Agra – a glimpse into its lesser known history and heritage

By: Shahena Khan



We all have heard of Agra and know about the Taj Mahal, one of the seven wonders of the world, a World Heritage Site, an architectural marvel. Is that all that the city of Agra has or is famous for, or should be known for? It is indeed not so. The city of Agra has much more to offer the visitor than just the Taj. As a resident of Agra, and having worked here for many years, I have experienced much more of the city than just the grand marble edifice that is associated with it. Here, I  provide a glimpse of Agra’s myriad heritage and share with you facts and stories about some of the many fascinating but little known sites in and around Agra.

The city of Agra is synonymous with Mughal history and Mughal architecture, even though over the centuries, It actually underwent a range of urban sequences in its historic core -the pre-Mughal, the Mughal and the Colonial period.  The city got its sheen as the Capital of the Mughal Empire in the 16th and the 17th Century – Capital to an Empire that stretched all the way to Persia and covered almost two-thirds of India.

Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty, initiated development of Agra in the early 16th century by remodelling its urban landscape as per his Persian tastes and to create an architectural expression of his own on foreign terrain to symbolise his power.  The shifting of the capital from Bayana to Agra across the river by Babur was a strategic move to ensure the safety of his nascent kingdom. During his time, the city existed mainly on the East bank of Yamuna, consisting largely of gardens and pleasure pavilions along the river. He laid the first garden with channels of flowing water at Aram Bagh (now known as Ram Bagh) – a example of perfect coordination between architecture, garden planning and water engineering.

His son, Humayun, was mostly struggling to establish himself during times of political instability and had minimal contribution to architecture or city development. Agra’s development was scaled up by Babur’s grandson, Akbar, when the nucleus of the present city actually took shape in the second half of the 16th century and he made Akabarabad his Capital. Akbar amalgamated Islamic and Hindu Town Planning principles while laying the city with focus on orientation and movement of the sun. The city was developed along the West bank of the river to avoid building shadows falling on the riverbed, which hinders growth and prosperity as per Vastu principles.

Several architectural marvels were added to the city by Akbar’s successor Jahangir and the city development reached its zenith with the construction of the Taj Mahal by Shah Jahan, Agra’s greatest clain to fame. However, it was Shah Jahan only who was also guilty for her decline. Shifting the capital to Shahjahanabad (Delhi) in 1638 certainly took some sheen off the city.

It is noteworthy to mention that Agra was also one of the first Mughal Riverfront cities in the world with river Yamuna serving as the artery for its development. A series of gardens- pleasure gardens, garden residences, tomb gardens characterised the Mughal Riverfront. The natural topography was more or less plain, though intersected by several nalas and ravines running up from the river. The region had 3 rivulets: Burhansayid, Kano Khar, Dholi Khar which drained into the river on the west bank. The three rivulets and the river formed a triangle, which more or less determined the extent and form of the Mughal City of Agra.  The historic city form is still identifiable with the three rivulets that have now become sewage carrying drains.

Today, Agra boasts of three World Heritage Sites listed by UNESCO- Taj Mahal, Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri. It has a plethora of cultural heritage: tangible and intangible, which are reminisces of its rich past. The heritage of Agra includes monuments, and also privately-owned heritage both protected and unprotected; public structures and spaces such as Darwazas, Mandis, Ganjs, Tolas, Padas and Katras that embody the many intangible aspects of its rich and diverse culture. The city also has rich living traditions-fairs, festivals, crafts and skills.  Paradoxically, it is primarily known for the Taj and considered merely a day’s tourist destination. Here below, I introduce a few interesting but lesser-known structures:

Gyarah Sidhi– A rudimentary Jantar Mantar

Humayun was an ‘Astrologer- King’, highly superstitious and an ardent believer in astrology, who lived his life strictly by the position and movement of the stars and.  The most significant contribution by him to the city is the Gyarah Sidhi or Eleven Steps located on the East bank of Yamuna, providing a breath-taking panoramic view of the Taj and Red Fort across the river. The eleven steps are carved out of a monolithic block of red sandstone, which was extensively used by the Mughals as construction material being readily available in the region. Seeing the remains at the site, one can conclude that Gyarah Sidhi must have been part of a larger Astronomical Observatory probably similar to the Jantar Mantar of Jaipur and Delhi.

Just adjoining the Gyarah Sidhi is a baoli or a stepped well: wells with rooms accessed by a flight of steps which served as retreats during the summers and the steps used by people to fetch water when the water level decreased. Baoli, a common water feature of northwest India, in regions where there is little running water and summers are scorching, is a rare and thus an interesting sight in Agra. Children from the nearby settlements are seen sitting on the Gyarah Sidhi and playing around the baoli in the evenings, with cultural and religious events celebrated by the local community on special days.

The Gyarah Sidhi


Hammam– way to beat the scorching heat

Hammams or Ghusal- Khana (bath-room), a unique Mughal building typology, was a response to the hot climatic conditions of the city, apart from being part of the Islamic ritual of purification. Hammams in Mughal Architecture were closed air-cooled apartments with a complex of miniature tanks sunk in the walls and a series of pipes, tanks and fountains where the temperature could be controlled as desired without artificial means.  The Shahi Hammams comprised of an outer bathing or shower room, followed by three rooms, a stem room, second with taps of warm water and the third had cold water.

It is said that there were eight thousand hammams in the city catering to different classes of people; adjoining mosques and serais for travellers and locals, inside the Fort for the Royalty and in Garden residences for the nobles and members of the Royal families. Hammams were also places of work of confidential nature- state businesses, business dealings, conspiring, gossiping, love affairs and marriage proposals. This typology that was so common in Mughal Agra is become really uncommon now; existing only in the protected monuments, with restrictions on access.


The Shahi Hammam


Elephant Well or 32 Bull Well

 The Mughals developed a decentralised water supply system in Agra, with the Yamuna at its core. The riverine core along the riverfront mostly catered to the rich and the elite in their garden residences and supported the city drainage and ground water recharging. The water needs of thousands of city residents was met by Hauz or Tanks, wells, baolis and ponds built by the Emperors; this ensured that the river never got over-burdened and continued to flow. There were several wells dotting the entire city, of varying size and material, based on their purpose and usage. The Gazetteer of India (1884) records the presence of as many as 70,622 wells in the district.

One of the largest wells to survive is the Kamal Khan Kuan, located on the city periphery, which was said to have been part of Imperial Mughal Garden- Dehra Bagh or Bagh Nur Manzil. As the name suggests, it was a camping garden, frequently used by Jahangir during his excursions in or out from the Capital. Jahangir in his autobiography- Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri has mentioned Dehra Bagh at several places. The humongous size of the well can be gauged from the fact that 32 pairs of bullocks were needed to draw water from it and its water could quench the thirst of 20,000 soldiers besides a large number of elephants and horses of the Mughal paraphernalia.

“The great well in about two hundred and twenty feet (220) in circumference exteriorly. Its exterior is sixteen sided, each measuring 13 feet 7 inches. It is surrounded by a screen pierced with arched door-ways. The wall of the well itself is 9 feet and 7 inches in thickness”- A. C. L. Carlleyle Archaeological Report 1871-72.

Kamal Khan was an elephant keeper in the service of Jahangir, who along with the elephant mysteriously fell into the well and disappeared. This incident was a miracle or whether it just indicates the grandness of the well is quite unknown. The well is commonly known as the Kamal Khan Kuan and is considered sacred by the locals who offer coins as well as silver statuettes of elephant at the well.  The dargah of Kamal Khan is adjoining the well. The well has dried up and has recently been partially restored. The dargah is still flocked by local people every Thursday, and a grand Urs is organised on the first Thursday of Kuar every year.


Kamal Khan Kuan


Riverine Serai or Nurjahan Sarai

The Mughals were nomads by nature: they spent more time traveling from one place to another. To serve their nomadic life, Sarais were a public utility building typology developed by the Mughals as camping grounds and inns with all the necessary amenities for travellers and their animals.  There were more than sixty serais in the city in the 17th century and many more along the imperial highway. These facilities were usually provided at 4 kos (Mughal measurement system equivalent to 1.9 miles) intervals, as that was the distance normally travelled in a day at that time.

“They were large square or rectangular structures with rooms on the sides enclosing spacious courtyards. They had their own wells for water supply, and enough space and shade for carts, bullocks, horses and retinue”- Agra and its Monuments- R. Nath

One of the interesting serais still surviving from these times is the Riverine Serai or the Nur Jahan Serai. Located on the East bank of Yamuna, just north of Aram Bagh, it was the jagir (personal estate) of Jahangir’s wife Nur Jahan,.  This was the entry point to the Mughal Empire through waterways. The serai had space for 500 horses and more than three thousand people. It had a ghat entrance at the river-edge for loading/unloading of goods and travellers.

As the river Yamuna was extensively used for transportation of goods to and from the East, the wise Empress understood the economic viability of the site and built this serai. She collected duties on the goods shipped across and river at this place and the serai provided facilities for the traders. The merchants transported goods including cotton from Bengal, raw silk from Patna, Horses and precious stones from Persia and common commodities like butter, grains, ginger, fennel etc.

Nur Jahan Serai


Domeless Tomb- Diwan Ji Begum Tomb

Diwan Ji Begum Tomb is the final resting place of Mumtaz’s mother, (Shahjahan’s mother-in-law) located in the neighbourhood of the Taj, the Taj Ganj. The tomb follows “hasht bihisht” or “Eight Paradise” form as per the Persian vocabulary.

The hasht bihisht design consists typically of a square or rectangle, with corners sometimes chamfered so as to form an irregular octagon. The hasht bihisht is divided by four intersection construction lines into nine parts, comprising a dome chamber in the centre, rectangular open forehalls in the middle of the four sides, and two-storeyed, often vaulted, rooms at the corner.”- The Complete Taj Mahal- Ebba Koch

The square plan is chamfered at the corners to make it into an octagon with eight large arches. The tomb also had a large dome supported on arches, which is lost now, making it a Domeless Tomb. The burial chamber is in the large basement, which has interesting system of light ducts for light and ventilation. The tomb was originally situated in a spacious garden, which has disappeared now. It stands isolated in the middle of a populated settlement, with its arches framing a spectacular view of Taj.

The Domeless Tomb



The Archaeological Survey of India has recently undertaken an initiative to restore and conserve some of the lesser-known built heritage of the city. This would surely enhance the quality and duration of visiting and exploring  Agra.


Hope you all will definitely remember to visit these places when you are in Agra next…




2 thoughts on “Agra – a glimpse into its lesser known history and heritage

  1. True… so true. There is so much in Agra beyond Taj. Very well written. Lot has been written and lot to be still known and told. Waiting for part-II….

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