History of Agra - The Story of Agra From Mughals to the British Rule

Home to some of the most iconic historical monuments in the world and India's proud representative of the Seven Wonders of the World- the Taj Mahal, Agra is a city holding rich historical background and a strong cultural heritage. The initial reference to the city of Agra comes from the epic Mahabharata, where it is referred to as "Agraban" and "Arya Griha", which means the abode of the Aryans. There has been a lot of political influence on Agra, and it has served as the capital city for the Mughal Dynasty, for a long span of fifteen years.

Agra was bejewelled with beautiful palaces and verdant gardens by Jahangir, while the glorious city adorned its real glory during the reign of Shahjahan, who gifted the city with the world-famous Taj Mahal. Not only the Mughals, but there were also a lot of other rulers who contributed significantly towards the vibrant heritage and history of Agra. Lodhi Dynasty of the Delhi Sultanate also ruled the city for many decades.

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Early Origins

The history of Agra first finds mention in the Hindu epic Mahabharata as 'Agraban', ban meaning forest in Sanskrit.  At that time, Agra was nothing but an arid forest land where Black Bucks could be spotted, as mentioned by Abu'l Fazl, one of the Navratnas or nine jewels at Akbar's court. He accounts the incident of emperor watching his 'Chita-i-Khas' or royal cheetah hunting a blackbuck after bouncing across a river and chasing it down, in Akbarnama. This account proves that Agra's surrounding areas were still forests during the rule of Akbar. Muslim Dynasties have predominantly ruled Agra, but before the Sultanate Rule and the advent of the Mughals, Agra is said to be founded by Raja Badal Singh in 1475.

Under the Lodi Dynasty

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The first Muslim Rulers of Agra were the Lodi Dynasty. Sikandar Lodi shifted his capital from Delhi to Agra in the year 1506, and since then, Agra as a city gained prominence. Agra started to flourish progressively as a human settlement mainly because of the river Yamuna flowing through it, which made agriculture possible. Agriculture remained the primary activity as the trade at the time was limited. The hold of the Lodi Dynasty in Agra came to an end in 1526, when it suffered a defeat in a battle against Babur, the first Mughal ruler of India.

The Mughal Era

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The influence of Islam steadily rose in the city and this made a huge impact on the history of Agra with Babur on the throne. In 1530 when Babur died, he was succeeded by his son, Humayun. The rule was briefly interrupted by Sher Shah Suri, an Afghan ruler, who defeated Humayun and took over the city. He was a competent ruler, but his rule was short-lived. He died in a gunpowder explosion while fighting in Bundelkhand and Humayun regained the throne of Agra. Humayun was succeeded by his son Akbar, who took the throne in 1558. It was during the reign of Akbar when Mughal Architecture gained prominence in Agra.

Akbar consolidated his power and reconstructed the Agra Fort from a mud-walled structure left behind by the Lodi's into a colossal Fort made of red sandstone. Many other halls were added to this magnificent Fort later on by his predecessors, Jahangir and Shah Jahan. Akbar ruled Agra for more than four decades during which he built a new city, Fatehpur Sikri, a few kilometres ahead of Agra.
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During Akbar's reign, Agra became the hub of trade and transformed into a grand city. Many started calling the town Akbarabad. After Akbar's death in 1605, the throne was taken over by his son Jahangir, who paved the way for the British to set foot in Agra. Mughal architecture continued to flourish during the time of Jahangir, and the tomb of Itmad-ud-daulah was added to the list of magnificent structures of the city and this beautiful monument that had such a huge impact on the history of Agra still stands tall today.

Jahangir was followed by Shah Jahan, who took the architecture of the city to unparalleled heights. Though many structures like Chini-ka-Rauza, having a unique design with glazed tiles were constructed by Shah Jahan, it was the Taj Mahal, which rendered the city of Agra its current legendary status. Built-in the memory Mumtaz Mahal, whose real name was Arjumand Banu Begum, Taj Mahal is made of beautiful White Marble with impressive inscriptions on the walls in Persian and Arabic.

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It took 17 years and more than 20000 workers to complete the astonishing monument and is today one of the seven wonders of the world and a massive representation of the marvellous history of Agra. However, the massive cost incurred to erect the Taj Mahal led the city towards great Famine and set the base for its steady decline which gained momentum when the emperor decided to shift his capital to Shahjahanabad, modern-day Old Delhi. Shah Jahan was succeeded by his son Aurangzeb, who moved his capital south-west to Aurangabad, leading to the ultimate decline of the Mughal rule in Agra.

Under the British Rule

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Post the exit of Mughal Dynasty, the Marathas and British started gaining control over Agra. The successors of Mughal Dynasty were not strong enough to regain Agra and were restricted mainly to Delhi. The Marathas ruled Agra in 1570 before succumbing to the British in the early 1800s. The British made Agra a presidency city in North India but made Calcutta the capital of Colonial empire. Gradually, Agra lost its significance, which it once enjoyed during the Mughal Era.

Post India's independence, Agra has been a part of Uttar Pradesh and has gradually developed into an Industrial Town. The city is now a popular tourist destination and hosts tourists from across the world that pay a visit to the city for its legendary monuments, some of which are essential UNESCO world heritage sites. The Taj Mahal witnesses tourists, photographers, historians and archaeologists in massive numbers all around the year.

Though the city is no more a high capital as it was in the history of Agra, it once used to be, tales of its iconic history still echo, not just inside the Taj, but in the narrowest of lanes and ragged food joints of the city, which serve delectable Mughlai cuisine. Kings and rulers may have left Agra, far back in history, but the culture they gifted to the town, is still present in this famed city.

This post was published by Shubham Jain

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