Agra: India’s First Red Fort



The city of Agra is usually associated with the world's most exquisite memorial to undying love, the Taj Mahal. But 2.5 km north-west of the Taj lies another grand monument, the Agra Fort, which was the seat of Mughal power and a symbol of their might for around 200 years.

Located on the Yamuna River in Uttar Pradesh, the Agra Fort, or the Red Fort of Agra (also called Lal Qila), was both a military base and a royal residence of the emperors of the Mughal dynasty until 1638, when the capital shifted from Agra to Delhi. The complex of buildings inside the fort, which is reminiscent of Persian- and Timurid-style architecture, forms a city within a city. The Agra Fort was built in an era marked by invasions and fortifications, and at a time when power was measured by grand palaces and grander forts.

It is believed that the land on which the Agra Fort was built was the site of the old fort of Badalgarh constructed by the Lodi Sultans, who ruled the Delhi Sultanate between 1451 and 1526 CE. Sikander Lodi, the second ruler of the Lodi dynasty, commissioned the building of the present-day city of Agra in 1503-04. Its strategic location in the Ganga-Yamuna doab, along the trade route between Gujarat, Bengal and Rajputana, made it strategically important and fuelled its growth.

Plan of the Agra Fort
Plan of the Agra Fort|Wikimedia Commons

However, Agra fell to the Mughals when Babur defeated Sikander Lodi’s successor, Ibrahim Lodi, in the First Battle of Panipat in 1526. Babur (r. 1526-30), the Turco-Mongol prince from Central Asia who founded the Mughal dynasty, occupied Badalgarh fort and made the Lodi palace his home. Four years later, in 1530, the coronation of his son Humayun (r. 1530-56) took place here.

It was under Humayun’s son Akbar (r. 1556-1605) that Agra entered its golden age. He razed the old, ruined fort of Badalgarh to make way for a new fortress. It apparently took 4,000-odd workers, who toiled every day, eight years to complete the majestic monument. The Agra Fort – also called ‘Akbarabad’ or Qila-i-Akbari after the Mughal Emperor – was thus built between 1565 and 1573 under the guidance of Qasim Khan, the Mir-i-Bahr or Harbour Master in the royal court.

Abul Fazl, grand vazir (‘chief minister’) and chronicler of Akbar, wrote in his Akbarnama that it cost 7 crore Akbari tankas, the equivalent of Rs 6 crore today, to build the Agra Fort. Just like the Red Fort of Delhi, the exterior of the Agra Fort too is covered in red sandstone brought from Dholpur district in Rajasthan. Fazl also mentions that the walls were built in such a way that even a hair could not pass through the joints. The joints were further strengthened with iron clamps.

The fort, semi-circular in plan and spread across 94 acres, was surrounded by a moat on three sides. It had four gates, all of them richly decorated. One of the gates was called Khizri-Darwaza (Water Gate), which opens onto the riverfront, where ghats (steps leading down to a river) were built.

Akbar hands over his crown to Shah Jahan as Jahangir (left) looks on
Akbar hands over his crown to Shah Jahan as Jahangir (left) looks on|Wikimedia Commons

Akbar’s son Jahangir (r. 1605-27) too was crowned here, in 1605. It was during the reign of Akbar's grandson, Shah Jahan (r. 1628-58), that the Agra Fort got most of its principal buildings. However, unlike his grandfather, Shah Jahan had a penchant for white marble and got some of the structures in the fort demolished and rebuilt to suit his tastes. But Shah Jahan didn’t stay in the Agra Fort for the entire duration of his reign. In 1638, he left the old Mughal capital and moved to Shahjahanabad, his new capital, in Delhi (‘Old Delhi’ today), where he built the Red Fort as the heart of his new capital and imperial residence.

The Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal by river Yamuna, by William Hodges, 1785-88
The Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal by river Yamuna, by William Hodges, 1785-88|Wikimedia Commons

Shah Jahan’s son Aurangzeb (r. 1658-1707) shifted the Mughal capital back to Agra and, at the end of a brutal war of succession, dethroned his father and imprisoned him in the Agra Fort. Shah Jahan lived in the fort under house arrest for eight years until his death. Although Aurangzeb was preoccupied with regional conflicts and wars, he did hold durbar here every so often.

The Red fort of Agra, c. 1820
The Red fort of Agra, c. 1820|Wikimedia Commons

After Aurangzeb’s death in 1707, the Agra Fort was a saga of sieges and plunder in the 18th century. It was captured first by the Jats and then the Marathas. In 1803, the Marathas lost it to the British in the Second Anglo-Maratha War. During the Revolt of 1857, the fort served as a site of battle and a place of refuge for British civilians for three months. Later, the British made many alterations to the structures inside the fort, whereas a few old buildings were destroyed to raise barracks.

Jahangiri Mahal
Jahangiri Mahal |Wikimedia Commons

Today, the Agra Fort complex contains about two dozen structures built by Mughal emperors in the 16th and 17th centuries. They are elegant and of diverse design. Among the major attractions is Jahangiri Mahal built by Akbar. It is the earliest Mughal palace extant and also the largest residence in the complex. Some say it was Akbar’s private residence while others say that, judging by its name, it was built by him for his son Jahangir. Architectural historian Ebba Koch, who has done extensive work on Mughal monuments, says that Jahangiri Mahal might have served as the zenana, or the main residence of the royal ladies.

Diwan-i-Khas
Diwan-i-Khas|Wikimedia Commons

Another important building is the Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audience) used to receive distinguished visitors. There is a lengthy Persian inscription inlaid in black stone, dated 1636-37, inside the hall. It compares the hall to heaven and the emperor to the sun in the sky. The ceiling of the hall was once covered with gold and silver, symbolising the rays of the sun. It was here that Chhatrapati Shivaji met Aurangzeb when he came to Agra in 1666. Aurangzeb made Shivaji stand behind mansabdars (military commanders) of his court. Shivaji took offence and stormed out and was promptly placed under house arrest under the watch of Faulad Khan, Kotwal of Agra.

Diwan-i-Aam
Diwan-i-Aam|Wikimedia Commons

The fort complex also houses the Diwan-i-Aam (Hall of Public Audience), where the Emperor would listen to public petitions and meet state officials.

Nagina Masjid
Nagina Masjid|Wikimedia Commons

Shah Jahan built many mosques inside, namely Moti Masjid, Nagina Masjid and Mina Masjid. All three are elegant and made of marble. Then there is Sheesh Mahal, the walls and ceilings of which are inlaid with thousands of tiny mirrors.

Interior of Sheesh Mahal
Interior of Sheesh Mahal|Wikimedia Commons

Nearby, there’s Macchi Bhavan. The Padshahnama, the illustrated chronicle of Shah Jahan’s reign, calls this building the treasury for imperial ornaments and jewels.

Macchi Bhavan
Macchi Bhavan|Wikimedia Commons

The quadrangle of the Sheesh Mahal has a spacious courtyard with the entrance to its north and double-storey, arched galleries on the other three sides.

Musamman Burj with a view of the Taj Mahal
Musamman Burj with a view of the Taj Mahal|Wikimedia Commons

The most intriguing is the Musamman Burj, an octagonal, multi-storey tower. The tower looks out over the Yamuna River and is considered to have one of the most poignant views of the Taj Mahal. Legend says it was here that Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb.

Interior of Musamman Burj
Interior of Musamman Burj|Wikimedia Commons

The glory of the Agra Fort began to fade as the power and prestige of the Mughals started to wane. Later, the British used it as a military garrison and to store arms. After independence, the fort was developed into a tourist destination and it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.

Cover Image courtesy: Alexander Savin via Wikimedia Commons

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