The early history of Agra is obscure but traditions trace its origin to the great epic period of the Mahabharata when it was called Agravana. Tradition also mentions its association with the early life and exploits of Lord Krishna.
The archaeological excavations and explorations at Agra Fort and Mahtab Bagh have revealed ancient remains of different ages in the form of ruined structures, sculptures, coins, inscriptions, bricks and pottery. Mauryan bricks were also found at Agra. There were ancient temples of different sects, which testify to the historic, religious and commercial importance of the place.
The Mankanmeshvar Temple and its deep plinth and other findings establish its origin to at least 2000 years back.
However, the town was founded long before the Mughal's conquest of India. The city with its brick fortress is mentioned for the first time in the Qasida, (long panegyrie in verse) composed in praise of Ghaznawid Prince Mahmud bin Ibrahim by the famous early Persian poet of Lahore Mas'ud bin Sad bin Salman (d. 1131) assigning the conquest of Agra Fort, most probably during the reign of Sultan Mas'ud III in 1099-1115. The town was then ruled by one Rajput Chief Jaypal.
The Agra Fort was traditionally known as Badalgarh, constructed by one Badal Singh. Around 1475 in the 15th Century A.D. the Chauhan Rajputs gained independence shortly after Ghaznawid occupation. Agra was conquered by Sultans Muhammad bin Sam in 1193 of Delhi and remained subjugated but the Rajputs often declared independence after paying tributes to the Delhi Sultans. When Sikandar Lodi transferred his seat of Government to Agra, he occupied Badalgarh in which he constructed his Palace. However, Akbar demolished it and constructed a strong Fort with red sand stone, having beautiful carvings on the surface.
The city flourished under the Lodis and eminent scholars. Sufis, saints and poets flooded Agra, which soon became a centre of political and cultural activities. But in 1505 a devastating earthquake destroyed most of the stately buildings except a few mosques and tombs, which can still to be seen in ruined condition around Sikandra near Agra.
But the real glory started from the time of Mughal emperor Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur who established his capital at Agra in 1526. He built his palace in the Persian Char Bagh Garden and founded a series of stately buildings, ornamental gardens, pleasure pavilions and other landscaped structures. His architects cleverly designed such hydraulic schemes with masonry water channels, cisterns and fountains on both the banks of the River Yamuna, which were dotted with flourishing gardens with so much greenery that the people of Agra called that area Kabul.
The grandeur of Agra city owes its fast development to Emperor Akbar (1556-1605). He was a great builder and his numerous works of art and architecture were unparallel in medieval India. He constructed a large number of impressive buildings such as tombs, hammams, forts, palaces, caravan sarais, bridges, tanks, gardens and mosques of great architectural merit. Akbar is the only known Emperor who founded and built fortresses and palaces at five different places viz. Agra, Fatehpur Sikri, Allahabad, Ajmer and Lahore - all within fifteen years.
He had also established significant ateliers of paintings, book making, translation bureau and mints, at Agra, Fatehpur Sikri and Lahore. These illustrated manuscripts, albums and miniature paintings are preserved in different museums, private collections and libraries across the world.
Having the most capable and learned ministers and advisors, Akbar developed the most efficient military and revenue administration. He followed the extremely farsighted and conciliatory policies of the Government and introduced a unique system of peace with all (Sulahkul). He had the nobility, which was based not on hereditary but personal merits. Akbar forged unity and friendship with Rajput rulers by matrimonial and political alliances. He was a keen observer of men and studied the behaviour of his people and adopted very sympathetic attitude. For a better understanding he got the numerous classical works of Sanskrit translated into Persian language, which was used in the court. This provided close insight into the religious and cultural institutions of India.
Akbar followed a policy of great humanism and patronised the Bhakti and Sufi movements in India. He was the first Indian ruler to have issued Ram-Siya tanka silver coin and won the hearts of the Hindu population. He attached great importance to the Sufi settlement at Sikri for the spiritual merit of a Sufi Shaikh Salim Chishti whose prayers were granted with the birth of Akbar's son Prince Salim. The Emperor made Sikri the capital of the Mughal empire and adorned it with beautiful stately buildings of Indian style from where he adopted the most liberal policies of harmonious development of Indian art and culture.
Akbar's architecture synthesised Central Asian and regional Indian building traditions into a new universal Mughal Imperial style, expressed in red sand stone and highlighted with white marble, on a scale not emulated until the reign of his grandson, Shah Jahan.
Akbar demolished the old Fort of Sikandar Lodi and erected a new and extremely grand Fort at the old site of Badalgarh on the western bank of the Yamuna and built many magnificent buildings including imposing gateways, residential palaces, audience halls, offices and ornamental gardens.
The Fort of Agra, Qila-i-Akbari has strong and lofty surrounding walls. Each wall, 20 m. high and separated by 12 m. deep moat, near Amar Singh Gate with two lookout towers typical of the entrances to the Fort. The supporting arch, of modest dimension compared to the structure, is crowned with a large blind arch flanked by false painted windows. It is decorated with flat relief geometric designs.
The Fort was provided with four gateways and every day 3000 to 4000 active builders and strong-armed labourers carried on the work. From the foundations to the battlements, the fortress was composed of hewn stone, each of which was polished like "the world-revealing mirror, and was ruddy as the cheek of fortune and they were so joined together, that the end of a hair could not find place between them". The Fort was completed with its loopholes (sang-andaz) in the space of eight years (1565-73) under the superintendence of Qasim Khan Mir Barr-wa-Bahr.
Thus the Agra Fort, though standing on the plain ground, unlike a hill fort, had been planned to be impregnable by the skilful use of the architectural stratagems the origin of which can be seen in the Din Panah Fort (Purana Qila) Delhi.
The lower ramparts have a battlemented parapet, whose merlons are oblong and slope forward to render scaling by besiegers impossible. These are alternated by embrasures; machicolations have been regularly disposed below them along the string course. The judicious and harmonious combination of these features gives this fort a substantial aesthetic character. Besides being a strong military structure, it is also a good example of early Mughal architecture.
The Agra fort is built on an irregular semi-circular plan, with its chord lying parallel to the course of river Yamuna. The massive enclosing walls veneered with finely dressed sandstone slabs are about 21.34 metres high. The double ramparts have been provided with broad massive circular bastions at regular intervals. A broad deep moat, running round the semi-circle of the Fort from the northern point to the southern separates it from the main land and renders it inaccessible except through the two draw-bridges. Abul Fazl the court historian recorded that the Fort had more than 500 buildings of masonry after the beautiful designs of Bengal and Gujarat. But now only 27 buildings survive.
The Agra Fort is inscribed on the list of World Heritage Monuments by the UNESCO since 1983.