South-west of Agra is the deserted imperial city Fatehpur Sikri, one of India's most alluring and breathtaking monuments. Built by the Mughal Emperor Akbar, this royal city is one of a kind. Every building, pavement, and courtyard in the complex is completely covered in red sandstone. It has a wonderful sense of space and freedom; a perfect combination of intricate workmanship and architecture on a monumental scale.
The royal road from Agra and Fatehpur Sikri (37 kilometers) linking the two imperial cities was once lined with shops and stalls selling merchandise to Mughal courtiers. As one approaches (from Agra or Bharatpur) a high, long stony ridge rises out of the plains aligned from south-west to north-east. The fort wall runs an 11 kilometer circuit around the ridge while on the north-western side there was a huge lake (now dry) that supplied water and served the fortress as a natural line of defence. This hillock was once the retreat of a celebrated Chisti saint called Shaikh Salim. By the end of the fifteenth century there were several Sufi orders in northern India. The most popular was the Chisti order with its network of saints, such as Khwaja Moin-ud-Din Chisti who settled in Ajmer (thirteenth century), and Nizam-ud-Din Auliya in Delhi. These Sufi teachers attracted thousands who came to hear their teachings of love and devotion. Later their tombs became places of pilgrimage where vast numbers would gather to revere their master.
In 1569 the Mughal Emperor Akbar, after the capture of the fort of Ranthambhor, came to the hamlet of Sikri to see Shaikh Salim. The young emperor was 27 years old, but still childless as three children had died in infancy. Shaikh Salim prophesied that he would have not one but three sons. The following year a son was born and called Salim in difference to the saint. In gratitude emperor Akbar began to construct a great mosque at this site. The saint died in 1572 and a tomb for Shaikh Salim (or Salim Chisti) was built within the mosque complex. It is still a venerated place of pilgrimage, especially for childless women who come and tie a thread on the lattice windows of the tomb chamber as a reminder of an unfulfilled desire; untying it when their wish is granted, believing that like Akbar's wish, theirs too will be granted. When the royal Salim (later Jahangir, the next Mughal Emperor) was a year old, construction of the fort and palaces began in earnest, and continued until 1585. Emperor Jahangir describes the beauty of the site in his memoirs:
My revered father, regarding the village of Sikri, my birthplace, as fortunate to himself, made it his capital, and in the course of fourteen or fifteen years the hills and deserts, which abounded in beasts of prey, were converted into a magnificent city, comprising numerous gardens, elegant edifices, and pavilions of great beauty. After the conquest of Gujarat, the village was named Fatehpur: the town of victory.
Emperor Akbar occupied this fort for fifteen years and then moved his court to Lahore when trouble and instability threatened his north-western frontier. For Akbar, Fatehpur Sikri proved to be extremely lucky and the fortunes of the mighty emperor are woven into every building of this beautiful city. It was during this period that he expanded his empire, till it was so large that it virtually covered the entire Indian subcontinent. In 1572 Akbar conquered the fertile cotton and indigo plains of Gujarat and its famous ports which had links with Persia, Egypt, and Arabia. To celebrate his triumph and the addition of this enormous wealth to his treasury he built Buland Darwaza, a royal southern entrance to the mosque and named his new capital Fatehpur Sikri, the City of Victory. The gateway is approached by a sleep flight of steps that add height and majesty to the entire structure (which is 54 meters high). The Buland Darwaza is designed in colored sandstone and marble. On one side is deep well where children today make a quick buck from tourists with their exhibitionist dives.
The Buland Darwaza leads into the grand Jama Masjid of Fatehpur Sikri which stands at the south-western end of the royal city complex. A high wall with gateways on three sides opens into a huge courtyard, 111 by 139 meters, making it one of the largest of its kind in the Mughal kingdom. The inner walls are lined with colonnades and cloisters (unfortunately party inhabited by persistent shopkeepers) and the western façade has a massive arched doorway behind which are three (stunted) domes. A row of little kiosks stand like domed sentries along the boundary wall, guarding the pearl tomb of Salim Chisti within the courtyard.
The Tomb of Shaikh Salim was originally built in red sandstone but is now entirely faced with marble, a later addition. The tombstone within is covered by cloth and lies under a canopy of ebony, mother of pearl, and brass. The square tomb chamber is surrounded by a corridor (for circumambulation) with lattice marble jalis of a quality unmatched anywhere in the world. The jalis are linked together by a series of ornate marble pillars with branching brackets. The tomb has a low dome and heavy protruding eaves that hang over the edge of the roof like a decorative canopy. Its design and ornamentation is traced to contemporary tombs of Gujarat, the region that Akbar had annexed. The tomb of Salim Chisti is a beautiful monument to the Sufi saint who, amongst other things, greatly influenced the life of Akbar, one of the greatest Mughal emperors.
On the periphery, and as you enter the fort area of the royal city, there are service apartments and stables along with palaces constructed by courtiers invited to build at the site. The royal complex is entered through the Diwan-e-Am on the north-eastern side, at the opposite end of city from the mosque. There is also an entrance to the private quarters from the Jama Masjid. The Diwan-e-Am (Hall of Public Audience) is an enclosed space surrounded by colonnades, and on the western face is the pavilion where the emperor sat in honour surrounded by his courtiers. (The mirhab marks the western side, the direction of prayer in a mosque. What was Akbar trying to say by seating himself at the western side of this hall?) From the throne room side an entrance leads to the protected private domain of the imperial palace which contains mansions for the royal harem and the ladies-in-waiting, residences for the ruler and living quarters. The private courtyards are magnificent open spaces paved in red sandstone, and the palace buildings are aligned like a trying of rectangular blocks to one another. Contemporary architecture decided that these palace buildings were themselves independent units encased within high walls and designed around an open courtyard. The rooms and verandas all look out on to the courtyard, offering the residents a comfortable assortment of warm areas that received direct sunlight, and cool chambers shrouded in shadows and shade.
The spacious mardana or courtyard behind the Diwan-e-Am is surrounded by several interesting structures, though the function and purpose of some of them remain an enigma. To the north is a square red sandstone building standing by itself a little aloof and self-composed, referred to as the Diwan-e-Khas. The building from the exterior has two storeys, the upper one with a deep hanging eave around it like a hood and the lower floor is demarcated externally by a balcony supported by decorative brackets. The flat roof has a tall kiosk at each of the four corners. Inside, it appears that the building is not two-storeyed but one high-ceilinged room. At the center is a single faceted pillar with long tapering brackets clustered around it supporting a walkway with branching catwalks connected to corners of the room. Was the emperor meant to sit at the center and command proceedings from above or was this a conference room for Akbar's philosophers discussing the religious of the world? What was the purpose of this peculiar building? Perhaps we will never know.
As you walk southward along the paved sandstone courtyard there are designs that appear on the floor like a giant game of ludo, which the guides will tell you was used by the emperor who played the game using live human counters.
At the opposite end is a lovely architectural composition of a tank called Anup Talao with embellished edges and a platform at the center that can be reached (like the catwalks of the Diwan-e-Khas) by narrow bridges. It is said that music performances were held here and acclaimed musicians of Akbar's court, like Tansen, sat on the central platform entertaining the emperor.
At the north-eastern corner of the Anup Talao is another elegant miniature building of Fatehpur Sikri. It is called for some reason the Turkish Sultana's House. It is an amazing tiny little unit because it seems to have been built, like many structures here, on the model of a wooden house, with pillars and brackets, joints and sockets, though, in actually it is constructed entirely out of sandstone. The inner face of the eaves, the brackets and pillars, and the entire expanse of the interior stone walls are decorated with carved arabesque patterns and panels of flowering trees, birds, and animals that look today like a very sophisticated monochrome wallpaper.
Surrounding the courtyard are other storeyed building and apartment rooms, but the most intriguing is the Panch Mahal, the five (tiered) palace. The first two floors are of equal size while the next are graded, and on top is a single kiosk or open pavilion. The building perhaps once had sandstone jalis around the outer row of pillars. Now the pillared halls of each floor or open to the breeze and it is understood to have been used by the royal ladies as a garden pavilion where they could enjoy a magnificent view of the fort and the palace below in the glowing light of an Indian sunset. From the top of the Panch Mahal one can appreciate the layout of the imperial city, the private areas and the public ones, and the courtyards that link them together. Directly behind, on the south-western side, is the huge well-protected harem mansion known as Jodha-bai's Palace. Near the entrance is the little kitchenette (though it does not look like one) and further west another apartment and stables referred to as the Palace of Birbal, Akbar's minister notable for his wit. Each palace is full of sculptural detail and one has only to imagine (not furniture) but silken carpets, brocade bolsters, pillows, silver, jade, gold vessels, and lamps spread out around the room so that its aristocratic inhabitants could use the space in any way they liked.
Jodha-bai's Palace is entered from the east side. The entrance to the palace is cleverly conceived so that the inmates are not seen directly on admission and we are told, by contemporary accounts, that it was guarded by formidable eunuchs. It is possible that this was the zenana or harem for Akbar's wives (some put the number at 500, others at 3000 courtesans and queens were from royal Hindu families of Rajasthan: a clever political move by Akbar to win over neighbouring princes and forge alliances. There is no doubt that the decoration and motifs used to adorn the sandstone walls of this building are similar to ones that the indigenous artist used when constructing temples. At the center is a courtyard and around it are the living rooms. The rounded roofs above are covered with turquoise tiles that contrast dramatically with the red of the sandstone. The use ceramic tiles in this building in Fatehpur Sikri is interesting, for it compares with architectural decorations often found in Persia and Pakistan. Perhaps one can suggest other structures at Fatehpur Sikri, now bare: the kiosks of the Diwan-e-Khas and the domes of the mosque were once adorned with similar tile-work.
The city of Fatehpur Sikri is a complicated complex of palaces and courtyards, full of light and air, unlike any of the palaces of Europe where the climate necessitated closed cloisters. But, here, like everything Mughal, care was taken to see that every detail was designed to cultivates the senses: the warm red texture of the stone, elegant visual forms and shapes beside shimmering ponds filled with fragrant perfumes and flowers, while the sound of music forever echoed through the spaces.
What's in the Neighbourhood
Not far (18 kilometers away) from Fatehpur Sikri (50 kilometers from Agra) is the Keoladeo Ghana National Park. Here at Bharatpur (Rajasthan) a small man-made reservoir from the mid-eighteenth century has developed into a fascinating bird sanctuary where may view many species of Indian water birds (painted storks, egrets, herons, and cranes), and in the winter months (October to March) migratory species, like the rare Siberian Crane, Falcated Teal, and several birds of prey that fly in from Siberia, China, and Mongolia. The wetlands, lakes, and bunds (artificial ridges containing water) offer a home to some wild animals like the nilgai (the blue bull), sambar, jungle cat, and the mongoose.
How To Get There
The imperial fort of Fatehpur Sikri may be approached from Agra, 37 kilometers away or 18 kilometers from Bharatpur. Most visitors prefer to make a day trip to the fort en route from Agra or from Bharatpur, as it requires at least half a day to explore. There are now a few rest-houses and hotels enabling you to see the fort at sunrise and sunset.
The best time to visit the fort is during the winter months when the long walk through its labyrinths is not hot and wearying. The Fatehpur Sikri complex is open to the public from sunset to sunrise. There is a minimal entrance fee at the gate. You are advised wear a pair of good walking shoes and carry some drinking water for your trip. If you would like to conserve your energy, walk through the fort without climbing up the stairs of the Panch Mahal (through it affords a good view) and the other palaces. Small stalls and shops sell items used for worship at the mosque but there are no adequate facilities for food.