Agra colonial walk: Strolling in the city of love

Roman Catholic Cemetery- Built in red stone in 1853, it is commonly referred to as the Red Taj Mahal. It is the oldest Christian burial ground in North India.

By Suman Bajpai

Agra has lot to lure tourists apart from Taj Mahal and the other Mughal monuments, which are less explored. Interestingly it has many wonderful colonial structures from the days of the British Raj, and some of them constructed during the reign of Akbar.

Agra tourism has started a very interesting colonial heritage walk, that is almost 2 hours walk, so that visitors can explore the social and cultural history of the city.

Roman Catholic Cemetery- Built in red stone in 1853, it is commonly referred to as the Red Taj Mahal. It is the oldest Christian burial ground in North India. Emperor Jahangir granted land for this and now a days it is under ASI. It has graves of earliest Arminian, Portuguese travellers, ambassadors, astronomers, Jesuits and artists who travelled to Agra during reigns of Akbar. And most of the tombs were designed in the Mughal style. Main tomb belongs to John Hessing, the European who joined Maratha forces. This tomb was built by his wife Alice. Headstones are inscribed in Persian, as well as in large number in Armenian, Portuguese and Latin. Some of the famous tombs are of 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– just a kilometre away is Akbar's church, built in 1598 and a legacy of Mughal and British period. It was the first Catholic Church of Agra which served as Cathedral of Agra till 1848. As large number of communities of Armenian Christians, had a close contact with Akbar, they once expressed their desire to have a church built, then Akbar, not only agreed to this, but also gave grants to build it. During the reign of Afghan Ahmad Shah Abdali, the church was pulled down by the army and 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. Abdul Karim's Tomb-Abdul Karim, known as the Munshi, was become 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 a land in India.

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 Royal Graveyard of Agra. Although this tomb is not in good shape these days as his family has no money to maintain it. For reaching to his tomb you have to enter through Panchkuin Kabaristan and walk almost one kilometre on uneven way. A small green colour tomb with his grave, makes you think that Munshi must have some enigmatic personality, that attracted queen towards him.

St. Georges Cathedral- This former British Raj Protestant Church was the last colonial structure of our walk, located in the cantonment area in Sadar Bazar. The Cathedral was one of the main places of worship for the Anglicans back during the British rule in India and continues to draw the Christian population in the nearby areas along with tourists. It was designed and constructed by Major General and Engineer J T Boileau in 1828, in a typical English Gothic style of architecture. Inside are various commemorations to non-commissioned officers and the Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment soldiers who died in battle or while serving in India. 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.

(The author is a well-known travel writer, views expressed are personal.)