The Taj Mahal is one of the most iconic landmarks in the world, and understandably one of the most heavily photographed. While no trip to Agra would be complete without seeing it, the Taj Mahal is far from being the only monument in the surrounding area worthy of your attention. It might be the best-known example of the Mughal Empire’s flair for the magnificent, but there are plenty of other sights worth seeing.
If you’re worried about how to make your Instagram post of the Taj stand out from all the others (without a drone or a miraculous lack of tourists), there’s no need to fret. Outsmart the competition entirely by checking out these other picturesque landmarks in Uttar Pradesh.
Agra itself is home to a handful of these monuments, which are not just comparable in stature and beauty to the Taj Mahal but in many cases are older than the famous mausoleum. The most historically significant example is the Agra Fort, a sandstone fortress and walled city intended to represent the full scope of Mughal power in India. The fort was commissioned by the conquering emperor Akbar the Great, who consolidated the dynasty’s hold on the entire subcontinent and made this the seat of their power. The structure is complete with gates of imposing size, courtyards of decorated columns, and the residential palace. Considered the Taj Mahal’s “sister” monument, it was completed 80 years before.
A monument that is more like the Taj is the Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah. It is similar in design and sometimes referred to as the “baby Taj” — although it was completed 25 years earlier and actually commissioned for the grandfather of Mumtaz Mahal, the empress to whom the Taj was dedicated. While dwarfed in size by the mausoleum that it inspires, the smaller tomb is notable for its use of white marble and the characteristic technique of pietra dura that involves floral designs made of semi-precious stones. Practicing these innovations for the first time on this tomb allowed architects to eventually combine them on a larger scale at the Taj.
Another imperial complex in the vicinity of Agra comprises a third UNESCO World Heritage site and offers other fine examples of Mughal architecture, from fortresses to mosques and mausoleums. Fatehpur Sikri was the first capital of the Mughal Empire before it was moved to Lahore in modern Pakistan for a brief period at the close of the 16th century.
One enters the imperial complex through the highest gateway in the world, the gargantuan Buland Darwaza or “door of victory.” This and surrounding structures were built in the wake of Mughal success over the local Gujarats. Passing through into the fortress courtyard, one can see two important structures of Islam. The Jama Masjid (mosque) was probably the first completed work on this site, demonstrating an early blend of Persian architecture and local traditions. The contrasting style of a nearby tomb, belonging to Sufi saint Salim Chisti, makes for a beautiful picture; its marble and mother-of-pearl veneer harken to Gujarati traditions.
Further inside the Fatehpur Sikri fort, two more palaces tell important stories of Mughal history through their unique designs. The Jodha Bai looks like a Mughal architect’s interpretation of a modern residence. It is free-standing and rectangular with discernible stories. While its construction made use of the traditional sandstone, the nearby Panch Mahal resembles something more like a Buddhist temple with a multi-tiered design consisting entirely of columns. This structure is a succinct lesson in the traditional elements of Mughal architecture, from the jaali (partition screens latticed with various geometric patterns) to the dome-shaped and elevated pavilion that crowns the building called a chhattri (literally, “umbrella”).
Having admired all the various landmarks that can be attributed to his reign, it’s only fitting to visit the tomb of Akbar the Great himself, also located in the vicinity of Agra. Once again, there are remarkable similarities to the Taj Mahal, most poignantly the four chhattri-topped minarets that stand at the structure’s corners. The exterior inlay details are not as elaborate as designs on later structures, but the detailing of the inner roof is as intricate and masterful as anywhere in the world. The nearby tomb of Akbar’s Queen Consort, Mariam uz-Zamani, predates his own by over 100 years. It was built by the Delhi Sultans who ruled here before the Mughal conquest. With a considerable 40 chambers on the ground floor and ornate doorways throughout, it is well worth the visit.
If traveling around Uttar Pradesh during your time in India, the characteristic architecture of the region is represented outside of Agra in the regional capital of Lucknow. The city’s two most iconic structures are both imambara, or gathering places for Shia Muslims. These include mosques and specialized ritualistic chambers. Built by the rulers of the then-British Protectorate of Oudh, the Chota and Bara Imambara are located along the same main road on either side of the Rumi Darwaza, which includes an imposing gateway similar to those in Agra. Both temples are dedicated to the Panjetan, or holy five figures of Islam: Muhammad, Fatimah, Ali, Hassan, and Husayn. The theme of five is present throughout their design, and religious celebrations add even more elegance to the structures with bright lanterns and chandeliers.
The monuments of India are not just visually stunning for the sake of aesthetics but integrate the stories of their inception, local traditions, and religious observances into their grand design. From the World Heritage Sites of Agra to the larger architectural tradition of the Uttar Pradesh region, nowhere is the depth and breadth of Indian history and society more beautifully realized than here.
Is there a more beautiful monument in India that we might have missed? Let us know in the comments!