India day three
19.10.2015 - 19.10.2015
There is something about a tale of a deserted city that tugs at the imagination. Here the third Mughal emperor Akbar built a new capital, the walled city of Fatehpur Sikri, over a period of fifteen years, only to abandon it soon after its completion due to a lack of water at the site.
Much of what remains is in ruins, but Akbar’s palace and some other buildings still stand – testament to Akbar’s ambition and his love of architecture, and the arts.
Here among the remnants of Akbar’s glory you can still discover riches – the colours (deep red sandstone and blue sky, dotted with the bright saris of visitors), the ornately detailed carvings, the sense of a world that existed only briefly and is long gone.
Legend tells that Akbar, wanting an heir, made a pilgrimage to a renowned Sufi saint, Sheik Salim Chisti, to ask for his blessing. When a son was born to him, out of gratitude Akbar named him after the saint and built a new ceremonial capital to commemorate his birth, located on the ridge (Sikri) where the saint lived in a cavern.
View from the palace walls
This may or may not be true; it is certainly the case that Akbar decided to shift his capital from Agra to Fatehpur in part as a result of military victories and it’s also possible that these victories were the reason that he wanted to honour the saint. Whatever the reason, he will have believed that he had chosen an excellent strategic site, on this ridge that dominates the surrounding countryside. Work started in 1571, and it took the team of masons and stone-carvers fifteen years to complete the series of buildings here: sumptuous palaces, formal courtyards and gardens, pools, harems, tombs, a great mosque and a number of practical buildings such as bazaars, stables, workshops etc. All were contained within a five mile long wall, and in total covered an area nearly two miles long and one mile wide. In designing the city Akbar drew on Persian and local Indian influences, making this the first great example of Mughal architecture.
But very soon after the work was completed, it was realized that there was a lack of an adequate water supply here, and the new capital was abandoned. Much of it fell into ruins; however the imperial palace complex still stands, along with a few other structures and parts of the wall.
Ruins of the Mint
We visited Fatehpur Sikri as a stop on the road between Agra and Jaipur, as many people do, spending the best part of the morning here. On this page I want to describe some of the most important buildings here and/or the ones that I most loved.
Diwan-Aam: the Hall of Public Audience
Entering through a large gate we found ourselves in the grassy courtyard of the Diwan-i-Aam, where the emperor would appear to his subjects. We didn’t linger long here, heading instead to the emperor’s private quarters beyond, where many of the most stunning buildings are to be found.
Garden seen from the Diwan-i-Aam
Diwan-i-Khas: the Hall of Private Audience
This is one of the best-known buildings at Fatehpur Sikri. From the outside it is relatively plain, albeit attractive – a neat two-storied square, with a jaali edged balcony running around the upper one, and a chhatri on each of the four corners of the roof.
Inside though you find something rather unique and special – a central pillar, beautifully carved with geometric and floral designs. This has 36 serpentine brackets which support a circular platform at the upper storey level. This platform is connected with walkways to the four corners of the building, which also has an inner balcony level with the one outside. All the walkways are finished with the same jaalis, the ornate carved stone screens seen everywhere in Mughal architecture.
This platform provided a place for Akbar to give private audiences (although some argue that the building is too small for that purpose). Our guide Saurav told us that in the past it was permitted to ascend the stairs and walk on to the platform, but it is now sealed off out of concerns that it cannot take the weight of so many visitors. In any case, it is from below that this structure really shows its full glory.
The treasury and astrologer’s kiosk
Near to the Diwan-i-Khas is another lovely building, with three rooms and ornately carved pillars, walls and arches. This was used as the treasury for the palace. It’s a great spot for photography as the arched walkways frame views of the complex and create interesting perspectives. It is sometimes called Ankh Michauli or Blind Man’s Bluff house, from a theory that the ladies, and possibly Akbar himself, used to play hide-and-seek and other games among its many pillars.
The treasury’s most ornate feature is a small kiosk, just three metres square, at the south west corner which is popularly referred to as the astrologer’s kiosk or seat. It is said that a great Indian Yogi used to sit here and Akbar consult him about big political decisions, but this explanation of the small building is largely discredited in favour of the more prosaic but likely use of it as a spot from which the chief treasurer could monitor the work of his subordinates in the next-door treasury. The more elaborate carving here would lend weight to the theory that it was used by the top dog! This includes elaborate torana arches above the four openings which are influenced by the Jain style of architecture. The kiosk is topped by a chhatri.
Carving in the astrologer's kiosk
On the eastern side of the treasury building (the right hand as you face it) you can get good views of the Elephant Minar and the surrounding countryside, as well as some stretches of the old boundary wall. It was here that we encountered the man below and tipped him in exchange for a couple of photos.
In the heart of the complex is this pool, Anup Talao. It is divided into four by walkways which connect to a central platform. This has a raised area where musicians would have played to entertain the emperor, whose personal rooms were in the building behind, the Khas Mahal (visible in the left-hand photo).
Also nearby is the Panch Mahal, seen in the background of the right-hand photo and below. This is a five-floored pillared pavilion with each floor supported only by columns and decreasing as you go upwards. The ground floor has 84 columns, the first has 56, the second has 20, the third has twelve and the top storey has just four. Originally there would have been jaali screens between the pillars to provide privacy. This structure offered cool breezes shaded from the hot sun so it is also sometimes known as the Badgir, meaning wind tower.
Panch Mahal - upper two floors
From here the wives of the emperor could enjoy the musical performances on the platform below. It is said that at times during these performances the pool that surrounded the musicians would be filled with gold, silver and copper coins to reflect the sun – it must have been a blinding sight. Even today the reflections it provides make for lovely photos of it and the surrounding buildings.
Turkish Sultana’s House
As an emperor, of course Akbar chose his wives for strategic political reasons. He was famed for his religious tolerance and was happy to marry women of Muslim, Hindu and Christian faiths if it would strengthen his empire. As our guide Saurav told it, he had three particularly favoured ones, for whom he built individual bedroom quarters here: one he said was a Hindu princess from Amber, Harkha Bai (said to be his favourite – we will come to her later); one a Muslim from Turkey; and one Portuguese. My subsequent research suggests that Saurav rather over-simplified what appears to be considerable confusion regarding the use of some of these buildings – perhaps understandably. This one he called the Muslim wife’s bedroom but it is usually referred to as the Turkish Sultana House, having been built, it is said, for Akbar’s first wife, Istamboli Begum, who was Turkish.
However the most prominent Muslim wife was Ruqaiya Sultan Begum who like Akbar was a member of the Timurid dynasty – a granddaughter of Barber, the first Mughal emperor. She was the most senior of the wives in terms of her birth, and highly educated (unlike Akbar himself). She had no children but remained in his high regard, and was given responsibility for the upbringing of one of his grandsons, Khurram, who was to grow up and become an emperor in his own right – Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal. So it might also have been her to whom Saurav referred when describing the user of this room. However, some sources say that it is fairly unlikely that this was the bedroom of a queen, Turkish or otherwise, as it is located outside the harem near the more public area of the Anup Talao. It is maybe more likely that Ruqaiya and the other Muslim wives used it as a summer house, although even for that purpose it is rather public. But whatever the truth of its former use, its decorative elements make this an unmissable sight and one of my favourite spots in Fatehpur Sikri.
Roof of the Turkish Sultana's House
This room is only small, although surrounded by an extensive portico, but it is richly carved. Detailed panels carry images of vines, lotus flowers, trees, even birds and small animals – the latter demonstrating Akbar’s tolerant interpretation of his Muslim religion, but since defaced (literally) as you can see in the photo below. Pillars and ceiling too are carved – in fact, it is hard to find a surface that isn’t! Take some time to study them – they will repay your efforts.
Details of carvings
As I said above, according to Saurav one of Akbar’s wives was Portuguese and this he told us was her house. I have to say that my limited research has thrown up no mention of a Portuguese wife, but he certainly made alliances with that nation, and he is known to have married Christian women, so this may well be true.
What I do understand from my at times contradictory research findings is that this little house is probably named for Akbar’s mother, Maryam Makani, and had been built for her rather than for any of his wives. But that could be completely wrong!
This is another attractive building, although somehow I seem to have omitted to photograph the exterior. This could be in part because I was so taken with this unexpected detail – a somewhat faded fresco of a girl playing a flute. Given that Akbar was a Muslim (although for a period of his life he tried to found a new universal religion) it is all the more surprising to find a depiction of a human figure anywhere in his palace, even in a room used by a Christian wife. Another sign of his famed religious tolerance, it seems.
Jodha Bai’s Palace
Entrance to Jodha Bai's Palace
Niche in Jodha Bai's Palace
Saurav described this to us as the Hindu wife’s bedroom, or rather, two bedrooms – one for summer, one for winter. My research suggests however that it was probably the main harem, used by many of the wives. The name Jodha Bai often attached to it poses something of a puzzle, since no one seems to know which of his wives this refers to, if any. Some sources do say this was the Hindu Harka Bai, but the majority seem to agree that that Jodha Bai was in fact the wife of his son Jahangir. There is more consistency around another name often given to Harka Bai, Mariam-uz-Zamani. This is in fact a title bestowed on her after her marriage and means “Mary of the Age”. Confusingly Akbar’s mother had a similar title, Mariam Makani (“equal in rank to Mary”), and from what I can ascertain it is probably after the latter that Mariam’s house was named.
What is certain is that Harkha Bai came from Amber (near modern-day Jaipur), the daughter of the ruler there, Raja Bharmal. Her marriage to Akbar was a strategic alliance that brought together two powerful families – one Hindu, one Muslim. There had been such marriages in the past, but the acceptance of her family at court by Akbar was a new departure, marking his more tolerant attitude to other faiths. She is widely thought to have been his favourite wife, perhaps because she gave him the first son he had prayed for, who was to grow up to become the next emperor, Jahangir. He allowed her to continue to practice her Hindu faith, and even joined in some rituals with her
The two bedrooms of this palace open off a courtyard. The entrance to this is built in the Islamic style but the rooms also have many Hindu features. Again we are seeing that blend of Islamic and local styles that was to characterise Mughal architecture. There is also a small Hindu shrine here. Some parts of the roof still show their blue glazed tiles, imported from what is now Pakistan.
Roof with traces of blue glazing
Although we only got a distant view of it, I was fascinated by this, the Elephant Minar (also often referred to as the Hiran Minar because Jehangir, Akbar’s son and successor, converted the polo ground around the tower into a sanctuary for antelopes – hiran). It is said to have been built to commemorate Akbar's favourite elephant. This elephant was even given the role of judge – an accused person would be brought to the elephant who would either spare him (meaning he was innocent) or trample him to death.
You can see the unusual decoration of protruding elephant tusks (made of stone – not real one!) on the left hand side in my photo. There are many more of these than you can see here however, as they extend more or less down the full length of the tower. The tower is thought to have been the first in a series of mile posts, rather than an active minaret. I have also read that from the top of the tower, the ladies of the court used to watch sports on the lake, wild beast fights, and army manoeuvres on the plains. Apparently you used to be able to climb the tower for a great view of the ruins of Fatehpur Sikri but I believe this is no longer possible.
After spending a few hours here we said goodbye to Saurav, who had been our guide not only today but also yesterday in Agra, and with Mehar drove west towards Jaipur …
Saurav at Fatehpur Sikri