“Jesus, son of Mary said, ‘The world is a bridge, pass over it, but build no houses upon it. He who hopes for a day, may hope for eternity; but the World endures but an hour. Spend it in prayer for the rest is unseen.'”
~ Persian inscription,
Buland Darwaza, Fatehpur Sikri, 1601
My recollections of Fatehpur Sikri trace back to a family holiday many eons ago. I was 10. I remember being mesmerized as I wandered through the vast, desolate expanses embellished with exquisite stonework. Long fingers of golden sunshine stroked the edifices, setting the scattered, towering, red sandstone walls aflame.
For a 10-year-old it was a surreal place totally removed from all reality as I knew it.
Over the years I would often close my eyes and go back in time to re-emerge starry-eyed about life’s wonders. Amazed about a whole city built by one of the greatest emperors history had known, in honour of a Sufi saint who predicted the one thing he wanted most—a heir to pass on his empire to. Crafted with incredible passion and precision, the emperor Akbar himself oversaw the building of the site from its floor plans to the hand-chiselled columns and doorways to ensure it reflected his secular beliefs and heightened sense of aesthetics.
In the religious precinct, where his saint Shaikh Salim Chishti once lived and was later buried, he swept the marble floors and called out to the faithful to pray. In the imperial palaces his harem of 300 women, comprising his 36 wives, female relatives, concubines and slave girls, ran on well-oiled wheels by a legion of faithful eunuchs. In the audience halls he met commoners and nobles alike, and strategized the affairs of his state.
Fatehpur Sikri was Akbar’s home.
Yet, in 1585, less than 14 years after its construction began—in response to dissidents in the empire’s north-west and unforeseen water shortages at the site itself—the city was abandoned overnight and the capital shifted to Lahore. Never again was Fatehpur Sikri thenceforth celebrated as the ruler of “Hindustan’s” home.
One of the key reasons for my revisiting Agra last month was to relive this magic. Was Fatehpur Sikri still the same or had it all just been my childhood imagination at play?
When my train rolled into Agra Cantt Railway Station the first thing I, thus, did was to hire a car at the booth outside and go straight to the medieval Mughal city’s walled enclosures. My breath caught in excitement. The sky could not have been bluer. The soft, wintery breeze could not have been more inviting.
As I stepped into the sprawling Diwan-i-Aam, and walked on, straight into the majestic Diwan-i-Khas with its lotus throne, it was almost like I’d stepped back in time. Not just to when I was 10. But when Akbar presided inside these walls decorated with silks, satins, and jewels, accompanied with his entourage of trusted courtiers, the musicians and artists he patronized, and his collection of women housed in the harem as a result of his multiple political, romantic, and household alliances.
Though stripped of all royal trappings [it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site administered by the Archaeological Survey of India], its empty grounds are today visited by day trippers instead. The one constant is its still functioning mosque and the Sufi saint’s tomb where the faithful continue to arrive in large hordes with prayers on their lips, much like a Mughal monarch did 450 years ago.
I found myself once again caught in a spell. Of what Fatehpur Sikri was, and what Fatehpur Sikri is. And both were still surreal, even to the older, more jaded me.
Above: Inside and outside the Diwan-i-Khas; the lotus throne and a life-size board for Pacchisi, a board game.
Facts and figures: Fatehpur Sikri, the short-lived capital—from 1572 to 1585—of the third and most powerful Mughal emperor, Akbar the Great, was built in honour of a Sufi saint. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site 45 kilometres west of Agra, and is renowned for its Indo-Islamic architecture which combines design elements of Islam, Hinduism, Jainism, and Christianity in accordance with Akbar’s own religious outlook.
Above: Anup Talao, the Peerless Pool, in the heart of the administrative complex.
An introduction to Akbar: Born Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar, Akbar the Great was the third Mughal emperor, ruling from 1556 to 1605. He was a direct descendant of Timur the Great and Genghis Khan and came to power at the age of 13. Though illiterate, Akbar succeeded in tripling the Mughal empire in size and wealth, and created a multicultural empire in which the arts and literature reached their zenith. He was an avid supporter of secularism and founded a monotheistic cult derived from Islam, Hinduism, Jainism, and Christianity called Din-i-Ilahi which centred on himself as its prophet.
Above: Detailed carvings adorn the red sandstone walls of the Hujra-i-Anup Talao or Turkish Sultana’s House.
Fatehpur Sikri’s site plan: Built on the crest of a ridge, Akbar’s city stood around the home of the Sufi saint Shaikh Salim Chishti in the village of Sikri. It received its name Fatehpur “City of Victory” after Akbar’s conquest of Gujarat in 1573. The combined name of Fatehpur Sikri is a later christening. There are three complexes within its walls—the administrative buildings and Emperor’s palace, the harem, and the religious precinct. The last is built around the saint’s tomb. A handful of architectural sites dating back to Akbar’s period dot the surrounding village.
Above: Shabistan-i-Iqbal, the principal haremsara; Jhumkas [earrings] decorate the harem’s kitchen walls; a mural of an oriental inside Sunahra Makan [Maryam’s Mansion].
The Mughal emperor’s harem: The only man allowed inside the Mughal emperor’s harem or zenana was the emperor himself and his offspring [till they reached puberty]. Akbar’s harem was no different. Running into 300, it was occupied by his 36 wives, daughters, female relatives, foster mothers, concubines and slave girls, and was a place replete with power struggles and intrigue wrapped in decadent luxury. None of the women were ever allowed to be seen in public unveiled; their every activity controlled by a squad of eunuchs and the Begum Padshah or emperor’s chief consort, Ruqaiya Sultan Begum who he married when they were both just 14.
Above: Birbal’s Palace.
Akbar’s navaratnas or “nine gems”: Akbar the Great was famed for having a group of nine extraordinary people referred to as navaratnas in his court. Though illiterate, he was a great lover of the arts and learning; some of the finest minds of his times were brought to his court and patronage during his rule. His nine gems were: Abdul Rahim Khan-I-Khana, a poet; Abu’l-Fazl Ibn Mubarak, his grand vizier and author of the Akbarnama; Faizi, poet laureate of his court; Fakir Aziao-Din, a mystic and his chief advisor on religious matters; Mulla Do-Piyaza; Raja Birbal, a Hindu advisor in his court and an author of folk tales; Raja Man Singh I, a trusted general in his army; Raja Todar Mal, his finance minister; and Tansen, the legendary Hindustani classical musician.
Above: Buland Darwaza and Jama Masjid, each piece a testimony to the artist.
Art in architecture: Every edifice in Fatehpur Sikri is completely unique, and unlike the other. Yet, together they form a seamless whole. Be it the 5-storeyed pyramidal Panch Mahal supported by 176 columns used as a place for recreation, or the highest gateway in the world, the 54-metre-high Buland Darwaza built to commemorate Akbar’s conquest over Gujarat, and reached by 42 steep steps.
Or be it the marble inlaid Indo-Islamic Jama Masjid built under the guidelines of Shaikh Salim Chishti, or the double-storeyed Shabistan-i-Iqbal, the principal haremsara, with a Hindu shrine built into its western wall. Or even the ethereal marble mausoleum of the saint with its lacelike jalis wrapped in red threads drenched in faith or the raised lotus throne in Diwan-i-Khas decorated with design elements of every creed and faith. Every structure is an aesthetic masterpiece.
Shaikh Salim Chishti’s resting place: A Sufi saint during the Mughal empire, Akbar came to Shaikh Salim Chishti’s home in Sikri village to ask him to pray for a male heir to the Mughal throne. Soon after, the first of three sons was born to the Emperor. He was named Salim [later emperor Jahangir] in honour of the saint. Chishti’s tomb lies in the centre of the religious precinct and was originally in red sandstone like the rest of the city. The marble casing and jalis [screens] are a later addition. It is believed that prayers made at the tomb never go unanswered. 🙂
So is Agra on your wish list? I sure hope so. ❤
Below: Qawwalis, a form of Sufi devotional music, are sung outside the saint’s tomb throughout the day.
Travel tips for Fatehpur Sikri:
- The best time to visit is sunrise or late afternoon.
- Ticket and timing: Rs. 40 for Indians, Rs. 510 for foreigners; Open 6 days a week from sunrise to sunset; Closed on Fridays; Photography allowed.
- You need to keep your ID card with you when entering.
- All the monuments have detailed information display signs.
- Car hire to Fatehpur Sikri from Agra Cantt Railway Station and return is Rs. 1,050.
Travel tips for Agra:
- Staying there: I stayed at the Crystal Sarovar Premiere through makemytrip.com. Ask for a Taj Mahal-facing room [no extra charge] and one that is at the beginning or end of the corridor. Else, you end up also looking out at KFC’s exhaust pipes.
- Getting to Agra: I took the Gatimaan Express from Delhi to Agra and back. The train offers fantastic on-board services with a travel time of 1 hour 40 minutes one way.
- Getting around: Auto rickshaws and car hire services are plentiful.
- How many days: Try and spend at least 3–4 days in Agra. There is plenty to explore, I assure you!
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Note: This post is the third in a 7-part series on why Agra should be on every travel bucket list. To read the entire set click here.