Fatehpur Sikri Diwan-i-Khas Hall Of Private Audience For Akbar Elaborate Sandstone Carvings On Pillars Mughal Architecture

The Architecture of Agra from Fatehpur Sikri to the Taj Mahal

Today the world’s Most Romantic Building sits in a fairly unglamorous city. Agra is an industrial metropolis straddling a polluted river in a flat, dusty plain. It’s hardly surprising that most travelers don’t stay for more than a few hours – but it’s also unfortunate. During its short reign as capital of the Mughal Empire, Agra produced architecture unlike anywhere else on earth. The Taj Mahal is one of a handful of monuments featuring a rare combination of innovative design, exquisite craftsmanship, and unimaginable wealth.

Agra Tomb Of I'timād-ud-Daulah Baby Taj Mausoleum Exterior White Marble And Semi Precious Stone Inlay Decoration Mughal Architecture
Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah, a.k.a. the Baby Taj

From the wildly original, mysteriously abandoned royal settlement of Fatehpur Sikri to the world’s most exquisite prison, Agra’s sights could easily fill several days. Many visitors pass through as part of the ‘Golden Triangle’ (Delhi-Agra-Jaipur) circuit. We stopped over for two nights, which gave us enough time to visit the monuments below. Since the city doesn’t offer much by way of ambiance, Agra is a good place to splurge on a nicer hotel. We stayed close to the Taj Mahal and appreciated being able to relax in a lush garden at the end of the day.

All sites below are marked on our Google map.

Agra’s Golden Age

Very little is known of Agra’s history before the 16th century, and its Golden Age spanned a mere three generations. After a bumpy start, the city came into its own under Akbar the Great, the third Mughal emperor. He took advantage of a surging demand for spices and textiles funded by the European’s new colonies in Africa and the Americas. The Mughal economy tripled during his tenure, making it the richest empire in the world. Akbar’s patronage of the arts and his policy of tolerance spurred a fusion of Hindu and Islamic forms in Agra’s fort and the new satellite capital of Fatehpur Sikri.

Fatehpur Sikri Exterior Red Sandtone Intricate Carvings Akbar Mughal Architecture Near Agra India
Fatehpur Sikri

Akbar’s son Jahangir and his wife Nur Jahan left their  legacy through a pair of mausoleums, which show the evolution from red sandstone to the classical Mughal white marble. The latter blossomed during the reign of Shah Jahan, the fifth emperor. He ensured Agra’s place in history by constructing the Taj – and then dismissed it by shifting the capital back to Delhi shortly afterwards.

Fatehpur Sikri

Fatehpur Sikri means City of Victory, but City of Mystery might be more accurate. Scholars continue to debate why Akbar decided to build this new capital 35 km outside of Agra – and why he abandoned it after just 14 years. One story claims the water supply ran dry, which doesn’t make sense given the Mughal expertise in water engineering.

One of the site’s many arcades (left) and the Panch Mahal (right).

The city follows the contours of the land rather than aligning to the points of the compass like typical settlements of the time. It appears to have been modeled on the traveling camps emperors used to tour their territories. As one moves in from the entrance, spaces become increasingly private. Akbar was the first Mughal emperor to require that women be sequestered, and his enormous harem was set well within the city under heavy guard.

Fatehpur Sikri’s Jama Masjid, or Friday Mosque

Inspired by cultures across the empire and beyond, Akbar and his builders mixed Hindu and Muslim forms such as elephant brackets with East Asian pagoda roofs. Some designs, like the tiered arcades of the Panch Mahal, went on to inspire Le Corbusier and other 20th century modernist architects.

Fatehpur Sikri Jama Masjid Mosque Exterior Red Sandstone Mughal Architecture People Walking
Buland Darwaza gateway

Many of Fatehpur’s buildings can’t be easily identified, but one space is so unique it could never be mistaken for anything else. Akbar’s Diwan-i-Khas (pictured in this post’s lead photo) models the cosmos, with the emperor at the top of a pillar with myriad brackets. Outside, he enjoyed having courtesans and occasionally vassals serve as playing pieces on a giant pachisi board.

Fatehpur Sikri Tomb Of Salim Chishti Exterior White Marble Intricate Carvings Mughal Architecture Near Agra India
The mausoleum of Salim Chishti

Wandering through the empty buildings and courtyards of Fatehpur Sikri is a remarkable experience. Most of the site lies within a ticketed area, serene and uncrowded. Outside, numerous touts cluster around the Jama Masjid courtyard. It’s worth the hassle to witness one of the region’s most beautiful mosques, the monumental Buland Darwaza gateway, and the white mausoleum of Sufi saint Salim Chishti.

Akbar’s Tomb

Akbar Tomb Sikandra Agra Entry Gateway Four Minarets Red Sandstone With Marble Inlay Elaborate Patterns Mughal Architecture

Emperor Akbar was a singular character, so it’s appropriate that his mausoleum is different from anyone else’s. Instead of a dome in the middle, his tomb has a tapering stack of four tiers reminiscent of the Panch Mahal in Fatehpur Sikri. Exuberant, colorful designs provide a welcome contrast to the more melancholy Taj Mahal – not to mention a significant lack of crowds. Besides an excited group of schoolgirls and some monkeys basking in the sun, we had the place to ourselves.

Akbar Tomb In Agra Sikandra Interior Domed Ceiling With Inlaid Floral Blue And Gold Patterns Mughal Architecture India

Like the tomb of Akbar’s father Humayun in Delhi, the mausoleum sits at the center of a charbagh, a four-part paradise garden. Waterways connect to monumental Persian-style iwans on the square’s edges. Today several of these lie in disrepair, but Jahangir’s Gate is a marvel of pattern and calligraphy. Its novel use of corner minarets would soon become standard in memorials such as the Taj. 

Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah (“Baby Taj”)

Tomb Of I'timād-ud-Daulah Baby Taj Mausoleum Exterior People On Steps Wearing White Agra Mughal Architecture

The nickname “Baby Taj” is ironic given how profoundly this building influenced the Taj Mahal, particularly the all-marble construction and delicate inlays. Some visitors actually prefer the earlier mausoleum to its more famous successor, as it features the same level of craftsmanship but on a more intimate scale.

Nur Jahan, Emperor Jahangir’s remarkable wife and co-ruler, built the innovative double mausoleum for her parents in the 1620’s. The empress developed Mughal tomb designs by adding platforms and terraces to the charbagh layout. Like the mausoleum in Fatehpur Sikri, the exterior walls feature stone screens called jali. On the outside, they create graphic patterns – but the real magic is from the inside, where they form glowing kaleidoscopes. Nur Jahan also added Persian motifs reflecting her heritage, such as a preponderance of red flowers symbolizing pain and death, which later Mughals adopted.

Agra Fort

Agra Fort Exterior Red Sandstone With White Patterns And Domed Chhatri Mughal Architecture India

Agra Fort is mostly the product of the two greatest builders of the Mughal Empire: Akbar and Shah Jahan. Starting in 1558, Akbar rebuilt the existing fortress with an eye to both grandeur and security. A 90-degree turn between gates prevented elephant charges. Newly-conquered territories Bengal and Gujarat provided fresh architectural inspiration in the form of swooping roofs and sinuous brackets. 

Agra Fort Detail Of Red Sandstone Brackets With Carvings Mughal Architecture

Of the fort’s original 500 buildings, only about 30 remain today. The complex is organized around two main routes which intersect at a great courtyard. Originally the public entered through the western Hathi Pol (Elephant Gate, now used by the Indian Army), and followed a market street to the Diwan-i-Am/Hall of Public Audience in the center. Here the emperor would sit in state on a special balcony. Today visitors enter the fort from the south, following a path once reserved for the imperial family. 

Agra Fort White Marble Courtyard With Chhatri Dome And Woman Wearing Pink Sari

With the exception of the Jahangiri Mahal (which probably housed Akbar’s large harem), most of the private structures were remodeled by Shah Jahan. He created a series of palaces and gardens stretching along the river, replacing red sandstone with white marble.

Agra Fort White Marble With Intricate Inlays Interior Shah Burj Pavilion By Shah Jahan For Mumtaz Mughal Architecture

Multi-lobed arches, slender carved pillars, delicate screens, and intricate inlays of precious and semi-precious stone bear more than a passing resemblance to the Taj Mahal. Some of the loveliest rooms lie in the octagonal tower built for his beloved Mumtaz; legend says that when his son imprisoned him in the fort later on, Shah Jahan would gaze out at her tomb from these apartments.

Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal Exterior View Marble Mausoleum At Sunrise Mughal Architecture Agra India

The Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan’s mausoleum for his favorite wife Mumtaz, is generally considered the apogee of Mughal architecture. Elegant lines and perfect proportions keep the extravagant materials from feeling excessive or gaudy. Up close, details emerge: complex inlays of richly-colored stone, or delicate floral shapes carved into sparkling white marble. The only inharmonious note for us was the addition of the Shah’s larger sarcophagus next to that of his wife, disrupting the symmetry.

Marble inlays and carvings on the mausoleum’s exterior (left) and the entry to the site’s mosque (right)

Much of the building’s impact comes from the overall site layout. At first, the gardens appear to follow a traditional four-part plan, with monumental gateways and a mosque surrounding the mausoleum. Beyond the tomb, however, a large river interrupts the gardens, echoing the ending of Mumtaz’s life. Even more remarkably, a second configuration can be seen from above: the river itself serves as the cross-axis of the charbagh layout. A second set of gardens on the other shore mirrors the ones in front of the Taj Mahal to complete the symmetry. On clear days the Mehtab Bagh, or Moonlight Gardens, provide a prime viewpoint of the true “front” of the mausoleum.

Practicalities

Tomb Of Akbar Dome And Niche With Elaborate Floral Designs And Arabic Script Mughal Architecture Sikandra Agra India

Although many sources recommend reserving tickets for the Taj Mahal in advance, we purchased ours on the spot. The Taj Mahal website has visiting information and e-tickets for the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, and Fatehpur Sikri. Akbar’s Tomb and the Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah are both open Saturday-Thursday from sunrise to sunset.

Further Reading

Taj Mahal Mosque Next To Mausoleum Red Sandstone White Domes Sunrise Foggy Sky Mughal Architecture
The mosque at the Taj Mahal

For more on India, see our other posts:

The Monumental Architecture of India’s Golden Triangle

A Guide to Rajasthan’s Remarkable Architecture

The Architecture of Jaipur, India’s Pink City

The Architecture of Jodhpur, India’s Blue City

The Architecture of Udaipur, India’s White City