By Kalinga Seneviratne
Fatehpur Sikri is an enigma, a grand palace and city that was built by a powerful Muslim Moghul emperor but suddenly abandoned just 14 years later. This may well rank as one of the world’s most colossal wastage of public funds.
Well, not really, UNESCO has declared this a World Heritage Site and because of its close proximity to the world famous Moghul-built monument for love Taj Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri is one of the most visited historic sites in India. It is just 45 km from Agra where the Taj Mahal is located.
Built in the 16th century CE by Emperor Akbar as his imperial capital, Fatehpur Sikri houses a range of palaces and pavilions built in the Moghul architectural style, along with a city for the ordinary citizens surrounded by 11 km long wall that is punctuated in places with gates. Most of the palace buildings have an interesting story or legend behind it.
After having survived many rebellions and attempted coups. Akbar choose to build his imperial capital in Sikri when local surfi saint predicted that if he build the capital there he will be blessed with not one but three sons to inherit his throne. The architecture of Sikri consists of many traditions, including Indian and Persian. There is lavish use of red sandstones.
Once Akbar’s court took its seat here in 1571, Fatehpur Sikri rose rapidly from a nondescript village to a thriving centre of commerce. By 1580 the population has reached about 250,000. But in 1585 Akbar and his court suddenly moved base to Lahore abandoning the city they built. The popular reason being a lack of water supplies but other historians believe his imperial ambitions may have moved westwards.
There are many architectural masterpieces you can still find in Fatehpur Sikri. One of them is the famed carved pillar inside Diwan-i-Khass (Jewel House). The building itself is very photogenic, but the building is dominated with the richly carved pillar linked by 4 diagonal “bridges” that connects the pillar to each corner of the building. The popular legend is that Akbar used to hold court here with him seated in the centre at the top of the pillar and ministers seated on the diagonal columns.
The Imperial Palace complex is still well preserved and its red stone buildings with some intricate carvings are interesting to note for its lack of any human or animal figures. The buildings offer ample opportunities for good photography. Of particular fascination should be the red-stoned railings that have been carved to resemble some sort of mesh-windows. The architecture that has gone into its buildings is not purely Islamic Persian or Arabic origin, there are elements of the carved pillars of Hindu temples incorporated into the buildings but with flowery or leafy designs. Akbar is known to be an open-minded ruler who encouraged interaction between religions.
Among the many legends attached to the buildings here is one about the stone ring embedded into the earth in the large courtyard, where it is said that the elephants crushed the condemned to death while Akbar and his court watched. Then there is one area where a pool was supposed to have been that is connected through an enclosed column to rows of what looks like windowless cubicles where Akbar’s harem was supposed to lodge. One can only imagine the stories that may have been told about its connections.
In another part of the complex is the Jami Masjid with a large courtyard with a number of tombs. The huge doorways, which are the entrances to the courtyard, resemble very much the Persian architecture and especially the mosques of Isfhan in Iran. Though they are built with red sandstones the interiors have been painted like its Persian counterparts.
The Shaikh Salim Chishti’s Tomb that takes central attraction in the courtyard is the only building that has been constructed in white marble. The popular surfi has been laid to rest here and people still pay reverence to him. The marble screens encircling the tomb have been delicately chiseled allowing sunlight to provide natural light inside. Some devotes tie red threads to these railing seeking the surfi’s blessings.
Most visitors to Fatehpur Sikri tend to come on half-day tours with the other half spent at the Taj Mahal in Agra. But, local tour operators are now recommending that visitors should spend a night here and visit the complex early morning which creates a pleasant atmosphere and also dancing peacocks are believed to come there.
To get to Fatehpur Sikri, if you are not taking a tour, is to hire a taxi from Agra, which would stay there until you finish viewing the complex to bring you back to Agra. But, there are also regular local buses available to get there.