You know that moment when you are looking for something, but end up finding something else? Something you were not expecting to find? Something you didn’t even know you wanted to find? I had one such moment about 10 days back.
I was headed to Agra the next day for a conference and hoped to squeeze in a visit to the Agra Fort. While checking the Fort timings on it’s official website, I came across a link to lesser known monuments in the city. Curious to know more, I clicked on the link and my eyes were immediately drawn to the photograph accompanying the second entry on the page — a red domed structure with four minarets in each corner, not unlike a Taj Mahal, but red in colour.
Wondering which Mughal prince or noble was buried in this very obvious example of Islāmic architecture, I proceeded to read the description. And then read it again just to make sure that what I had read was indeed what I read the first time.
The Red Taj Mahal or John William Hessing’s Tomb was built by his wife in the memory of her husband. If Taj Mahal is known for the love of a husband for his wife, then on the other hand, the Red Taj Mahal is known for the love of a wife for her husband…
This was no mausoleum of a Mughal prince or noble or even a Muslim; this was a Christian’s tomb located in the Agra’s Roman Catholic Cemetery. Reading about this rather intriguing place, I was surprised that I had neither heard of nor come across the Cemetery and the ‘Red Taj Mahal’ before, in spite of having visited Agra in 2011! There was only one way to remedy this. Visit it.
And that’s exactly what I do when I visited Agra earlier this month. 🙂
Finding the Cemetery, though, was easier said than done, but with the help of Google Maps and a determined cab driver, we arrived at around 10 in the morning. It was a warm day, but the large trees in the Cemetery provided much-needed shade and relief from the sun, as well as the sound of traffic beyond the Cemetery walls. We were the only visitors there, though I noticed a man napping in the shade and also a couple of men cutting the overgrown grass in the Cemetery. It was so quiet and peaceful that the only sounds I heard were that of the men singing, some birdsong and the chittering of squirrels.
The first glimpse of the ‘Red Taj Mahal’ was a bit surreal. Even though I knew that it was a Christian Mausoleum, the Islāmic style architecture was …well… distracting. As were some other cenotaphs that looked like the Hindu chhatris I saw in Rajasthan, but with a twist — they had a cross on top of the dome.
The origin of Agra’s Roman Catholic Cemetery goes back to the mid-1500s during the period of Emperor Akbar’s reign. A community of Armenian Christians traders and merchants had settled in the city and were given land to bury their dead. In the decades and centuries that followed, the Cemetery also became the burial-place for Christians, especially the more prominent ones who died in North India during the Mughal period and the colonial period that followed.
I must clarify that by Christians, I mean Europeans, as a walk around the Cemetery revealed. It was also a walk that revealed changes in grave / tomb / mausoleum styles over the 450-odd years of the Cemetery. The earliest graves are simple with just a memorial slab marking the site and giving details of the person buried in the Armenian language. Some gravestones have inscriptions in both Armenian and Persian.
Then there are recent graves that go beyond just a simple gravestone and have elaborate urns, columns, pyramids, cones and cubical structures as tombs with inscriptions in English or French and sometimes in Armenian and Persian as well.
Once I saw the less grand, but not necessarily unimportant graves, I moved on to explore not only the larger and grander mausoleums, but also the historically significant ones: for example Marty’s Chapel, the oldest structure in the Cemetery.
An octagonal structure with a dome, the Chapel has the grave of the oldest resident of the Cemetery — Khwaja Mortenepus Armenian (d.1611) — located inside the chapel. Khwaja’s marble gravestone with an English inscription, however, appears to be a later addition — perhaps as a replacement to the original damaged one or to signify its importance as the oldest grave in the cemetery. On either side of the altar are marble slabs (again a later addition?) with names of Jesuit priests buried in the Cemetery.
The Europeans buried in the Cemetery include Portuguese Jesuit priests, Italians, the French, Germans, the Dutch and the English. In fact, the first Englishman to be buried on Indian soil, John Mildenhall, is here in this Cemetery. Mildenhall’s grave, which has reportedly been restored, says that he left London in 1599 and travelled to India through Persia, reaching Agra in 1603, where he got an audience with Emperor Akbar. He
fell ill in Lahore in 1614 and died in Ajmere and was buried here through the good offices of [one] Thomas Kerridge Merchant.
Then there is the mausoleum of Francis Ellis who died on 14th January 1868. The tombstone says,
“This monument has been erected as a last token of affection by his disconsolate widow and three sons John, George and James with a fervent hope through Jesus Christ of meeting him in Heaven.”
The platform on which the Ellis Mausoleum is built also has the graves of the Ellis family — all 23 of them. While reading the inscriptions, it was quite sad to see so many Ellis children die at infancy making me wonder at the cause of death. One Ellis child died at 22 days !
The star of the Roman Catholic Cemetery is the Red Taj Mahal or the tomb of John William Hessing, who died on 21st July 1803 in the service of the Maharaja Daulat Rao Scindia. At that time, Agra was under the rule of the Marathas (Scindia) and Hessing was the Commander of the Agra Fort. Hessing’s mausoleum was commissioned by his wife Anne Hessing. Looking at the structure, it is quite obvious, where the inspiration came from. At this point, I request you to go and look at the first picture in this post. 🙂
As I walked around the Cemetery, it was with a realisation how my pre-conceived notions led me to experience this visit to the Cemetery, at least to begin with. Initially, it was the Islāmic architecture for a Christian tomb that surprised me. Then it was the Persian inscriptions on the gravestones that confused me. And finally the choice of stone for the tombs / mausoleums / gravestones.
Having seen them only in marble, basalt, granite and limestone in sober shades of white, black and grey, the vivid shades of red and pink came as a bit of a shock. Particularly since sandstone is my favourite stone and its very colour represents life to me.
I found it disconcerting to see something that symbolises life being used to mark the site of the dead. But then, I ask myself, doesn’t a tomb or a grave also represent a life that once lived on earth? And also, isn’t it wonderful how local design sensibilities inspired the mausoleums for a then ‘new religion’ in the region?
I spent an hour or so at the Roman Catholic Cemetery. I was rather lucky to have the caretaker of the Cemetery, Suren Singh, show me around the place, and open the locked doors of the mausoleum so that I could have a closer look.
There was only one problem though, I could barely understand what he said as his mouth was full of paan. However, there were three things that I clearly understood — (i) this property was maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India, (ii) hardly anyone visited the Cemetery, and (iii) burials happened at the Cemetery even today.
When Suren Singh pointed towards a freshly dug mound covered with flowers in one corner of the Cemetery, I took that as my cue to thank him and leave.
- There are a couple of other mausoleums that look interesting and I visit them, but due to lack of information and confusion as to who is buried there, I’m not including them in the post. One of the tombs is said to have Zakur of Tabriz and the other Walter Reinhardt, a European mercenary.
- The Roman Catholic Cemetery is on M.G. Road and next to Bhagwan Talkies and is open for visitors from sunrise to sunset.
- If you do visit the Cemetery or any graveyard for that matter, please respect the dead. Do not walk or climb over the gravestones. And if there is a burial happening, please respect the privacy of the mourners and leave.
- For more details on the Cemetery, please do read this excellent blogpost by Patrick A. Rogers.
Read more about other places to visit in Agra: