The Agra Fort is an imposing structure in red sandstone, located on the bank of the river Yamuna, in the city of Agra. Emperor Akbar chose this city as his capital and constructed a strong citadel for the purpose. Built in the 16th century CE, this edifice was a symbol of glory, prestige and might of the Mughals and served as the seat of their power for almost two centuries.
The grand structure that we witness today was built by the Mughals who developed the city of Agra as one of their primary strongholds. This monument was built as both a military bastion and a royal residence for the emperors. Prior to the rise of Agra, Delhi enjoyed the status of being the imperial capital of the different powers that held sway over North India. It was Sikandar Lodhi, the Sultan of Delhi, who decided to move his capital from Delhi to Agra in 1505 CE. There seems to have been a pre-existing structure at Agra which the Lodhis developed and fortified. Agra continued to remain the capital under his successor, Ibrahim Lodi. Babur, the first Mughal Emperor, conquered Agra and established it as the capital of the Mughal dominions in India. It is believed that when Babur's son Humayun arrived in Agra, after the defeat of Ibrahim Lodhi, he confiscated a huge treasure, including the famous "Koh-i-noor" diamond. Sher Shah of the Sur dynasty, during his brief tenure as the Sultan of Hindustan, also occupied and garrisoned Agra.
When the Mughal Emperor Akbar arrived in Agra in 1558 CE, he recognized the city's strategic importance. He ordered the renovation of the existing fort with red sandstone creating the majestic Agra Fort. Abul Fazl, the official chronicler of Akbar’s reign, has provided a detailed account of the fort's construction. He records that the buildings inside the fort complex were built in the best regional styles, with influences from Gwalior, Bengal, Gujarat, and Rajasthan. He also mentions that the construction of the fort took around 8 years under the supervision of Muhammad Qasim Khan.
The different generations of Mughal emperors living in the fort, influenced the different architectural styles present here. The Agra Fort presents an impressive blend of robustness along with ornamental beauty, aptly symbolizing the reign of its original builder- Akbar. His buildings were notable for the harmonious amalgamation of Hindu and Islamic elements of architecture, as well as the extensive use of red sandstone.
The Agra Fort was constructed during an era of invasions and fortifications, when power was measured by grand palaces and forts. The majestic fort complex forms a city within a city spread across an area of around 94 acres and is a physical representation of Mughal grandeur. A strong fortification wall surrounds the fort. Double ramparts with wide massive circular bastions are present at regular intervals. The direction of the river Yamuna, which flowed alongside at the time, dictated the layout of the fort. The fort is crescent-shaped, with a long, nearly straight wall facing the river on the east side. The outer wall is surrounded by a wide and deep moat on three sides. The Agra Fort has four main gateways- the Khizri Gate, Amar Singh Gate, Delhi Gate and Ghazni Gate. Today, only the Amar Singh Gate is open for the general public. Previously, there was a walled enclosure in front of the Delhi Gate known as the Tripolia, or Three Gates, which was used as a market. In 1875 CE, military authorities cleared this area.
Akbar commissioned the construction of the Jahangiri Mahal as a private palace for his son Jahangir. It is believed to be one of the earliest extant Mughal palaces. It is the largest residential structure of the fort complex and served as the zenana or the residence of the royal ladies. It is a large square palace made of red sandstone with a decorative exterior that encloses an open courtyard. It is believed to be inspired by the Man Mandir Palace of the Gwalior Fort. Following Akbar's death in 1605 CE, Jahangir assumed the Mughal throne. He is well known for installing what is known as the “chain of justice” at the Agra Fort. This legendary chain stretched all the way from the fort to the banks of the River Yamuna and had 60 bells at its end. It was a lavish instrument made of 120 kilograms of gold and measured approximately 80 feet in length. The idea was that anyone seeking justice could pull the chain to attract the emperor's attention.
Shah Jahan, who succeeded Jahangir and was enthroned at Agra in 1628 CE, is said to have demolished many structures inside the fort to build his own monuments of marble. He relocated the Mughal capital to Shahjahanabad in 1638 CE. Yet, Agra continued to be an important administrative and political centre. Shah Jahan constructed three white marble mosques inside the fort complex- the Moti Masjid, Nagina Masjid, and Mina Masjid. The Moti Masjid, or the Pearl Mosque, is located on the highest point of the fort enclosure. The courtyard in front of this mosque, with its arcades and gateways, is a notable feature of the mosque. The Nagina Masjid, or the Gem Mosque, is made of white marble and encloses an exquisitely designed prayer chamber. The prayer chamber is also made of marble and has three domes on top. This mosque was built for the emperor's personal use. The Mina Masjid is a simple edifice, surrounded on all sides by high walls. Its facade has three small arches and a small mihrab in the prayer chamber's western wall. This chamber's window overlooks another significant building of the fort complex, the Machi Bhawan. This structure is referred to as the treasury for imperial ornaments and jewels in the Padshahnama, an illustrated chronicle of Shah Jahan's reign. The courtyard of this structure has been subjected to ruthless vandalism and it is difficult to recall its former splendor. It used to be laid out in marble, with flowerbeds, water channels, fountains, and fish tanks. These were carried off by the Jats to Suraj Mal's palace in Deeg (during their rule in Agra from 1761 to 1774 CE).
Another prominent structure is the Khas Mahal which has the river on one side and the Anguri Bagh on the other. A Persian poem inscribed on the walls of the Khas Mahal gives the date of its construction as 1636 CE. A staircase to the south of the Khas Mahal leads to underground chambers where the emperor and his zenana sought refuge from Agra's sweltering summer heat. The great quadrangle in front of the Khas Mahal is the Anguri Bagh, most likely built by Akbar for his zenana. The Anguri Bagh is a typical example of a Mughal garden, with geometrical flower beds and four terraced walks radiating from the central platform and the fountain. During the Uprising of 1857, these gardens are believed to have been occupied by British officers and their families who were inside the Fort. On the northern side of the Anguri Bagh is the Sheesh Mahal or the Glass Palace. It is believed to have been the royal dressing room and bath of the zenana. It is one of the finest examples of decorative water engineering in hammams. Its walls and ceilings are inlaid with tiny mirrors. The fort complex also houses the Diwan-i-Aam and the Diwan-i-Khas, both built by Shah Jahan. The Diwan-i-Aam, or the Hall of Public Audience, is a triple row of colonnades that form an open pavilion. It is made of red sandstone that has been plastered over with a fine white polished stucco. A great stone cistern, cut out of a single block, with steps inside and out, known as Jahangir's Hauz, is just in front of the Diwan-i-am. There is a Persian inscription around the outer rim of the cistern, saying that it was made for Jahangir. The Diwan-i-Khas was constructed in 1637 CE. The elaborate decorative work on the marble pavilions is inspired by Persian art. The dados, edged with inlaid work and carved with floral patterns enhances the beauty of the structure.
In front of the Diwan-i-Khas are two thrones, one of white marble on the side facing the Machi Bhawan and the other on the river side. A palace known as the Salimgarh (not to be confused with the Salimgarh Fort next to Red Fort in Delhi) once stood on the rising ground behind the courtyard of the Diwan-i-am. This structure, believed to have been built by Jahangir, (known as Prince Salim before his coronation), used to serve as a music hall for the Emperor. The only remnant of Salimgarh today is a large two-storey pavilion in front of the barracks. The Musamman Burj, an octagonal, multi-storied tower, is another prominent structure of the fort. The tower, which overlooks the Yamuna River, is said to offer one of the most poignant views of the Taj Mahal. According to legend, it was here that Shah Jahan was imprisoned for eight years till his death by his son Aurangzeb.
After Shah Jahan’s death Agra's splendor faded. Aurangzeb was engaged in regional conflicts and wars and didn’t have much time for aesthetic and architectural pursuits.
After Aurangzeb's death in 1707 CE, the history of Agra Fort in the 18th century CE is a saga of sieges and plunder. For almost a decade, the fort was ruled by the Jats of Bharatpur. In the early 18th century CE, the Marathas invaded and seized the fort. They were defeated by Ahmad Shah Abdali in 1761 CE. In 1785 CE, Mahadji Shinde gained control of the fort. During the Second Anglo-Maratha War in 1803 CE, the Marathas lost it to the British. After defeating the Marathas, the British took control of Agra. Many architectural landmarks inside the fort complex were demolished by them.
In 1835 CE, the Presidency of Agra was established by the British and the city became the seat of the Government. The British used the fort as a military base and stored weapons. During the First War of Independence of 1857 CE, the Agra fort became a place of refuge for British residents fleeing from Delhi. The city remained under British control till Independence. The fort was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983 CE. Today, this iconic structure has developed into a popular tourist destination. It is also partially occupied and maintained by the Indian Army.
The magnificent Agra Fort stands as a powerful reminder of the glory, opulence and aesthetic refinement of the Mughals in India.