Every fort has a story to tell which brings to life its architectural spaces. The Agra Fort is a good example. Hidden in the Stones of its very foundations, history remains alive. This is perhaps why it would be worth uncovering the past in order to give its physical and aesthetic features a relevance and context. Long before the fort took on its present form, there is evidence that it had another identity. Salman, a poet of the 11th century, records the attack on and occupation of the fort by Mahmud Shah (the then governor of Hind) in 1080 CE.
Later, Raja Badal Singh erected the Badalgarh Fort on the foundations of the same ancient fortress. And, as time moved on, Sikandar Lodi (1487-1517 CE), the Sultan of Delhi shifted his capital from Delhi to Agra, and the city blossomed into a great centre of knowledge, education and cultural activities.
Sikandar Lodi died in the fort of Agra on 14th Dec 1517 and his son Ibrahim Lodi occupied it for nine years. He built a palace within the fort during 1518-26 CE. The year 1526 CE marked the arrival of Babur in India.
The Invader defeated the large army of Ibrahim Lodi at Panipat. Bikramjit, the then Raja of Gwalior was killed while fighting for Ibrahim Lodi in the battle and his family was imprisoned in the fort at Agra.
Babur sent his son Humayun to Agra, where he captured the fort and seized a vast treasure, which included many rare gems and the world famous Badalgarh Fort diamond as well. Babur himself stayed in Ibrahim Lodi’s palace and also built a 3-storeyed well (Baoli) inside the fort in 1527 CE. This survives even today. After Humayun’s defeat at Bilgram in 1540 CE, Sher Shah of the Sur dynasty occupied the fort for 5 years and garrisoned it.
The Mughal army defeated Hemu in the second battle of Panipat in 1556 CE and Iskandar Khan occupied Agra on Akbar’s behalf. Then, of course, Akbar himself arrived in Agra in 1558 CE and made it the Dar’ul Khilafat and capital of the grand Mughal Empire, naming the city Akbarabad. This ‘capital’ status continued for nearly a century, during which time it grew into one of the grandest medieval cities.
In 1565 CE, Akbar ordered the dismantling of the existing Badalgarh Fort and constructed a new fort under the supervision of Muhammad Qasim Khan, the overseer of buildings. Being a patron of art and architecture, Akbar invited artisans from places as far as Gujarat and Bengal to execute this massive project.Nearly 3000 labourers, stone cutters and builders worked on it for 8 years and produced a conglomeration of mosques, palaces, residential rooms, pavilions, gardens and hammams and left for posterity an unparalleled edifice of Mughal architecture.
This was also the first time dressed red sandstone was used on such a large scale in the construction of any architectural landmark. While erecting this imposing and impregnable fortress, Akbar not only concentrated on the modelling of battlements, string-courses and embrasures so as to produce the effect of robustness and majesty but also on the aesthetic, decorative and ornamental aspects of beauty and architecture.
He deliberately fused Islamic geometry and calligraphy with the Hindu love for birds, beasts and flowers in the decoration. In plan, the Agra Fort is crescent shaped, flattened on the east with a long, nearly straight wall facing the river.It is enclosed within a double impregnable wall of red sandstone, which spans a total perimeter of 2.41kilometres. The inner wall is higher than the outer one and both walls also have crenulated battlements. There are bastions at regular intervals in both walls and the outer bastions are concentric with the inner ones.
A 9 metre wide and 10-metre deep moat surrounds the outer wall and an imposing 22-meter high inner wall imparts a feeling of invincible defensive construction. Abu’l Fazl, the Court Historian of Akbar mentions in Ain-i-Akbari that Akbar built ‘upwards of 500 edifices of red stone’ in the fort complex.
Unfortunately, only a fraction of his original architectural creations has come down to us. The Agra Fort had four gateways Amar Singh Gate (South), Delhi Gate (west), Jal Darwaza (Water Gate – East), and Darshani Darwaza (north), out of which only the first mentioned is used as a common entrance today. Bengali Mahal (1565-69 CE), now split into Akbari Mahal and Jahangiri Mahal, Delhi Gate (1568-69 CE) and Amar Singh Gate (1568-69 CE) are few of the buildings of Akbar’s time, which have survived in reasonably good condition.
They are fairly representative of the aesthetic standards of Akbar. The Delhi Gate and the Amar Singh Gate were provided with additional features like extra strong bastions, raised ramparts, crooked entrances and trap points, which almost rendered it inaccessible to the besiegers while giving extra security to the defenders to fire at the enemy. Akbar retained parts of Ibrahim Lodi’s Palace (built in 1518-26 CE) and incorporated them in the plan of the Jahangiri Mahal (1565-69 CE).
These portions occupy the eastern and north-eastern quarters of Jehangiri Mahal and are easily distinguishable from the rest of Akbar’s creations as they demonstrate a different building technique and different aesthetic standard, not met with in any other building of Akbar in the fort.
The Jahangiri Mahal has an impressive façade that is decorated with geometrical designs inlaid with white marble on a red sandstone background. It is composed of an arched portal in the centre, which projects forward with two beautiful jharokhas (type of overhanging enclosed balcony), its front door does not allow direct contact with the outside world and ensures complete privacy to the residents of the palace.
The interiors constitute a complex arrangement of halls, rooms, open courtyards, pavilions, corridors and galleries – all built around a central court and grouped together without any unified plan. Beautiful brackets, roofs, projecting eaves, carved panels, recesses and pillars together ensure its special status as a fine example of Mughal architecture.
Different rooms of the palace have been provided with different types of ceilings. The hall at the southern side of the central courtyard has a waggon vaulted ceiling and a corridor that covers three sides. A room in the north-west corner of the courtyard has a vaulted lotus ceiling, its petals being made of stone slabs.
Another room in the south-west corner has a beautiful pyramidal ceiling. The most important architectural feature of the superstructure is the Mayura Mandapa (Peacock Hall), situated on the terrace of the west side. Its inner chhajja (projecting eaves or cover usually supported on large carved brackets) around the court, as also the chhajja of the façade are supported on exquisitely designed peacock shaped brackets. Each peacock has a serpent in its beak.
A great quadrangular water-palace, surrounded on three sides by shallow cloisters and living rooms in a double storied arrangement was built during 1570- 1635 CE. It was provided with innumerable water devices like fountains, water channels, lily ponds and flowerbeds and named Machhi Bhavan (Fish Pond).
Lord Hastings and William Bentinck later demolished portions of this palace and its related buildings and sent their fragments to England. The palace has been denuded of much of its original glory now. After the death of Akbar, his son Jahangir ascended the throne in the Agra Fort on 24th October 1605. Though the new Emperor mostly resided at Lahore and in Kashmir, he visited Agra regularly and lived in the Fort.
Later, Shah Jahan formally ascended the throne in 1628 CE in the same fort. He dismantled most of the buildings erected by Akbar, to make way for his own marble structures. His chief building projects within the fort include the Nagina Masjid, the Mina Masjid and Jasmine Tower or Musamman Burj (Octagonal Tower) or Shah Burj and Diwan-i-Aam, all built during 1631-40 CE.
Shah Jahan ordered the construction of a 40-pillared Diwan-i-Aam (Hall of Public Audience) in the Fort and the palace was completed in 40 days. Here, the Emperor would hold the Royal Durbar, sitting on the Peacock Throne.
This hall abounds in pillars and arches so arranged they do not obstruct the view of the throne chamber irrespective of the audience’s position in the hall. During Mughal times, the Nauroz Festival was celebrated with great pomp and fervour in this building, which was “richly decorated with Gujarat and Persian gold cloth, brocaded velvet, brocades from Constantinople and China and European curtains and screens.”
The Diwan-i-Aam is in red sandstone, finely plastered with stucco to the smooth white marble all over, except on the floor and ceiling. It is open on three sides and its walls are beautifully inlaid with mosaic flowers and semi-precious stones.
Its façade is composed of an arcade with nine arches supported on strong double columns. Its eastern wall is provided with a richly decorated raised rectangular chamber that served as a jharokha from which the Emperor presented himself to his audience. This portion is constructed of marble and is richly inlaid with precious stones. The throne chamber decorated with trefoil shaped arches, sunken niches and inlaid marble work adds to the beauty of the assembly hall.
The famous Peacock Throne of Shah Jahan was supposedly kept here and the chamber was known as the Throne Room or Nasheman-e-Zill-e-Ilahi or Jharoka-e- Daulat Khana. The throne room was connected to the royal apartments.
Perforated marble screen windows on the both sides (right and left) of the throne room enabled the royal ladies to view the proceedings in the Diwani-Aam from the privacy of their chambers. The Diwani-Aam housed the Government magazine before 1857 CE. Modern and ancient weapons, ammunition and Diwan-i-Aam other items of warfare — carefully arranged and labelled in English, Persian and Hindi in gold and bright colours were stored in it.
The front hall of Musamman Burj is richly inlaid in beautiful patterns of rare marble-filigree work indicating a high degree of mastery and craftsmanship. Its dados are decorated with carved plants and Chinese clouds.
The niches in the interiors are ornamented with rich inlay work. Polychrome marble and semi-precious stones have been used extensively to form plant and flower motifs mainly of Jasmine flowers. This marble palace was embellished with the same pietra dura inlay work, which was used in the Taj Mahal.
The octagonal tower surmounts the most projecting circular bastion on the river side. Only five of its octagonal sides project forward. This two-storied pavilion has a dome of gilded copper at the top.
This palace has a beautifully inlaid and profusely sunken tank, carved in the shape of a stylised lotus with a fountain. The Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audience) is located in the north-eastern corner of Machhi Bhavan on a raised plinth.
It was built in 1635 CE. Abdul Hamid Lahauri, Shah Jahan’s Court Historian, called its interior hall Tambi Khana. The emperor used this room as a reception area when meeting kings, ambassadors and nobles in private, and to hold confidential discussions.It consists of two halls interconnected by means of three arches. The outer hall is approached through five arches. A beautiful, extremely projecting chhajja running over the double columns and engrailed arches provides a beautiful horizontal line.
A Persian inscription dated 1636-37 CE, inlaid in black stone, compares this room to ‘heaven’ while the emperor himself is compared with the ‘sun’.
The Khas Mahal (built in 1636 CE) is ranked amongst the most beautiful creations of Shah Jahan and served as the model for the Diwan-i-Khas, which was built many years later in the Red Fort at Delhi. This was a private pavilion meant for relaxation, recreation and leisure. Abdul Hamid Lahauri describes it as the Royal Bed Chamber or the ‘Aramgah-e-Muqaddas’.
According to some sources, it was built for use by Jahan Ara Begum, who took care of her father, Shah Jahan, during his captivity in the fort, from 1657 to 1666 CE. The court in front of the palace has a big ornamental pool containing 5 fountains and 32 jets, which used to be in full shower during Mughal times.
The Khas Mahal is flanked on both sides by a golden pavilion having a curved Bangla roof and a chhajja. These were covered with copper tiles and were originally gilded. For ensuring purdah and seclusion, these are separated and protected from the central rectangular palace by means of thin marble screens.
They are said to have served as the residences of Roshan Ara Begum and Jahan Ara Begum. Angoori Bagh, the rectangular garden stretched out at the foot of the Khas Mahal, was laid by Shah Jahan in 1637 CE.
The Emperor had secured soil from the saffron-gardens of Kashmir for this garden. The best grapes and flowers were grown in it, filling the air with sweet fragrance throughout the year. The Angoori Bagh was the principal square of the Zenana apartments, so it was enclosed on the remaining three sides by double storied red sandstone chambers to ensure complete privacy.
Shah Jahan commenced the construction of Moti Masjid or Pearl Mosque in 1648 CE and the project lasted for 7 years. It is situated to the northern side of the Diwan-i-Aam quadruple, and is built on a lofty plinth at the highest ground level in the fort and commands a fine view of all the pavilions, courts and palaces outside.
It derives its name from a large pearl, which was hung from its ceiling with a golden chain in days of old and consists of the usual courtyard surrounded by cloisters on three sides (east, north and south) with the sanctuary occupying the western side.
This sanctuary is three aisles deep and its façade is composed of seven arches. Three bulbous double domes of marble resting on high drums crown the sanctuary. Though Shah Jahan had formally shifted his capital to Delhi in 1638 CE, he continued to live in the Agra Fort. Aurangzeb later imprisoned him in there in 1657 CE for political reasons and he spent the last nine years of his life with a view of the Taj Mahal, the mausoleum of his beloved consort and favourite queen Mumtaz Mahal.
He breathed his last on 22nd Jan1666, at the age of 75, and his body was lowered down and taken out through the Water Gate on the eastern side, as the river Jamuna touched the fort on the eastern side, in those days.
After the death of Shah Jahan, the Agra Fort began losing its grandeur even though Aurangzeb, busy with conflicts in the Deccan, visited the place and held a Durbar here. His death in 1707 CE marked the beginning of the end of the Mughal Empire, which soon broke into irrecoverable fragments.
The Agra Fort passed into the hands of the Jats from 1761-1774 CE. The Marathas, under Mahadji Scindia, took possession of it in 1784 CE and retained it up to 1803 CE. From then on, the fort was taken over by Lord Lake and his British forces.
Colonial forces destroyed many of the architectural landmarks inside the complex between 1803 and 1862 CE, primarily to create space for building barracks. The marble tanks were dug out and carried off by Suraj Mal to Bharatpur when the fort came under his control.
With these tanks he adorned his palace garden at Deeg in Rajasthan. The British never attacked the Agra Fort but more than four thousand Europeans took shelter in it during the Great Mutiny of 1857 CE. John Russel Colvin, the Lieutenant Governor of North Western Provinces who was among them, died there of Cholera on 9th September 1857.
He was buried in front of Diwan-i-Aam and his tomb remains there. Today, the Fort remains, reflecting centuries of history and aesthetic expression – one woven into the other to create a complex architectural story. This robust, delicate and inventive complexity has given it the character that it now holds, earning it the status as one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites in 1983.
Eleven years later it was awarded the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. However, no amount of recognition could ever truly acknowledge the sheer genius that propelled its creation.
Writer - Md. Masarrath Ali Khan Photographs - Md. Masarrath Ali Khan Copy Editor- Ankita Badoni, Alice Agarwal