mahal, gleaming in the sun along the banks of the Yamuna river, remembering happier days and his much-missed wife.

This would have taken place in the Mussaman Burj - or "Octagonal Tower" - just one of many components of the sprawling Agra Fort. It's certainly true that Shah Jahan was imprisoned there until his death, although is conjecture that he gazed misty-eyed upon his wife's tomb; in fact, it seems he was rather busy sleeping with as many women as possible, and his death (and the illness that led to his overthrow) thought to have been caused by an aphrodisiac overdose. But given that the Taj Mahal is in clear sight from Agra Fort, and still quite transfixing from that distance, it seems likely that Shah Jahan had a few moments, from time to time, to reflect and rue his fate.

This is probably the most popular legacy of the Agra Fort these days, but in truth is just one of many for a building with far more historical significance than the more famous Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal is a snapshot of time, a single monument dedicated to the wife of an emperor, though of course sublimely executed. Agra Fort was the centre of the Mughal empire at its most commanding, when it stretched across most of India, seeing its rise and fall, and acting as home for generations of emperors and their court. And its time is not up yet - even today, much of the complex is closed to the public as the Indian military still use large portions of it.

The fort we see today dates from 1565 and the third Mughal emperor, Akbar the Great. Akbar the Great is an interesting fellow, who as his name suggests, enjoyed a very powerful and influential reign. In the wake of his father's death (he fell down stairs while carrying books), he transformed the fortunes of the Mughal empire, turning it into a powerhouse in Indian history. Enlightened, he brought together the areas he conquered by being religiously tolerant, he underwent a massive program of construction, and he encouraged the arts and sciences. In fact, his encouragement of the sciences, though well intended, did stray into the "irregular" territory. He wanted to test the claim that Arabic was the true and natural born language of mankind, and that without the polluting influences of other languages, a child would naturally acquire the tongue. This was a claim he thought unlikely. So to put it to the test, he took twenty newborn children and had them raised in isolation, with only mute nurses to take care of them. He was, unsurprisingly, proved correct.

Among his many building works, Agra Fort is among the most notable. Agra had been made capital of the empire by his grandfather, the Mughal founder, Babur, and an old, knackered, fortress stood there. Akbar wanted something better, so clearing the area of the crappy old fort, 3-4000 workers spent eight years constructing the walls and interior buildings. With the 94 acres - only a little smaller than the world's smallest nation, the Vatican City - of interior having changed buildings and layout over the years, it is the walls that are the enduring legacy of Akbar's time, and the enduring image of the Fort for the visitor. Most notably, the Amar Singh gate and surrounding walls which are the entry point for modern day visitors. The name, although dating from Akbar's time, is in fact British, and relates to a stone horse they built near the gateway, relating to the daring escape of an official's son, Rao Amar Singh, in 1644. He was imprisoned and executed - by being cut to pieces - for assassination of another official, but the British in the 19th Century spread the story that he had escape alive with his horse, which had jumped over the walls and moat, before being converted into a stone sculpture. The story gained popular attention and the name stuck.

It is this gateway facade that Danielle and I found ourselves before a few hours after having arrived in Agra, and we both found ourselves quite impressed. We had just spent a couple of hours enjoying breakfast on the rooftop restaurant of our hotel, the Shanti Lodge, gazing in awe at the Taj Mahal. Instead of heading straight there, we decided to eke out the sense of anticipation by paying a visit to Agra Fort, the other Wonder candidate on my list. Expecting it to be more brute than beauty, we were pleasantly surprised to find a building, though of considerable bulk and strength, also with a sense of finesse. Like a fat-lipped boxer with the soft touch of a lady. Or something like that.

Amar Singh gate in itself isn't anything too special, it is the higher walls and turret behind it that give it grandeur, all in red sandstone. The red sandstone give Agra Fort its other name, the Red Fort, causing occasional confusion with the other, Shah Jahan-built, Red Fort in Delhi. The 2.5 kilometres of wall, around 21 metres high, that make the main defence of the fort are all in red sandstone, as are many of the buildings inside. As a rough rule, the red sandstone buildings are of Akbar's time, with the white marble ones being built during Shah Jahan's reign. Akbar's legacy remaining in the Agra Fort is power, Shah Jahan's - who dismantled much of Akbar's buildings to construct his own - is elegance and fine detail.

Although Akbar surely couldn't have intended it, his walls and layers of gates still act as a good control, these days for the flow of tourists. Paying at Amar Singh gate, going through a gentle pat-down at security, then dallying for a moment in the small quadrangle beyond, Danielle and I had our tickets checked at the second gate, imaginatively called the Second Amar Singh Gate, and were now allowed in. Not with bags, however - these have to left at a rather basic cloakroom, with a rather uncommunicative attendant (perhaps he was raised by Akbar's mute nurse). But through Gate 2, up a rising and approach, and there we were, inside the impregnable Agra Fort.

Inside Agra Fort, according to one Mughal court historian, whose veracity I would personally question, there were once 500 buildings. If so, it must have been a pretty congested place, or the buildings particularly tiny, although it would have fulfilled Akbar's desire for a "city within a city", a concept shared by just places as Moscow's Kremlin and Beijing's Forbidden City. These days, only 27 remain, allowing a bit of breathing space. The British get some flak for dismantling a load during the 19th Century, claiming they were just removing rubble - this is where the myth comes from of the Taj Mahal being scheduled for destruction so that the British could sell the marble. In fact, the marble was from some Agra Fort rubble, and didn't make very much money on the market - one contemporary writer claims that if it had done better then the Taj Mahal would be next, thus beginning the myth. But it wasn't just the British, Shah Jahan himself dismantled a whole load of his grandfather's buildings to make way for his white marble constructions. These are what constitute the bulk of the tourist experience these days, a number of very attractive marble buildings, some possibly done by the same unknown architect of the Taj Mahal.

And so, Danielle and I spent a few very pleasant hours wandering around Agra Fort, which wasn't at all crowded, and spacious enough to avoid any tour groups that might be lingering. Danielle made the observation that a little coffeeshop might be a good idea, mostly just because she fancied a coffee and if she had her own way there'd be a coffeeshop inside every Wonder, but it was actually a pretty valid observation. There isn't anywhere in Agra Fort to eat or drink, but there's plenty of open space: a few tables and chairs and a small coffee stall would be an excellent idea. It would be done discreetly, and a temporary structure, but the effect would be to allow you to sit for a while, drink some coffee, relax, have a chat, and enjoy the surroundings. It would enhance the appreciation of the fort itself. Proceeds could go into ongoing maintenance of the site. Doesn't that seem to make sense?

Making less sense was a man we met near the rear of the Akbari Mahal. Intimating that he wanted to take a photo of us, I handed him our camera and he proceeded to give us directions for how to stand. This included me standing, looking down, and Danielle, a little forward of me, crouching with her hands out. He took the photo, we thanked him nervously, and scuttled away before any further madness ensued, only later checking the picture bringing his plan into focus.

On a sunny and gently warm day, Agra Fort made for an amiable stroll, admiring the architecture and imagining the scenes of court life that were once played out, and the decisions made that spelt the fate of millions. It's a shame that most of the world's great buildings have, in effect, now died, and just become museum pieces for tourists to meander and admire; there is something very appealing about ancient buildings that retain their function. Although Agra Fort still retains a military function, it is no longer a home for emperors and their court, and no longer the scene of such mentalism such as the emperor, before an audience, testing out new cutlasses on dead sheep, and having daily animal processions, which could include elephants and rhinos. The oldest and now pretty derelict building of the compound, the Akbari Mahal, would once have contained the harem, full of his wives, concubines, and children, with the only other male visitors permitted being eunuchs. One of my favourites, the Diwan-I-Am ("The Hall of Public Audience"), a Shah Jahan edifice for conducting public ceremonies, celebrations, and parties basically, would once have been a grand heart of the fort; it is still an attractive marble building, covered in multi-foiled arches (kind of like small arches within the larger, main, arch) and decorative Taj-like motifs, but seems rather quiet and ghost-like. This is the running theme of Agra Fort, a lot of beautiful buildings that seem rather sad and neglected. In its heyday, and in its proper context, Agra Fort would have been magnificent. But the noise, colours, smell, and crowds of people have gone forever. Now it is a collection of pretty buildings removed of their purpose. And without a purpose, some of their glory has faded.

In fact, an excellent audio tour is available, that brings to life some of the wonder. And here I have to admit to screwing up. The first time I visited, I forgot to bring a pen and paper, so thought I'd wait until my second visit to record notes of interest. But then the Taj Mahal intervened. Poor Agra Fort, once the big daddy, now the poor cousin in Agra, likely overshadowed in its own city for the rest of time. Even the highlight of Agra Fort is standing upon the Diwan-I-Khas ("Hall of Private Audience") and admiring the view of the Taj Mahal's domes and minarets in the distance. On my second visit, we all arrived far too late to enjoy the full tour. Typical of our time in Agra, we had been on the rooftop of the Shanti Lodge, enjoying what was our last close-up view of my new favourite Wonder. By the time we arrived at Agra Fort, there was enough time to get in only about half of what is a comprehensive and extremely well-put together audio tour. I would very strongly recommend the tour, for without it Agra Fort is just a collection of buildings surrounded by a wall - the tour breathes a bit of life into them, and let's the fascinating history shine. For the history of Agra Fort is certainly the heart of this Wonder.

Although I would say, if you want to enjoy the history via the daily Sound and Light show, make sure you go to one in the correct language. Watching a series of lights while listening to a booming voice in Hindi didn't do much for our appreciation (in fairness, the English one was on too late for us to catch our train).

For me, the walls are the main focus of Agra Fort, as they really make it the fort it is. They are the unifying structure. The buildings inside are the details, and pack in the history, but for an aesthetic point of view, the sense of power and unity is conveyed by the walls. Strong, tall, powerful, they are the boxer's glove to the fine lady's caress that are, by and large, Shah Jahan's charming constructions. But really, in the end, I have to borrow Danielle's observation that although architecturally excellent, Agra Fort is the kind of thing you can see in many countries: a big, historically-important fort or castle. For me, it's a bit more special than that, but it's also probably fair to say that if not for the Taj Mahal on its doorstep, I would have likely not made the effort to come to Agra just to see the fort.

Some criteria then.

Size: It takes up a large area, at 94 acres, but none of the individual buildings that comprise it are of the monumental size I'd expect of a Wonder. Still, from the outside, the gates and walls command a strong presence.
Engineering: A lot of hard labour over the course of eight years constructed the initial version, with various deletions and additions made since. Well-built, but not pushing any technical boundaries.
Artistry: From the outside, powerful, from the inside more delicate. Agra Fort is pleasing to look at, with many beautiful touches - unsurprising given the Mughal emperors' dedication to the arts and architecture.
Age/Durability: It's a pretty solid-seeming building, and forts more than most other buildings see the ravages of time and war. At almost 400 years, the walls of Agra Fort have survived well, albeit with the buildings inside having seen some changes.
Fame/Iconicity: Destined to be forever overshadowed by Agra's other great Wonder, the Taj Mahal, and its fame these days is mostly dependent upon it.
Context: Though slightly elevated, Agra Fort is really just plonked in the middle of the messy, charmless city of Agra. However, inside the walls, the city is forgotten, and the fort is a pleasant place to be.
Back Story: Agra Fort is the setting for one of history's great empires, packed full of glory, intrigue, and war.
Originality: Though with many nice touches, Agra Fort is, basically, just a fort.

If I have to be honest, I don't think I did Agra Fort full justice. As well as screwing up the audio tour, I failed by not taking the time even to take a simple walk around the outside. Sorry, Agra Fort. Blame the Taj. Nonetheless, although next time I visit (and there will be a next time, if only because I want to see the Taj Mahal again) I will devote more time to it, I feel I've got a pretty good handle of Agra Fort. And that is, great history, fascinating building, but not really in the category of true Wonders. As I suspected, there isn't really enough focus in a large area without any dominant building. The primary focus is the Amar Singh gate and rampart backdrop, which although pretty grand isn't as visually spectacular or original as most on my list I've already seen. I love the history, and love Agra Fort because of the history, but the construction itself doesn't take my breath away. And so, Agra Fort falls near the bottom of my list so far, still safely within the "worth-seeing" category but not really in the "must-see" list, a little above Ayutthaya Historical Park but not as impressive as the Marina Bay Sands.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far
1. Taj Mahal
2. Angkor Wat
3. Sydney Opera House
4. Borobudur
5. Akshardham
6. Petronas Towers
7. The Golden Temple

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
Temple of the Emerald Buddha
Shwedagon Pagoda
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Banaue Rice Terraces

Interesting Places
Ananda Temple in Bagan
Marina Bay Sands

Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
Lotus Temple

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