March 16, 2016

Mehtab Bagh, Agra, Uttar Pradesh

“Herding in India is one of the laziest things in the world. The cattle move and crunch, and lie down, and move on again, and they do not even low. They only grunt, and the buffaloes very seldom say anything, but get down into the muddy pools one after another, and work their way into the mud till only their noses and staring china-blue eyes show above the surface, and then they lie like logs. The sun makes the rocks dance in the heat, and the herd children hear one kite (never any more) whistling almost out of sight overhead, and they know that if they died, or a cow died, that kite would sweep down, and the next kite miles away would see him drop and follow, and the next, and the next, and almost before they were dead there would be a score of hungry kites come out of nowhere. Then they sleep and wake and sleep again, and weave little baskets of dried grass and put grasshoppers in them; or catch two praying mantises and make them fight; or string a necklace of red and black jungle nuts; or watch a lizard basking on a rock, or a snake hunting a frog near the wallows. Then they sing long, long songs with odd native quavers at the end of them, and the day seems longer than most people’s whole lives, and perhaps they make a mud castle with mud figures of men and horses and buffaloes, and put reeds into the men’s hands, and pretend they are kings and the figures are their armies, or that they are gods to be worshiped. Then the evening comes and the children call, and the buffaloes lumber up out of the sticky mud with noises like gunshots going off one after the other, and they all string across the gray plain back to the twinkling village lights.”
– Rudyard Kipling, “The Jungle Book” (1894)

Spot the cattle! - Mehtab Bagh perspectives

Although no longer the glittering capital of the vast subcontinent, Agra, quintessentially languid and laidback, has eminently served over the centuries as the magnificent epicenter of several empires, its most remarkable transformation manifesting itself during the glorious reign of Emperor Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar (ruled AD 1556-1605).

On a sweltering bright afternoon not many days past, contemplating the enchanting bluish-white outline emanating opposite as if straight from a fascinating fairy tale, I wordlessly stood on the very perceptible edge of the painstakingly manicured “Mehtab Bagh” (“Moonlit garden”) only a few short steps away from the lethargically slithering narrow stream of Yamuna, the meandering “black river” of mythology, while the great ball of fire in the sky ruthlessly scorched the majestic expanse of passionately constructed sepulchers, imaginatively ornamented fortress-palaces, and thoughtfully designed pleasure garden complexes, each relentlessly seething with its own enormous share of historically diverse folklore, amidst an unbearably parched landscape composed almost entirely of vividly blazing red sandstone.

Impressively conceived by the exalted Emperor Shihabuddin Muhammad Shahjahan (reign AD 1627-57) and deliberately sited in close geographical and contextual relationship with the otherworldly breathtaking Taj, his unparalleled magnum, the immaculately landscaped garden complex, with its colossal octagonal fountain and riverside pavilions, is the conspicuous source of seductive legends conjuring the tyrannical Emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir (reign AD 1657-1707) contemptuously scuttling his formidable father’s extravagant idea of commissioning a flawless “Black Taj” at that very site wherein would've been interred his mortal remains.

Sculptural orgasm!

“That it was Shah Jahan’s intention to duplicate the entire scheme of the Taj, by the erection of another mausoleum in black marble to enshrine his own remains, on the opposite bank of the Jumnan and to connect the two by a bridge, seems fairly well established. Tavernier, the French traveller and trader, who visited the Mughul court during the regimes of both Shah Jahan and Aurangzebe stated that the former emperor “began to build his own tomb on the other side of the river, but the war which he had with his son interrupted his plan, and Aurangzebe, who reigns at present, is not disposed to complete it.”… Whether this monarch even with all his vast resources could have carried out such an extravagant and spectacular project will never be known, but that he had the vision to contemplate it is an indication of the unlimited extent of his architectural ambitions.”
– Percy Brown, British art critic-scholar-historian-archaeologist,
“Indian Architecture, Volume II: Islamic Period”

Owing to the blistering heat, an unending, irregular column of cattle-herds, their directionless drifting animals appearing unbelievably minuscule vis-à-vis the gargantuan shimmering mausoleum opposite, defined the sole human presence except for the company of two mirage-like CISF guards diligently and discernibly doing the rounds. The unexciting atmosphere seemed to be monotonously alive with all the intermittent noises that, taken together, make one big uneventful silence – the drowsy drone of uninterrupted afternoon wind and the consequential soundless whispers carried amidst flailing fronds of dry grasses brushing against each other, the rustle of something alive in the undergrowth, and the occasional shrieks and chirrups of birds diving and swooping acrobatically and singing paeans of inextinguishable love to each other.

Is it a cliche to say “Waah Taj”?

The symmetrically designed garden was probably existential, by another name, as a tiny constituent of the gargantuan “Hasht-Bihisht Bagh” (“Eight Paradises' garden”) laid by Emperor Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur (reign AD 1526-30), Emperor Shahjahan’s great-great-grandfather. Afterwards, it passed into the compensatory “jagir” (land grant in lieu of military service) of Raja Man Singh Kacchwaha of Amber (Jaipur) who bequeathed it to his grandson Mirza Raja Jai Singh from whom it was regally purchased eventually for horticultural development as visualized by Emperor Shahjahan.

The tenderly-maintained immensity was severely submerged by the torrentially brimming river in AD 1652 and, owing to continuous flooding, was afterwards grievously abandoned, incomprehensibly forgotten and contemptuously relegated to being existential as a mere pitiable sand-submerged, weed-shrouded mound interspersed with ruinously devastated corner-towers. Nonetheless, its erstwhile prestige miraculously survived for centuries in local mythology and eventually metamorphosed into its being the fabled, albeit historically unacknowledged, site of the mythical “Black Taj”.

It was excavated by Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in 1993-94 and thereafter subjected to meticulous architectural and horticultural restoration. The archaeological remains, although minuscule, are interesting – expansively hemmed in by soaring corner octagonal towers (of which only the south-eastern one survives) and enveloped by presently near-indiscernible pleasure pavilions and exquisitely planned lower pools, there existed near the riverfront a gigantic octagonal pool with twenty-four fountains embedded within it. Through the center of the sprawling garden ran a large ornamental water channel surrounded by fragrant flower beds and thick carpets of vibrant green grass. Near the extremities have been discovered ruinous remains of extensive waterworks and storage tanks.

Sigh! No moonlit views now!

The mesmerizing view experienced on full moon nights would have been unrivaled – creating beautiful illusions of shimmering waterfalls, water would have perennially cascaded into stepped lower pools whose sides are perforated with small arched niches in which, it's said, were placed slender white candles picturesquely appearing like twinkling stars in obdurately dark nights. The soothing gurgle of gently falling water and the enthralling fragrance and subdued blue-white iridescence of night-blooming jasmine flowers would have completed the fascinatingly dreamy scene.

Incomprehensibly, despite its sterling reputation, the beautiful garden is very nominally advertised by the ASI and UP tourism, and it remains, for reasons only explicable to the authorities, one of Agra's little known secrets, a virginal patch nearly untouched by tourists and locals alike, when it should have been among the magnificent city's crowning glories. And I was there, endeavoring to imagine what the matchless emperor witnessed.

A solitary visitor

Location: The garden is situated on Yamuna riverbank immediately across from Taj Mahal. Road distance between the two is 7.5 kilometers.
How to reach: Although the road network is very well-connected to the garden and surrounding urban villages, public transport facilities are near negligible, especially for the return trip, since only the rare tourist heads this way. One can avail a shared auto-rickshaw from Agra Cantt. Railway station or Agra Fort for Bijli-ghar crossing (Rs 15/person either way) and from there avail a shared auto-rickshaw, again for Rs 15/person, for Yamuna ghat (or simply “Ghat”) on the other side of the river. From here, auto-rickshaws charge Rs 50 till Mehtab Bagh, however the price quoted would generally be several times this figure and one is compelled to bargain. It is advisable to book the auto-rickshaw for a round trip which will cost Rs 150, inclusive of the waiting time.
Open: All days, sunrise to sunset (ticket window closes 30 minutes before the sunset)
Entrance fees: Indians and SAARC country nationals: Rs 5; Others: Rs 100. Free entry for children up to 15 years of age.
Agra Development Authority (ADA) toll-tax (applicable on all days except Fridays): Indians and SAARC country nationals: Rs 10; Others: Rs 500 (remains valid (only for foreigners) for an entire day and can be presented at other major monument complexes too).
Photography/Video charges: Nil/Rs 25 respectively
Time required for sightseeing: 45 min
Relevant Links -
Another monument located on this side of the river - 
Pixelated Memories - Itimad-ud-Daulah's Tomb
Suggested reading -

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