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Renewed vows with Agra, the city of love

Chitra Narayanan | Updated on August 03, 2018

Past perfect : The Taj Mahal, according to Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s original architectural vision, is best viewed from the Mehtab Bagh across the Yamuna   -  Courtesy: 'Addressing Agra’

From a Mughal museum to a riverfront trail that brings alive stories from its medieval past, Agra is getting a facelift that will lure tourists to have a lasting affair with the Taj

For most tourists, a date with the ‘City of Love’ is a short one — just a touch-and-go relationship with the Taj and, if time permits, a sortie to Fatehpur Sikri. Rarely does Agra — which, frankly, is an appalling, polluted eyesore — inspire more than a one-night stand.

The ambitious ‘Addressing Agra’ project, launched by former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav in 2013, hoped to tempt visitors to linger longer by making several vital changes. The transformation so far includes beautifying all the approach gates to the Taj with cobbled paths that hark back to the past but are contemporary too. Every little detail — from the lamps to the ballards and stone benches — on these paths has been designed to harmonise with the Taj and acquire an iconicity of its own.

But it’s the work-in-progress Mughal museum, the Taj Orientation Centre, and the riverfront walking trail dotted with contemporary sculptures that, when finished, would truly make Agra a city to have a lasting affair with, hopes Sourabh Gupta, managing director and principal architect of Studio Archohm. His architects and designers have for the past six or seven years been working to bring back the city’s old romantic look and feel.

The aim, as historian and architectural restorer Aman Nath points out in the preamble of the Addressing Agra concept book, is to bring forth the royal dazzlement and dream of the Mughal era but in a democratised way for all visitors.

Romancing the Mughals

Two years from now, visitors to Agra could actually start their tour at the Mughal museum — a creatively crafted space showcasing the history and architectural thought of one of India’s most illustrious empires. Conceived by the UP government, the museum is located on a 2.5-hectare plot just 1.3 km from the eastern gate of the Taj Mahal. “Mughal architecture is not about arches and domes, but about geometry, rhythm, clarity,” Gupta says. The museum itself will take cue from this unique style, and will be a play of marble, stone columns and gardens. The concrete columns are currently being prefabricated in Noida. Aiming to be experiential, the museum will have a navigable floor plan of the Indian subcontinent from medieval times, which can be viewed from an upper floor.

 

Before and after: The redeveloped Kutta Park

 

The estimated ₹140-crore project, which is part of a large master plan that the UP government asked Archohm to draw up for Agra, will familiarise visitors on how the Taj was meant to be viewed in Shah Jahan’s original architectural vision — from the Mehtab Bagh across the Yamuna. Today, what remains is a terrace with a central octagonal pool to view the reflection on moonlit nights.

Besides the well-known Fatehpur Sikri, Agra Fort, Itmad ud Daulah’s Tomb, Red Fort and Humayun’s Tomb, the museum will also celebrate other lesser-known Mughal monuments and sites such as Gyarah Sidhi, at Mehtab Bagh, which is a series of steps carved out of a single stone block that is said to be the remains of an astrological observatory built by Humayun.

Gupta expects to complete the construction of the museum by the year end. The services and finishing will take another few months, while the content and themes need a year at least. The museum will be nominally ticketed, with plans for an operator to manage the museum, and a committee of experts including historians and museologists overseeing it. Like most international museums, it will try and earn revenue through the shops and café on the premises.

Collaborating creatively

Apart from a permanent display, the museum will host exhibitions, shifting collections, seminars and discussions. The aim is to have year-round activities.

For the museum, Archohm is collaborating with David Chipperfield Architects’ Berlin office. “They are one of the finest museum architects in the world — very sensitive to heritage and history... Just imagine, on things like a single airconditioning duct, we would spend hours debating,” says Gupta. Studio Archohm also invited Stuttgart-based Atelier Bruckner, which has added “an international flavour to the design vocabulary”.

Before and after The cobbled East Gate road

 

The ground floor of the main museum building will recreate the Taj’s architectural features with its use of marble and columns for its galleries, auditoriums, shops and exhibition areas. The terrace will have a café, a banquet area, and a deck with a view of the Taj. A Resource Centre adjoining the museum will house a library, office and seminar spaces, besides having a sunken courtyard.

With a new dispensation in the state and several antagonistic comments directed by people in power against the marble mausoleum and what it stood for, does the project anticipate any hiccups? Gupta says the government has remained supportive, with chief minister Yogi Adityanath even visiting the museum to review progress.

Other interventions near the East Gate look promising too. At the Taj, the actual experience will begin where the Shilpa Gram (artists’ village) is today. A parking lot and the Taj Orientation Centre will come up here. Arriving tourists can take time out here to understand well what the Taj is all about. “Taj deserves to be viewed with respect,” says Gupta, echoing the Supreme Court’s (SC) anguish over the way the monument — visited by seven million people annually — is treated.

In early July, the apex court served the UP government with an ultimatum: “Either we will shut it down or you restore it.” The SC’s anger was provoked by the fact that the Yamuna flowing at the back of the medieval monument is so badly polluted that there is no aquatic life — instead, it is rife with algae, insects and overgrown weeds that pose a threat to the Taj. Also, back in 1996, the court had ordered the cleaning up of the 10,400-sqkm zone around the monument — the Taj Trapezium, which extends upto Bharatpur and Firozabad — but pollution levels remain high, chipping away at the monument’s pristine beauty day by day.

The project has several hidden challenges too. “Do you know that there are eleven owners to the Taj,” he says, in a reference to the various government agencies that have a hand in running India’s most famous heritage building. That means clearances are hard to get, forcing Archohm to approach the court at one point.

But the fruits of the struggles are visible already. An early morning stroll near the East Gate today can warm your heart — a nature park beguiles you to enter and watch the peacocks, the cobbled pathways are dotted with shops displaying the heritage crafts (marble inlay work, traditional footwear) and cuisine (the ubiquitous petha and moth) of the city.

Once the riverfront trail comes up, connecting the dots of the past to reveal a pattern that blends the heritage with the contemporary, reviving forgotten stories and myths, a visit to the Taj could leave you with an indelible imprint on your heart, instead of the frustrating experience it is today.

On August 28, the SC will be hearing a plea by environmentalist MC Mehta on giving Agra a heritage city tag.

Walk into history: A rendition of the upcoming museum at the east gate of the Taj Mahal that will house artefacts, weaponry and costumes from the Mughal era

 

Published on August 03, 2018

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