Hotels in India » Heritage of India » Fatehpur Sikri - An Emperor's Tribute

Fatehpur Sikri - An Emperor's Tribute

Said to be a reflex of the mind of a great man, Fatehpur Sikri was a tribute by Emperor Akbar to his patron saint Sheikh Salim Chisti. It was also his imperial capital for fifteen years. A splendid edifice, the fort today rests in quiet peace-a mute witness to the times were.

Soon after Akbar succeeded Humayun as the third Mughal Emperor in 1566, he started campaigns against his advisaries-Rajputs and Afghans with determination to win. One by one Malwa, Chittor, Ranthambore, Surat, Gujarat and Bengal fell to the Mughal sword. In 1569, with the blessing of the Sufi saint Sheikh Salim Chisti of Sikri, Akbar’s Rajput wife, Harkha, princess of Amber, gave birth to his first son and cherished heir to the throne. Akbar called him Salim, after the saint. He decided to build a grand city on the ridge of Sikri where the saint. He decided to build a grand city on the ridge of Sikri where the saint lived in a humble hermitage. Akbar’s ancestor Babur, the first Mughal who had defeated Rana Sanga’s combined Rajput forces at Khanwa near Sikri a bath complex, a garden called Bagh-I-Fathipur, and a platform on the lake at the northern edge of the lake. It was Babur’s resort but now Akbar’s new capital. Ajmer, the great spiritual centre of the most venerated Chisti order presided over by the Akbar’s guru Sheikh Muinuddin Chisti thus came nearer to Agra with the building of Sikri. Besides, it was also a shrewd diplomatic move to uproot the nobbles from Agra and put them in a gilded prison at Sikri, in new humble houses below the ridge crowned with the Emperor’s palaces.

In 1571, construction work at Sikri began with the great Jami Masjid at the apex of the ridge, close to Salim Chisti’s old residence and khanqah. Residential palaces for Akbar and his seraglio, caravanserais, mints, karkhanas and the public audience halls were built along the eastern top of the ridge giving shape to an imperial dream.

Today, as one enter Sikri from the Agra Gate, one of the nine gateways on the way to the palace complex, Diwani-I-Aam, or the hall of public audience appears first. It is a huge rectangular walled-in countryard where petitions were heard, proclamations made, embassies received and entertainment programmes held. The royal balcony, set within a frame of jail screens, appears on the western front. In front of the royal seat, a stone hook is still found embedded in the ground. As per tradition, Akbar’s pet elephant Hiran was tied to this hook to crush to death under its feet the head of the guilty. If it refused to obey thrice, the victim was freed.

The royal enclosure lies behind the Diwan-I-Aam. At the northern corner stands a small but grand single-storey structure of Diwan-I-Khas with the most magnificently sculptured and most photographed stone column at the center of the hall. It bursts forth into a set of 36 closely set voluted and pendulous brackets supporting a circular platform from which radiate four passages. Is it really the famous Ibadat-Khana where Akbar initiated religious discourses amongst diverse religious groups-Hindu, Muslim, Jain and Jesuit etc? yet another conjectue is-it was the royal jewel house. Of particular note are the exquisitely carved ornamental brackets below the wide projected chajjas (eaves). The structure is decorated with four corner kiosks. Close to Diwan-I-Khas is Ankh Micholi, a set of three inter-connected rooms, where the Emperor, it is surmised, played hide and seek with his ladies. Some believe it was the royal treasury; but it has too many doors to be safe enough for a treasury. A small kiosk outside is noteworthy for its Dilwara temple-style torana (foliated arch). Here sat the royal astrologer. The function of both these buildings is a matter of conjecture.

Panch Mahal, a five storeyed pavilion, stands on the western line of the courtyard. This is the badgir, the Persian wind tower for ladies of the harem. The jail screens between the 176 differently carved pillars have disappeared. Once these screens provided purdah (cover) to queens and princess on the top terraces enjoying the cool breezes and watching splendid views of Sikri fortifications and the town nestling at the foot of the ridge. In the coutnryard Akbar played pachisi (checker board) with dancing girls as live pieces.

At the southern end of this great countryard lies Anup Talao, an ornamental tank, seat of

Tansen, Akbar’s court musician. When built in 1575 the tank was twelve feet deep but filled up to its present level in the last century.

Akbar used to have it filled up with gold, silver and copper coins on special occasions for distribution amongst the poor. Nearly 1.67 million rupees ere thus given away till the Emperior was in residence at Sikri. Overlooking the tank is a grand pavilion, mistakenly called Turkish Sultana Palace.

The carving on stone here is splendid-birds, animals, flowers and luxuriant vegetation depicted with the most perfect craftsmanship, an example of unexcelled finesse. Akbar’s living quarters stand on the southern edge of the tank, a rather Spartan and primitive structure in finish but showing great strength and character of the emperor who built the great Mughal Empire: A raised stone platform for the royal bed, faint traces of murals and niches for safe-keeping of some precious manuscripts. A small window allowed Akbar to appear for jharokha darshan to his people. Many smaller adjacent structure have suffered from subsequent wanton alterations done after 1585.

Abdul Fazl, Akbar’s historian, mentions that the royal harem had nearly 5000 wives. Blochman mentions only seven chief wives and Beveridge, a contemporary historian, suggests only 300. the queens always brought with them a great entourage of maids and dancers. The queen mother and princess had innumerable slave girls as their attendants. The member of concubines, families of courtiers away on royal duty, and dancing girls was everising. The harem included not only the chief wives but all women inmates. Haresara (female quarters) occupies the largest central area in the royal enclosure at Sikri.

Jodha Bai’s palace belonged to Harkha, the Amber princess and mother of Jehangir, and the other Rajput wives from Bikaner, Marwar, Jaisalmer, Merta and Durgapur and their companions. No wife of Akbar was called Jodha Bai. One of Jehangir’s wives was so called. This is a high-walled edifice, guarded by a grand gateway leading to a spectacular courtyard. With double storeyed pavilions at the center of colonnades on all four sides, this place has some striking Hindu architectural features like ornamental columns, bells and chain motifs, heavy brackets and niches on the wall for the deities worshipped by Rajput ladies. The other smaller but beautiful palace belonged to Akbar’s mother, Hamida Banu Begun, widow of Humayun. She was the most respected lady of the harem with the title Mariam-Makani. This palace is also called Sunehra Makan (golden house) because of the golden paint on the faded murals.

The third palace in the harem quarters belonged to Akbar’s two senior wives: Ruqayya Sultan Begum (who brought up Jahangir’s son Khurram later called Shahjahan), and Salima Sultan Begum-widow of Bairam Khan. Maybe here lived Birbal’s daughter who was married to Akbar hence its present name. Surely no male could have been allowed to stay within the corner of the Sikri ridge. Way back towards the mosque you would notice the splendid mansion once occupied by Abul Fazl and his poet brother Faizi. This house could also have been used as the nursery of the royal princes when Sheikh Salim moved into the newly built mosque and his khanqah therin.

The mosque at Sikri was the first structure to be built in 1571. Modeled after Bibi Khanam’s mosque in Samarkand, this was the goddliest meskite of the East, as William Finch described it in 1611. The exterior is modest but the interior carries the most gorgeous ornamentation in the floral arabesques and ingenious geometrical patterns in brown, red, turquoise, black and white. The spacious courtyard adds a stately charm to the place. It could accommodate ten thousand men at prayer. Akbar was so enthusiastic about this mosque that he occasionally swept the floor and gave azan (call for prayer). On June 26, 1579, Akbar even read the khutba himself, a great innovation, earlier attempted only the Timur and Mirza Ulugh Beg.

Fatehpur Sikri became a deserted capital after 1585 when Akbar left for Lahore. The population of nearly two million soon dwindled. The caravans of royalty and the nobles left but hordes of people both Hindu and Muslim have kept visiting the dargah of Sheikh Salim, a symbol of religious and communal harmony. In 1580-81 eighty years after the saint died in 1572, Akbar built the tomb in red sandstone. In 1606, Qutubuddin Khan Koka, on orders from Jehangir, covered the edifice in white marble. Much later in 1866, a district magistrate of Agra replaced the plaster dome with white marble. The magnificence of the splendid jail screens carved out of huge marble slabs shows a rare perfection of craftsmanship. The dramatic serpentine brackets supporting the wide chajja on all four sides of the edifice have an amazing grace. The real grave lies in an undisturbed repose in the crypt, closed to visitors. women devotees longing for a child come here and tie a coloured thread to the jails. In a gesture of thankfulness they come back when their wish is granted.

An interesting story is told about the death of the saint. When Akbar asked how he would die, the saint replied that whenever prince Salim recited lines tutored by anyone except him, he (Sheikh Salim) would die. It so happened that a nurse in sheer ignorance of this prophecy taught the child prince a couplet: O God, open the rosebud of hope. Display a flower from the everlasting garden! When the prince recited the couplet to the saint, the latter knew his hour to depart had come. And sure enough he died soon thereafter.

Close to the Sheikh Salim Tomb stands the Zenana Rauda where he used to give lessons to the princes Salim, Daniyal and Mured. The Emperors and his ladies attended here the sama, an integral part of the Chisti faith incorporating musical performance leading to mystical ecstasy. It houses the graves of ladies of the Sheikh’s descendants. The other bigger structure is the Jamat Khana where his disciples lived together.

Buland Darwaza, the colossal triumphal arch, was built in 1575 on the southern wall of the countryard. It celebrates Akbar’s conquest of Gujarat. The towering portal has the height of 176 feet from ground level and 134 feet over the top step. The grand recessed central arch is the most magnificent of its kind in the whole range of Mughal architecture in India. Modest ornamentation with calligraphy contains a famous line: The world is but a bridge: Pass over but build no houses on it. The Buland Darwaza commands the landscape for miles.

Further west, just below the lofty wall, is the water reservoir now used as a public bath. For a small reward youngsters will dive into the water from perilous heights. The more inquisitive can go around the mosque to look at the derelict Rang Mahal, the house where prince Salim was born. The Stone Cutter’s mosque, the first mosque at Sikri, was built by the humble masons who built the imperial palaces. The modest but much altered house of Sheikh Salim still draws altered house of Sheikh Salim still draws quite a few visitors. later, the saint moved into the grand mosque. His tomb was built on the spot where he used to sit for prayer.

In 1585, Akbar left for Lahore. In 1596 he returned not to Sikri but to Agra. Some believe Sikri was deserted because the water supply had failed. Other’s regard it as a tactical move to uproot the nobles once again. The orthodox and the liberals, Persians and Rajputs, were locked in perennial conflicts. Maybe, after the death of his patron saint, the Emperor felt lonely spiritually: The Sufi magic had lost its hold and orthodox faith never really charmed Akbar much. Though Jehangir and Shahjahan visited the former capital on certain occasions, Fatehpur Sikri had really left its days of glory far behind. It remains India’s glory far behind. It remains India’s best preserved ghost city.

 Email this page