#5 roman catholic taj mahals: 7 reasons why agra should be on every travel bucket list

Whilst Shah Jahan was building the Taj Mahal as an ode to his beloved wife, the European Christians in Agra were creating their own fairy-tale like mausoleums in a cemetery dating back to Akbar’s time. Not perhaps on the same scale, they are however, no less delightful in carved red sandstone, yellow basalt, and whitewashed plastered walls. These tombs in Agra’s Roman Catholic Cemetery are the resting places of initially the Armenian Christians in the 1600s and, thereafter, of other European Catholics in the city.

I have just finished exploring the Agra Fort at sunrise. Following a compelling recommendation by a travel blogger friend I find myself, next, walking through a Mughal arched doorway on a quiet lane off MG Road, Civil Lines, near Bhagwan Talkies. Paan chewing, beaming Suren Singh, an employee of the Archaeological Survey of India welcomes me.

Completely confused by my presence but equally eager to show me around, he patiently introduces me to centuries old graves, tombs, and mausoleums belonging to European adventurers, artisans and soldiers, and one just buried a few days ago. Opening grizzly doors and pointing out, both the unusual and the perfect photo opportunity, with much aplomb.

The oldest structure is Marty’s Chapel, a simple octagonal edifice topped with a dome, housing the cemetery’s very first grave, that of Khwaja Mortenepus, an Armenian who died in 1611. John Mildenhall, the first Englishman to be buried on Indian soil (1614) and often referred to in historical records as a “brave scoundrel,” rests peacefully under the trees nearby. I stumble upon more ornate tombs with urns and decorative carvings, and simple gravestones with crosses and Armenian and Persian scripts. Every now and then Suren assures me, “Take your time. Ask whenever and whatever you need to.”

The star of the cemetery is without a doubt, the Mughal Red Taj Mahal or tomb of John William Hessing replete with four chatris, a gesture of love from a wife to a husband and one of the finest European tombs in India. Hessing, a Dutchman and Commander of the Agra Fort, died on 21 July, 1803 during his service to the Maharaja Daulat Rao Scindia who then ruled Agra. Just as beautiful is the family mausoleum of Francis Ellis facing it, his tomb dated 14 January, 1868 surrounded by 23 graves holding numerous generations of his family.

As I stroll, read, ponder, an interesting revelation seems to emerge on how easily the early Europeans welcomed and embraced India and Indian-ness, rarely attempting to create a hybrid format with their own culture, but rather adopting it in its authentic form. Much in contrast to the stance taken by their later counterparts who endeavoured to ensure the divide was always clear and tangible, and representative of the “Raj.”

Most tourists to Agra flock to see the more popular sites, and often only one site, the Taj Mahal. The 400-year-old and North India’s oldest Christian cemetery, meanwhile offers an oasis of history to those who venture to take the road less travelled, giving a glimpse of the other Agra that existed. Come on, I urge you, do take the quiet side lane too. 🙂


Islamic mausoleums for Christian souls … The Red Taj Mahal (1803).


Taj Mahals in white plastered walls.


And others with filigreed, exquisitely carved edifices; Francis Ellis’s burial place (1868).


The Red Taj Mahal, John William Hessing’s mausoleum, from outside and inside.


This tomb had inscriptions in four languages, one on each wall—English, French, Arabic, and Hindi, reading “Here lies interred the 4 children of Gen [RL] Perron Com [MDG] 3 BRI [GDS] in the service of Mahraje Sindiah, AD 1793.”


Left: Final resting places. Right: An Armenian Christian grave; there are over 80 Armenian graves in the cemetery.


I found this grave the most endearing: sweet, simple, and intimate.


My guide, Suren Singh.


A jaali in Marty’s Chapel, the cemetery’s oldest structure (1611): Looking out and looking in, with mannat [wish] ribbons tied to the stone lattice work.

Travel tips for Agra’s Roman Catholic Cemetery:

  • Address: In a narrow lane off MG Road, Civil Lines, near Bhagwan Talkies.
  • Ticket and timing: Free; Open every day from sunrise to sunset; Photography allowed; May I recommend you give the guard a tip.

Travel tips for Agra:

  • Staying there: I stayed at the Crystal Sarovar Premiere through makemytrip.com. Ask for a Taj Mahal-facing room [no extra charge] and one that is at the beginning or end of the corridor. Else, you end up also looking out at KFC’s exhaust pipes.
  • Getting to Agra: I took the Gatimaan Express from Delhi to Agra and back. The train offers fantastic on-board services with a travel time of 1 hour 40 minutes one way.
  • Getting around: Auto rickshaws and car hire services are plentiful.
  • How many days: Try and spend at least 3–4 days in Agra. There is plenty to explore, I assure you!

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Note: This post is the fifth in a 7-part series on why Agra should be on every travel bucket list. To read the entire set click here.

#4 itimad-ud-daulah’s poetic tomb: 7 reasons why agra should be on every travel bucket list

There is no one more fascinating in Mughal history than the Persian father-daughter duo Mirza Ghias Beg and Mehr-un-Nissa. Posterity knows them as Itimad-ud-Daulah and Nur Jahan.

A classic tale of riches to rags and back to riches, Mirza Ghias Beg was a defamed nobleman from Tehran, Iran who decided to try and change his fortunes in 16th Century Mughal India. Robbed on his way, he reached Akbar’s court penniless, but was quick to rise the ranks to earn himself the title Itimad-ud-Daulah or Pillar of the State, and even become the grand vizier in Akbar’s successor, Jahangir’s court.

His daughter, meanwhile, was abandoned at birth by her parents, fraught with poverty, in Qandahar, Afghanistan on 31 May, 1577 on their way to India. She was returned to their home the same night by a stranger who decided to take the family under his wing.

Beautiful, fearless, hot-tempered with nerves of steel, she fell in love with Jahangir, the Emperor Akbar’s son when she was eight years of age. But it was only after a 14-year bad marriage—widowed, 34, and with a child—that she re-entered his life to become his 20th and last wife in 1611. He bestowed upon her the title Nur Jahan, Light of the World. In the ensuing years, Jahangir spent his life intoxicated by opium and alcohol, smitten by her beauty and brains. She, on the other hand, became the most powerful woman in Mughal history and ruled the empire for 16 years from behind the veil. Continue reading

#3 abandoned fatehpur sikri: 7 reasons why agra should be on every travel bucket list

“Jesus, son of Mary said, ‘The world is a bridge, pass over it, but build no houses upon it. He who hopes for a day, may hope for eternity; but the World endures but an hour. Spend it in prayer for the rest is unseen.'”
~ Persian inscription,
Buland Darwaza, Fatehpur Sikri, 1601

My recollections of Fatehpur Sikri trace back to a family holiday many eons ago. I was 10. I remember being mesmerized as I wandered through the vast, desolate expanses embellished with exquisite stonework. Long fingers of golden sunshine stroked the edifices, setting the scattered, towering, red sandstone walls aflame.

For a 10-year-old it was a surreal place totally removed from all reality as I knew it.

Over the years I would often close my eyes and go back in time to re-emerge starry-eyed about life’s wonders. Amazed about a whole city built by one of the greatest emperors history had known, in honour of a Sufi saint who predicted the one thing he wanted most—a heir to pass on his empire to. Crafted with incredible passion and precision, the emperor Akbar himself oversaw the building of the site from its floor plans to the hand-chiselled columns and doorways to ensure it reflected his secular beliefs and heightened sense of aesthetics. Continue reading

#2 majestic agra fort: 7 reasons why agra should be on every travel bucket list

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Sunrise at Agra Fort. Why sunrise ? Why not noon, sunset, twilight … Simple. Because at sunrise, when the warm golden light dapples over the 450-year-old walled Mughal palatial city and its deserted sprawling expanses, something close to magic happens. Plus I like mornings. 🙂

Built in the Indo-Islamic architectural style, the bow-shaped Fort with its 70-feet-high bastioned walls facing the Yamuna river, served as the Mughal empire’s military strategic point, as well as their royal residence.

The story of the Agra Fort is the story of three of its Mughal emperors—their resolute ambition, blinded passion, and romantic love is emblazoned over the red, intricately carved sandstone and translucent marble edifices. The story has been recounted countless times in Indian history books, movies, and music. Agra Fort lets one relive it, in what was once their home, in the company of its memories.

The emperors were Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan. Continue reading

#1 poignant taj mahal: 7 reasons why agra should be on every travel bucket list

“The world believes it was built by love but reading Shah Jahan’s own words on the Taj, one could say it was grief that built the Taj Mahal and it was sorrow that saw it through till completion.”
~ Aysha Taryam, The Opposite of Indifference: A Collection of Commentaries

This last week I travelled to Agra. I was keeping a promise to myself to revisit the city at a slower pace, in a more mindful way. It was my 4th visit. Needless to say, my previous ones were of the mass-produced variety.

The universe, weaving its magic in my favour, decided to back me on my plan and gave me one of my most memorable and beautiful travel experiences ever. I did not use any guide. I merely read up a lot, and wandered around the sites a lot more, often seating myself at a quiet spot or another to absorb the place at leisure. May I suggest you do the same? Live Agra’s treasures. Don’t just visit them.

In this post I am uploading a series of pictures of the Taj Mahal, easily Agra’s biggest attraction, taken from 7 am to 12 noon [yes, I was there for five hours 🙂 ], and some basic context one needs to know. I hope it inspires you to let your soul and feet revel in the 350-year-old monument, like mine did. They will both thank you, profusely. Continue reading

india travel shot: breakfast in agra be like this

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I just had to do a separate post for the above picture. This was one of the highlights of my recent Agra trip.

Clear blue skies. The Taj Mahal a stone’s throw away [100 metres]. A full breakfast spread at Rs. 200. Can travel get any better?

There are lots of viewing points for the majestic Taj Mahal in Agra. But the one that takes the cake, or should I say breakfast in this case, is that from the rooftop restaurant of Hotel Saniya Palace. I’d read about Saniya on the net. The reviews which rave about the view, I assure you, are spot on! Tucking into a cheese omelette was never more delectable in my life. Thought I’d share the place with you. 🙂

How to get there: Exit the Taj Mahal complex from the south gate. Walk straight. Turn left at the T-point, and again left into a small, narrow lane. The hotel is seedy. But the restaurant on its rooftop … an absolute gem.