The other Agra story

Malavika Bhattacharya | Updated on May 01, 2020

Still standing: The Red Taj, or the tomb of John Hessing, dominates the Roman Catholic cemetery in Agra   -  MALAVIKA BHATTACHARYA

Look beyond the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort. The city’s colonial-era monuments offer respite from crowds as well as stunning architecture

The Taj Mahal receives around seven million visitors a year. This staggering figure is difficult to process at a time when many of us haven’t seen even seven people in a month. A month before the lockdown began, I was in Agra, which was then bursting with tourists. The Taj from up close was stunning, even as I shared space with a few thousand other visitors trying to capture the perfect shot.

Quite by chance, I discovered a perfect view of the marble tomb from 150 feet up in the air. I was early to the Kalakriti cultural show — a song and dance filled extravaganza that tells the story of Shah Jahan and the Taj Mahal. In the same complex that housed the theatre was a curious set-up — a crane attached to a large dining table and leather recliner chairs. The newly launched Fly Dining initiative transports a table of 24 people up in the air, where you can sip tea and snack on hummus and pita bread, with Agra’s cityscape at your feet. As dusk settled, the Taj was a golden glimmer just a few kilometres away, and the wholly uninterrupted view was truly surreal.

That quiet, crowd-free moment set the tone for much of my Agra trip, where I discovered a city that gives you room to breathe, with several beautiful spots you can have all to yourself.

Agra’s Mughal history may be its best-known aspect, but the city’s colonial past has several interesting tales to tell. There is the 19th-century St George’s Cathedral. And the Roman Catholic cemetery, tucked behind the iconic Bhagwan Talkies cinema. European traders started making their way to India from the 1500s, and several of them ended up in Agra, where they lived and died. Emperor Jahangir commissioned a patch of land as a burial site for Armenians, Italians, Portuguese, and other European travellers. One of the oldest Christian burial grounds in India, the cemetery is today managed by the Archaeological Survey of India. Grass and graves cover the ground, but the most curious sight is that of domed, distinctly Mughal-style tombs, many bearing crosses atop them. The graves and tombs feature a unique blend of Islamic and colonial designs. A slow walk on the grounds reveals headstones with both Persian and Latin inscriptions.

The pièce de résistance, though, is a beautiful red sandstone tomb raised on a platform, like a mini replica of the Taj Mahal, but in red. The Red Taj, or the tomb of John Hessing, dominates the cemetery.

John Hessing was a Dutch mercenary who served under Maratha chieftains Scindias in the 1700s, as commander of the Agra Fort. He died in 1803, just before the British captured Agra, leaving behind a grieving widow, Ann Hessing. She wanted to build a memorial to her husband, just like the one Shah Jahan had built for his wife. But unlike the Mughal emperor, she was not one of the richest people in the world. With her more modest means, she chose red sandstone from Fatehpur Sikri, instead of the dazzling white marble of the Taj. She ran out of money and had to forego the minarets surrounding the tomb, but the resulting memorial is a beautiful piece of architecture, with a dome, jali windows, and an ornate indoor grave. The distinctly Mughal-style memorial to a Dutch man is surrounded by smaller tombs to other wealthy Europeans, whose families adopted local design elements to commemorate their loved ones.

The city is full of reminders of the intermingling of Mughal and colonial histories. Akbar’s Church, for instance, lies tucked away in the complex of the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception. Commissioned by Emperor Akbar and built by Jesuit fathers in the 1600s, the church is an indicator of Akbar’s liberal spirit as well as his fascination with Christianity.

Perhaps the most forgotten spot in Agra is the burial site of Munshi Abdul Karim. He was an Indian attendant who travelled to England and grew to be a close confidante of Queen Victoria in the late 1800s. His story was brought to public notice in the 2017 film Victoria & Abdul, starring Judi Dench and Ali Fazal in the title roles. The queen granted the munshi a piece of land in Agra, where he returned after her death. Today, his grave lies forlorn in an overgrown corner of Pachkuiyan Kabristan, formerly a royal graveyard. A small and weathered green sandstone tomb stands above the grave of Abdul Karim, and a tiny plaque marks his final resting place.

All of these spots on this rather offbeat exploration of Agra were completely devoid of tourists, a stark contrast from the city’s more popular sites that are always filled with people. As we look ahead to a time where we can possibly explore the world once again, perhaps these isolated, off-the-radar places should be our first ports of call.

Malavika Bhattacharya is a Delhi-based freelance travel writer


Travel log

Getting there

From Delhi, Agra is a four-hour drive on the Yamuna Expressway.


The Jaypee Palace Hotel, built around gardens and ponds filled with birds, offers a peaceful and luxurious stay.


Visit Agra’s many old-world churches, such as the beautiful blue-and-white St George’s Cathedral, which dates back to 1828.

Published on May 01, 2020

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