Beyond the Taj Mahal: the other tombs of Agra, India

'Helloooooo!'

The eerie cry seems to issue from the wall of the tomb. In any other context it would be creepy to hear a disembodied voice inside a mausoleum, but after a few days in India, the unexpected is almost commonplace. I soon see a woman in a sari across the other side of the tomb, grinning after demonstrating the echo caused by its perfectly angled interior.

It’s difficult to be alone in India, where people throng every road and public space. It’s even harder to be alone in Agra, home to the Taj Mahal. Arguably the world’s most famous building, it’s a magnet for both domestic and international visitors. Just a few hours’ travel from Delhi, Agra is regularly inundated by tour coaches full of the camera-happy and curious, heading for the renowned tomb.

However, there’s more to the attractions of Agra than the Taj. For centuries the city was the capital of the mighty Mughal Empire, whose Muslim rulers held sway over much of modern-day India and Pakistan. As a result, the city is littered with impressive tombs erected by or in memory of its powerful emperors.

Akbar’s Mausoleum

'Women approaching the tomb of the Moghul Emperor Akbar in Agra, India'. Photo by Tim Richards

The Mughal rulers certainly knew how to throw together a memorable resting place. One of the greatest is the Mausoleum of Akbar, the emperor known as 'the Great', in Agra’s northwest.

Set within walled gardens, the tomb is entered via a massive high gate. It’s a beautiful structure topped with four towers and decorated with bold, swirling geometric and floral designs. The colour scheme of contrasting brick-red and white seems to fit the dusty landscape of northern India.

Within the compound, a long stone walkway divides the area into two large rectangles of lawn, dotted with curly-horned deer which graze here as they would have in Akbar’s day. Presumably they look both decorative and keep the grass down.

The mausoleum itself, planned in Akbar’s lifetime and completed in 1612, is a vast square building with arches, canopies, decorative panels and multiple storeys. Within its centre is the emperor’s tomb, a simple inscribed oblong of marble covering his remains. Nearby are similar, smaller tombs for his daughters. It’s within one of these that a local woman demonstrates the excellent echo effect to visitors in hope of a little baksheesh.

Outside in a cool breeze on a sunny day, it’s pleasant to sit on the low stone retaining wall above the gardens, and reflect on history and the passing of greatness.

The Baby Taj

'Itimad-ud-Daulah, nicknamed the Baby Taj.' Photo by Glenn Beanland / Lonely Planet Images / Getty

Back in the centre of the city, on the riverbank north of the Taj Mahal, is Itimad-ud-Daulah, the tomb built for the chief minister of Akbar’s successor, Emperor Jahangir. It’s otherwise known as the Baby Taj. It’s a fitting title as this stunning mausoleum has many of the attributes of its more famous cousin, though on a smaller scale.

At the centre of a beautiful walled garden, the Baby Taj is a gleaming construction of marble, with a square pavilion on the roof and four octagonal towers.

Built on a more human scale than the tomb of Akbar or the Taj Mahal, this graceful structure inspires more fondness than awe. What makes it particularly interesting are the detailed decorative elements throughout. Beautiful panels bear polychromatic patterns which look as bright as they would have in 1628 when the building was completed. They’re a mix of grey, brown, black and tan shades, which reveal fascinating swirls when viewed up close.

Some walls also have attractive nature scenes, populated with trees, flowers and urns. The Baby Taj was something of a prototype; many of the decorative techniques used here were later perfected in the Taj Mahal.

Chini-ka-Rauza

'Exterior of the Persian-style Chini-ka-Rauza tomb in Agra, India.' Photo by Tim Richards

This riverside tomb is the absolute opposite to the famous, overrun Taj. Located down a dusty narrow road and often empty of both locals and visitors, it feels like a forgotten footnote in Agra’s history.

Chini-ka-Rauza was built for Afzal Khan, a senior minister to Emperor Shah Jahan, the ruler responsible for the construction of the Taj Mahal. Completed in 1639, it was unusually constructed in a Persian form, reflecting the origin of its occupant.

It’s suffered over the centuries, and much of the rich external decoration has disappeared. However, some striking artwork survives on blue-edged glazed tiles on the exterior of the building, and there are fine paintings within. In one corner, for example, you can see the word 'Allah' in Arabic script, within a blue field surrounded by delicate floral patterns in white and red. The one element of the original tomb layout that has been maintained is the garden within its walls, featuring a beautiful green lawn.

Not all is sweetness and light, however. From behind the tomb there’s a view over the Yamuna River. It’s a pleasant enough vista, but directly below the tomb wall is an expansive spread of cowpats, presumably being dried for use as fuel.

No doubt the emperor’s minister would’ve been unamused at this sullying of his last resting place. But at least he has a quieter time of it than his near-neighbour, the late Mumtaz Mahal, the woman for whom Shah Jahan built his immortal tribute in the form of the Taj Mahal.