Sikandara may be considered as a suburb of Agra. I take a bus from Agra Fort. It is a bus to Mathura and it drops me off at Sikandara. Taking a shared tempo Bhagwan Talkies and changing to another form of transport is another option. Bhagwan Talkies is an important landmark in Agra where many transport connections can be obtained.
It is early in the day and I am one of the first to enter Akbar’s mausoleum. The entrance gateway at the southern end is an impressive building. With a high iwan, it is flanked by double alcoves. The iwan does not curve in as a hemisphere as in the southern gateway of the Taj Mahal. Instead the arch recedes inside in the same plane and joins the back wall. This gives the gateway a certain formality and restraint. The same scheme is followed in the smaller alcoves. The facade has beautiful stone inlays, probably the best of such Mughal art in India.
The gateway in the Taj Mahal has chhatris in the corners and a line of chhatris to decorate the iwan at the top. The gateway here is notable for minimal and inconspicuous use of chhatris. Only two chhatris are placed behind the iwan. What stands out is a group of tapering marble minars at its four corners. These minars rise from the terrace of the gateway. It is these minars that give the gateway its grandness. Placing the minars in this manner is said to have been inspired by the Charminar in Hyderbad built only a few decades prior to this mausoleum.
It is a mix of both red sandstone and white marble. Such a combination perhaps existed from earlier times of the Delhi Sultanate. Red has a certain solidity and royal connotations. White comes with its purity and lightness. Sandstone has a rough texture that sets off beautifully the smoothness of marble. The grains in the two stones are also different. Red sandstone would warm up to the golden sun. White marble would gleam on a moonlight night. Perhaps this combination is a reflection of how kings and dynasties strove to find the right mix of gentleness and toughness.
The main tomb is without a dome. Instead a mix of chhatris and chhaparkhats decorates the five levels of the building. Iwans on each side are centered in spacious dalans. The topmost storey is fully in marble. The marble chhaparkhat over the iwan is lost within the background of the higher levels. I could appreciate it better only by getting closer to the monument. Entry is not allowed to the higher levels. I could see that in one level, corner chhatris share a pillar between them.
I enter the tomb from the south. I pause at the vestibule to admire its beautiful interior. The walls and ceiling are packed with colourful murals. The space is essentially a square whose corners are pinched. This results in squiches and alcoves that give space for exquisite decorative work. Lierne vaulting is beautiful and so are the jali screens. A long narrow passage slopes down from here to lead to Akbar’s tombstone. An ornate incense burner hangs from the ceiling. A skylight lets in light into this austere space. A woman is praying at the tomb. Everything here is white. There is no decorative work. It is in stark contrast to the indulgence outside. It is such a simple tomb for a great king.
It should be noted that the mausoleum was started by Akbar himself during his lifetime but was completed later by his son Jehangir. Even an accomplished king as Akbar was somehow insecure about his name and fame in posterity. His deeds speak for themselves but it was not enough. It was important that a mausoleum as this would stand to his greater memory.
The tomb is set in the center of a char bagh. Walkways lead in four directions to four gateways. The other three gateways are simpler than the southern one. The western gateways is best preserved. The northern one is in a state of repair. The iwans of these gateways open inwards and face the main tomb. They are beautifully painted. The work of stone inlay is second only to that on the southern gateway. Bees find these iwans perfect for their hives. It does appear that these iwans reflect back the character of the iwans on the main tomb. The walkways seem to connect these pairs of iwans looking at each other for all eternity.
As I come out, the day is well underway. It is 10 am. Bus loads of foreign tourists are arriving with their guides. I take a few more pictures of this wonderful monument. Once more I study the southern gateway. I find many interesting details I had missed earlier. I cannot hope to see or learn everything, only a glimpse of ancient and medieval India.
Outside there is a ruin. Is it a tomb of someone? There is no tombstone at its centre. The building is a chamfered square. Eight passages, four from the sides and four from the corners, lead into a central octogonal space. A passage way connects these eight approaches. Nearby is another monument that is better preserved. It has wonderful reliefs in stone, jharokhas and jali screens. It is named the Kanch Mahal and would have been decorated richly with glass-mirror mosaic work in the past. It was probably used as a hunting lodge.
From here it is a short walk to Mariam’s tomb. Mariam was a Rajput married to Akbar and was the mother of Jehangir. This is an interesting tomb with chhatris and chhaprakhats. It was originally a baradari, an open pavilion, built by the Lodis. It was converted into a tomb by addition of a crypt below and the chhatris and chhaprakhats on the top. The open pavilion was ‘closed’ by the adding panels of red sandstone containing chini kana. Chajja was added at the top. The brackets of chhatris and chhaprakhats are beautiful. Each octogonal chhatri contains 40 brackets, five on each pillar. There is no parapet on top except as the base of chhatris and chhaprakhats. The chhatris dominate the facade. The chhaprakhats crowning the pistaqs balance the facade. The domes of the chhatris and chhaprakhats are white but not of marble. Architecturally this is a unique monument if not famous.
The inside of the monument is a little complex to analyze. It has narrow passages and corridors. It appears that the entire space is divided into nine parts in the traditional scheme of hasht bihisht. Most of the interior is plastered in a plain manner with some stucco work.
A nice garden surrounds the monument with neat green lawns and flower beds. Entrance to the monument is only five rupees. As such, like so many other monuments of India, it is a favourite haunt for lovers and students. I found a group four students lounging on the lawns, obviously bunking their classes.
I leave the monument and head back to Agra. I need to check out from my hotel by noon and move on to Mathura. A checkout period of 24 hours is common in many places. But in popular tourist places, the checkout time of 12 noon is almost universal.