I leave Mathura early this morning. I take a room in Bharatpur only because it is a convenient starting point to begin my journey across Rajasthan. People tell me that there are very few options for staying in Fatehpur Sikri. It is only a day trip from Agra where most tourist stay for the night. I dump my backpack at Bharatpur, board a bus to Fatehpur Sikri. By half nine I am in this town of Akbar.
The history of Fatehpur Sikri starts with the village of Sikri during Akbar’s period. At Sikri, Akbar sought the advice of Shaikh Salim Chisti about his heir. The shaikh foretold of three sons. Soon Akbar’s first son was born. The shaikh was honoured and Akbar decided to build Fatehpur Sikri, satellite capital to Agra. The palaces here were lived in for just over a decade. No one knows for sure why it was abandoned and historians have much to disagree on this matter. Whatever be the reason, the ruins of Fatehpur Sikri are well-preserved. It seems that they were simply left in neglect rather than lost in battle and destroyed.
From the highway I can see some fort walls and a good-looking bastion. The thorny vegetation that surrounds these fort walls hides a gateway. I can barely see it from the road. I look across the highway to the other side. Distant ruins stand in dry open land. I make my way to the village.
I pass typical village scenes – children playing happily in the dirt, women carrying bundles of grass on their heads, buffaloes being driven to graze, cowdung cakes left to dry in the sun, charpoys reclined against blue distempered mud plastered walls. The difference is the fort that adds to these scenes a shade of history. The gateway into the old town stands with its high arch, flanking bastions and high crenellation. One wonders how much or how little this town has changed over the centuries.
I enter through the gateway. I snap a couple of pictures to the curious looks of locals. Tourists hardly come here into the village. They take a straight road from the highway to the palaces of Akbar. I wander through the lanes admiring painted wooden doors divided into panels with geometric patterns either embossed or incised into the wood. When I freeze a couple of women veiled in their saris against the backdrop of the gateway, it seems like a scene from the past frozen through time. I climb one such gateway to the top. I get a beautiful view of the village and across it the escarpment on which stands a line of ruins. Much farther are the palaces. I come down from the gateway and proceed to these ruins. I pass a dry well. There is a theory that this place was abandoned due to lack of water.
It is not possible to describe in detail the magnificent ruins of Fatehpur Sikri. The ruins are vast and varied. There is something unique in every building. A map at the entrance lists as many as 46 buildings here. Among the notable ones are:
- Hiran Minar – a unique circular hunting tower with horn shaped spikes decorating its outer walls.
- Diwan-i-khas – a private hall perhaps and historian debate over its actual purpose. It is a building that stands separate from others, accessible from all four sides, has an ornate central pillar with 32 exquisite voluted brackets. Decorative reliefs on this pillar are said to contain motifs from various religions in the spirit of Akbar’s openness of religious thought.
- Turkish baths – a set of ruins near Hiran Minar where a particular type of vaulting, known as Khurasanian vaulting, can be admired. Four wide arches intersect to form four corner squinches and four rectangular spaces. This creates an octogonal base from which the dome rises. The dome is today missing. Arch netting and lierne valuting are part of the scheme. Similar but not same vaulting can be seen in the Gol Gumbaz. The baths opposite the Buland Darwaza have as many as 14 domes but this ruin is spoilt by villagers and is too dirty to even step into.
- Panch Mahal – a building of post-and-beam construction in five levels, each tapering a little from the one below. This trabeate architecture is more Indian than Islamic. The entire structure is supported only on pillars and double pillars without use of walls. This airy structure was meant for relaxation. It is topped with a white domed chhatri.
- Diwan-i-am – an large quadrangle with a running corridor and an open space for Akbar’s public appearance. It is said that he dispensed justice from here. The corridors are trabeate but the pillars and capitals contains little decorative work.
- Ankh Michauli – probably a treasury but mistakenly named as a place for a game of Blindman’s Buff. The unique thing here are serpentine struts supported on corbels. These struts transfer the weight of the flat roofs to the walls. The same thing can be seen at Bengali Mahal within Agra Fort.
- Astrologer’s seat – a small kiosk next to the treasury has good serpentive arches. It is inspired by Jain architecture of Western India. Guides try to impress foreign tourists with this unique piece of architecture. I have seen much better serpentive arches in Gujarat, the ones at Hatheesing Temple in Ahmedabad for example.
- Turkish Sultana’s House – packed with reliefs the details here are admirable.
- Frieze of jhumkas – a frieze of ear ornaments decorating the outer wall of harem’s kitchen. Each ornament is different and unique.
- Shabistan-i-iqbal – wrongly termed as Jodhabai’s palace it is an impressive quadrangle with blue glazed tiles on some of the roofs. The western end has a shrine with an entrance of half pillars. It is very much inspired by Indian temples. Very little here suggests Islamic architecture except for some pointed arches. Architecturally this is a beautiful palace.
There is much more that I have not mentioned about these magnificent ruins – stables, courtyards, fort walls, palaces, baradaris, corridors, karwansarais and more. The entire complex is seemingly built on a slope. At its highest is the Jami Masjid in a complex of its own. Within this is the tomb of Shaikh Salim Chisti. It is a marble monument with beautiful jali screens. On the outside, serpentine brackets are superbly done. They join the pillars with the plain marble chajja. Pilgrims are coming and going from the tomb of this renowned saint. A couple of guys are singing at the entrance to the tomb, one with the harmonium and another with percussion. Sufism came to India with the Shaikh Muin-ud-din Chisti of Ajmer, a place I will be visiting later this week. Music is an important part of Sufism. It is meant to take devotees into a world of ecstatic bliss just the way ISKCON devotees in Vrindavan achieve the same with their chanting and dancing. Unfortunately these two guys are sounding bad. To them, it is just a show for visiting tourists in return for expected donations.
The mosque at the western end is magnificent. The prayer hall has no arches. Instead trabeate construction speak of Hindu influence. In fact, the pillars are inspired by those of Hindu temples. The qiblas are beautiful pieces of stone inlay. Ornate lamps hang from the ceilings. Like in so many other buildings at Fatehpur Sikri, this too is a mix of different elements – ribbed dome inspired by churches, multi-tiered corbels bearing Hindu motifs and lotus medallions, the Islamic qibla.
The crowning glory of the mosque is in its southern entrance, the Buland Darwaza. It is topped with chhatris, a scheme continued on the terraces of the corridors. The chhatris on the iwan define the gateway just as similar ones define the southern gateway to the Taj Mahal in Agra. The iwan itself is a massive structure whose scale can only be grasped when one stands directly beneath it and looks up at the bud-fringed arch and the trabeate balcony above it. There is some decorative work here but are plain when compared to Akbar’s mausoleum at Sikandara.
It is the time of sunset. I have been at Fatehpur Sikri for almost nine hours now. I have not even had a proper lunch. I have just gobbled a couple of bananas and washed them down with a packet of Frooti. I walk around the enclosed palaces to find myself where I started the day. I climb up the spiralling stairway of Hiran Minar. At its top is a balcony from where I have a superb view of the entire ruins. I wish to take a picture but I find that my camera has already died out on me. I have gone almost berserk today. I have taken nearly 250 pictures.
I sit out the sunset hour on top of Hiran Minar. Some workers are done for the day and are walking out through the Elephant Gate. I can still see the massive stone elephants flanking the entrance. Two foreign tourists are wandering the ruins of a vast karwansarai below me. An Indian couple climb up the tower and watch for a while the sketch I have just begun. The fields behind me catch glow of sunset. Birds are chirping away in their countryside bushes. Darkness is approaching but there is still time and I am in no hurry.