The abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Fatehpur Sikri

In 16th Century, childless and desperate for an heir, the great Mughal Emperor Akbar was blessed by Sheikh Salim-ud-din Chisti – a great Sufi Saint of that time, who prophesied that he would have three sons. Soon after, when Maharani Jodhabai was pregnant, she was sent to Sikri and gave birth to Akbar’s first son in saint’s cave. The grateful king named his son, Salim(who later became Emperor Jahangir), after the Sufi saint and moved his capital to Sheikh’s village of Sikri to give Mughal grandeur to this spiritual abode. He created a city, away from crowd and congestion of Agra, that perfectly reflected his imperial power and artistic interests. This magnificent fortified city, built between 1565-1585, was the capital of Mughal Empire for around fifteen years(1571-1585) during Akbar’s reign.

"Buland Darwaja"- grand entrance to Fatehpur Sikri

“Buland Darwaja”- grand entrance to Fatehpur Sikri

Sikri is the first planned city of the Mughals and is one of the glowing examples of the medieval urban planning. Akbar chose to construct his capital on the natural feature of the terrain. Terraces on receding level were used for three main complexes: The mosque complex at the highest level – consisting of Jami Masjid, Tomb of Sheikh Salim Chisti and Buland Darwajah. Royal complex on the lower level comprising of Raniwas, Mahal-I-ilaahi, Shahi Bazaar, Meena Bazaar, Baithak and gardens. And the public complex at the lowest level consisted of Panch Mahal, Khawabghah, Shahi kutub khana, Ibaadat khana, deewaan-i-aam.

The city did not last long as the capital; it was abandoned; according to some, the meager water supply proved incapable of sustaining the growing population, while some others believe it could not be the cause as the city was meticulously planned. They doubt that Akbar never really intended to establish a permanent capital here and highlight that the early Mughals were accustomed to nomadic life. In-fact Babar (Akbar’s Grandfather), was supposed to be happiest while living in a tent pitched in a pleasant garden. Akbar spent fifteen years in Sikri as it suited his schemes of imperial expansion due to its proximity to Rajasthan, Gujarat and Gangetic plains. Then Akbar moved to Lahore owing to political reasons and the city was deserted.

This deserted capital is still appreciably preserved. It is a masterpiece in sandstone, glowing with the subtle change in the shades of pink and red, as day progresses and light fades.

The abandoned stone

The abandoned stone

I am always fascinated by sight of a temple on a hilltop or distant ruins standing in perfect solitude. They make me wonder about the stories behind those constructions – who, why and how constructed them and left them to be forgotten. Fatehpur Sikri was a real treasure for me with so many stories of by gone era hidden beneath its red stone.

As we approached Fatehpur Sikri silhouette of this fortified ghost city, its monuments dotting the slope of dominant sandstone ridge, impressed me. Even before we could park our car we were gheraoed by several touts/guides/agents. The most difficult part of visiting Fatehpur Sikri is to get rid of these irritatingly persistent guides/touts. We were told numerous lies by them like – we would not be allowed to enter the complex without a guide. An auto-wallah would charge the same amount as the CNG bus going to the fort. The “Tanga” (Horse cart) would not go that close to the fort as the auto would go. After persuasions (that we did not need guide), strict warning (that they were wasting their time and we would not take them at any cost) and finally totally neglecting them, we boarded the CNG bus and reached at the entrance. We were not charged a single penny for that though I don’t know it was a mistake or the bus ride is free for tourists.

As we were about to enter the complex, a tout got hold of me and suggested us to visit the mosque complex first (which is free) and then to enter the main complex. My Brother-In-Law resisted it and we entered from the paid part of the complex. That was a good decision as the serenity of the mosque gets pronounced in the backdrop of evening atmosphere.

The first courtyard in the main complex is “Deewan-i-aam”. That was the place where major festivals were celebrated by the Emperor with public and also the one where common man could put-forth his problems/petitions (Fariyaad) to the king. Perfectly manicured lawns gave a befitting ambience suiting to the grandeur of this Mughal fort. Towards the right of the path that leads into Deewan-i-aam is a great stone circle embedded into earth. It is believed that at this place the condemned were crushed to death by elephant in full view of the emperor and his court. There are some historians who don’t attribute such cruelties to Akbar. They believe that the circle was used to display the elephants captured in war as war-trophies.

Deewan-I_Khaas

Deewan-i-Khaas

From “Deewan-i-aam “ we entered into “Deewan-i-Khaas”or “Ibadat khana” or the Jewel House. Akbar was a philosopher and a connoisseur of religions. In his pursuit to know the right path among various religions and religious practices, he encouraged debates on religious subjects. Initially these debates were open only to the Sunnis but later on tolerant multi religious environment of India impacted him. He started listening discourses from all the major religions of that time – Islam, Hinduism, Jainism, Jesuits and Judaism.

In later years of his life Akbar founded a new religion – Deen-i-elaahi. Let us understand Akbar, his vision and philosophies by having a look at what was happening in the world at that time. In Europe, people were burnt on the charges of heresy and blasphemy by churches for their philosophies and scientific discoveries, and there was this powerful Mughal Emperor trying to synthesize the best practices of all Indian religions into one. And not just that, even after proposing new religion, he never forced his subjects to follow that. In-fact that religion was only embraced by very few nobles, most notable among them was Birbal – Akbar’s close friend-famous for his wit and love for justice, one among the Akbar’s “nauratna” – nine distinguished senators of his court.

My skeptical mind doubted. Was Akbar really so magnanimous? Deen-i-elaahi was proposed to put Emperor as Supreme authority. It may be out of Akbar’s need to counter, sharp criticism of Ulemmas for marrying more than four women. He never forced this religion, as he was shrewd. He knew it very well that the religious tolerance was the only way to expand his empire. Akbar built and strengthened Mughal Empire through his religious tolerance and the same empire crumbled three generations later due to religious intolerance of Aurangzeb .

The centerpiece of this room is a richly carved Throne pillar, from which four bridges were radiating to a circular balcony. Akbar’s throne was placed on the circular platform over the central pillar. Akbar, seated on his throne, listened to the discussions/debates among representatives/gurus of all the major religions of that time .

Throne Pillar

Throne Pillar

Design of that room appeared symbolic – bridges signified that the various religions were the various ways to reach the GOD, Pillar signified that there is only one GOD and the choice of King’s throne on central pillar was to signify his closeness to the God or his own God like stature.

However, historians are not unanimous about Deewan-i-Khaas as well. Some other believe, this was a store house for imperial treasure and Akbar had a vantage point from his throne on the central pillar to survey his enormous treasure of gems and jewels. And so this room is also called as Jewel House.


View from a window in Deewaan-i-Khaas.

From Deewan-i-Khaas we entered Treasury or Aankh-Michauli.

The Treasury or Aankh Michauli is composed of three rooms. Current thinking suggests that the building was used as the imperial treasury of gold and silver coins. Its brackets had mythological sea creatures carved on it signifying the guardians of the treasures of the deep-sea – indicating its usage as treasury. But the popular belief is that Akbar used it for playing “Aankh Michauli” (hide and seek) with the ladies of his harem. I personally felt that it was a perfect place to play “Aankh Michauli” than being a treasury. Rachit and Shashwat (My Brother-in-law’s kid) sensed the same and immediately started running around.

The Treasury  or Peekaboo Courtyard?

The Treasury
or Peekaboo Courtyard?

From Treasury, as we strolled in the vast “Pachisi Court” which separates Deewan-i-khaas and the opposite side of the complex (Daulatkhana / Khawabgah), we were impressed by a five-storied building complex. It was Panchmahal. There are five floors that taper gradually to single kiosks at the top, each of the five floors is stepped back from the previous one. This Mahal was connected with haram on the third floor from where Akbar’s wives could join him. All the floors originally had stone jaalis(Lattices) on their sides – these walls are now removed. There are in total around 176 columns in it, none of which are similar to each other.

Panchmahal is conceptualized on Persian ‘Badgir’ – the wind catcher, meant to provide relief from the intense summer heat of North. However, unlike original Badgirs that were generally three-story towers, Panchmahal is a building with diminishing floors. Except for the ground floor all other floors were screened. Probably they were open at one side and screened with Khas-tattis on all other side. Khas-Tatti, the name evoke earthy odor. We used to have one Khas-tatti screen at our home and the sweet odor that emancipated as water was splashed on it, still tantalizes my senses. It was a perfect way to keep house cool and room-freshened before advent of coolers and air-conditioners. I could well imagine Akbar enjoying beautiful evenings, breezy-moon-lit-summer-nights on the top kiosks with his beloved.

Panch Mahal

Panch Mahal

In Pachisi court there is an inlaid area in courtyard having the design of the board game, “Chausar”. It is believed that Akbar used to play this game using slave girls as live pieces. According to Abul Fazal(another jewel of Akbar’s Nauratna), once there were about 200-300 people playing the game with Akbar and they were not allowed to go home till the Emperor had played 16 rounds of this game. If those playing with Akbar ever become restless, they were served cupfuls of alcohol.

Pachisi Court

Pachisi Court

At this point I stopped and analyzed, there are still many things I would like to share, in-fact my post is not yet half done. There was a continuous debate in my mind that praising the patience would help readers to continue 😉 or I should post the rest of the story in second part. I realized I am not Akbar and I don’t offer my readers even a glass of beer, so sanity demands that I stop here and post the second part later.

CHEERS!

Trivia

  • I was under the impression that Sikri came under Mughal radar only during Akbar’s reign. It seems to be not true. Some believe that the name Sikri might be distorted form of Sukri (of Shukriya), named so by Babar after his victory over Rana Sanga in battle near Khanwa. It appears that he felt Sikri as the strategic position and wanted to face Rana Sangha’s army there.
    Sikri was also the hub of Sikrwar Rajputs. So the name Sikri may reflect the dominance of Sikrwar’s in the village.
  • An English traveler Ralph Fitch, who visited the city at its peak described it as following, “Agra and Fatehpur are two great cities, either of them greater than London and very populous.” The statement showed the days of glory of Fatehpur Sikri.
  • Father Monserrate who visited fatehpur as the Jesuit Priest when Fatehpur was constructed, has following to say about Akbar, his charisma and selflessness. “Akbar himself quarried stone along with workmen.”
  • Reading more about Sikri, I learnt that civilization around Sikri is much older than the Mughal era. In-fact it is mentioned in Mahabharat as “Saik” while describing Sahdev’s victorious expeditions during Rajsuya Yagna. Topographic experts believe that the name means a land with abundant water. Sikri is situated on the banks of an ancient lake, that is dried today and it has a long history of human civilization around it.
  • Excavations around Sikri revealed old Jain Sculptors and in Jain scriptures of 10th century this place is mentioned as Sikrikiya.
  • Once Akbar left Sikri, it was in use only intermittently, most of the time when some rebellious prince sought refuge here. After Great Mughals, Sikri came again in prominence in eighteenth century when Muhammad Shah Rangila was crowned here.
    Series NavigationThe Imperial Harem Complex, Fatehpur Sikri >>


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