Thursday, 4 August 2016

Seeking Nostalgia in Kodaikanal

Published in the August 2016 edition of Discover India magazine, as 'The Big Misty'.

The fireplace crackled, spewing out untamed flames, and sparks that spat into the room like energetic fireflies. I smiled and sank deeper into my easy-chair, cupping a bowl of hot soup. I was enjoying every bit of the cold weather, having arrived here from the scorching plains. Just a few relaxing hours in Kodaikanal had afflicted me with a languor that was quickly becoming second nature. As my hosts spoke animatedly about life in Kodaikanal, their favourite long walks, secret nooks, and scenic views, it became abundantly clear that I had a battle on my hands to shake off my slothfulness, if I wanted to explore Kodaikanal.

Sepia-tinted photographs and meticulous black-and-white sketches from the 1800s, dotted all over my hosts’ living room, enticed me with the promise of pristine landscapes, fleet-footed Nilgiri Tahrs and Sambar deer in grasslands, and humungous Gaurs surprising me at road bends. As a compulsive nostalgia seeker, the thought of attempting to experience 19th century Kodaikanal immediately caught my fancy, and soon, I was consumed by the idea. So I pored over the photographs and sketches, noted details, and armed myself with directions and tips from my hosts, to help me recreate the memories held by these images.

Morning dew on my window
The next morning, I forced myself out of the snug comfort of my quilt, only to be greeted by the croaking of cicadas. When I left at 6 am, there was barely enough light to discern and open the padlock on the property’s gate, while simultaneously trying to prevent their resident pet from running out with me.  Kodaikanal had not yet awoken from its slumber, except for a dimly-lit tea shack from which wisps of smoke emanated.

From its viewpoint, Kodaikanal Lake was seen shrouded in mist, which had coagulated over the water like gigantic, unruly candy floss. All around, trees emerged, many of them distinctly pine and eucalyptus. The sunrise vista was like watching film slowly develop in a dark-room: monochromatic at first, segueing from pastel pink to sepia, with the other colours choosing to reveal themselves only an hour later, as I drove back past the viewpoint. The lake’s shape as seen from here corresponds exactly to its 19th century photograph. Not much has changed in the view, barring low roofs of Kodaikanal town peeking out from between layers of trees.

Pillar Rocks lay at the end of a long, winding drive from the lake’s viewpoint; save for a couple of houses, the road was deserted. Crepuscular rays streamed in through thickets of trees, from which I heard langurs swinging. I was shaken out of my reverie by the appearance of a barricade - the road hadn’t yet been opened to vehicles for the day.  I approached Pillar Rocks on foot, with heightened anticipation.

Pillar Rocks sketch by Douglas Hamilton, 1862.
Source: Wikipedia. Larger image: click here
The two separate pillar-like rocks from the sketch now stood a little less distinctly, the 150 years that had elapsed having allowed plants to grow over the rocks, reducing the gap between them. The grasslands of yore were also overgrown. There were no gambolling Tahrs or Sambar, and the metal railing all around the viewpoint kept threatening to make my time-travel difficult.

The valley, however, lived up to its promise of being mist-filled, revealing parts of the escarpment of the Palani Hills on which Kodaikanal is situated. A howling, bone-rattling wind made my jacket and gloves redundant, but helped clear the clouds; the sky then turned a picture-postcard blue and gifted me the sight of Pillar Rocks crowned by the setting moon. When I said gifted, I meant it – just a few hours later, eager visitors to Pillar Rocks saw nothing, as fog hid the rocks until the next sunrise. My hosts had been right in egging me on to leave before dawn.

Enthused by how my morning had panned out, I was less averse to exploring ‘modern’ Kodaikanal and decided to see the picturesque lake up-close. The lake is the focal point of life in Kodaikanal, for residents and visitors alike. With restricted vehicular movement on the road encircling the lake, it comes alive with cyclists whizzing past, people chatting, residents jogging, and couples enjoying quiet strolls. With the lake on one side and many palatial heritage buildings lining the other, the lake road exudes an old-world charm.

The sight of bicycles brought out the child in me and I spent a greater part of the afternoon giggling over our clumsy tandem-bike riding skills, while resolutely cycling around the lake. To perhaps continue kindling the child in you, the boat clubs have ensured that most pedal-boats have gigantic cartoon characters built on them. With Mickey Mouse for company, I pedalled across the lake to one of its quieter arms. Families had turned up in droves to enjoy the pleasant evening; in spite of the crowd, the large size of the lake allowed me to have a piece of Kodaikanal to myself. And I had to admit - the Kodaikanal of today had provided me with as much excitement and relaxation as the Kodaikanal of the past.

That didn’t stop me from resuming my pursuance of the next black-and-white photograph, though. Dolphin’s Nose, so named because of the shape of the rock overhanging the valley, promised an interesting trek, and I decided to undertake it early the next day. The narrow trail took me past bustling hutments, cheap lodges with bewildering Hebrew signage, refreshment stalls, and locals gathering firewood, before meandering through trees and losing all sight of habitation.  Which is why, it startled me to hear a voice behind me say “photo, madam?” barely ten minutes after I sat near the edge, lost in quiet contemplation.


Once an Enid Blyton-esque picnic spot for Kodaikanal’s residents, Dolphin’s Nose now attracts many visitors who enjoy posing in the ‘Titanic pose’ at the very edge. A few enterprising photographers not only orchestrate photogenic poses, but are also equipped with instant printers to give you copies within minutes. Upon my refusal, the photographer too sat down to admire the view. Coaxed by him into experiencing the feeling of sitting at the actual end, I slowly overcame my fear and swung my legs over the edge, hands gripping the ground next to me for dear life. Though decades had elapsed since my reference colonial era photo had been taken, Dolphin’s Nose still felt like the end of the world.   

If Dolphin’s Nose whetted my appetite for more solitude, Berijam Lake surpassed it. With highly restricted access to the lake, you are almost guaranteed to be the sole individual there if you time it right. The long drive to the lake passes through precariously surviving shola-grasslands; I was pleased because it increased my chances of spotting wildlife, if not the elusive Tahrs. Mist engulfed the road for quite some time, considerately lifting at just the right viewpoints. 

Berijam Lake sat in the valley like the grand prize at the end of a journey. To stroll and sit at the water’s edge, surrounded by hillocks and dense clusters of conifers, with no sign of ‘civilisation’ in sight, made it the perfect end to my quest for nostalgia.

Driving back from Berijam Lake, lamenting that it was time for me to leave Kodaikanal, I passed the golf course. Despite being mid-day, mist rolled over its gentle undulations, even as a lone golfer persistently played his game.  

That is when it dawned on me - the 19th century still existed in Kodaikanal: in its pristine landscapes, its capacity to offer solitude, and its flair for surprising you. And then, almost as if to chide that obsessing about the past wasn’t healthy, Kodaikanal drops a misty curtain on it all, nudging visitors to experience its present – its people, its lake, and its activities. I realised that Kodaikanal morphs into what you seek from it.

Thursday, 31 December 2015

2015 Travel Calendar

‘Short trips’ was this year’s recurring theme, making the best of my sparse holidays and sparser travel money.  If the last two years had been about discovering the joys of road-trips and solo travel, this year led me down a new path – food trips. Having always been a foodie, enjoying regional cuisine whenever I travelled, this year’s trips took this passion to new heights – trips where we ate like there was no tomorrow, hunting down the tastiest local specialities a place had to offer. I had more than enough food to savour, despite my supposed ‘drawback’ of being a vegetarian.

In between gorging on food, I photographed these delicacies, resulting in outright bad photos at first, but improving slowly by the next trip. This has made me want to better my food photography skills, something I’ve resolved to practice next year; not your glossy, studio set-up food photos, but photographing food on the streets. I love how travel brings such new challenges my way!

With a trip already planned for the first month of 2016, I sign off excitedly for this year, wishing everybody a very happy, healthy and travel-filled 2016.
I travelled to Madurai by chance, as my husband, who spent a few years living there, wanted to visit the city to re-live his childhood memories. The trip quickly snowballed into a larger agenda, of also enjoying Madurai’s famed food. The city takes its title of 'thoonga nagaram' (the town that never sleeps) very seriously, buzzing from the wee hours of the morning, well into the night. Catering to the teeming mass of people are hole-in-the-wall eateries and road-side vendors, with a wide array of meals and tiffin items. While meals include a lot of non-vegetarian dishes, tiffin is predominantly vegetarian, and can be a meal in itself. Madurai's residents have a discerning palate, which reflects in the food they prepare, and it is almost impossible to get bad food anywhere in the city. I ate my way through Madurai tiffin, which offers a mind-boggling variety of dishes and beverages: from popular dishes like kotthu parotta and idli to unique local items like jigarthanda and thennangkuruthu. 

The best way to atone for indulging in such excesses at Madurai was to walk it off, I thought. What better way to do that than to spend a few days at nearby Kodaikanal? Kodaikanal’s crisp winter weather and laidback weekday disposition proved to be the perfect setting for rambling walks, energetic cycling around the Kodai Lake, and a sweaty hike to Dolphin’s Nose. Our determination to not focus on food, however, was thrown out of the window thanks to our gregarious home-stay hosts, who broke our resolve with every lip-smacking meal they cooked for us.  All the food sent us scrambling for more walks, and we returned to Bangalore refreshed by Kodaikanal’s charm and natural beauty.

Read about this trip:

Kabini, Karnataka
This quick jaunt to Kabini in the monsoon was intended as a rejuvenating break after a strenuous first half of the year, and to celebrate hubby’s milestone birthday. As usual, Kabini lived up to its promise. Threatening clouds loomed, but it never rained hard enough to foil our plans. Four safaris into the forest, short walks around Kabini River Lodge’s campus, and contemplative sessions gazing at the Kabini reservoir got us fully recharged for the latter half of 2015.

Dilli ki sardi was something my friend would often poetically rave about. I decided that it was finally time to experience it first-hand, inviting myself over to my aforesaid friend’s home. Research prior to the trip had armed me with a list of over 40 eateries to visit, many serving winter specialities, and I lost no time in dragging my friends along for the food mania. Over three days, we systematically chomped our way through the list, walking for hours through Old Delhi, seeking out nondescript push-carts and not-marked-on-any-map eateries, all serving some of the cheapest, freshest and most delicious food I have ever eaten. When we could walk no more, we took breaks at some of Delhi’s lovely monuments, catching forty winks and resting our tired legs, only to resume our mission soon after. Not for the faint-hearted, this trail!

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Wild Postcards from Sri Lanka

An unedited version of my story published in the November 2015 edition of the in-flight magazine, JetWings

I furrow my brows, as the ringtone interrupts my hectic deadline. The number displayed on my mobile is unknown, but I continue to stare – something about it beginning with +94 seems deliciously familiar. I answer. Silence. Just as I return to furiously typing out the remainder of my email, it rings again. I absently answer the call, only to be greeted by rapid-fire talk in a language I don’t understand. Then it comes back to me, rusty as the memory is, from months of disuse. I get up from my chair, smile at no one in particular, and say “ayubowan.” The relentless chatter pauses. “No Sinhala,” I continue, like I’d repeated for three weeks, many months ago. The voice begins talking in an endearingly halting and lilting Hindi, “Main Prasanna bol rahaa hoon.” I can hear a smile, a shy smile. “Aapka letter aaya.” Instantly, my deadline is all but forgotten.

Sinharaja Forest Reserve, in south-west Sri Lanka, is the country’s only surviving primary tropical rainforest. Its pin-head size belies the fact that more than 60% of the flora and fauna found here are endemic to the region. Due to this high endemism, the forest has been declared a UNESCO heritage site.

Prasanna was my eyes and ears in Sinharaja, where the earth was as slippery as grease, and battalions of leeches clung to every human who dared brave the incessant rains. The sky flickered between innumerable shades of grey, and could barely be glimpsed through small gaps in the tall, dense rainforest canopy. The highlight of my trek was witnessing a mixed-flock hunt, with raucous drongos, frisky babblers, belligerent Blue Magpies, and even the dignified trogon, feasting on worms and insects emerging from the rain-battered earth. The forest trail yielded birds, fungi, flowers, snakes, and lizards of such varieties, that we were constantly surprised at every turn; even the endangered Purple-faced Leaf Monkey revealed itself on my last evening at Sinharaja.

At the end of each tiring day in the forest, I’d return to my room at Martin’s Simple Lodge, a place which is exactly as its name suggests, swapping sightings and experiences with fellow birding enthusiasts while savouring refreshing tea in the terrace overlooking Sinharaja’s dipterocarps, or while nonchalantly plucking leeches off our persons by the communal tap. The owner, a former guide and a wealth of information, is a man of few words; what makes him smile though, is visitors’ childlike enthusiasm at having seen a Red-faced Malkoha or a Ceylon Frogmouth up-close, in the forest he holds dear.

"Sinharaja’s villages don’t have pin-codes; how will my letter be delivered?" I’d asked, while saying goodbye. Prasanna just smiled, answerless. I needn’t have worried: the letter, along with photographs of Sinharaja, had reached him within a week of my convincing my neighbourhood post office that I was not ‘wasting eighty rupees in postage’.

“There is an error in your identification” Prasanna says, alluding to the contents of my letter, “This is a Purple-faced Leaf Monkey, not a Bear Monkey.” I apologise sheepishly for my rookie mistake. The mention of the Bear Monkey, though, swings me along to another place, another day.

Horton Plains National Park, located in Sri Lanka’s central highlands, is the country’s only montane grassland and cloud forest. Due to its high elevation, fog and clouds deposit a large amount of moisture, creating a unique ecosystem of moist grasslands, swamps and wetlands. The endemic flora and fauna have evolved to suit this peculiar habitat. Ohiya is a convenient base for exploring Horton Plains. However, due to extremely limited accommodation here, most visitors prefer to stay at the popular hill station Nuwara Eliya, almost two hours away.

The mountain railway at Ohiya snakes through dense foliage, from which peek colourful tin roofs. An occasional curlicue of smoke from a cooking fire is the only sign of habitation. Hiking along the tracks brought well-preserved, century-old sleepers and metal components my way. I was also rewarded with an encounter with the endemic Bear Monkeys, cousins of the species in Sinharaja. Over twenty of them, jumping from branch to branch, with a wary eye on me, looking improbably like monkeys with bear ancestors - to think, I wasn’t even within the national park boundary yet!

At Horton Plains National Park, the 9 kilometre trail meandering across grasslands, seasonal ponds, over undulating rock, sometimes gravel, and finally through dense forest, can be completed in 3 hours. However, stopping to admire bright orchids and gnarly trees, while looking for Bear Monkeys and elusive birds, meant that my trekking time doubled. My guide and I trekked anti-clockwise, beginning at the grasslands, moving on to Baker’s Falls, Large and Little World’s Ends, and finally, through dense vegetation. 

Old-man’s beard, a characteristic of Horton Plains, festooned all the trees in the last stretch, whose trunks and branches were also decorated with lichen and moss. A Sri Lankan breakfast of rotti, jam, and bananas, devoured while staring into World’s End, added to the air of fulfillment and quiet contemplation; the sheer escarpment here offers views till the coastline, on one of the rare clear days like that day.

I sigh, looking at the digital clock on my computer screen. The sun has long set, and I’ve been caught up in Sinharaja and Horton Plains. A flick of the switch illuminates the room. The paperwork on my desk lies un-tackled, held down by a pebble, smooth and rounded, as grey as the sea was that day. With white specks, as white as the sand looked, reflecting the sun’s generosity beating down on it. There I go again, carried along by a wave of memories.

Mirissa, a tiny fishing village in southern Sri Lanka, attracts visitors for two reasons: its laidback, picturesque beach and its whale-watching trips. Since it lies at the southernmost tip of the entire Indian subcontinent, whales migrating east to west must cross Mirissa. The abundance of food in the Indian Ocean makes it a favourite with these cetaceans, and even the otherwise-elusive Blue Whales and Sperm Whales are routinely spotted.  

At 5:30 am one morning, travellers gathered at the whale-watching agency’s office, upbeat at the prospect of guaranteed sightings of whales and dolphins. I, however, couldn’t bring myself to ignore the knot in my stomach, as I don’t take well to open seas. On the two-decked boat, all around me was laughter, anticipation and colourful life-jackets. The tantalising omelette station on board was crowded; just an hour later, the boat’s only restroom would be; so too the railing on the deck, with nauseous travellers bent over. Despite having resolutely stayed away from breakfast, I could feel my innards churning - quite an indication of the roiling Indian Ocean.

By the time we returned to shore after six hours at sea, we had become a statistic – the only boat in forty days to not sight a single whale. I held on to precious, fleeting memories of the dolphin pod we had seen, unfortunately far enough to look merely like grey flotsam. The next afternoon, travellers were agog at having spotted multiple whales. One had even breached the water, excited voices told us. All I could do was close my eyes and picture it, the waves lashing Mirissa’s beach adding sound to my thought. I smiled, as my imaginary Blue Whale emerged from bluer waters, magnificence personified. For this, I will brave the Indian Ocean again someday, I decided, sanguinely.   

“Wapas aaoge tab milenge” is Prasanna’s parting shot. He knows Sri Lanka’s allure – you just MUST return.  Sometimes, that’s all it takes to travel in time – a call you hesitated to take.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Looking Beyond the Taj

An unedited version of my story published in the September 2015 edition of the in-flight magazine, JetWings

Swooshing through the sandstone maze of monuments, the 16th century slowly crept up on me - I saw first-hand the genius of Akbar’s thought-process, the meticulousness of Shah-Jahan’s embellishment, and the flamboyance of generations of Mughal Emperors. Mughal Architecture has left us with a heritage of buildings which were not only monumental in their appearances, but also poignant in their inspirations; buildings were built as dedications to people, as symbols of love, or as re-creations of a world far away, a world they left behind in Persia. Their architecture, though, was not an imposition on the milieu that existed – the Mughals seamlessly blended and adapted local styles to create architecture that was aesthetically appealing as well as climatically and geographically sensitive.

Akbar, the most prolific architect amongst Mughal emperors, has left behind a treasure trove in Agra – a treasure his successors added to. Agra, to most, is synonymous only with the Taj Mahal. Though not begrudging the Taj its status, I feel for visitors who miss out on what is undoubtedly the largest collection of monumental Mughal Architecture in a region – Agra, Sikandra and Fatehpur Sikri – an Agra beyond the Taj Mahal.

Agra Fort
Early evenings add their own glamour to the red sandstone, setting them aflame. One of the rare forts built on level ground, the Agra Fort looks deceptively easy to breach. Completed in 1573 AD, Akbar and his team designed the semicircular fort over the ruins of an existing fort called ‘Badalgarh’. The Yamuna runs parallel to the chord of the semicircle, and was tapped by Akbar for beautiful river-side panoramas from all the buildings lining that edge.

The non-river-facing side is where visitors enter from, through the Amar Singh (Lahore) Gate. A steep ramp leads from this gate to the inner gate, but the unexpected work-out was made more bearable by my guide peppering the walk with history and anecdotes about the crocodile-infested moats, the Peacock Throne, and the emperors’ opulent lifestyles.

Of the fort’s four gates, the Delhi Gate – the biggest - can only be brought alive through your guide’s stories, as it falls within the inaccessible area of the fort being used by the Indian military. Built by Akbar as his formal entrance, a moat had to be crossed using a drawbridge, to reach the Delhi Gate. From there, the inner gate ‘Hathi Pol’ was reached after a 90 degree turn, so that enemies’ elephants couldn’t run straight through the outer and inner gates to break them down, as was frequently done in battles. Such was the architectural genius employed, which, with other stratagems like a double rampart separated by the 12 m deep moat, 70 feet high walls, forward-sloping lower ramparts to prevent scaling, and massive turrets, made the fort impregnable.

The ramp leading into the fort, from Amar Singh Gate

Written records sing paeans to the 500 buildings built within, by Akbar. However, his progeny Shah Jahan demolished many of them to make way for his marble buildings – a later evolution in Mughal Architecture. Some of what was spared by Shah Jahan was destroyed by the British in the 19th century, to construct military barracks. Only about 30 of the buildings are said to have survived today.

What sets the architecture of the Agra Fort apart from other forts is the presence of expansive, manicured gardens and lawns. Also, the buildings have an interesting mix of architectural styles – Akbar’s initial designs were heavily inspired by the architecture of Gujarat and Bengal, while Shah Jahan used the Indo-Islamic style. Breaking convention, a lot of the surface decorations are non-Islamic - dragons, elephants, and birds - as opposed to the sanctioned calligraphy.

Jahangiri Mahal, with one of the fort's many lawns in the foreground.

Faint strains of visitors’ chatter and history lessons doled out by copious tour guides followed me through the buildings: Diwan-i-am, Diwan-i-khas, Jahangiri Mahal, Bengali Mahal, Moti Masjid, and Seesh Mahal. At Mussamman Burj, my last stop, a strain of melancholy was added to the air – this octagonal, multi-tiered marble tower was where Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb; the tower which probably added to his longing by offering views of the Taj Mahal in the distance; the tower where he breathed his last in 1666 AD. The delicate floral inlay work in the Mussamman Burj almost mocked the harshness of Shah Jahan’s situation.

The Taj Mahal and Yamuna, as seen from Mussamman Burj, where Shah Jahan was imprisoned.

Walking out of the fort on this poignant note, I looked up at the ramparts one last time. Embrasures (slits) and machicolations (openings) lined the wall, for soldiers to shoot from or throw objects on marauding armies without being shot at in return. Below these, my eye caught remnants of intricate blue and white mosaic work. Had I been a soldier in the marauding army, I most certainly would have been killed by hot oil falling from a machicolation, whilst admiring the craftsmanship!

Fatehpur Sikri
In 1569 AD, childless Akbar was blessed with Prince Salim, as prophesised by the Sufi saint Salim Chisti. As a token of his respect, Akbar built the Mughals’ first planned city at Sikri, and decided to make it his capital. Named Fatehabad, the city later came to be known as Fatehpur Sikri. One of the most ephemeral capitals of the Mughal Empire, Fatehpur Sikri was Akbar’s audacious dream – a dream that he lived in for 12 years between 1572 and 1585 AD. Audacious, because, defying conventional wisdom, the city was built on a rocky ridge away from any source of water. Though Akbar did build an artificial lake and devise efficient water supply and drainage systems, Fatehpur Sikri had to be abandoned due to water shortage.

Built entirely using local red sandstone, the architecture of Fatehpur Sikri, as of the Agra Fort, is an assimilation of Persian, Islamic, Hindu and even Jain styles, to create a style that has come to be identified with Akbar. The city was designed to meet all needs – administrative, living, religious, and pleasure – and each of the buildings had unique architectural tweaks. Like how the residences of Akbar’s Hindu and Muslim wives reflect their backgrounds. So does Birbal’s house. Administrative buildings like the Diwan-i-am, Diwan-i-khas, the treasury, and the astrologer’s seat are fairly nondescript, with the exception of my favourite element – the central column in the Diwan-i-khas. Embellished with bands of carvings, it culminates in a head of 36 serpentine brackets supporting a circular platform where Akbar sat, which is connected to the first floor level via stone walkways.

Birbal's house at Fatehpur Sikri, built in a distinctly Hindu style.

The central column and bridges inside the Diwan-i-khas.

Breaking the sedate architecture of the administrative buildings is the informality of the pleasure and entertainment buildings – with ornate carvings of birds, animals and very life-like grapes and pomegranates. It wasn’t too difficult to picture royal ladies giggling from the ornate 5-tiered Panch Mahal, staff moving at Akbar’s command on the Pachisi (ludo) squares inlaid in the courtyard’s floor, or even musicians performing from the floating platform over Anup Talao’s pool – so evocative was the architecture.

Pachisi squares inlaid in the courtyard, which was played using live courtiers.

Anup Talao, with its central platform.

My guide had saved another of my favourites for last – the behemoth that is Buland Darwaza. 180 feet high, equivalent to an 18-storeyed building, this victory arch was added in 1576 AD to commemorate Akbar’s successful campaign. I walked up the steep steps leading to the gateway, which magically transitioned to human scale as I entered the Jama Masjid. Salim Chisti’s white marble tomb within the masjid brought me full circle – face to face with the man for whom this entire city was built.

When Jahangir re-inhabited Fatehpur Sikri for a couple of years during his reign, to escape from the plague at Agra, it was the last time the city was ever occupied. Its sparse usage has made it one of the best-preserved collections of Mughal architecture, besides endearing itself to people as the birth-place of the legends of Akbar and his courtiers, the navaratnas.

Akbar’s tomb at Sikandra
The Agra-Mathura highway to Sikandra snaked through some of the most populated belts of Uttar Pradesh; as vehicles belched noxious fumes into the already insufferable heat, I wondered how Akbar rests in peace amidst this cacophony. As if on cue, a massive, red sandstone gateway came into view; with every inch of it covered in colourful geometric and floral inlays and mosaics, topped with white minarets, the gateway held promise. Its architectural elements were precursors to the inlays at Itmad-ud-Daulah and the minarets of the Taj Mahal. The gateway proved to be a portal to another world – leading on to lush gardens which attract antelopes, monkeys, peacocks and other birds. The highway was now a distant memory.

Entrance Gateway to Akbar's tomb, with ornate inlay work.

In accordance with the Tartary custom of building one’s own tomb, Akbar set about its construction in 1600 AD. Unfortunately, he passed away in 1605 AD, after completing his tomb and laying out the gardens in the typical char bagh pattern. His son Jahangir took over until its completion in 1613 AD.

Broad, paved walkways with channels and pools (which once had water) lead from each of the four gates to the stepped, 5-storeyed red sandstone building. The uppermost storey is in white marble – Jahangir’s signature touch to the design. An unusually squat building by Mughal standards, its linearity adds to its distinctive character, which is enhanced by the presence of arcaded verandahs on all storeys, as well as kiosks capped by cupolas (chhatris).

View of Akbar’s tomb with the paved walkway, water pools and water channels.

The interior of the building sends mixed signals – I was greeted by strikingly rich stucco work in blue, red and gold, only to move through a narrow, white-washed passage, to a white-washed room with the false cenotaph. The mystery of the severe interiors was solved by my guide - Jahangir is said to have brought his ostentatious design sensibilities to the tomb’s interior design; unfortunately, only bits of the stucco and none of the precious-stone inlays survived, as the tomb was heavily looted and disfigured during the reign of Aurangzeb, by rebel Jats.

Jaalis (lattices) in sandstone, pre-dating and competing with the finesse of the marble lattices at the Taj Mahal and Itmad-ud-Daulah, lend a delicacy to the architecture, which lingers with you.

One of the surviving examples of the elaborate ornamentation executed by Jahangir within the building.

White-washed interiors of the tomb.

Driving across the Yamuna is an exercise that demands your patience, but rewards you well. This little-visited area of Agra is home to a landmark building which marked the transition of monumental Mughal Architecture from its first ‘sandstone phase’, to its next, which was marble architecture. Pint-sized Itmad-ud-Daulah packs quite an architectural punch with its design and detailing, envisioned and executed lovingly by Jahangir’s wife, Empress Nur Jahan, for her deceased father Mirza Ghiyas Beg. A Persian Amir in exile, Ghiyas Beg had been a Wazir in Jahangir’s court and was conferred the title of Itmad-ud-Daulah (pillar of the state).

This marble tomb is a predecessor to the Taj Mahal, and is said to be its inspiration too. To reflect her father’s love for Persia, Nur Jahan borrowed heavily from Persian architectural and interior decoration styles, while adding Indian elements like chhatris and kalash-shaped finials. The dome-less building set on a red sandstone plinth within a char bagh garden, has hexagonal towers in each corner. The overall proportions and ornamentation of the mausoleum led to it being nicknamed ‘Jewel Box’ and ‘Baby Taj’.

The building’s white Rajasthani marble surfaces are covered painstakingly with floral arabesques and geometric motifs using inlay and mosaic techniques. One sees the extensive use of the pietra dura technique with semi-precious stones, which was later employed at a much larger scale in the Taj Mahal. Another important architectural milestone is the polychromatic nature of the ornamentation. Jahangir’s influence can be seen in the choice of Iranian motifs like wine goblets, bouquets and cut fruits. Don’t miss the beautifully painted dome when you enter the tomb. It’s worn out, but still displays some of the original colours – brilliant blue, turquoise, red and gold.

Marble jaalis are used strategically to create tailored light and shadows within, presenting a solemn air in contrast to the almost cheery exteriors. Cheer we must, though, for this path-breaking example of the second phase of Mughal Architecture.


Architecture is the least esoteric way for people to understand a time-period – it doesn’t require knowledge of exotic languages needed to interpret written text, nor does it need familiarity with technical details of art. Architecture conveys messages across centuries without the need for sharing common ground. Agra offers you tĂȘte-a-tĂȘtes with Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan; it is up to you to accept the invitation.