Agra is located about 139 miles southeast of Delhi along the west bank of the River Jumna. Located between Mathura and Surajpur, and referred to by Greek historians as Methoras and Cleisobora, Agra was part of the Surasena Empire, with Mathura as the capital. Geographically, Agra is centrally located in northern India, imbuing it with political and commercial strategic advantage. Many battles have been fought for control of the city, and it became the capital city during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The fortified core composed by the Agra Fort originally served the Rajputs, as an impregnable, protective, screen against invasions. It finally fell in 1081 to Mahmud Shah, the governor of the northwest regions and the Punjab. Jaipal, then the Rajput ruler, defended the fort valiantly but surrendered to the Ghaznavid army when reinforcements failed to arrive. Though Agra was sacked and owed its allegiance to Ghazni, the Rajput rulers still effectively controlled it. It was during the Second Battle of Tarain (1192) that the Ghaznavids led by Muhammad bin Sam established their rule.
Following the Ghaznavids, the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate was marked by an asserted allegiance to Delhi. Intermittent revolts and a revived Rajput presence in Agra that took control of most of the region soon became a threat. Agra came under the direct control of Sikandar Lodi in 1492 after the governor of Agra, Haibat Khan, rebelled against Delhi. Given the central location of the city, Sikandar shifted the capital to Agra in 1504.
Under Sikandar Lodi, Agra was endowed with cultural and artistic aspects, looking to be viewed as the Shiraz of India. With the death of Ibrahim Lodi at Panipat in 1526, and the establishment of the Mughal Empire, Agra retained its stately status. During the reign of Sher Shah Sur, Agra became the node from where the road networks began and connected the extent of the Sur Empire.
During the Mughal Emperor Akbar's reign, Agra came to be known as 'Akbarabad'. It flourished under his patronage, and his successors Jahangir and Shah Jahan. The city is today famous for its many architectural trophies, dated to the Mughal period. The present day Agra Fort was built by Akbar in 1565, along with the new capital at Fatehpur Sikri, along the outskirts of Agra, which was eventually abandoned. The Taj Mahal was the contribution of Shah Jahan to the cityscape.
Agra's significance as a political centre ended when Shah Jahan moved the capital to Delhi in 1638.
In 1761, the Jats under the Raja of Bharatpur sacked Agra. It was then taken by the Maratha dynasty in 1770. The British gained control of the city after the Second Maratha War in 1803. It was besieged during the rebellion against the British in 1857. Post-independence Agra is one of India's major industrial cities and has a thriving tourist economy.
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Located a few miles from Agra on Gwalior Road, the Mausoleum of Firoz Khan lies on the west side of a large water tank (tal) in the locality of 'Tal Firoz Khan' that derives its name from this monument. Though mentioned in the Memoirs of Jahangir in 1619, Firoz Khan Khwajasarai actually served under Shah Jahan. As his title 'Khwajasarai' indicates, he was the administrative officer of the harem (serai), responsible for maintaining accounts, ordering supplies and fixing duties for servants. He died on October 7, 1647, but had constructed the mausoleum during his lifetime.
The mausoleum consists of an octagonal plinth that measures 42 feet on each side and the pavilion housing the cenotaph is located on the plinth. The pavilion level is accessed directly by a two-storeyed entrance portal built on the eastern side of the plinth. The cenotaph of Firoz Khan is situated within the octagonal, red sandstone pavilion that is centered on the octagonal plinth. At pavilion level there is a small mosque located on the western side. Identical, four-pillared pavilions are also built on the north and south side, measuring 11 by 9 feet 3 inches. The water tank (tal) lies to the west, adjacent to the monument.
Within the plinth, the crypt is accessed via a long narrow passage from the south side. Except for the eastern side, which has the entrance portal, the building sides are each defined by three closed arched recesses. It is clear from the minimal articulation that the main building was meant to play a subsidiary role to the structures on the pavilion level, which were to be the focal points of visitors of the tomb.
The entrance portal constructed on the east side of the pavilion is the most imposing of all the structures. It is two-storeyed, measuring 43 feet by 14 feet 6 inches. It had two kiosks (chattris) at the northeast and southeast corners that no longer exist. A broad flight of thirteen steps leads up to the entrance. Two narrow staircases on the north and south side of the portal provide access to the roof of the portal.
The central octagonal pavilion sits on a 10' high platform, with sides measuring 15 feet and is perforated at the base with delicate, carved screens that allow light to filter into the crypt below. The pavilion is punctuated on all sides by arched recesses that are four feet seven inches deep. The interior octagonal chamber housing the cenotaph measures ten feet four inches on each side and is accessible from the south by stairs. The pavilion displays a quiet elegance in the articulation of the façade. Instead of a profusion of carvings covering the entire façade, only distinct architectural elements like the platform and the spandrels exhibit exquisite carvings. The contrast set between plain and decorated surfaces is further enhanced by the unique use of gray sandstone alongside the red sandstone. These contrasts serve to highlight selected features and hence achieve a level of sophistication through simplicity rather than excess. The pavilion is curiously devoid of any inscriptions.
The dome rests on a very low drum. It is very shallow in profile and takes on a hemispherical shape abruptly, a few feet above the drum. The elaborately carved brackets and projecting overhangs (chhajjas) are distinctly Hindu. Above the overhangs, each corner of the octagon is emphasized by a slender pinnacle of gray sandstone.
The 16 feet 6 inches by 10 feet 6 inches pavilion on the western side serves as a mosque. It is a small, simple and elegant mosque. The front (east side) is open, with two supporting pillars, while the back (west side) is a stone wall with a single recess to mark the mihrab. Ten prayer spots (musallahs) have been marked on the stone floor.
The two pavilions to the north and south are built of high quality gray sandstone. Triple brackets project out to support the overhangs. The masonry portion above the overhangs, cornice and the frieze have distinct traces of glazed tiling that reveal a profusion of colors like yellow, green, blue and turquoise in exclusively floral patterns. The pyramidal roofs appeared to have been covered with tile-work but now only the imprint remains.
Both the pavilions and the portal are covered with beautiful panels which are finely carved with motifs such as vases of flowers, wine carafes, confronted animals and floral arabesques. The style of decoration alludes to designs found at Akbar's tomb in Sikandra and the tomb of Itimad al-Daula.
Alfieri, Bianca Maria. Islamic Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent. London: Laurence King Publishing, 2000.
Nath, Ram. Some Aspects of Mughal Architecture. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, 1976.