2018

Agra: City of Marble and Monuments

Dastkari Haat Samiti

A look at the use of marble in Agra's monuments and how the local artisans create art with the stone

Stone Inlay and Carving: Agra Fort, 2018-02, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti
The city of Agra, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, is best known as the home of the Taj Mahal. The iconic mausoleum was constructed in the 17th century by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, in memory of his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal. However, the city has a rich heritage beyond the Taj. The Agra Fort in close proximity to the Taj, and Fatehpur Sikri, located 40 kilometres away, are also UNESCO World Heritage sites. 
Stone Inlay and Carving: At the Taj Mahal, 2018-02, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti
The city is a feast for lovers of historical architecture. Along with Delhi and Jaipur, Agra makes up what is called the Golden Triangle tour of north India, a popular tourist circuit. Tourism is the mainstay of the city's local economy. 
Stone Inlay and Carving: The Taj and its surroundings, 2018-02, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

The Taj and its immediate surroundings capture the dichotomy of Agra: on the one hand the majestic and awe-inspiring monuments that attract visitors from far and near; on the other, the congested lanes and haphazard construction of modern day Agra all around them.

Stone Inlay and Carving: Gateway of the Taj Mahal, 2018-02, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

The Taj gets thousands of visitors every day; in fact the authorities are considering capping the number of daily visitors to the monument at 30,000 for safety and conservation concerns.

Stone Inlay and Carving: Agra Fort, 2018-02, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

While the Taj Mahal holds abiding allure, Agra also has a wealth of other monuments to offer visitors.

The Agra Fort is another UNESCO World Heritage site, and encloses within its walls, the imperial city of the Mughal rulers.

Stone Inlay and Carving: At the Taj Mahal, 2018-02, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

The architectural legacy of Agra means different things to different people; some come to experience the sheer beauty and perfection of the Taj Mahal.

Stone Inlay and Carving: At the Taj Mahal, 2018-02, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

For others, it is the composition and proportions of the monuments...

Stone Inlay and Carving: At the Taj Mahal, 2018-02, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

...their architectural vision.

Stone Inlay and Carving: At the Taj Mahal, 2018-02, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

And for some, it is the mystique of the Mughals.

Stone Inlay and Carving: Craft of Agra, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti
Stone craft, the basis of the city’s architectural heritage, has taken on a modified form in modern day Agra. The majestic carving and inlay work of the monuments can be seen everywhere in miniature form – as products that can be packed into a suitcase by visitors wanting to carry back memories. Souvenir shops selling carved and inlayed stone articles line the approach roads to the Taj Mahal, and in fact are found dotted all around the city. 
Stone Inlay and Carving: At the Taj Mahal, 2018-02, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

Outside the monuments are a host of small shops and boutiques.

Stone Inlay and Carving: Craft of Agra, 2018-02, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

The shops sell art objects made of the crafts of the Taj – carvings in marble, or objects of intricately inlaid stone and cater to visitors of varying taste and budget.

Stone Inlay and Carving: At the Taj Mahal, 2018-02, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

A parallel business is also of little establishments offering facilities for rest and refreshment.

Stone Inlay and Carving: Craft of Agra, 2018-02, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti
Agra: a city of stone crafters
The artisans who create these fine articles live within the city. While some are new entrants who have migrated here in search of work, the majority are carrying on in the tradition of their forefathers. Their homes and small workshops are located together in crowded localities where they have lived for generations.
Stone Inlay and Carving: Craft of Agra, 2018-02, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

The artisanal artefacts of Agra are all made in the city. Their story starts in the stone cutting facilities on the outskirts of town.

Stone Inlay and Carving: Craft of Agra, 2018-02, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

The cut stone blocks are then crafted by artisans who live in the old neighbourhoods of the city. The approach to their quarters is through narrow and busy streets.

Stone Inlay and Carving: Craft of Agra, 2018-02, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

Children, animals, two-wheelers – there is life all around.

Stone Inlay and Carving: Craft of Agra, 2018-02, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

Living quarters are not demarcated from workshops. Walking down a busy street, it is quite common to find craftspersons sitting in their doorways, busy at stonework.

Stone Inlay and Carving: Craft of Agra, 2018-02, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

Stone carving is done by both women and men.

Stone Inlay and Carving: Craft of Agra, 2018-02, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

A half open, non-descript door is likely to reveal a craftsperson sitting in deep concentration.

Stone Inlay and Carving: Craft of Agra, 2018-02, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

The light from the doorway is all the craftsman needs to illuminate the small space which is the sphere of his concentration.

Stone Inlay and Carving: Craft of Agra, 2018-02, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

Many workshops are open fronted to the streets. As is customary in most of India, the artisans sit on the floor.

Stone Inlay and Carving: Craft of Agra, 2018-02, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

They use basic tools and equipment to produce the range of products that are sold in the souvenir shops of Agra, or make their way to large and shiny showrooms further afield.

Stone Inlay and Carving: Craft of Agra, 2018-02, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti
The real custodians of the city and its culture
The craft of stone carving predates the era of the Mughals. Today, it also has new entrants in its folds. Artisans like Shyam Chander Patel who hails from the town of Varanasi, (seen here operating an electric drill), have come from far in search of employment.
Stone Inlay and Carving: Craft of Agra, 2018-02, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

On the other hand, inlay work, which the Mughals introduced to Agra, is a skill that has been handed down the generations. Its practitioners feel that no one else can pick up the nuances of the craft.

Artisans like Muhammad Rais (image on the left) and his brothers, who run a family unit that specializes in inlay work, are original inhabitants of Agra.

Stone Inlay and Carving: Craft of Agra, 2018-02, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

Vakiluddin, an expert in jaali or fret work, believes his family descended from the original artisans who worked on the Taj.

Stone Inlay and Carving: A family of artisans, 2018-02, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

His entire family is engaged in craft work. While he carves stone, the women folk do Zardozi embroidery.

It is families such as this who are the true inheritors of the historical legacy of this marble city.

Stone Inlay and Carving: At the Taj Mahal, 2018-02, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti
Dastkari Haat Samiti
Credits: Story

Text: Aloka Hiremath
Photography: Sunil Verma
Artisans: Narendar Kumar Verma, Anwar Khan, Mohammad Rais, Vakiluddin and associates in the community
Ground Facilitator: Aloka Hiremath
Curation: Ruchira Verma

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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