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Name: Agra

Agra is famous as being home to one of the Seven Wonders of the world-the Taj Mahal.The architectural splendour of the mausoleums, the fort and the palaces is a vivid reminder of the opulence of the legendary Mughal empire, of which Agra was the capital in the 16th and early 17th centuries. While its significance as a political centre ended with the transfer of the capital to Delhi in 1634 AD by Shah Jahan, its architectural wealth has secured its place on the international map.

Taj Mahal in white marble is the finest expression of love of an emperor for his queen. The Taj Mahal, 3 km from the Mall, is on the banks of the river Yamuna. It was built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan for his queen Mumtaz Mahal, in 1632 AD.

The high red sandstone ramparts of this great monument stretch for almost 2.5 kilometres, dominating a bend in the river Yamuna, northwest of the Taj Mahal. The foundation of this majestic citadel was laid by the Emperor Akbar, and it developed as a stronghold of the Mughal Empire under successive generations.

The curved bastions of the huge walls are interrupted by impressive gates, of which only the Amar Singh gate is now open to the public. The original and grandest entrance was through the Delhi Gate, which leads to the inner portal called the Hathi Pol or Elephant Gate.

The graceful Diwan-i-Am or the Hall of Public Audiences, made of red sandstone, was constructed by Shahjahan in 1628 AD. Three rows of white polished stucco pillars topped by peacock arches support the flat roof. Today, this Hall is bereft of brocade decorations, silk carpets and satin canopies which would have enhanced the elegance of the settings, when the Emperor sat down with his subjects to hear their complaints.

Within the Fort complex is the perfectly proportioned Moti Masjid, or Pearl Mosque, built by Shahjahan between 1646 - 53 AD. A Persian inscription within the mosque likens it to a perfect pearl. A marble tank stands at the centre of its spacious courtyard.

The Agra Fort houses the Royal Pavilions, which were designed to catch the cool breeze wafting across the river. Other attractions comprise of the Macchi Bhawan, or the Fish Palace, the Hammam-i-Shahi, or the Royal Bath, the Nagina Masjid, or the Gem Mosque, made entirely of marble and the Zenana Meena Bazaar, where the ladies of the court would browse through goods like silk, jewellery and brocade.

Past the Chittor gate, installed in 1568 AD, is the Diwan-i-Khas, or the Hall of Private Audience, built by Shahjahan in 1636 - 37 AD. Here, the Emperor would receive kings, important dignitaries and ambassadors. The famous Peacock Throne is said to have been kept here, before being shifted to Delhi by Aurangzeb. Tucked away by the west wall of the hall is the Mina Masjid or the Heavenly mosque, where Shahjahan prayed when he was imprisoned in the Fort by his son Aurangzeb.

A doorway from the rear of the Diwan-i-Khas leads to the Mussaman Burj, or Octagonal Tower, a two-storeyed pavilion, where Shahjahan caught his last glimpse of the Taj Mahal before he died. Built for his beloved Mumtaz Mahal, this is another example of Shahjahan's immense creativity. Surrounded by a verandah, the elegant chamber has a lattice-screen balustrade with ornamental niches; exquisite inlay covers almost every surface and a marble chhatri (umbrella) on top adds the finishing touch.

The Khas Mahal, or the Private Palace, was used by the Emperor as a sleeping chamber, and is designed for comfort, with cavities in the room to insulate against the heat. The Mahal is flanked by two golden pavilions. Other ornate palaces within the Fort are the Sheesh Mahal (Palace of Mirrors), the Shah Jahani Mahal (Shahjahan's Palace), Jehangiri Mahal (Jehangir's Palace) and the Akbari Mahal (Akbar's Mahal). These palaces are hybrid in design, some are distinctly Mughal in style, while others like the Jahangiri Mahal are almost entirely Hindu in their interior design.

A monument steeped in history, the Agra Fort is a fitting tribute to the genius of the three generations of emperors, who used it as their stronghold.

Perched atop a rocky ridge 37 km west of Agra, Fatehpur Sikri came into being four centuries ago when the Emperor Akbar, not yet 28 years old, created the first planned city in Indo-Islamic architecture. The city is the concept of one man. It was actualized with great energy while the impulse lasted, and completely abandoned a little more than a decade later.

In 1568 AD, Akbar was secure and powerful but he had no son and heir. His search for blessings for the birth of a successor brought him to the Sufi mystic Shaikh Salim Chisti, who lived in Sikri village. The saint prophesied the birth of three sons and soon after was born Prince Salim, later to become Emperor Jehangir. In gratitude for the blessing Akbar decided to create imperial residences in Sikri, which would function as a joint capital with Agra. As a mark of his faith and his recent victories, he named his new city Fatehpur Sikri. Akbar was a keen builder and the plan of Fatehpur Sikri reveals an architectural mastermind at work. Research has proved that it was planned on a definite mathematical grid.

The site of the Jama Masjid marked the actual beginning of the city which came up around it. The palace courts were laid out parallel to the cardinally aligned mosque and the sequential order of the palaces were emphasised by change in level. The most public space was at the lowest level, while the royal harem was at the highest. Fatehpur Sikri is built in red sandstone, and is a beautiful blend of Hindu and Islamic architectural elements.

The sandstone is richly ornamented with carving and fretwork. Fatehpur Sikri was abandoned 14 years after its creation. A shortage of water is believed to be the reason. Today it is a ghost city, its architecture is in a perfect state of preservation, and wandering through the palaces makes it easy to imagine that this was once a royal residence and a dynamic cultural centre.