Colonial Walk- Agra Beyond Taj

Agra tourism has started a very interesting colonial heritage walk so that visitors can explore the social and cultural history of the city

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Suman Bajpai
Suman Bajpai
Freelance writer, journalist, editor, translator and travel writer, Worked with different magazines as an editor. Writing for past 33 years

INDIA. Agra: Agra has always been associated with the Taj Mahal as it is the heart and soul of that city and attracts tourists round the year.

But apart from Taj and other Mughal monuments, it has also many wonderful colonial structures from the days of the British Raj, whose architectural beauty mesmerize.                                    

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To make aware of these lesser-known structures, Agra tourism has started a very interesting colonial heritage walk so that visitors can explore the social and cultural history of the city.

History of Agra

Agra started witnessing the decline of the Mughal empire once the seat of power was shifted from Agra to Delhi and the city, over some time fell to Jats and Marathas.

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When Lord Lake captured Agra Fort for the British in 1803, the control of the city came into their hands.

In 1835 when the Presidency of Agra was established by the British, the city became the seat of government and until 1829, the civil administration of the city was conducted by a Collector under the orders of the commissioners of the surrendered and conquered Provinces. 

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The Presidency of Agra was abolished till 1636 and the city was taken into the North-Western Provinces. Charles Metcalfe was appointed as the first Lieutenant-Governor in Agra.

During the Indian rebellion of 1857, British rule across India was threatened, news of the rebellion had reached Agra on 11th May, and on 30th May two companies of native infantry, the 44th, and 67th regiments rebelled and marched to Delhi.

The next morning native Indian troops in Agra were forced to disarm,Agra remained the seat of government for the province until 1858 when the administration was transferred to Allahabad.

In 1903, the North-Western Provinces were renamed the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh (United Provinces for short) and under independent Indian rule, this province became Uttar Pradesh.

With Calcutta as the capital during the British Raj, Agra lost its significance which it once had during the time of powerful Mughal rulers.

However, a few Churches and missionaries did come up when the English finally strengthened their hold. 

Roman Catholic Cemetery

Colonial Heritage Walk is almost 2 hours walk and you get to explore marvels of the bygone era. Our first spot was Agra’s Roman Catholic Cemetery, built-in four-year time in 1853, and is the oldest Christian burial ground in North India.

Interestingly Emperor Jahangir granted land for this and nowadays it is under ASI and portions of it remain closed to keep locals away so that no one can spoil its beauty and sanctity.

As you enter, you know will see only graves and tombs of the earliest Arminian, Portuguese travelers, ambassadors, astronomers, Jesuits, and artists who traveled to Agra during the reigns of Akbar, the whole architecture in red stone amaze you.

Headstones are inscribed in Persian, as well as in large numbers in Armenian, Portuguese and Latin. Although it is not easy to read names written on the graves our Guide, Yogesh Sharma, helped us and read some of the names.

Some of the famous tombs are of Tomb of John Hessings, Tomb of Walter Reinhardt, husband of famous Begum Samru, Tomb of Geronimo Veroneo, Tomb of Khoja Mortinepus, and the Tomb of John Mildenhall.

Akbar’s Church in St. Peter Cathedral 

In 10 minutes , we were standing at Akbar’s church, built-in 1598 and a legacy of the Mughal and British period. It was the first Catholic Church of Agra which served as Cathedral of Agra till 1848.

In this city, there lived a large community of Armenian Christians who were traders, jewelers, and bankers and who had close contact with Akbar’s court.

The Armenians once expressed their desire to have a church built, then Emperor Akbar, who respected other faiths, not only agreed to this but also gave grants to build it.

Akbar asked Jesuit Fathers to build this and in 1636 Shah Jahan had the order to rebuild it. on 8th September 1636, the first Holy Mass was celebrated in this reconstructed Church.

During the reign of Afghan Ahmad Shah Abdali, the church was again pulled down by the army and then in 1769 Walter Reinhardt helped to rebuild the Church and this is where Begum Johana Samru, his wife, and the Begum of Sardhana was baptized.

The name of the church may raise questions in the mind of many that why a Christian prayer house bearing the name of a great Mughal ruler!! Considering Akbar’s secular credentials and his liberal attitude towards other religions, the church was named after him. 

Standing close to this historical Akbar’s church, which is not too big, a new church was built in 1848 to manage the growing worshipers is called the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception (also known as St. peter Church).

It looks like the Akbar’s church only the altar is different. In the front, the new church has a baroque exterior which gives it a majestic look. 

In this premise, St Patrick’s School and college also have been built. Big ornate porch and arcades give the feel of the colonial era. 

St.Peter’s Cathedral. Photo Credit: Suman Bajpai

Victoria’s Munshi Abdul Karim’s Tomb

Abdul Karim, known as the Munshi, was become a known figure after the movie ‘Victoria and Karim’ has been made. Near the end of her reign, Queen Victoria developed a friendship with an Indian attendant and he became her trusted advisor.

She gave him the title of ‘Munshi’, even granted land in India. It is believed that closeness between the two has created friction within the Royal Household. They never liked that a servant was getting such royal treatment and facilities. 

After Victoria died in 1901, her successor, Edward VII, ordered the confiscation and destruction of the Munshi’s correspondence with Victoria. Until his death at the age of 46 in the year, Karim lived near Agra, on the estate that Victoria had granted to him, and he was buried in the Royal Graveyard of Agra. He had donated land for building Queen Victoria Girls College in Agra. 

Although this tomb is not in good shape these days as his family has no money to maintain it, it invokes curiosity why would have Queen Victoria liked him so much and one come back from there crossing uneven way whose entrance is none other than a graveyard only, that Munshi must have some enigmatic personality. 

Abdul Karim’s Tomb. Photo Credit: Suman Bajpai

St. Georges Cathedral

It was the last colonial structure of our walk, located in the cantonment area. A marvelous monument was established in 1828, which was built as a place of worship for Anglicans in the colonial era.

I saw a crowd of people mostly Christians, praying along with tourists. An army engineer, Colonel John Theophilus Boileau, who came to India in 1822, built this Protestant church. Architectural elements of this place with its yellow ochre stucco and white dressings draws attention.

The interior has a central nave and side aisles with six ionic columns carrying a slightly vaulted roof. The altar is adorned with marble inlay work and the chancel at the east end depicts gothic style.

One of the oldest cathedrals in the city is well preserved and can be visited every day by seeking permission from the Church Keeper of Agra Dioses.

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