Sikandra, a few kilometres short of Agra on the main Delhi-Agra highway (National Highway 2), is supposedly named for a pre-Mughal ruler of Delhi called Sikandar Lodhi. Sikandar Lodhi had ambitions of extending his reign south of Delhi, and had a citadel in Agra—and perhaps a garden at this spot. In the early years of the 17th century, the third of the Mughal emperors, Akbar, chose Sikandra to be the site of his mausoleum. He renamed it Bihishtabad (`Abode of Paradise’), and commissioned its design and construction, though after Akbar’s death in 1605, the building was completed under the aegis of his son and successor, Jahangir.
Since Sikandra is on the way into Agra, we decide it makes sense to stop by and see it now. The imposing gateway of the tomb, with its stolid white minarets, can be seen from the highway, and we pull into the parking lot. Tarun and Gourab go off to buy the tickets (Rs 10 for Indians; Rs 250 for foreigners and non-resident Indians; children below 15 enter free of charge), and then we stand for a while in front of the main gate, the Southern Gateway to Sikandra, ooh-ing and aah-ing at the beauty of it.
Sikandra is a typical char bagh Mughal tomb: the complex is a square garden bisected by two streams of water perpendicular to each other. The tomb lies at the centre, at the spot where the streams cross. Each of the four walls enclosing a char bagh is traditionally pierced by a gate. In the case of Sikandra, however, only the Southern Gate—the one at which we’re now standing—is a gate; the others are false gates: they look like gates but don’t lead anywhere. The southern gate is of red sandstone decorated with arched niches, carving, and bands of inlay. Around the main arched entrance are patterns of stylised flowers, leaves and tendrils, all in white and black marble. They’re beautiful, as are the geometric patterns, in white, black, tan and buff that flank them. The effect is opulent but very pleasing.
We step through the gateway and on to the wide paved causeway that connects the gate to the main tomb building, known as the rauza. Along the centre of the causeway runs a shallow channel which would once have been filled with water; today it’s dry. But the lawns around, with shady trees and shrubs, don’t look as if they suffer from a lack of water: in fact, small herds of blackbuck graze peacefully on the lawns and look up placidly to watch us walk by.
The rauza is, like the gate, mainly of red sandstone, but its roof is surmounted by rows of chhatris (domed pavilions), both large and small, in white marble. This is reminiscent of the buildings at Fatehpur Sikri (also built by Akbar) and have a distinctly Rajasthani feel to them. The upper section of the rauza, is however, out of bounds, so we have to content ourselves with exploring the ground floor.
We’re instructed to take off our shoes outside the rauza, and barefooted, we enter the vestibule that leads into the main tomb chamber. This is, without exaggeration, one of the most beautiful Mughal rooms I’ve ever seen: every inch of the walls and ceiling is richly painted. There are flowers, vines, curling leaves, bunches of grapes, and bands of calligraphy worked in gold, against a background of blue, red, orange and white. Stunning! We spend a few minutes here, gaping at the gorgeousness of it all, then take ourselves off down the sloping corridor that leads to Akbar’s cenotaph.
This corridor—a ramp leading down from the vestibule—is in marked contrast to the vestibule itself: it’s plain, with plastered walls and ceilings painted white. There isn’t a scrap of ornamentation here. The vast, high-ceilinged chamber to which it leads is equally plain, and Akbar’s cenotaph, though it’s made of white marble, is unadorned and fairly simple. A man, perhaps a mullah (or at least a religious of some rank) is standing next to the cenotaph, and calls out "Allaaahhhhh," in a loud, sonorous voice as we enter, probably in an attempt to encourage us to leave a donation (people have left a few rupees at the head of the cenotaph). The word echoes around the chamber, which has narrow sloping window-like openings towards the top of each wall.
Back up the ramp and out of the vestibule, we wander along the small marble chambers on either side of the vestibule. These contain the cenotaphs of various other members of the royal family, mainly Akbar’s many wives. Each little chamber has inlay—black and sometimes tan—in white marble; and above the dado, a screen of carved white marble pierced by a window. Lovely, and a good photo op!
Having taken plenty of pictures of each other peeking through these windows, we decide to take Swapna’s advice and have a look at the Western Gate. This, according to our guidebook (Lucy Peck’s Agra: The Architectural Heritage), is the best preserved of the three false gates at Sikandra, and worth a peek. Another causeway, at right angles to the one leading to the southern gate, brings us to the Western Gate.
The ASI seems to have been concentrating its efforts on conserving the southern gate and the rauza; the Western Gate is obviously neglected. At the top of the main recessed arch hang almost a dozen ominous black beehives. Not only do they look awful, I’m sure they’re also damaging the remarkable painting that decorates the gate. This is art of a very different style to that in the vestibule: less fine, less grand, but equally worthy of admiration. A massive fern-like plant in brick red is painted at the top, and below are motifs—looking very much like urns or jars—painted in red, ochre, rust, dull green and cream; the ceiling, where not obscured by beehives, has a pretty pattern of netted vaulting in white.
We walk around to the back of the gate, which is decorated with arched niches, beautifully carved and highlighted in white marble. There are examples here of what is known as chini khana decoration: depictions of vases, with or without flowers.
Neeti and Deb, by now, have started getting impatient (I can sympathise; Neeti has been on at least three school trips to Agra, and Sikandra is always a must-do!). We head back to the southern gate, with a minor detour en route to have a look at some colonial ruins. The British, when they took over Agra in 1803, built houses for themselves in the unlikeliest of places, including here, within the Sikandra complex. Between the rauza and the southern gate are the remains—broken columns, doorways, a short flight of steps with a balustrade—of one of these.
Out through the main gate, and we head towards the parking lot. Adjacent to this is the last of Sikandra’s attractions: the Kaanch Mahal (`the Palace of Glass’). This may seem a misnomer, since there isn’t a chip of glass or mirror on this building, but you should note that kaanch can also, in Urdu or Hindi, be used to refer to china (porcelain)—and the Kaanch Mahal has an attractive trimming of blue and yellow tilework. We find the Kaanch Mahal overrun by a group of noisy schoolchildren, laughing and playing all across the front of it. Their teachers (who should be shot!) have made themselves comfortable in the main entrance to the Kaanch Mahal, and are having a picnic. The interior of the Kaanch Mahal is, in any case, not the main attraction here; it’s the exterior, with its carved red sandstone oriel windows, with their tile edging, which has brought us here. Very pretty.
The ASI signboard outside the Kaanch Mahal describes it as a palace for the harem, but Lucy Peck is inclined to believe that this was a gateway leading into a walled garden. Swapna points out evidence: seen from the side, the Kaanch Mahal has two distinct halves. The section facing Sikandra is beautifully decorated; the other side is plain, plastered surfaces with no carving or tile. The remains of a gate built by the British stand next to the Kaanch Mahal; it was probably built to lead into the enclosure, at the far end of which we can see a dilapidated structure.
But it’s past 2 PM; the sun’s beating down; we’re thirsty and need something (as Neeti describes it) "cold, sweet and fizzy". Time to move on to Agra, but with a last, approving look at Sikandra. This is quite an appropriate welcome to Agra—and a foretaste of the delights that await us.