‘A Pure Specimen of Oriental Architectural is the Tomb of John Hessing’
- Victor Jacquemont, a French Traveller
Many structures inspired the construction of Taj Mahal, specifically, Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi, Gur-e Amir (tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Itmad-ud-Daulah’s Tomb (often called Baby Taj), Ibrahim Rauza of Bijapur and also Jama Masjid in Delhi. This celebrated Mughal tomb of Mumtaz Mahal and Emperor Shah Jahan then became the inspiration for many later buildings, and some were even nicknamed after the tomb. Aurangabad’s Bibi ka Maqbara, Tomb of Safdarjang in Delhi, Shahzadi Ka Maqbara in Chota Imambara, Lucknow, Taj Masjid in Dhaka and its replicas in Bangalore, Bulandshahr district, Uttar Pradesh, China, Bangladesh, UAE, Malaysia, just to name a few.
One such Taj inspired tomb is that of a military officer, John Hessing (1739–1803), cited as the ‘Red Taj Mahal’ situated in Nehru Nagar, close to MG Road of Agra. Far smaller than the Taj Mahal, this modest but eye-catching tomb was built in the memory of John Hessing which is housed within a Roman Catholic cemetery called Padretola, or Padresanto, one of the oldest Catholic cemeteries of Northern India. Historical sources mention that the cemetery dates back to the 1550s, from the reign of Mughal Emperor Akbar, when Armenian Christians who shifted and settled in Agra began burying their dead ones. The grief-sickened wife of John Hessing, Lady Anne Hessing commissioned his tomb, which came up in a span of one year in 1803, also often called Hessing’s tomb or ‘John Sahab Ka Rauza’ by the locals.
India witnessed many European adventurers, mercenaries, soldiers, professionals and merchants landing on its soil in search of prospects and profits. The life of Hessing, a Dutch soldier and trader was also an interesting one. Born in Utrecht (Netherlands) and at the age of 13, in 1792, John Hessing landed in Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka), joined the Dutch East India Company’s army as a mercenary officer under General Perron and fought many battles against the British East India Company including the fourth Anglo-Dutch war. After five years, John returned to the Netherlands. In 1763, he came back to India, served the Nizam of Hyderabad, and later joined the Marathas. He commanded the Maratha army in 1795 in a battle of Kardla that defeated the Nizam of Hyderabad. Colonel John Hessing fought against British forces in the Second Anglo-Maratha War (1802-1805).
It was common for the Europeans mercenaries to serve in the army of Indian rulers. For his loyalty and dedication, Daulatrao Scindia, a Maratha Statesman and ruler made Hessing the commander of the Agra Fort in 1799. Many historical sources reveal that John Hessing died at the age of 63 defending the fort against the British army. Some sources mention that he died of a prolonged sickness, as his command favoured and chose his son, George to lead them as the commandant of Agra fort after his father retired due to the illness. A formidable army man, Hessing fought many battles in Agra, Patan, Chaksana, Lalsot and so on and was finally laid to rest in a splendid tomb.
Considered to be one of the finest European tombs in India, the mausoleum is largely constructed in late-Mughal style with a slight architectural blend of European elements, which makes the tomb unique. At the entrance is a Persian verse. Built in red sandstone, this square tomb stands on a square plinth with stairs and jaalis (screen work) decorating with accesses to the tahkhana (underground chamber or a crypt) with the actual grave. Every corner of the platform has an attached chabutra (platform) which are octagonal in shape with carved panels. The platform has carved panels running all around it. The central grave chamber is surrounded by the Islamic hasht-behesht (eight heavens) arrangement of eight chambers. The tomb has arched openings on four sides with double alcoves on two sides. Topped with a large dome with an inverted lotus and finial or spire, the four corners of the tomb have attached four turrets/minarets with chhatris (cupolas) with pinnacles on the top. The grave lies in the central hall with engraved inscriptions in English.
At the tomb entrance, there are two Persian inscription–an epitaph expressing the grief of Ann Hessing and a chronogram marking the year of his death.
The epitaph says that:
In the year 1784, he entered into the service of Madho Rao Sindhia and was engaged in the several battles that led to the aggrandizement of that Chief and wherein he signalized himself so by his bravery as to gain the esteem and approbation of his employer, more particularly at the battle of Bhondagaon near Agra in the year 1787, which took place between this Chief and Nawab Ismael Beg, when he then became a Captain, and was severely wounded. On the death of Madho Rao Sindhia in 1793, he continued under his successor, Daulat Rao Sindhia, and in 1798, he attained to the rank of Colonel and immediately after to the command of the Fort and City of Agra, which he held to his death.
There are graves of other prominent Europeans figures in this Roman Catholic cemetery who lived in India during the Mughal and colonial periods and 20th century such as the British adventurer, John Mildenhall, the first Englishman buried in India, Jerome Veronio, an Italian architect and Lapidary Hortenzio Bronzoni. His wife Begum Samru buried Walter Reinhardt Sombre, the ruler of Sardana jagir and Civil and Military Governor of Agra who died in Agra. The oldest building in the cemetery, Marty’s Chapel is believed to have been built during Akbar’s rule, around 1611, which was dedicated to an Armenian merchant by the name of Khoja Mortenepus (spelling of his name varies in many records).
However, undoubtedly Hessing’s tomb stands out in the cemetery in comparison with the other tombs and graves. Although a forgotten monument today, but the tomb remains a witness of the European period in India and the several additions they made and events, the era unfolded which majorly changed the course of Indian history.
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