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The red Taj Mahal and other hidden treasures of Agra

Agra, known by one and all as the City of Love, has surprises galore hidden in its nooks and crannies, dating back to the Mughal and colonial eras

The red Taj Mahal in Agra is a tomb built by a loving wife for her dead husband, not the other way around.
The red Taj Mahal in Agra is a tomb built by a loving wife for her dead husband, not the other way around. (Kalpana Sunder)

A Taj Mahal of red sandstone, with slender turrets and a dome, rises above the trees. It dawns on me that though it resembles the original monument of love, this one has no minarets. I am in Agra, the so-called City of Love and the Taj Mahal—but the Taj Mahal that I am looking at is a tomb built by a loving wife for her dead husband, not the other way around. 

History echoes from every corner of this famous city. In 1803, the British invaded Delhi, and then Agra, commencing 150 years of colonial rule in the subcontinent. Most people only associate the city with the Taj Mahal and the Mughal rulers, but besides the British, people from other nationalities also made it their home down the ages, from Italian jewelers, Dutch ship-owners to artisans from Central Asia. 

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I am seeing a different side of Agra, the capital of the Mughals for over a hundred years. My guide, Yogesh Sharma, is taking us on a colonial tour through the city. We start at the Roman Catholic Cemetery in Civil Lines, which is the oldest Christian burial ground in North India, with most of the graves dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries. This land was granted by Emperor Jehangir through a firman (edict) in 1609. The most magnificent structure here is “the Red Taj Mahal”, commissioned by Ann Hessing, in memory of her husband John Hessing, who was a Dutch soldier serving in the Maratha army in Agra.

John, who was given command of the Agra Fort and the garrison in 1799, was killed when the fort was attacked in 1802. “Ann was not wealthy but spent almost all her savings on this tomb with turrets and niches; she ran out of money while building the minarets,” explains Yogesh. Inside the tomb is a gravestone with inscriptions in Persian. 

This cemetery, studded with graves and memorials, is a journey back in time to when Agra was home to foreign traders and mercenaries, who came here to make their fortunes. One of the headstones belongs to Geronimo Veroneo, an Italian jeweler who died in the city in 1640, and there are stories of him having ‘designed the Taj Mahal.’

I walk through the graveyard, looking at inscriptions. Some of the oldest graves (and the simplest ones) belong to Armenians with inscriptions in Armenian, Latin and Persian. The Armenian traders were invited by Akbar to Agra (who even had an Armenian wife). Another red pyramid-shaped dome has a plaque that reads ‘Children of General Perron’. He was a French sailor who reached Agra, made a name for himself, and joined the army defending the territories of the Scindia rulers. I imagine him returning to his country, many years later, leaving the graves of his children in an alien land.

The Roman Catholic cemetery in Agra.
The Roman Catholic cemetery in Agra. (Kalpana Sunder)

Not far from here is the octagonal tomb of Walter Reinhardt, a mercenary and “turncoat”. He fell in love with a 14-year-old nautch girl called Farzana Zeb-un-Nissa, who later became known as Begum Samru. Walter died in Agra in 1778 and is buried in this cemetery. “Begum Samru became the first woman Catholic ruler (and probably the only one) in India reigning over Sardhana near Meerut,” points out Yogesh. “When she died, her personal wealth was equal to almost $40 billion today.”

Another headstone belongs to John Mildenhall, a British adventurer, who left England in 1599, visited the courts of both Akbar and Jahangir, died in Ajmer in 1614, and was brought to Agra for burial. His tomb is significant as it is the “first recorded burial of an Englishman in India”.

What I love about the cemetery is that though most of the tombs look Mughal, it is actually a Christian burial site. In the early days of European contact with India, it was usual for them to adopt many Indian customs, from clothes to food and architecture. Many of the graves have a cross on top; some of the buildings have a lotus and a cross—to me, it showcases the best of Indian syncretism. Yogesh explains how Akbar, though illiterate, met Jesuit priests who came to Agra in 1580 and was always interested in learning about other religions. He even had the Jesuits teach his children.

Our next stop on the colonial trail is the Church of Pieta, also called Akbar’s Church, dating back to 1599, for which the emperor had granted land to Jesuit priests. This was the Cathedral of Agra till 1848. It was destroyed by Shah Jahan in 1635 when he fell out with the Portuguese. Later he rebuilt the church when relations improved. It is said that Akbar and Jahangir used to visit the Christmas crib at the church every year.

The Wazirpura area near Akbar’s Church is full of Christian institutions like St Peter’s College and St Patrick’s Junior College, housed in handsome buildings. We drive past St John’s College that dates back to 1850, built in the Indo Sarcenic style with domes and jharonka windows in red sandstone. Once one of the best colleges in the country, Jawaharlal Nehru called it “a temple of learning”.

St John's College, built in the Indo-Saracenic style.
St John's College, built in the Indo-Saracenic style. (Kalpana Sunder)

Agra has one of the best-preserved cantonment areas in the country, sprawling over an area of over thousand hectares, with wide roads and colonial bungalows with porches. We drive there to visit the stately St George’s Cathedral, established in 1828, a Protestant Church, built by a British army engineer. With yellow ochre stucco and a vaulted roof, this neo-Gothic church holds the graves of many British officers. Another colonial beauty is Agra’s Head Post Office, built in the art-deco style in 1913, painted red and white, which still stands tall. Rich in postal history, it is the place from which India’s first telegram was sent.

One of the most moving stories on this trail lies hidden in the unkempt wilderness of the Panchkuin Muslim burial ground. We walk past bushes and heaps of broken gravestones to a pistachio-green tomb, festooned with prayer flags, standing on a raised area. It is the grave of Munshi Abdul Karim, who died in 1909 and was once a clerk in Agra Jail. 

The tomb of Abdul Karim, Queen Victoria's favourite attendant.
The tomb of Abdul Karim, Queen Victoria's favourite attendant. (Kalpana Sunder)

For those familiar with the movie Victoria and Abdul, he is the trusted and most favourite attendant of Queen Victoria in it. In the year of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, he was one of two Indians to serve Her Majesty. She made him her secretary and showered favours on him. 

 Their relationship was frowned upon by the British and even her own family, but she got him a grant of land in Agra, where he retired after her death in 1901. Abdul Karim installed as many as nine statues of the Queen all over the city, which were pulled down after Independence. As we finish our colonial trail here in this nondescript graveyard, almost swallowed up by the urban sprawl of Agra today, I muse on the many stories that this enigmatic city hides.

Kalpana Sunder is a Chennai-based freelance journalist.

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