Fatehpur Sikri - Move Over Taj Mahal !

“Why would you skip the Taj Mahal and visit a comparatively lesser-known monument!” 

”Visit the Agra fort at least!”

I had given the Taj Mahal a miss and chosen to spend a day at Fatehpur Sikri and not many understood why.

Just 40 kilometres and half-an-hour from the Taj Mahal in Agra is a far more interesting experience - Fatehpur Sikri.

Although it attracts a mere fraction of the footfalls that the Taj Mahal does and looks quite deserted in comparison, Fatehpur Sikri symbolises a living good. If Taj Mahal is a tribute to a deceased beloved, Fatehpur Sikri speaks of the happy and vibrant times spent with a favourite consort. While the Taj Mahal is one of the Seven Wonders of the World, Fatehpur Sikri is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and in equally august company.

Built in 1579, Fatehpur Sikri has a much older and more significant history than most other monuments. Archaeological excavations point to habitation in the region from as early as the 12th Century by Shikarwar Rajputs (hence the name Sikri) and rulers of the Sungha Dynasty. Babur conquered the region in 1527 after defeating Rana Sangha (the Rajput ruler of the time) and built a beautiful garden here to commemorate the victory. At that point Babur was also aching for a tranquil place to escape the confusion and chaos of Agra, from where he ruled. Sikri, with its greenery and abundant ground water, was exactly that. Babur promptly added some more gardens and built a beautiful lake (which he named Sukri meaning thanks), and made Fatehpur Sikri an oasis away from the seat of governance at Agra.

The Fatehpur Sikri as we know it today however owes its existence to Akbar. 

Akbar ascended the throne in 1556 and carried out several victorious campaigns, expanding the Mughal footprint in India. Yet he was unhappy because he was without an heir. Distraught, he came to seek the blessings and counsel of the Sufi Saint Salim Chisti who lived in Sikri. Chisti blessed Akbar that he would have an heir very soon. Sure enough, Akbar's favourite consort, Jodha Bai, the daughter of Raja Bharmel of Amer (Jaipur) gave birth to a baby boy in 1569. An ecstatic Akbar named his first born Salim (after the Saint), and ordered for an entire city to be built around Chisti's dwelling. He called the new city Fatehpur Sikri, a name that celebrated his victorious (Fateh) campaigns.

No longer the ruthless 13 year-old who ascended the throne mid-battle or the furious commander who slayed thousands of non-combatants, Akbar had now mellowed. He embarked on a journey of creating a harmonious society which was based on a staunch respect for diversity; Fatephur Sikri was the expression of this new, extremely well-informed and tolerant Emperor.

                                                          Akbar's Raised Bedstead

Every building within the ramparts of Fatehpur Sikri is built with forethought and intelligence. For instance, Akbar's strongest peeve was that he was short. While he had a towering presence, he could never have a towering height. So he ordered his bedstead to be a raised platform from where he could see what went on around him. Accessed by four small steps, it would certainly give its occupant a sense of power.

                                                                         The Anup Talao

This bedroom, which was called Khwabgah or House of Dreams, was constructed opposite the Anup Talao, an ornate lake-like structure, with a square podium at its centre, on which Tansen, the legendary musician of Akbar's court, would sit and sing. Akbar's bedstead stands at the level of this podium so that he could wake up to the beauty of the Anup Talao and the melody of Tansen's music. 

The Diwan-E-Khas

Akbar conducted the day's business from the Diwan-E-Khas. With its four marble white domes and intricately sculpted interiors, the Diwan -E-Khas incorporates both Persian and Indian influences, articulating Akbar's mood of inclusiveness at that time. 

                                    The Lotus Shaped Central Pillar of the Diwan-E-Khas

Central to the Diwan -I-Khas is an intricately carved lotus-shaped pillar at the centre of which is a raised throne for Akbar. A circular balcony runs around this throne. Partitions radiating from the central pillar mark chambers for each of his ministers. 

                                                             The Diwan-E-Aam

Populist lore has it that Jodha Bai had sensitized Akbar about the need to be in touch with the Common Man on the ground. To do this, Akbar held durbars where the common subjects could interact with him and voice their grievances. This needed a larger and more open space. So the Diwan - E - Aam was built with ample ventilation and landscaping.

The Ibadat Khana would be where Akbar would receive religious scholars and debate on religion and philosophy. These debates led Akbar to create a new religion Din-I-Ilahi - a faith that incorporated the best principles and practices from Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and even Christianity.

The Pachisi Courtyard replicated the Pachisi Square Board, an indigenous game, similar to chess. Legend has it that Akbar and Jodha Bai would play the game with ladies-in-waiting as the coins. 

                                                                    Jodha Bai's Palace

Jodha Bai is a big presence in Fatehpur Sikri. It is Jodha Bai's Palace that dominates the narrative of Fatehpur Sikri. It is the largest and most embellished structure apart from the Bulund Darwaza, Not only does it speak of Akbar's fascination with Jodha Bai, it also symbolizes the spirit of a feisty woman who held her own in a patriarchal world, at a time when women were trophies won in wars or coins to trade and barter and forge alliances. Jodha Bai was literate, well read, intelligent and beautiful. To the illiterate Akbar, her individuality, knowledge and high self- esteem, in holding on to her culture, her refusal to convert to Islam and her insistence on following her own Hindu Faith and yet be a faithful and loving consort, must have made her more intriguing, not to mention more attractive. 


                                                The Krishna Temple that Jodha Bai Built in her Palace

Akbar had a special chamber built in her Palace where she could have her own temple for Lord Krishna and a planter to grow and worship the Tulsi (Basil) Plant, in accordance with the tenets of Hinduism. It is said that Akbar had even ordered the Mullahs to time their Azaan (prayer) so that it does not clash with Jodha Bai's pujas. The interiors of her palace were designed akin to her own Palace in Amer and carved with Rajput motifs. Chroniclers of Akbar's times document the fact that Akbar gave Jodha Bai the name 'Mariam -Uz - Zamani' (Mary of the Age) after she gave birth to his heir Salim. He also gave her equal authority to take decisions regarding trade governance and administrative matters because she was intelligent, capable, well read and well versed in statecraft. The power wielded by Jodha Bai over Akbar’s thinking is said to have ruffled the feathers of many Muslim Elders in his court, but Akbar was strong. Populist folklore is quick to point out that Jodha Bai was only an asset and never took advantage of Akbar’s Carte Blanche.

                                                                       Hiran Minar

 Hiran Minar tells another interesting tale. Harun was Akbar's favourite elephant. When Harun became old, Akbar could not bear the thought that he had to be retired. He made Harun his Minister of Justice. A convict would be brought to Harun during his mealtime. If Harun continued eating, the convict would be set free, if he stopped eating, then Harun would be asked to trample him. Harun was the judge, the jury and the executioner. When Harun died, Akbar is said to have given him a ceremonial burial on the grounds of Fatehpur Sikri and constructed the Hiran Minar in his memory. This tall Minar embellished with tusk-like protrusions also functioned as a light house for travellers in the dark, because there would always be a flame at the top storey.

                                                                   Bulund Darwaza

And finally, there is the Bulund Darwaza - the tallest Gateway in the World. Built in 1602 to commemorate Akbar's conquest of Gujarat, the Bulund Darwaza, in red and buff sandstone, scales a height of 40 metres and stands 54 metres from the ground. Forty two steps lead up to it and right away, the Bulund Darwaza conveys a sense of strength and power (symbolic of Akbar's conquest, perhaps). Intricate designs in black and white marble embedded in the Red Sandstone enhance the aesthetic effect, but it stands firmly rooted in spirituality and forms one entrance to the Grand Mosque, the Jama Masjid. Again Akbar's mission of inclusivity finds expression in the inscription on the main gateway written in Persian that speaks of Isa (Jesus), son of Mary. 

Akbar lived in Fatehpur Sikri from 1571 to 1585, when he was forced to abandon it due to acute water shortage. There is a also a theory which says that Akbar left Fatehpur Sikri after the death of Salim Chisti, because he was tired of it and there was nothing to hold him back. Still, the fact remains that Fatehpur Sikri is a testimony of a period of growth and prosperity. Whether it is the post office - a room with cubicles in the wall for pigeons that carried messages to rest after long flights, or the Panch Mahal that is a unique five storied structure, with no walls, but only pillars, where the ladies of Akbar's harem spent happy times or Birbal's house which makes you smile as you remember his witty cleverness, every structure here tells a story. It is not a mausoleum in cold white marble after building which, the artisans' hands were cut off. It is a celebration of the business of living. 

I have never regretted the entire day I spent at Fatehpur Sikri. 

A tip - Invest in a good guide; it makes all the difference to your time spent at Fatehpur Sikri.  

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