Agra Fort – From Palace To Prison
Planned by a Muslim king and built by Hindu masons, the imposing Agra Fort is the most visible testimony of Akbar’s rule. This citadel is a statement of empire, and perfectly illustrates the young emperor’s vision and creativity, which ultimately unified the diverse geographical and racial entities within his kingdom, and laid the foundation for modern India.
The lower sections of Agra Fort are said to date back to a pre-Mughal period, but it is Ibrahim Lodi who first built such a massive complex on this hill. The fort was reconstructed by Akbar starting in 1565, a project that is reported to have taken eight years, 4,000 labourers, and at a staggering cost of Rs 3,500,000 (the equivalent of £17,500,000 today). Subsequent emperors stamped their own identity inside fort, most notably Shah Jahan, so today little can be seen of the structures that existed during Akbar’s time.
What follows is a virtual tour of Agra Fort through my lens, with a little bit of historical context added for the various highlights.
Amar Singh Gate
Entry to the fort is through the double Amar Singh Gate. The name comes from an event when Amar Singh Rathore was offended by Salabat Khan and killed him in front of Shah Jahan. Shortly afterwards, Amar Singh Rathore was himself murdered by his brother. You can read more about that story and see Amar’s chattri (just a few kilometers away) in my blog post : Deception and Murder in Shah Jahan’s Court – The Chhatris of Jaswant Singh in Agra.
Between the inner and outer gate is a small courtyard which gives you the perfect opportunity to admire the detail and scale of the 70 foot high fort walls that have a circumference of a mile and a half.
Having passed through the inner gate you come to a large open space dominated by the impressive Jahangiri Mahal. This was in fact built by Akbar but was mis-attributed to Jahangir due to a large inscribed monolithic bowl that was found in front of the main door to the palace.
Entrance to the Jahangiri Mahal is through a small square chamber with an interesting domed ceiling and offset doors, as palaces invariably dictated the need for privacy.
This leads to the main courtyard and a profusion of carving on pillars and brackets, similar to examples that can be seen at Akbar’s short-lived capital of Fatehpur Sikri just 40 kilometers away.
Interestingly each of the side rooms of the courtyard are different, most notably the ceiling designs, some are flat, others almost barrel-like, but all using a style of construction known as trabeate. There is evidence in some of these rooms for jali screens that would acted as internal partitions, but they have since disappeared.
Akbar is known to have much admired the Man Singh Palace at Gwalior, and in particular it’s courtyards. This courtyard layout is very similar, so in all likelihood he was inspired by what he saw at Gwalior and used it as a model here.
The Jahangiri Mahal gives us a good sense of the enormous expense Akbar lavished on this fort, and one that few kings could afford. It’s a statement of having arrived, and visually demonstrates his strength and wealth.
Abul Fazal, the author of the Akbarnama, the official history of Akbar’s reign, recorded that the fort was magnificent :
“…the like of which travellers have never recorded’
Continuing ahead through a small set of rooms you come out at another large courtyard with the fort wall and river beyond. Note the spindly columns (third picture below, on the right) that emulate in stone the long tree trunks that were commonly used for such columns in Central Asia.
The facade of these buildings around the courtyard are significantly more intricate and elaborate compared to the ‘entrance’ of the Jahangiri Mahal that the visitor comes through today. This quite possibly suggests that the palace was in fact built prior to the fort walls and this was the elevation the visitor was intended to see first.
The other possibility is that this frontage was constructed first, and the overly ambitious conception was diluted as work progressed on the building. However, as we know literally no expense was spared by Akbar, I think the former is more likely to be the case.
Turning left at this courtyard and heading north everything changes as you enter another set of rooms. The architecture is in stark contrast to what occurred earlier, with decoration that is more typical of Shah Jahan’s time.
These rooms with some interesting traces of decoration and paint leaves the Akbar period behind, as we now move ahead in time to structures conceived by later emperors.
Upon reaching a open courtyard with a small pavillion on your right and the Khas Mahal straight ahead, look out for a room on your left with a glass front. On my visit it appeared as though the glass hadn’t been cleaned at all for decades, but inside is a curious object worth a quick look.
Inside the room are some wooden folding doors made of sandalwood with a star motif. These were reputed to be the famous doors looted in 1026 by Mahmud of Ghazni after his destruction of the Somnath Temple in Gujarat, during the last of his devastatingly successful forays in India. They were allegedly later used as part of Mahmud’s tomb complex in Afghanistan.
Under the orders of Governor-General Lord Ellenborough in 1842, when Afghanistan was evacuated, the British removed them from the Mahmud’s tomb with the intent of reinstating them at Somnath Temple. They laboriously transported the doors to Agra Fort, only to then discover they were replicas of the original. They have remained here ever since.
Anguri Bagh means ‘garden of grapes’ and was built by Shah Jahan in 1637. This was the principal square of the zenana apartments, the the living area of the royal ladies.
Today the garden has some pretty decorative planting with geometric patterns, but the star of the show is of course the Khas Mahal, which is situated on the eastern side.
Built by Shah Jahan in 1636, the Khas Mahal predates its counterpart at the Red Fort in Delhi by a couple of years, but shares many of the same features.
The traditional buildings of Bengal inspired the side pavilions with their Bangla roofs, the one of the right was the personal pavilion for Jahanara, Shah Jahan’s daughter. Thankfully, unlike the Khas Mahal at the Red Fort in Delhi, visitors are allowed inside.
The early morning light casts a wonderful shadow through the latticed windows, it’s well worth heading to here first if you arrive early to avoid the crowds.
When the British arrived in Agra they were obsessed with the Taj Mahal which had already gained a reputation, and repairs to the fabric of the mausoleum started almost immediately. In contrast, the buildings inside Agra fort were atrociously treated. Many of them were whitewashed and converted into private dwellings, often subdivided with mud partitions.
It seems bizarre for this to have happened with contemporary buildings, but there are accounts recording that the situation was relatively short-lived, and by the 1830s the outrages had been mostly reversed.
The Khas Mahal is one of those buildings I struggled to stop photographing, so please excuse the plethora of scenes :-).
I found particularly interesting the clever way in which the carved marble above the windows has been cut incredibly thin to allow a soft orangey-yellow light to percolate through, upon which flowers had been painted.
Shah Burj (Muthammam Burj)
Unquestionably one of the highlights of Agra Fort, this beautiful small palace surmounts the largest bastion of the fort overlooking the Yamuna river. The public are no longer allowed to explore interior.
This was originally built of red sandstone by Akbar, who used it for Jharokha darshan as well as sun worship every day at sun rise. Jahangir also used it for Jharokha, the alternative name ‘Muthammam’ comes from the octagonal plan of the building. It was rebuilt by Shah Jahan between 1632 and 1640, this time deploying white marble.
The use of inlaid stonework here is utterly spectacular, it’s hard to imagine just how long it must have taken to decorate these walls, although we know what we see today was accomplished within eight years.
The last thing Shah Jahan would have anticipated when conceiving this wonderful personal palace is that eighteen years later it would become his prison.
In 1658 Shah Jahan fell serious ill, and immediately all three of his sons started making a bid for power. This culminated in Aurangzeb laying siege to Agra Fort, with Shah Jahan and the fort occupants being trapped inside. Recognising the fort was impenetrable, Aurangzeb cut off the main water supply from the river at the fort’s watergate, instantly plunging the inhabitants into severe stress. Shah Jahan sent a plea to his son saying that :
‘Only yesterday I was the master of 900,000 troopers, and today I am in need of a pitcher of water’
Just three days later the fort gates were opened, and Aurangzeb put Shah Jahan under house arrest.
Shah Jahan’s eldest daughter, Jahanara, nursed him in his declining years during his 8 year of confinement. He was restricted to his personal apartments and was closely watched, he was never permitted to communicate with the people outside, including written correspondence.
Aurangzeb, who now possessed the legendary jewels of the Mughals, pressed his father to give him his personal jewelry, in particular a diamond thumb ring and rosary of perfect pearls. Shah Jahan gave up the ring, but threatened to grind the rosary to dust rather than surrender it. When Shah Jahan’s slippers wore out, repeated requests for a new pair were ignored, forcing the once wealthiest man in the world to shuffle around in tattered footwear.
It is said that during his final years of imprisonment, Shah Jahan would either read the Quran or gaze at his beloved wife’s memorial from the Shah Burj veranda. This little corner was the only solace in his last days. It is said that Shah Jahan kept on gazing at the Taj Mahal till his last breath.
In January 1666 illness returned to Shah Jahan, his fever rose and his stomach pain became unbearable. He shortly afterwards passed away, and was buried next to his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, at the Taj Mahal.
Believed to have been built some time after Shah Burj, Diwan-i-Khas is an enclosed room with a verandah and marble columns. Access to this building is severely limited, you cannot go into the interior and nor can you stand on the verandah.
It is here that the famous Takht-i-Taus ( Peacock Throne) once stood. Made in 1634, it was subsequently transferred to the Red Fort in Delhi in 1648, and was then plundered by Nadir Shah in 1739.
This is also the location where Aurangzeb met Shivaji in 1666.
The open terrace in front of Diwan-i-Khas facing the river has two flat thrones, one in black slate and one in white marble. The black throne is the more interesting of the two, finely carved with an inscription announcing Jahangir as heir and then as emperor.
A massive fracture in the slate throne was caused by a Jat ruler who temporarily held Agra Fort in 1765.
The Hammam no longer exists, but demonstrates just how poorly some of these buildings were treated during the colonial period.
Fearing the damage from a potential roof collapse, the ornamental bath was removed by The Marquis of Hastings and sent to Calcutta. Lord Bentinck then proceeded to sell marble surrounding the bath to souvenir makers. The colonnade was then dismantled for some reason and was left lying around the fort until fragments were send to London to be exhibited in 1887.
Almost all the remaining column fragments were either built into Circuit House or dispatched to museums, examples have been rediscovered at the Taj Mahal and Lucknow Museums. There are also rumours that part of the Hammam now resides in the vaults of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. A handful of fragments are still at the fort, lying abandoned next to the Ghazni Doors we saw earlier.
Lord Curzon highlighted the destruction here as an example of how India’s heritage was damaged in early colonial times, and perhaps it may have prevented other more serious events from occurring during his time.
Of course the public are completely unaware of any of this, there are no signs explaining why the Hamman has disappeared. It would be a great opportunity to highlight just how at risk monuments can get, and perhaps help encourage people to treat their heritage with a little more respect.
Accessed by a narrow passageway opposite the Diwan-i-Khas, the Machchhi Bhawan is another courtyard built by Shah Jahan.
A door in the western arcade leads down a flight of steps and directly into the main hall of the Diwan-i-Am.
Diwan-i-Am and Colvin’s Grave
Sat on an elaborately decorated throne at the back of the multi-pillared hall, this is where Shah Jahan would have given public audiences during his reign. The route we’ve just taken would have been his private access to the hall.
Directly in front of the hall is a curious thing that grabbed my attention (last picture of the following four).
This is the tomb of lieutenant-governor of the North-West Provinces at the time of the Great Uprising, John Colvin. Along with other members of the Christian community in Agra, he withdrew to the fort which had been converted into a military garrison and lived here for a short time, probably in Anguri Bagh. It was here that he died of cholera on 9th September, 1857.
John Colvin’s corpse could not be carried out of Agra Fort, and a rapid burial was necessary. The selected burial location is often criticized for the insensitivity, considering the significance of the location within the fort complex.
The Moti Masjid is currently closed the public, and has been for some years. This is a great shame as by all accounts it is a spectacular building, being described as stark in its simple white purity. I guess it’s a good excuse to return to Agra fort one day if the authorities ever decide to open it up for the public.
On leaving Agra Fort it’s worth spending a few minutes exploring the now partially ruined set of buildings known as the Akbari Mahal. These are on your left immediately before going though the internal Amar Singh Gate, and as the name suggests are remains once again from Akbar’s reign.
Hardly anyone bothers to visit these buildings, which offer a great final view of the Taj Mahal before you leave.
It is thought that the entire Agra Fort complex once contained more than 500 buildings, of which only around 30 remain today. For me it far surpasses what can be experienced at the Red Fort in Delhi, and to do it any sort of justice you should expect to spend at least 3-4 hours here.
Agra Fort helps bring into sharp focus the lives of the Mughal emperors; their wealth, opulent lifestyle, and often ruthless nature in a ceaseless quest for power. Shah Jahan experienced all of these, once the wealthiest man in the world, who ultimately built his own prison.
Please ‘Like’ or add a comment if you enjoyed this blog post. If you’d like to be notified of any new content, just sign up by clicking the ‘Follow’ button.
If you’re interested in using any of my photography or articles please get in touch. I’m also available for any freelance work worldwide, my duffel bag is always packed ready to go…