The other SIDE OF AGRA
Discover India|January - February 2021
The timeless charm of Agra extends beyond its pièce de résistance, the Taj Mahal. Pockets of colonial candour can be found at every turn, if only one were to stop and notice.
ANANYA BAHL

WHAT IF I TOLD YOU I could show you another Taj Mahal in Agra?” asks my guide, Yogesh, enthusiastically. I’m struck by the magnanimity of this relatively tiny North Indian city— just how many historic structures can it hold within its limited premises? He continues, “Not just that, I’ll take you to a few lesser-known spots in the city that are very significant in Agra’s colonial past”. The fact that Agra can hold its visitors in rapt attention—and not just with the Taj Mahal—makes me sit up and take notice. I buckle up and get ready to explore the historic city’s oft-overlooked neighbourhoods. And I am in for several surprises.

Our first stop is the Roman Catholic Cemetery, which is home to the graves of some prominent Dutch and French businessmen who died in India in the 1700s and 1800s. Even though the tombs are of Catholics, they exhibit Islamic motifs and Persian epitaphs inscribed mostly on red sandstone. It is here that we see the other Taj Mahal that Yogesh had mentioned earlier in the day. The Red Taj Mahal, made of red sandstone sourced from Fatehpur Sikri, was commissioned by Ann Hessing. She was the widow of John William Hessing, a Dutch mercenary who once served the Maratha chieftain Mahadji Scindia (1730-1794). He was also the commandant of the Agra Fort. Needless to say, his wife lacked the means of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, but she spent around ₹1 lakh and commissioned this smaller, red version of the Taj Mahal as an ode to her late husband. Another differentiating factor is that the Red Taj Mahal doesn’t have freestanding minars like the original.

Persian inscriptions and jalis adorn this gorgeous structure, and we climb a few stairs to see the tomb located under the dome. Opposite the Red Taj Mahal is the octagonal Ellis Family Tomb. Its most notable feature is a glistening metallic cross on the top of an Islamic dome—a remarkable fusion of Christian and Mughal architectural motifs. As I walk around the Roman Catholic Cemetery, a silence envelops me; it’s devoid of the eeriness one might expect in final resting places. I’m also intrigued by Marty’s Chapel and the grave of John Mildenhall, the first recorded Englishman to be buried in India.

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