Whilst Shah Jahan was building the Taj Mahal as an ode to his beloved wife, the European Christians in Agra were creating their own fairy-tale like mausoleums in a cemetery dating back to Akbar’s time. Not perhaps on the same scale, they are, however, no less delightful in carved red sandstone, yellow basalt and whitewashed plastered walls. These tombs in Agra’s Roman Catholic Cemetery are the resting places of initially the Armenian Christians in the 1550s and, thereafter, of other European Catholics in the city.
The oldest structure is Marty’s Chapel, a simple octagonal edifice topped with a dome, housing the cemetery’s very first grave, that of Khwaja Mortenepus Armenian who died in 1611. The first Englishman to be buried on Indian soil (1614), John Mildenhall, often referred to in historical records as a ‘brave scoundrel’, rests peacefully under the trees nearby.
The star of the cemetery is without a doubt, the Mughal Red Taj Mahal or tomb of John William Hessing replete with four chatris, a gesture of love from a wife to a husband and one of the finest European tombs in India. Hessing, a Dutchman and Commander of the Agra Fort, died on 21 July, 1803 during his service to the Maharaja Daulat Rao Scindia, who then ruled Agra. Just as beautiful is the family mausoleum of Francis Ellis facing it, his tomb dated 14 January, 1868 surrounded by 23 graves holding numerous generations of his family.
Most tourists to Agra flock to see the more popular sites, and often only one site, the Taj Mahal. The 450 year old and North India’s oldest christian cemetery, meanwhile offers an oasis of history to those who venture to take the road less traveled, giving a glimpse of the other Agra that existed.