Today marks the thirty-fifth installment in a series of articles by HumanProgress.org called Centers of Progress. Where does progress happen? The story of civilization is in many ways the story of the city. It is the city that has helped to create and define the modern world. This bi-weekly column will give a short overview of urban centers that were the sites of pivotal advances in culture, economics, politics, technology, etc.
The thirty-fifth Center of Progress is Agra during the city’s golden age at the time of the Mughal Empire (1526–1857). In Agra, different cultures converged to create what many believe is humanity’s greatest architectural achievement: the Taj Mahal (constructed 1631–1653).
Located on a broad plain on the banks of the Yamuna River in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Agra is home to roughly 1.6 million people. The city is known for its leather goods, handwoven carpets, stone handicrafts, and distinct red sandstone. It is also known for its Mughlai cuisine, which has evolved considerably from the days when Mughal emperors dined on food flecked with silver. As a major road and rail junction, as well as a prong of India’s “Golden Triangle” tourist circuit, Agra is a transportation hub. Tourism is a major factor in Agra’s economy, and the city contains two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal.
The area where Agra now stands has attracted notice since ancient times. Agra is referenced in the ancient Sanskrit epic poem the Mahabharata, which mentions “the forest of Agravana.” But it was the famed Greek scholar Claudius Ptolemy, who lived in Alexandria nearly four thousand miles away, who provided history’s first recorded use of the name “Agra.” “[I]t is easy to recognize the Yamuna, the river which after passing Delhi, Mathura, Agra, and other places, joins the Ganges,” Ptolemy noted in his work Geographia (The Geography), published in AD 150.
Despite these ancient roots, according to tradition, Agra was founded in the year 1504, when Sultan Sikandar Lodi made it the capital from which he and later his son, Sultan Ibrahim Lodi, ruled over the Delhi Sultanate.
But Agra truly rose to prominence under the Mughal Empire, founded by the Uzbek-born chieftain Babur (1483–1530) in 1526, who conquered Agra and took the younger Lodi’s throne. He had the Ram Bagh, or the Garden of Relaxation, laid out on the banks of the river Yamuna, where it remains as the oldest extant Mughal garden. Babur’s daughter-in-law Empress Bega Begum began the dynasty’s tradition of palatial tombs on the Indian subcontinent in 1558 when she commissioned an elaborate final resting place for her husband, Babur’s son, the second Mughal emperor Humayun. Created by architects from Persia and representing the first garden-tomb in India, this impressive structure in Delhi would soon be dwarfed by the tombs of Agra.
The empire greatly expanded under Humayun’s son, the third Mughal emperor, Akbar the Great (1542–1605). Akbar focused on both territorial and commercial expansion, conquering land and strengthening trade ties with neighboring realms. Agra’s population swelled under Akbar, reaching as many as 800,000 people.
Akbar redesigned and raised the towering ramparts of the Agra Fort and commissioned the 15-story-tall Buland Darwaza, or “Door of Victory,” just outside of Agra, which remains the highest gateway in the world. Akbar was, for his era, unusually tolerant of other religions. He repealed the customary tax on non-Muslims (the jizyah) and ended the death penalty for de-converting from Islam to Hinduism. He created a religious institution known as the Ibādat Khāna (“House of Worship”), which encouraged interfaith philosophical and theological debates.
Akbar also personally engaged in a radical experiment in religious syncretism, promulgating what some historians describe as a spiritual training program and others call a new religion. The movement, called Din-i Ilahi, attempted to reconcile and merge Islam, Hinduism, and Zoroastrianism and incorporated elements from Christianity, Jainism, and Buddhism. Akbar sought to promote what he saw as the best aspects of these different faiths – such as Hinduism’s encouragement of vegetarianism and Islam’s central tenet of Tawhid, or monotheism. Many of his Muslim contemporaries considered the emperor a heretic (as do many Muslims today), but Akbar’s unusual views helped increase his popularity among his many Hindu subjects.
Akbar took up various native customs, participated in Diwali and other local festivals, and showed an enthusiasm for Sanskrit literature, which he had translated. His son Jahangir and grandson Shah Jahan also would not eat beef in deference to Hindu beliefs. Multiculturalism continued to define the Mughal Empire for centuries after Akbar’s death and influenced the architecture of Agra.
Akbar’s tomb lies in Sikandra on the outskirts of Agra. Constructed from the local deep red sandstone and decorated with beautiful calligraphy and geometric patterns, the tomb combines Muslim and native Indian art styles. The tomb is noted for its four white marble chhatri (dome-shaped pavilion)-topped minarets, which may have inspired similar features in the Taj Mahal. The body of Akbar’s favorite wife, Mariam, rests in another elaborate tomb, also in Sikandra.
But Agra’s most prominent tomb, besides the Taj Mahal, is the Tomb of I’timad-ud-Daulah. Nicknamed the “Baby Taj,” it is a direct forerunner to the Taj Mahal. I’timad-ud-Daulah was a Persian-born Mughal official who served as Prime Minister under Akbar’s and Mariam’s son, Emperor Jahangir (1569–1627), and whose daughter married Jahangir. Built between 1622 and 1628, the tomb signifies an evolution from the first phase of monumental Mughal architecture–primarily built from red sandstone, as in Humayun’s and Akbar’s tombs–to a new phase, with perhaps an even more pronounced mixing of different architectural traditions. The choice of white marble may have been influenced by Hindu practices “set out in the Vishnudharmottara Purana [a sacred Sanskrit text], which recommended white stone for buildings for the Brahmins.”
Intercultural synthesis was a key characteristic of Agra’s Mughal architecture, which mixes Indian, Persian, and Turkish styles, among others. Islam more broadly has a tradition of syncretizing different architectural styles, such as in the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba and the Royal Alcázar in Seville. While Muslim architects likely drew inspiration from their faith—a famous hadith says, “God is beautiful and loves beauty”—they were also constrained by it: a prominent interpretation of Islam prohibits depicting people or animals. As a result, Muslim artists often avoided sculpting or painting people and animals (with notable exceptions such as the “Persian miniature” painting tradition), instead developing expertise in calligraphy, poetry, and art based around abstract geometric patterns. These aniconic designs are among the most distinguishing features of Islamic art and decorate objects of all types, from carpets to stoneware. Alongside calligraphic inscriptions, they also prominently adorn the surfaces of monumental Islamic architecture. Even these distinctive patterns, though, are ultimately the result of cultural intermixing. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art:
“While geometric ornamentation may have reached a pinnacle in the Islamic world, the sources for both the shapes and the intricate patterns already existed in late antiquity among the Greeks, Romans, and Sasanians in Iran. Islamic artists appropriated key elements from the classical tradition, then complicated and elaborated upon them in order to invent a new form of decoration that stressed the importance of unity and order.”
Continuing the virtuous cycle of artistic intercultural borrowing, many notable Islamic geometric designs–like arabesques, or interlaced tendril patterns, and Girih, or angular knotlike patterns–inspired Christian artists in Italy and elsewhere. Arabesque is, in fact, a French word derived from the Italian term arabesco, meaning “in the Arab style.” Artistic inspiration flowed in both directions, with Muslim and Christian artists and architects continuously borrowing ideas from one another. For example, the elegant pietra dura or parchin kari jewel-inlaying technique, mainly developed in Renaissance-era Florence with the generous patronage of the Medici family, was used prominently in Mughal artworks. Agra’s “Baby Taj” made ample use of that inlay technique, but the most elegant use of pietra dura in architectural history is widely considered to be in the Taj Mahal itself.
The Taj Mahal was commissioned by Jahangir’s son, the grieving Emperor Shah Jahan (1592–1666), for his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal (1593–1631), meaning “Jewel of the Palace.” “Taj Mahal” is derived from her name. While Shah Jahan had two other wives, they were consequences of political marriages, and he largely ignored the former. The emperor was famously inseparable from Mumtaz Mahal, who accompanied him on his imperial travels and even his military campaigns.
Tragically, even an emperor’s family was not safe from the horrifically high rates of child mortality and maternal mortality at the time. Mumtaz Mahal died at age thirty-eight from birth-related complications. Only half of her fourteen children survived to adulthood, with four dying in infancy, one dying at age one and a half, one dying of smallpox at age three, and another dying of smallpox at age seven.
According to legend, as Mumtaz Mahal lay dying, she bound her husband with a promise to build her the most beautiful mausoleum known to man.
The Taj Mahal was built in twenty-two years by over twenty thousand artisans, some summoned from as far as Italy and Persia. The prominent calligraphic adornments are thought to be the work of Amanat Ali Khan Shirazi, the Persian brother of Shah Jahan’s prime minister. Ran Mahal, from Kashmir, the northernmost region of the Indian subcontinent, is believed to have designed the complex’s magnificent gardens. One controversial theory claims that a Venetian jeweler living in Agra, Geronimo Veroneo, played a part in the design of the Taj Mahal. The main architect was likely Ustad Ahmad Lahouri, a Persian who may have hailed from modern-day Pakistan or Afghanistan. Ustad Isa from Shiraz in the Safavid Empire (modern-day Iran), who may have also been part Turkish, is credited with the site plan. Shah Jahan himself played an active role in the Taj Mahal’s design, making “appropriate alterations to whatever the skillful architects had designed after considerable thought and would ask the architects competent questions.”
The Taj Mahal’s building materials also came from near and far, with its famous white marble brought from the neighboring province of Rajasthan, the jasper from Punjab, and the jade and crystal adornments from China. Lapis-lazuli, cornelian, mother of pearl, agate, and emerald were also among the precious gems and stones used in the Taj Mahal’s design. The building is thought to have cost around 1 billion 2020 U.S. dollars. Peter Mundy, an Englishman living in Agra at the time, described the construction this way (with spelling modernized for readability):
“This King is now building a sepulcher for his late deceased Queen Taj [Mumtaz] Mahal… He intends it shall excel all other[s]… The building is begun and goes on with excessive labor and cost, prosecuted with extraordinary diligence, gold and silver … and marble.”
There is widespread international agreement that the Taj Mahal represents a pinnacle of architectural beauty. Type “most beautiful building” into an internet search engine, and chances are the Taj Mahal will appear. The Google Arts & Culture website on the Taj Mahal says, “It is considered the most beautiful building ever constructed.” The Encyclopedia Britannica says, “One of the most beautiful structural compositions in the world, the Taj Mahal is also one of the world’s most iconic monuments.” National Geographic similarly notes, “The Taj Mahal is widely considered one of the most beautiful buildings ever created.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art concurs, counting the Taj Mahal “among the most beautiful buildings in the world.”
The Taj Mahal’s famed tomb forms the centerpiece of a 42-acre complex, which also includes a mosque and a guest house. These architectural wonders stand in a sprawling garden enclosed on three sides by ornate domed and crenelated red sandstone walls. The tomb’s main dome is nearly 115 feet high. The palace-like structure is famed for its proportionality, sumptuous attention to detail, and symmetry. It looks the same from all sides, except the one facing the Yamuna River, which was the mourning king’s entrance–he would take a barge across the river to pay his respects to his late wife. The acoustics of the Taj Mahal’s interior are notable, having, according to the monument’s official government website, “a reverberation time (the time taken from when a noise is made until all of its echoes have died away) of 28 seconds providing an atmosphere where the words of the Hafiz, as they prayed for the soul of Mumtaz, would linger in the air.” (A Hafiz is someone who has memorized the Quran).
Shah Jahan claimed the Taj Mahal’s beauty made “the sun and the moon shed tears.” He is said to have attempted to make the tomb an earthly replica of the palace he believed Mumtaz would inhabit in paradise. The Indian Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore described the Taj Mahal as a “teardrop on the cheek of eternity.” The Persian poet Kalim Kashani wrote, “It is a [piece of] heaven of the color of dawn’s bright face, because from top to bottom and inside out it is of marble… The eye can mistake it for a cloud.” The Taj Mahal has also been called “a poem in stone.” It is also one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
The last of the Mughal rulers to commission notable architecture was Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal’s son Aurangzeb (1618–1707), who was not especially interested in architecture but had two impressive mosques built as well as the Bibi Ka Maqbara (“Tomb of the Lady”) for his wife–which closely resembles the Taj Mahal. Rather than build a separate tomb for his father, Aurangzeb had Shah Jahan interred next to Mumtaz Mahal. (Mumtaz Mahal lies in the center of the Taj Mahal, and Shah Jahan’s asymmetrical placement to her side suggests the tomb was originally meant to hold Mumtaz Mahal alone). Agra’s architectural wonders continue to attract thousands of visitors from around the world each year.
While tastes differ, and some may favor different architectural styles—perhaps preferring the Gothic arches of Westminster Abbey in London or the Art Nouveau masterpieces of Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona—there is little doubt that Agra is home to some of the most impressive and visually pleasing architecture ever constructed. Much like the Renaissance paintings of Florence or the classical symphonies of Vienna, the Indo-Mughal architecture of Agra represents a high point of human achievement in the arts. Agra demonstrates the artistic potential of intercultural borrowing and exchange. It is for these reasons that 17th-century Agra can claim its place as our 35th Center of Progress.