An Agra Beyond The Taj Is Absolutely Possible

I have been to Agra on several occasions. Still, for one reason or the other, my visits have only been restricted to the iconic Taj Mahal. While it is impossible not to be in awe of this magnificent symbol of love, one really needs to start looking at Agra beyond the Taj. The city has so much more to offer!

Taj Mahal

I was recently invited by the Tourism Guild of Agra to explore the city's colonial heritage in its entirety. In my mind, at least, the perfect opportunity had knocked on my door. After all, how many times will you ever get to visit Agra without Taj being a part of the equation?

And so the trip was on!

If you want to know Agra inside-out, you'll have to start from the 16th and 17th centuries, a time when the Mughal dynasty was a force to reckon with.

Agra rose to fame during the reign of Mughals - the greatest, wealthiest, and longest-lasting Muslim dynasty to rule India. From Babar who built the first Persian garden on the banks of Yamuna (now called the Aram Bagh) to Akbar who made Agra the center for learning, arts, commerce, and religion, the city offers a window into the life of some of the greatest Muslim rulers of Indian history.

Akbar's Church

Akbar's Church

Akbar's Church

Akbar's Church

Akbar's Church

St. George's Cathedral

St. George's Cathedral

Once considered the imperial capital of India, Agra or Akbarabad as it was called earlier, tells you an essential lesson about religious tolerance and, most importantly, love.

In this blog post, I cover two unsung heroes of Agra - Begum Samru and Anne Hessing. What's impressive about both the women is their stories, even though quite distinct from each other, have such compelling narratives. The history of Agra is a story dominated by men. My aim is to write these women back in.

Begum Samru

To my mind, one of the most inspiring stories from Agra is that of Begum Samru (earlier known as Farzana), a Nautch girl in 18th century India. A Muslim orphan, barely in her teens, she married a European mercenary by the name of Walter Reinhardt Sombre. From abject poverty, she rose to be an independent ruler for 55 glorious years, through her acuteness of intellect and readiness of action.

Begum Samru

Begum Samru headed a professionally trained mercenary army consisting of Europeans and Indians. Not the one to conform to norms, she ditched the Burqa to lead a formidable army of over 4000 troops.

Her capacity for clear thinking and her assiduity and application were remarkable. Extremely beautiful, small in stature, and endowed with extraordinary ability, she influenced her husband the most and accompanied him in all his wanderings and campaigns.

She cut an unusual figure at four and a half feet, wearing a turban, sitting on a horse in balance, and leading her troops into the battlefield. Given that we're talking of a time when women were veiled and confined to their households, it would suffice to say that she was quite ahead of her times.

Her sharp wit and charm impressed the Mughals and later the British so much that she received the feudal grant of the state of Sardhana, a principality near Meerut, in return for her loyalties. The consolidation of her position and her relations with the British government, in particular, is commendable.

In her later years, she converted from Islam to Christianity, taking up the name "Joanna Nobilis Sombre" after her late husband. To date, she is regarded as the only Catholic ruler in 18th and 19th century India.

Begum Samru showed exceptional leadership qualities uncommon for someone with her background. She is truly an unsung hero of the historic city of Agra, who unbeknownst to all, left her legacy in women empowerment.

[Visit the famous Roman Catholic Cemetery in Nehru Nagar, Agra to see the tomb of Sombre, who died in Agra on May 4, 1778, and was buried here by his widow, Begum Samru.]

Anne Hessing

Anne Hessing holds the distinction of commissioning one of the most beautiful European tombs in India called the Red Taj Mahal, a two-storied mausoleum built in the loving memory of her husband, John William Hessing, a Dutch mercenary and adventurer who rose to the ranks of the Commander of Agra Fort.

John Hessing's Tomb (The Red Taj Mahal)

Their relationship must have been exceptional, as it is clearly unusual for a woman to take such pains after separation!

Notwithstanding its uncanny resemblance to the white Taj Mahal, this elegant and well-preserved tomb is a symbol of the sublime love of a disconsolate spouse.

Designed in red sandstone with a double dome and turrets, the mausoleum houses John's grave with engraved English inscriptions. Anne wasn't able to afford marble, but even with her limited funds, she was able to create a piece of history.

The two Persian inscriptions at the entrance - the epitaph and the chronogram - catch your attention. Anne's words are genuinely heartfelt and give you an idea of how devastated she was with grief.
"When Colonel John William Hessing departed from this world, he left hundreds of scars of separation. By person, he belonged to Holland and was born in that country. He gained fame in India, by the Grace of God."
Hessing's Taj stands on a raised platform in the Catholic cemetery of Agra and is known as the most beautiful memorial built by/for any foreigner in India.

It does not have any minarets or intricate inlay work on the walls, yet there is enough evidence to prove that the architecture was heavily inspired by the stately Taj Mahal.

This perfectly balanced and beautiful tomb, which is sometimes called "The Taj in Miniature," belongs, in letter and spirit, to Agra and to the art of the Jamuna-Chambal region.

The stories of Anne Hessing and Begum Samru have survived the test of time, leaving behind an impression of the exciting heritage of Agra. These women were indispensable to Agra's colonial heritage but were written out of history for some strange reason.

Even though there is a greater emphasis to better recognize women's achievements today, it appears as though current histories have left little room for recapturing or theorizing women's energetic relationships with their kin, environments, or society.

So while it is great to see the history of Agra having a light shone upon it by the Tourism Guild – as ever it would be better if the accounts of such women were told.

Comments

  1. Replies
    1. I didn't share any itinerary per se, but I guess you're referring to the lesser known places of interest in Agra that I have mentioned in my blog post. If you're planning to visit Agra anytime soon, you must definitely visit them.

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  2. Hey this is awesome. We just went there and felt that Taj Mahal was the only thing to see and saw that and left Agra.

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    1. Even I made the same mistake twice ... Thanks to the Tourism Guild of Agra, I was able to discover a part of Agra that, for some reason, is not much talked of!

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  3. Wow. Never knew Agra for anything except The Taj Mahal. You have covered it with great interesting facts and details.

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    1. Glad you enjoyed the blog post. Agra was such a revelation!

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  4. When we talk about Agra, it's always limited to Taj mahal... I am glad I came across your post... Will help me plan my trip better!

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    1. Absolutely ... that's the whole point! There are many offbeat places in Agra that will truly surprise you.

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  5. Akbar's church looks so beautiful. I would love to visit someday. Never thought of a trip to Agra without Taj Mahal.

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    1. You can very much keep the Taj Mahal in your itinerary as I feel one can never get enough of this iconic monument, which symbolizes the greatest love of all. That said, please make sure to explore offbeat places in Agra like the ones I've mentioned in my blog post.

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  6. I never knew this history. I am glad I read your post to know this. We have so many inspiring woman and so much to know and learn.

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    1. Yes. Both Begum Samru and Anne Hessing were real heroes of their times. I felt their stories need to be told!

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  7. I have visited Agra and have seen various other beautiful monuments from our history. There is a lot to see there except Taj Majal. Nice informative post.

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  8. Thanks for making us know more about Agra and to inspiring women of that era

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    1. Inspiration is gender agnostic, I feel. That said, the stories of Begum Samru and Anne Hessing touched me!

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  9. I have had a similar trip to Taj. Loved the entire experience. Really amazing architecture n aura.

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    1. More than the architecture and aura, I was seeking compelling stories that shaped our history!

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  10. For sure, Taj is not the only thing Agra has to offer. Thinking back to our trip, there was so much more we experienced... from Agra fort to Mehtab Bagh to traditional food and sweets like Petha n all. You have enlisted a whole new experience as well.

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    1. Yes, and the credit for that goes to the Tourism Guild of Agra!

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  11. My maternal Grand mother house in Agra, went so many times but never witness the real beauty like churchs as you have expressed in the blog.

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    1. The next time you visit your maternal grandmother in Agra, make sure to visit the places I've mentioned in this post. You'd love Akbar's Church for sure!

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  12. Wow. very nice post. Thanks for sharing such useful information with us.

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  13. I have been to Agra thrice and no doubt thrice to Taj Mahal too. On my last trip (which was last before lockdown), I tried to explore something more than Taj and the city's eatout joints. However what you have presented here is totally mind blowing. It has given me a different preservative to revisit this city.

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