The Life & Times of the Mughal Emperors -- Babur, the first Mughal emperor -- inspired by the Persians' belief that a cultured leader should re-create the Islamic ideal of a "garden of paradise" here on earth -- built three gardens on the banks of the Yamuna. But Agra only took shape as a city under his grandson, Akbar, the third Mughal emperor. Son of the poet-astronomer-philosopher Humayun (whose tomb is in Delhi, described earlier in this chapter), Akbar moved the capital here in 1566. While Akbar was as versatile as his father, he was also a better statesman, revered for his religious tolerance and relatively understated lifestyle. He took the throne at age 13 and ruled for almost 50 years, when he consolidated the Mughal empire and wooed the Hindu "underlings" by abolishing taxes, banning the slaughter of cows, promoting Hindu warriors within his army, and taking a Rajput princess as his bride, who bore him a son, Jahangir. In gratitude for the appearance of an heir, Akbar built a brand-new city, Fatehpur Sikri, which lies 40km (25 miles) southwest and is today one of Agra's top attractions.

The grandeur of this statement of gratitude indicates that Akbar must have, at least at first, been a very indulgent father, though his joy must later have been tinged with disappointment, for at an age when he himself was ruling India, Jahangir (who was to be his only surviving son) was relishing his reputation as a womanizer and acquiring a deep affection for alcohol, opium, painting, and poetry. When Jahangir fell in love with Nur Jahan, his "light of the world," who was at the time married, Akbar opposed the alliance. But after her husband died (under mysterious circumstances, it must be said), Jahangir promised to give up "the pleasures of the world," so Akbar gave his consent. Jahangir had a coin minted in her honor, and when he was crowned emperor in Agra Fort in 1628, it was in fact the strong-willed and ambitious Nur Jahan who ruled the empire from behind the jalis (screens) for 16 years. She also built a magnificent garden tomb, another of Agra's top attractions and affectionately referred to as the "mini-Taj", for her father. By the time Jahangir died in 1644, reputedly a drunkard, Akbar must have been turning in his tomb (yet another of Agra's top attractions).

It was Jahangir's third son, Shah Jahan (not incidentally born of Nur Jahan), who came to power -- apparently after murdering his two elder brothers, their two children, and two male cousins. Known as the "architect" of the dynasty, the fifth Mughal emperor began renovating the Agra Fort at age 16, but achieved the apotheosis of Mughal design when he built the Taj Mahal for his beloved Mumtaz (the niece of Nur Jahan). Bored, he moved the capital to Delhi when he was 47, building an entirely new city from scratch, designing modern geometric palaces (including a separate royal apartment for his favored daughter, Jahanara Begum) and beautiful gardens within the new Red Fort. But he was to pay a bitter price for the favoritism he showed Jahanara and his son, Dara Shikoh. His pious third son, Aurangzeb, aided by Roshanara Begum (Jahanara's embittered younger sister), seized the throne by betraying and/or murdering most of their siblings. Aurangzeb, the last of the great Mughal emperors, became the most repressive ruler North India had yet seen, destroying Hindu temples and images throughout the region and banning the playing of music or any other form of indulgent pleasure. Known as much for his cruelty as his ambition, Aurangzeb allegedly poisoned his ally Roshanara when he caught her in an illicit liaison in her quarters at the Red Fort. Having imprisoned his father in Agra Fort, Aurangzeb sent him a platter upon which he garnished the head of his favorite son, Dara. According to legend he instructed his servant to present it with the words, "Your son sends you this to let you see that he does not forget you."

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