Walking through history in bylanes of Agra

By Brij Khandelwal, IANS,

Agra : On an exceptionally cold January morning, when people were struggling to venture out of their cosy comforts, five of us braved the chill and experimented with a heritage walk through the old city of Agra.

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It was not a walk in the actual sense of the word; the five of us were in two cycle-rickshaws.

We were largely trying to follow the heritage track suggested by Lucy Peck in her book “Agra: The Architectural Heritage”. But our aim was to see the secular flavours of the city that evolved over five centuries.

We started at around 9 a.m. from Hathi Ghat Gurdwara on the Yamuna Kinara road. Our first halt was the old Chungi, the library of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s son Dara Shikoh. It is a structure worth seeing, particularly the reading rooms which have the provision of filtered sunlight and fresh air.

“Old records say Dara Shikoh was a great Sanskrit and Persian scholar, very fond of books. This building also served as a rallying point for political activists during the freedom struggle,” said Subhash Jha, one of the group members.

Our next stop was Huzuri Bhavan, the headquarters of a sect of the Radhasoamis, which is a philosophical organisation.

We also had a look at the haveli in the Kala Mahal area where the doyen of Urdu poetry Mirza Ghalib was born.

“How much people are missing the ‘mohalla’ (neighbourhood) culture, the aroma of sweet shops, the images of people engaged in doing odd jobs. Truly, the romance of the old world was being missed out,” said Hari Dutt Sharma, a school teacher and one of the members of the group that I led through the murky, narrow lanes of the city.

We also had a look at the Mankameshwar temple complex before moving towards Jama Masjid and Johri Bazar. With half a dozen temples around the main Shiva temple, the area was once the nervecentre of the city.

“The feel is rich and as one meanders through the bylanes, it’s difficult not to cough and sneeze because the area is also the wholesale market for chemicals and spices. The high balconies still retain the old world charm,” said Ravi Singh, a globetrotter and a group member.

Through Lohar Gali, the poorly lit and suffocating cosmetics market, which was just beginning to wake up, we touched the outer periphery of the Agra Fort station, the only railway station in the world close to two great heritage monuments – the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort.

We hurried through Johri Bazar to reach Seth Gali, a popular lane with a dozen halwais.

Soon we moved towards Mal Ka Bazar, the red light area of the city, to reach Panni Gali. Curiously, some of us glanced towards the high balconies in the hope of catching a sight or two. The area is known for some of the finest zardozi artists.

The original Radhasoami temple, the birthplace of the the founder, is a high point. The whole area is reminiscent of life in the Mughal period.

Close to Noori Darwaza and Gur ki Mandi, our vehicles moved through the lanes at snail’s pace as schoolchildren, sweepers and vegetable vendors were on the streets.

Our trip ended at Akbar’s church in St Peter’s College complex but before that Padmini, a group member, suggested we should also take a look at the oldest convent in Asia at St Patrick’s Junior College.

The whole trip took us around 100 minutes. On our way back, some of the old havelis with exquisitely carved archways fascinated us.

As senior journalist N.R. Smith has said: “Agra lives in three eras simultaneously, the Mughal, the British and the modern post-independence.”

Surendra Sharma, president of the Braj Mandal Heritage Conservation Society, said: “Sadly, heritage has come to be associated with only stones and structures. The culture, the literary traditions, the conventional industries, the traditional media and the lifestyles of the people also collectively constitute heritage.”

We did get a taste of it that day though.

(Brij Khandelwal can be contacted at [email protected])