There are ruins in India that simply knock you sideways.
And the ghost city of Fatehpur Sikri is one of those. Nearly perfectly preserved after 450 years in the Rajasthan desert it's pavilions, walls and mosque are a magnificent sight and testimony to the great building power of the Moghul Emperor's.
It is also conveniently on the way between Agra and Jaipur, but I think Bharatpur makes a good base to explore Fatehpur Sikri. And the bus service on Bird Sanctuary road gives a good show of village India life on it's journey to the ruined city.
Fatehpur Sikri was the creation of one man - Akbar the Great. Shah Jahan is the most known of the Moghuls as the builder of the Taj Mahal, but Akbar was the more proficient builder and reigned far longer. Everyone forgets how powerful the Moghuls were in the 16th Century world. Their Empire stretched from Kandahar in Afghanistan all the way to the Bay of Bengal with the capital moved between Lahore, Agra and Delhi.
Although he had many wives and was all-powerful he could not produce an heir. He visited a holy man (sadhu) in the nearby village of Sikri and the holy man prophesied he would have an heir. In gratitude to the holy mans vision Akbar sought to create a new capital in the village of Sikri.
Using the hard reddish sandstone of the nearby hills, the city was built on a hill and the court in all its splendour moved with it. The dancing girls, elephant jousts and chess-games with real people only lasted for fourteen years as the city was notoriously hard to supply with water. It was abandoned and reclaimed by the desert until it was rediscovered in 1900.
The first sight of the city on the hill is magnificent. And whichever way you arrive, as soon as you approach the gates you will be marked by hawkers, beggars etc. Postcards, knives and souvenirs will be shoved in your face by children (whose fear is less) and you will be bombarded as you make your way to the gate past the drink and souvenir stands.
I took on a guide, as my experience at the Red Fort had proved, you miss things on your own - and took the one who got rid of the hawkers. He took me to a nearby stall and remove my boots (his families stall, what a surprise)and the my bare legs were wrapped in a lunghi (sheet) and I was led barefooted to the great looming gate of the Shah Darwanza.
This was the great towering gateway to Fatehpur Sikri (see photo)and once through you are in a gigantic courtyard. Blazing in the sun this was about 500ft square and covered in a ribbon of cloth to protect the faithful's bare feet from the hot marble. Behind me Shahi Darwanza soared in red marble and there were porticoes containing worshippers that were sheltering from the intense heat.
The guide explained, Fatehpur Sikri was built in 1572 (I did my calculations, Elizabeth I's reign in English terms)and was where Akbar, fascinated by all the faiths of India, tried to find a fifth credo that incorporated them all. This was apparent in the towering red mihrab (mosque)This was cool and shady with soaring column's, a domed ceiling and Arabic inscriptions. The niche that contained the koran was still there and Akbar's fascination of all the religions of the world was pointed out to me - Muslim inscriptions, Hindu column's and a Christian dome.
Then it was on to to the tomb of the royal ladies and a phalanx of grey marble tombs spread across the floor. The biggest was the white marble tomb of Sheik Salim Christi, a Muslim prophet. The tomb was exquisite and saried women moved around carved pillars, and lattice screens filtered the light to stunning effect. Inside was a tomb inlaid with mother-of-pearl where a holy man sat on cushions and visitors donated rupees.
Fatehpur Sikri is a fabulous sight and looks the same as it did when it was constructed in 1572. If you can brave the tourist bustle, this is a good stop on the route between Agra and Jaipur.
When we were driving away I took one more look at the soaring Shahi Darwhanza and then was stunned by what I saw on the road. There were a number of men with dancing sloth bears, they would dance for the tourists by rearing on their hind legs when their handler yanks their their nose-chain.
Local colour or extreme cruelty to animals? You decide.