Tuesday 22 January 2013

The Red Taj of Agra

Millions of people visit the Taj Mahal of Agra every year, making it one of the most ticketed monuments in the world. This monument of love draws tourists to itself like a magnet.
However, almost all visitors to Agra who visit the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort barely give a second glance to any of the other ruins of the City.
Many of the visitor are also not aware that apart from the Taj of Shahajan, there is another smaller Taj in Agra. But unlike its big brother, this structure is located right in a cemetery.
By the way, even the cemetery is one of the oldest of its kind in India. It was the Mughal Emperor, Akbar, who gave permission for the cemetery almost five centuries ago.
This is the Roman Catholic Cemetery of Agra and it was permitted to come up in 1550. A majority of the graves here date back to the 16th and 17th centuries and almost all of them belong to European travelers and explorers.             
Surprisingly, the graves are given a Mughal touch and they closely resemble Islamic tombs. One of the most distinguishing and elaborate tombs is the mini Taj here.
This Taj here is built by a woman for her husband. The husband was Colonel John William Hessing, a Dutch soldier and trader. He had come to India from Ceylon (which then was under the Dutch) sometime in the late eighteenth century. He participated in the battle of Kandy in 1765.
He was a native of Utrecht in Holland and was born in 1739.  He served under the Nizam of Hyderabad in 1784 and the Marathas. He later joined the service of  Mahadaji Scindia and accompanied him to Pune in 1792. He fought several battles under the French General Du Boigne.
On Mahadji’s death in 1794, he came to Agra which was held by the Marathas. He was made Commandant of fort and its Maratha garrison in 1799. He died here on July 21, 1803. The fort was captured by British same year.
His tomb is built of red sandstone. Therefore, it is also called the Red Taj.  It has arched doorways and niches. It also has a dome. The carvings are intricately done. There can be mo doubt that it was modeled entirely on the Taj, albeit on a much smaller and less grander scale.
The Taj here has no inlay or mosaic decoration and the ornamentation is exclusively in carving on the exterior. However, the building has perfect balance and symmetry. The only way you can recognise this building as Christian is by the sign of the Cross atop it.
The cenotaph inside has a long inscription about Hessing’s life. The tomb stands on a square platform.
Nearby is another impressive structure. This is an eight side tomb of an Englishman called Francis Ellis. It is constructed of buff sandstone and is eight-sided, with pointed arches on all sides and a dome at the top. Ellis died in 1868.This tomb too is surrounded by the tombs of his family members.
This grave is surrounded by smaller graves belonging to the family members of Ellis. They all died in India and all the family is buried here.
The tomb of General Perron, a French national, which is pyramidal in shape, can be seen north of Hessing’s Taj. Perron was an  adventurer who, like Hessing, made a name for himself in the service of the Scindias. His four children who died in 1793-94 are also buried here.
Perron was a  sailor in the French navy and his earlier name was Pierre Cuillier. He jumped ship, changed his name to Perron and made a name for himself in the service of the Indian rulers. He also built his own army.
There are other interesting graves too. There is the grave of Jerome Veronio, an Italian, who  is believed (wrongly) to have actively participated in designing the Taj Mahal of Shahajan. He died in 1640. You can also see the graves of  the traveller Thieffan Thaler,  the self-styled English Ambassador to the Mughal court, John Midenhall who died in 1614 A.D and Francis Corsi who died in 1635 A.D.
The grave of Hortenzio Bronzoni, an Italian jeweler, who worked on the Great Mogul Diamond  and was fined by the Emperor for damaging the jewel during cutting, is also here.
Another intriguing structure is the tomb of the Tantric Baba, an Armenian national. The tomb has a crucifix carved on it along with the large skull.Since skulls are revered in Tantricism, locals and Tantric followers flock to the tomb and pray to the Baba.
The cemetery has about 80 graves belonging to the Armenians, most of them merchants. They had come to Agra in the mid-1500s at the invitation of Emperor Akbar.
Akbar even permitted the Armenians to set up their own colony in Agra. He even took an Armenian woman as one of his Queens and appointed another as a court doctor.
This is perhaps the oldest Christian cemetery in north India.
Though Agra was a Mughal centre, Christians regarded it as a blessed place and people brought the dead here for burial at this cemetery.
Today, the cemetery is a protected site. It is situated on the eastern extension of the Mahatma Gandhi Road near the Civil Court of Agra. The Taj of Hessings can be seen from the Delhi-Agra road itself.

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