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Gravesend, United Kingdom
April 6, 2010
From journal In and around Agra
New Delhi, India
August 22, 2007
Of the two sets of buildings at Fatehpur Sikri, the religious one – which contains the Dargah of Salim Chishti, the Jamaat Khana and the Jama Masjid – is the one we first visited. We arrived shortly after noon on a blisteringly hot summer day. Having shaken off the guides, flower-sellers, souvenir-sellers, and generally limpet-like local touts, we climbed up the steep stone steps to the towering gate known as the Buland Darwaaza.
The Buland Darwaaza is an impressive edifice in red and gold sandstone, inlaid with inscriptions from the Quran. In front of it, in two neat rows, sit people selling religious keepsakes, roses, postcards, and cheap jewellery. On the right, sitting in one of the shallow niches along the bottom edge of the Buland Darwaaza, is a minder of shoes. You take off your shoes; he makes sure they stay safe while you go visit the dargah; and when you’re back, you retrieve your shoes and pay whatever you feel is a suitable sum. Simple.
After depositing our shoes with the man’s assistant, we walked through the Buland Darwaaza, into the dark, crowded and dank cloister that runs right around the large four-sided central courtyard. Around us, large families, either waiting to visit the dargah or already done with it, sprawled in untidy gaggles, eating picnic lunches, sleeping, minding toddlers, talking. We headed off to the left, past the crowds, dodging persistent guides all the way, till we turned a corner to the right and entered the mosque, the huge Jama Masjid.
In its literal sense, a mosque serves to indicate the direction of prayer; that is its basic purpose. In many cases, mosques are much more; and the Jama Masjid is definitely a notch above most mosques. Like the rest of Fatehpur Sikri, the Jama Masjid too is made of red sandstone, somewhat sparingly but elegantly carved. More interesting than the carving, however, are the traces of paint that can still be seen if you look up towards the domed ceiling and the squinches. We found a particular spot, abutting the courtyard, where traces of turquoise, mauve and sea-green still remained.
Walking straight on between the columns of the Jama Masjid, we turned right again – this time behind the white marble dargah of Salim Chishti. This is a strange, somewhat eerie place, since it forms an enclosed graveyard of sorts: there are literally dozens of graves here. Stepping gingerly through the minefield of low tombstones, each with its own inscription, we took a brief detour to the Jamaat Khana, which stands next to the Dargah of Salim Chishti.
The Jamaat Khana, a red sandstone building with carved screens and a dome, is the tomb of Islam Khan, one of the disciples of Salim Chishti. The large rectangular hall is surrounded by thirty-six smaller kiosks, and for a long time served as a place of assembly for Chishti’s many disciples. Today, with Chishti’s dargah being the primary focus, the Jamaat Khana is relatively quiet. We wandered around for a while, admiring the elegant blue tilework on a nearby doorway; then walked further on, across the hot flagstones, to the small hauz near the Dargah of Salim Chishti. The hauz, a small tank, has an interesting story behind it. The white marble pillars of Salim Chishti’s tomb are hollow, and during the monsoon, rainwater trickles down these pillars, through a carefully constructed set of conduits that drain it into the hauz. The faithful believe that the water can work miracles – a sip is all it takes to wipe away disease. Or so we were told; we didn’t actually see anyone attempting to drink any of the murky green water. Perhaps it gets better when the monsoon comes.
A brief walk along the fourth side of the courtyard brought us to what had once been the royal entrance to the mosque complex. This is a gate (though not as impressive as the Buland Darwaaza) set in the corridor perpendicular to the Buland Darwaaza itself. While Akbar stayed at Fatehpur Sikri, this was the gate he used when he arrived for prayers from his palace. It is, even now, a much shorter route to the palaces than through the Buland Darwaaza.
From there, another two minutes’ walk, and we were right back where we started: at the Buland Darwaaza.
For those who come here in a religious fervour, for the deeply faithful, the very sight of the dargah may be reward enough. Unfortunately for those who come here as tourists, to admire a historical monument, there can be a sense of disappointment. The guides, touts and other hangers-on are irritatingly persistent; the dirt and the all-pervading air of dilapidation are depressing. It’s not as if the complex is falling to bits; it’s just that the badly-wired electricity, the tawdry attempts at brightening up the mosque, and the threadbare carpets strewn around look so shabby. And the crowds of pilgrims, leaving behind in their wake empty mineral water bottles and foil wrappers of biscuits and potato chips, don’t help. We found ourselves feeling somewhat cheated. A World Heritage site – this?
We came out of the mosque complex after spending barely half an hour inside. Having retrieved our shoes from the man and paid him ten rupees, we stood around for a while, watching as a diver prepared to leap into the tank on the left of the Buland Darwaaza, where Akbar had constructed what may have been one of the first documented rainwater harvesting systems in the world. Today, it’s mainly used by these divers to show off their bravery – after all, not everybody would like to leap from a height into a deep and narrow tank – for a few rupees. Commercial, definitely; but also sad. And that probably would apply for much of what lies behind the Buland Darwaaza as well.
From journal Fatehpur Sikri: A City Abandoned
In the late 1560s, the emperor Akbar was getting desperate for an heir; around this time, Salim Chishti predicted that Akbar would become the father of three sons. The emperor, already in awe of the Chishtis, was suitably impressed. When one of his wives became pregnant, he sent her to live at the hermitage of the mystic until her baby was born. The child, born on August 30, 1569, was named Salim – after the saint – but took the title Jahangir ('seizer of the world’) when he ascended the throne in 1605. Jahangir’s two younger brothers, Murad (born 1570) and Daniyal (born 1572) were the fulfillment of Shaikh Salim Chishti’s prophecy.
Few people were therefore surprised when, on the death of the Chishti saint in 1572, Akbar built a tomb for him at Fatehpur Sikri itself. Constructed from the red sandstone that comprised the surrounding landscape, the tomb didn’t actually last very long – Akbar’s grandson Shahjahan tore it down and instead erected a much more ornate version, in the characteristic white marble of which he also made the Taj Mahal.
The hallmark elegance of Shahjahan’s work stands today, in stark contrast to the red sandstone buildings that surround it within the sehan (courtyard) of the complex. A low, flattish dome surmounts a small four-sided building, its intricately carved pillars supported by unusual, snake-like curves. The walls of the tomb itself are spectacular: each of them consists of finely carved filigrees of white marble. Each screen is a single slab of marble, pierced into exquisite patterns that let in light but keep the interior of the mausoleum cool.
And even on boiling summer days, when the flagstones of the sehan scorch bare feet, the dargah is flooded with pilgrims who come here to pray at the dargah, to offer roses, money, and chaadars – tinsel-embroidered cloth – at the saint’s tomb. The belief is that Salim Chishti can still be a successful intercessor, and (more importantly, perhaps) can still help childless couples become parents. A sacred thread or piece of tinsel, wound through one of the marble screens and securely tied – all while whispering fervent prayers – acts as a reminder to both the saint and the sinner that there are boons outstanding. Someday, when blessed, the pilgrim will return. Perhaps with an offering of money, perhaps with a prayer of thanksgiving; but a return is expected.
Entry to the dargah and the complex is free, but donations are welcome (any amount will do) at the dargah for its upkeep and for the poor box. Since this is a religious site, you should be covered from your knees to your shoulders.
Fatehpur Sikri is today the world’s most perfectly preserved ghost town. India’s climate is gentle to stone if not to people, and a modern visitor could well be persuaded that these intricate casket-like buildings, with their elaborately carved stone ornamentation still crisp and unweathered, had been completed only yesterday.
– Bamber Gascoigne, The Great Moghuls
The emperor Akbar (born: 1542; reign: 1556 – 1605) is generally regarded as the most able and competent of the Mughal emperors. The empire and its administration were strengthened and expanded considerably during his reign, and he is credited with fairly liberal religious and social reforms as well. However, almost everybody agrees that Akbar made one major mistake in his lifetime – and that mistake has gone on to become one of India’s most impressive sights to see: Fatehpur Sikri.
Akbar, despite a huge harem, did not have any heirs. The emperor, who revered the saints of the Chishti order, was greatly encouraged when Salim Chishti, a saint who lived in the village of Sikri near Agra, prophesied the birth of three princes. When this prophecy was fulfilled, Akbar was suitably grateful as well as impressed – and thus arose the idea of creating a new capital, at Sikri itself. Akbar’s imperial capital, at Agra, was already a flourishing city, and the Agra Fort satisfied the requirements of the imperial court fairly well. But Akbar decided that Sikri, virtually in the auspicious shadow of the Chishti saint Salim, would be a far more suitable site for a capital.
The rich red sandstone to build the palaces, pavilions and supplementary structures of the court at Sikri was quarried from the arid, half-desert area around Sikri. Within a few years, two distinct sets of buildings had been created. One was the mosque, the Jama Masjid, and its surrounding buildings, all religious in nature, and fronted by the impressive gateway known as the Buland Darwaaza. The other was where the imperial household resided: the palaces of the harem, the buildings where the emperor met his ministers and supervised the administration of the empire, and housing for those who directly served the royal family. Together, the two complexes were given the name of Fatehpur Sikri. At the foot of the hill on which the two complexes stood, grew a township, also called Fatehpur Sikri, where others who served the imperial court built their houses, mosques, temples and marketplaces.
Today, very little remains of the settlement clustered around the foot of the hill: some ruined houses and mosques, and the city walls, stretching far out, across the plain. The palace complex and the mosque at the top of the hill are the major remnants of Akbar’s imperial city.
It is hard, perhaps, to believe that someone usually as far-sighted as Akbar was could have made such a literally monumental mistake, but it seems that he did not take into account the fact that Fatehpur Sikri was alarmingly short of water. Whereas Agra sits on the banks of one of northern India’s major rivers, the Yamuna, Fatehpur Sikri depends on rain for its water. Akbar obviously made some attempts at ensuring that this rainwater was stored – Fatehpur Sikri’s rainwater harvesting system is probably the oldest documented system in India – but his estimates appear to have been faulty. Possibly Akbar himself didn’t realise how much water an entire township would end up consuming.
Whatever the reason, Fatehpur Sikri ended up being inhabited only for about fourteen years. At the end of that period, Akbar uprooted his court and left, never to return. Whether he realised that Agra was a better base for administration, or that Fatehpur Sikri just fell short of water, is conjecture; at any rate, this amazing court, with its mosque and its surrounding town, was abandoned to the desert winds.
Today, Fatehpur Sikri leaves you with a sense of wonder. It’s apparent that an amazing amount of effort must have gone into carving these splendid palaces. Most of them, especially the palaces of the queens and the Halls of Audience, are masterpieces, every inch carved in painstaking detail. But that all of this effort and wealth was spent on something that was inhabited for less than fifteen years – well, that is one monumental mistake.
The Haramsara: When you enter the palace complex, the first building you’ll come to on the left is a low-roofed colonnade of red sandstone, with strange rings carved from stone embedded in the corners between wall and floor. These, our guide told us, were once the royal stables, and the rings were used to tether horses. The reality is that these somewhat Spartan apartments housed not horses but housemaids. The maidservants who served the ladies of the harem lived in the Haramsara, which stretches in two long cloisters known as the Upper and Lower Haramsaras, which face each other across a courtyard. The stone rings were probably used to secure curtains between each apartment (curtains and heavy drapes, incidentally, were the norm in Mughal households. Even in the palaces of the royalty, areas were sectioned off using heavy drapes rather than walls).
Birbal’s House: Birbal’s House stands at the far end of the Lower and Upper Haramsaras, and is a fairly large, attractive building made – unsurprisingly – of red sandstone. It’s also a much-loved palace, more so because of the name to which it is linked: Birbal was a very famous minister in the court of Akbar and tales of his wit are legendary in India. The nomenclature for the house, however, seems to be misguided, because this palace stands almost right in the middle of the zenana, the women’s quarters of the complex – which is more or less impossible. Historians believe that the palace probably belonged to one of Akbar’s wives, but which one is unknown. At any rate, this is a pretty house, with some very fine carving. Not as lovely as the Turkish Sultana’s House, but attractive enough.
The Mint: I was particularly interested in the Imperial Mint, because my father’s a keen numismatist – and he specialises in the coins of Akbar. Akbar, like the other Mughal emperors, minted gold, silver and copper coins just about wherever he went, even if it was on a march to subjugate a feisty petty ruler. Fatehpur Sikri, his second capital, was therefore no exception. Here, too, the Mint was an important part of the complex. It stands at the far end, separated from the rest of the palaces. This isn’t a particularly attractive building, but it has an interesting architectural feature: brick domes which use radiating courses instead of the more common horizontal layers.
Anup Talao: The Anup Talao – the `Peerless Pool’ – is a part of the rainwater harvesting system Akbar created at Fatehpur Sikri. This is a square tank, made of the ubiquitous red sandstone, next to the Turkish Sultana’s House. The interesting bit about the Anup Talao is the small square island, also made of red sandstone, and surrounded by a low railing of carved stone, that sits right in the centre of the tank. Four narrow walkways connect the island to the periphery of the tank, and you can, if you’re not prone to vertigo, walk across to the island – it’s only a few feet of daring stroll over the water. The story goes that the famous classical Indian musician Tansen (1493 – 1586), one of Akbar’s most respected courtiers, used to sit on this island and sing. Others believe that Akbar used the island for the namaz, five times a day. Whether it was used for song or prayer, it’s a serene and picturesque place, at any rate.
The Dovecote: Like the Mint, the Dovecote lies towards the back of the palace complex. The Dovecote was an important part of administration, since carrier pigeons were often used to carry messages. This is a small building – actually not much more than a tiny open shed – made of red sandstone, with rows of four-sided pigeonholes carved into the upper section of the front wall.
Jodhbai’s Palace: Akbar’s best-known queen, Jodhbai, may well have spent much of her time here, but she wasn’t the only resident of this spacious palace with its high red sandstone walls and part Jain-part Saracenic interiors. Jodhbai’s Palace (also known as Jahangiri Mahal) is large enough – and prominent enough – to be impossible to miss. The most striking feature of the palace are the sloping roofs of the twin pavilions at either end of the palace; both roofs are covered in brilliant blue tilework, and can be seen from just about anywhere in the palace complex. The palace walls enclose a large courtyard, surrounded by carved pillared chambers on all four sides. These include a Hindu temple and the Hawa Mahal, the latter a pavilion enclosed by pierced screens, where the ladies could sit and look out on the world without themselves being seen.
Mariam’s House: Local guides like to think that this small two-storied palace belonged to Akbar’s Christian wife, Mariam. The truth is that Mariam (a title, Mariam Zamaani – `Mary of the Age’) was a Hindu; also, some historians believe that the house, with its characteristically Persian adornment, was more likely to have been the abode of one of Akbar’s first two wives, who were Persian. At any rate, this is a palace worth seeing – if only for its interesting paintings. The entire building was once covered with frescoes and gilt work, which is why it was known as the Sunehra Makaan, the Golden House. Today, much of the paint has worn off or been covered with dirt (or worse, varnish; the Archaeological Survey of India’s attempts at restoration gone haywire). The frescoes are believed to represent scenes from Firdausi’s epic Shahnama, and with a little bit of peering, you can see some fairly good Persian art here, a lot of it faintly Oriental. Check out the curlicues in the clouds and the flowers, as well as the fine features of the human figures.
The Turkish Sultana’s House: Our favourite of all the buildings in Fatehpur Sikri! Okay, perhaps we like ornate stuff, but then this tiny palace – just a single chamber – is a little masterpiece. Nobody is quite sure who the Turkish Sultana was, but she must have had a lot of clout at court to merit a palace such as this. The Turkish Sultana’s palace is made of warm red sandstone, and almost every square inch of it is carved. Delicate vine leaves, interspersed with bunches of grapes, are carved on one pillar; pomegranates, flowers and other fruit climb up another – and the dados on the inside are covered with carvings of trees, birds, animals. Animate creatures, by the way, aren’t allowed under the tenets of Islamic art. The followers of Aurangzeb, Akbar’s extremely orthodox (even fanatical) great-grandson, defaced a lot of the carvings on these dados. Despite all of that, the Turkish Sultana’s pretty little palace remains the most exquisite in all of Fatehpur Sikri.
The Panch Mahal: This distinctive tapered palace reaches five stories up, each story a little smaller in area than the one below it. The Panch Mahal (literally, `Palace of Five’ – and it’s not hard to see why they called it that) is made of deep red sandstone, a pillared structure consisting of 84 pillars, no two of which are carved in the same pattern. The Panch Mahal showcases Akbar’s love for the eclectic pretty well: Saracenic, Hindu and Jain architectural and decorative features are combined in a merry (and surprisingly successful) hotchpotch of styles. In Akbar’s time, the sides of the palace were shielded by stone screens, which did a good job of warding off unwanted stares from the riffraff, so this palace would have been an attractive haunt for the ladies and children of the harem. Our guide, of course, gave us a rambling story of how Akbar’s Hindu, Muslim and Christian queens would watch the moon from each of the top three storeys of the Panch Mahal. Romantic, yes; accurate, hardly.
Jodhbai’s Kitchen: Our guide told us interesting tales about all of the buildings in Fatehpur Sikri, and by the time we were nearing the end of our tour, we’d realised that almost everything he’d told us was diametrically opposite to what the building in question was actually all about. Our faith in the man’s abilities had reached an all-time low by the time we got to a small stone shed near Jodhbai’s Palace. This, said the man, was Jodhbai’s Kitchen, and though I didn’t really believe him, all of my research to find an authentic background for the building has been in vain. Almost everybody credible either doesn’t refer to this building at all, or just calls it the Kitchen. In any case, whose kitchen this is, isn’t as important as the fact that it’s a very oddly decorated building. The pale tan-red sandstone exterior of the Kitchen is carved to resemble a reed hut – you can clearly see the crisscross weave of the reeds. And around the top of the outside wall, strung like a row of fairy lights, are earrings carved from sandstone, each earring about five inches high. Some have pendants hanging from them; others are circular or look like miniature chandeliers. But all of them – more than a hundred carved earrings – are different designs. How’s that for a rare motif!
Diwan-e-Aam: The Diwan-e-Aam, the Hall of Public Audience, was where the emperor met his subjects – to accept petitions and tributes, bestow gifts and titles, pass judgment and so on. The Diwan-e-Aam at Fatehpur Sikri is unusual in that it’s not really a hall; it’s more a low colonnade, made of red sandstone and fronted by a gloriously lush lawn. The emperor’s throne – or rather, the handsomely carved platform on which his throne rested – juts out of the facade. The lawn in front is studded with a couple of rings made of stone. Local guides like to say that royal elephants used to be tethered to these rings, ready to crush the skulls of criminals the emperor sentenced during his sessions at the Diwan-e-Aam. Historians have put paid to that notion; the more mundane (thankfully less gruesome) possibility is that these rings were used to secure the ropes of marquees on the lawn.
Diwan-e-Khaas: The red sandstone (what else?!) structure known as the Diwan-e-Khaas was the hall of private audience, where the emperor would meet his select courtiers – the crème de la crème, so to say. The Diwan-e-Khaas at Fatehpur Sikri isn’t as vast and opulent as its equivalents at Delhi’s Red Fort and at the Agra Fort, but it’s an unusual building nonetheless. From the outside, the Diwan-e-Khaas looks a single storied building; when you enter, you realise that the single room inside is actually a high-ceilinged room divided into two stories. In the centre of the room stands a single solid pillar, the top of it `blossoming’ into a wide-based platform, which was where the emperor sat. From this throne-platform, four `bridges’ of red sandstone connect to a balcony that runs all along the inside of the hall. The nobility would sit on these balconies, and if any nobleman had to approach the emperor, he would walk along one of the bridges, to the centre. Guards and lesser nobleman would sit or stand around the base of the pillar. Today, it’s a favourite spot for photographs.
Khwaabgah: I’ve always adored the name the Mughals gave to their bedrooms – `Khwaabgah’ literally means `chamber of dreams’. Delightful! Akbar’s Khwaabgah is, surprisingly enough, not very ornate. It stands close to the Anup Talao and is a somewhat dingy room, stark and unornamented, with the emperor’s bed – a large, solid platform suspended on pillars – being the dominant feature. A short flight of steps leads up to the bed, which seemed a bit dangerous to me: I mean, if you roll over rather too much in your sleep, you run the risk of falling about six feet before you hit a solid stone floor. Our guide told us that in Akbar’s time, the floor would have been awash in rosewater (stored in a huge egg-shaped stone receptacle – now partly shattered – that stands outside the Khwabgah). I don’t know if that’s authentic information, but if I were toppling six feet in my sleep, an inch of rosewater would probably not make much difference.
Pacheesi Court: I first read about the Pacheesi Court when I was a child, and it’s fascinated me ever since. A courtyard paved with red sandstone flags, the Pacheesi Court lies between the Diwan-e-Khaas and Anup Talao. Across a portion of the courtyard, strips of white marble are inlaid, forming a giant pacheesi board. Akbar used to sit overlooking the board, and play pacheesi with the ladies – using slavegirls as the pieces. The emperor and his ladies would call out instructions to the slavegirls, who would move as directed. Not very democratic, to be sure; but definitely different!
April 3, 2006
Occupancy started in 1571 and for a decade and a half Fatehpur Sikri was the capital of the Mughal empire. However, shortly after Emperor Akbar’s death, in 1585, it was decided that the royal palace and the surrounding settlement was not sustainable and the city of Fatehpur Sikri was abandoned. It’s extremely well preserved and has been deemed a World Heritage Site. Certainly if you’re visiting Agra make sure you pull in a visit to this place.As we entered the site we were told about the Hall of Public Audiences and particular attention was brought to the remains of a concrete pillar set into a large expenses of open ground, slightly away from the "public area." We were told that a malignant elephant was tethered here and criminal, sentenced to death, would be secured within reach of the beast, which would in turn batter the condemned individual. Due to the unpredictable nature of the "execution" this was a major attraction for the righteous! I’m not sure about the veracity of this but it made for a good story.As we entered the main the main city there was an incredibly ornate tower (Hall of Private Audiences), the second floor of which is supported by an incredible beautifully carved central stone column with elaborate stone bridges fanning out to the upper mezzanine. Here, private matters of state were discussed with the emperor by selected courtiers.Outside in a large court area are the original markings of the Pachisi "game board". We didn’t really get to understand the rules but apparently the "pieces" were female servants of the emperor who would stand out in the centre, in the heat of summer, being moved, at the will of the royal players not unlike an "Alice in Wonderland" scenario.The heavily columned Panch Mahal is an unusual building as it reduces in size after each level until the top floor, which is a single room. There’s an interesting central island that is accessed by two narrow bridges where the emperor, alongside his friends in court, spent time fishing. The whole site is incredibly well preserved and when we stood near to the man-made reservoir (now empty of all water) we could look over the hunting land of the emperor. A elaborate hunting tower stands near to the palace walls and it was not hard to understand why the Emperor chose this site to build his ideal capital city. It’s a great view.
From journal Amazing Agra
March 8, 2002
Nearby is a mosque where a saint of Islamic world is buried. One way leads from Fatehpur to the Mosque, hardly 100 meters. A hard distance though- tens of salesmen try to sell you cheap wood camels, necklaces, etc. In the meantime, they are more interested in your pockets and bags, trying to pickpocket you. Once in the mosque you should be safe, but even there you are chased by pushy salesmen. Guards try to keep them away - we even saw them kicking at the salesmen with wooden sticks - but they don't have any effect. If you're not interested for religious reasons, we would recommend skipping the mosque at once.
From journal Trip in Northern India
London, United Kingdom
October 26, 2001
From journal Fatehpur Sikri - the 16th century city