World Heritage site of Fatehpur Sikri
One of the best ways to enjoy and wonder at the spectacular Mughal construction designs is by taking a short trip 35 kilometers away from Agra to the fallen city of Fatehpur Sikri. The city is known to be relatively less crowded which offers a peaceful surrounding albeit having numerous local guides who try to make a living guiding tourist around, though some may be unofficially. The city hosts some of the structures that evidence the attempted fusion of different faiths and religions by the Mughal emperor Akbar, something which has since been mythicized.At the start, the royal courtyard presents itself with the Jami Masjid mosque standing behind it. The palace has two gateways that offer access to it. Typically, buses and taxis will drop you off at the parking bay which is the farthest they can go. From here one will have to take a state-appointed shuttle bus to the ticket window that is close to Jodha Bai’s stately mansion. For tourists visiting in organized troops, it is highly likely that their tour will start from the Diwan-e-Aam which is at the east and is thought to be the most beautiful gate to the city. One is advised to bring along water and food on the trip given the scarcity of these commodities in the complex. Taking a trip on a sunny day in the heat can be an extremely tiring experience. On a relatively cool day, one can take a walk up to the Diwan-e-Aam royal palace (insetad of taking the shuttle bus) only if they have the energy.
The walk (highly recommended) which takes about ten minutes through the ruins of a fallen city descriptive of the following scenes: a spread all over a dry, sandstone ridgeline with rocks; destroyed caravan serais (roadside inn where travelers (caravaners) could rest and recover from the day’s journey) and hamams falling off; the base of empty and completely damaged marketplaces and streets; fountains shaped like octagons and waterways that once were at the core of the yards; and through the three colossal gates made in stone you finally reach atop the ridge where the ticket window to the entrance is located. The only surviving structures amid these ruins are the royal courtyard complex and the mosque complex which hosts the grave to the Sheik Salim Chishti in white latticed marble and the Akbar Pir (Spiritual guide)
Ideally, this is the best place from which your walk around the complex can begin; basically because in the past ages of the 16th century this was the first point of access to all the visitors coming into the complex. The common spirits after which the pavilion is called -‘Aam’ which means ‘common’- were only allowed access up to this part of the palace and couldn’t go anywhere beyond this. It is thought that this is the point where the emperor would meet his subjects as they formally presented their pleas to him. However, in as much as Akbar in the present day is pictured to have been a modest and yet so noble, and with a generous spirit leader, it is highly doubted that he actually organized such rallies and listened to his people’s needs for someone of his ranking. On the contrary, this space is believed to have been the venue for social gatherings that extended interaction of the royals to the common spirits.
In contrast to the flowery and complicated Diwan-e-Aams in Agra and Delhi, this one is an ordinary but expansive yard, with prime attention given to the small pavilion that was reserved for the ruler, surrounded by intricately designed jalis or screens. Nonetheless, the place still oozes volumes of peace and quiet that accentuated with attractive and exotic gardens.
A noticeable half-buried boulder is also seen in the field of this pavilion. Here, it is believed is where the convicts would face their ultimate end as the king’s lethal and killer elephant would be tied to the stone and the convicts would be thrown in the arena to face their fate with the animal. Those who got trampled over were believed to be guilty while those who escaped unscratched were seen as the innocent ones. However fascinating this story is, hard to fish out such vivid information from the local guides here.
Daulat Khana or the Imperial Courtyard
Moving on from the Diwan-e-Aam is the big and red-sandstone fenced Imperial courtyard, which has a number of separate structures in it. The construction that catches the eye the most is the one that stands at the northern part of the compound- the Diwan-e-Khas (Hall of private audience). This is thought to be among the most skillfully deceiving structures within the complex.
The Diwan-i Khas
The building is commonly referred to as the Diwan-i Khas which literally translates to ‘place of the private audience’. The structure, a sandstone square, is believed to be a mystery and has the interiors which to most people it doesn’t matter their anticipation. A carefully ornamented pillar rises from the middle of the floor and holds up four railed walkways that lead to the corners of the building. From the bottom of the building, where the pillar base is, the building is shaped as a square but rising further upwards, it develops into an octagon shape; then gets to sixteen sided and finally ends into a circular top. The dome of the pillar has 36 notched brackets and the view is a sight to behold. Given the unconventional walkways, the use for this room is still murky as there are no other architectural pieces with a similar design anywhere. From the many believes that have people go by, one explains that this was a treasury building from which Akbar could watch from above, with European tourists visiting the place explained to them that this was a venue where debates which drew people of different religious descent were held; others just saw it as a religious building. The actual symbolism has never been debunked to date.
A majority of the structures in Fatehpur Sikri bear interesting names contrary to the value that befits a royal court. For example, the structure that is believed to be where Akbar played games with the women in his circles, Ankh Michauli which means a blind man’s bluff stands to the west of Diwan-e-Khas and has three rooms, and amply carved towers, walls, and curves. This is a notional vagary that is not supported by any past tradition or source.From historical studies, some of the scholars believe that this building formed a part of the Imperial Treasury. The roof of the structure is held in place carved struts that sit on triangular brackets carved from the walls; the base of each strut is sculptured to take the form of a head of a monster which when raised snake like scrolls are revealed. These beasts are believed to have been the olden custodians of treasure. In the upper walls are the skillfully constructed ashlar courses that have been fitted with wide entrances and deeply penetrating corners. Within these corners were secret coffers which were closed by sliding stone slabs over them. These are supposed to be treasure niches.
Joint to this orchestrated structure is what is called the Astrologer’s Seat that stands out for its luxuriant sculpting that is linked to Jain. It is said and trusted that a phenomenal Indian Yogi (Hermit) has his place here and that he offered chief consultancy to Akbar on all matters politics. This is however just a myth. Being next to the treasury it proposes that this might have been the office of the head of treasury where he sat as he kept the actions of his juniors under his surveillance.
House of the Turkish Sultana
This small structure sits on the eastern part from the center of the courtyard and has outstanding sandstone sculptures. This site takes credit for most of the abstract photos taken given its walls, columns, and a roof that bears the most detailed sculpting fit for an “I was here” moment. The patterns on the surface are majorly floral, trees-related designs and geometry; contrary to the inside which has scenes from the jungle with animals whose faces have been destroyed intentionally with this being attributed to the era of Emperor Aurangzeb whose reign had been characterized by moral rigor and strictness. The use of this room still remains unknown. Akbar didn’t have any Turkish wife and as such the unmatched standard to which the decorations were made proposes that this was a venue for him to use as he visited the pool Anup Tulao.
Word has it that the same slave girls doubles as dancers here and they would do dances. This is a romantic belief but it is probable given the location of the pool which must have hosted song-and-dance nights in Akbar’s residence. This is possibly where the known song and poet artist ‘Tansen’ used to perform his ragas. Musicians credit a lot of the classical ragas to him.There are stories that tell of incidences where he, Tansen, could make the clouds open or lamps light out of his singing. For one who has grown up going by these legendary works then a walk through this place is a perfect reward. Picture a moment where Tansen is playing his music that pierced through into the surrounding as the queens cared to listen from the Panch Mahal and the King himself from his private rooms, or perhaps they were staying together to enjoy the sounds of the music.
On the other side of the pool is the Diwan Khana-e-Khas, with two rooms the pavilion is said to have played host to the king and his advisors as the conversed. This might also have doubled up as a library. On the back end of the pavilion is a big room with a platform and windows from above. The emperor is said to have utilized this space himself; history has it that the place would be to a great extent be draped with carpets and cushions on the floor in order to ease the discomfort brought about by sitting on a stone. Local guides go by the narrative that this was Akbar’s “raised bed” since he was too noble to sleep on the ground; you can take it how you want.
On the first floor of the Diwan Khan-e-Khas is what is said to have been the king’s private sleeping room or the chamber of dreams which bears meaning to the name Khwabgah. This place, unfortunately, can no longer be accessed. The cambers were linked to the ladies haram with a tunnel that has screens (jaalis) on its walls. This offered an easy access for the ladies to the pavilion.
The catchy bit about the harem is the Panch Mahal which is a huge pillar-like structure with five floors that decrease as one progresses up. The base of the Mahal has 84 pillars, the first floor has 56 pillars, the second floor 20, the third 12 and the top floor is a one, vaulted kiosk on four pillars. Sadly, the one cannot go up to the first floor but it is outstanding for having all the pillars fully resembling each other. The pillars are high about eight feet of the ground and their primes offer a profusion of detailed symbols for graphic artists that among them are leaves, petals, and braided cords. The top of one of them displays elephants with intertwines tusks; some take the human nature like that of a man picking fruits from a tree.The Panch Mahal is believed to have been designed by the Persian badger or ‘wind-catcher’ and was intended to act as a shield from the high heat experienced in the summer months. The gaps within the pillars were most likely fitted with latticed screens for women of the zenana to watch the actions of the royal quarters like that pachisi games and dances, without being noticed.
To the left of the Maryam’s house is a building that is believed to have been home to Jodha Bai, Akbar’s Hindu wife. Next to Jodha Bai’s palace is a structure with sculpted interiors that were ruined by smoke. It is believed that food was prepared here, so probably a kitchen.Jodha Bai is featured again in the Haramasara where the prime place was often referred to as Jodha Bai’s palace, which one wonders whether it was a skillful way of Akbar giving prominence to his Hindu wife in an Islamic empire. This served as the home of a number of the emperor’s chief wives. It is advisable to note that during those days women life was communal and that the wives got along like a family. This was the largest and yet the most crucial building within the Imperial Harem complex. It had one entrance which was typically protected by eunuchs (often transgender women who were admitted both in the zenana and the mardana owing to their mixed gender identity) employed by the court. Jodhi Bai’s palace typifies the zenana designs which were plain on the outside with flowery interiors, off-set doorways that guaranteed privacy, walkways fitted with screens that allowed the royal women a view to the outside and all the resources for all the female inhabitants. There are blue glazed tiles on the roof and a raised tunnel that heads northwards that may once have allowed the women a trip to the lake that sat behind the complex.
Among the oddly named structures in the haramsara complex is the Birbal’s House that sat right in the middle of the zenana. It is believed that Birbal was one of the highest-ranking advisors to Akbar, but this is an assumed fact more than it is true. Owing to its prominence within the Haramsara the structure is most likely to have been home to Akbar’s crème de la crème of queens Ruqayya Begum and Salima Sultan Begum. The design of the structure displays the distinct use of the Islamic and non-Islamic themes that were not necessarily blended together as evidenced by the geometrical patterns and the pilasters and brackets. The skill and the artistry are great but in contrast to the Taj Mahal, the structure depicts that life once existed here even though what took place here a can only be left to wonder.Not to be forgotten are the buildings behind the Haram Sara that among them have the Imperial Stables something which is largely doubted. Given its location, this would have translated to throngs of people and animals that were going in and out of the place which is too close to the zenana (the part of a house for the seclusion of women). A contrary theory suggests that this might have been instead the home to the servant mistresses that maintained the zenana. The complex is however still clouded with deep mystery.
Jami Masjid Complex
Southwest of the court complex is the Jami Masjid Complex the most famed mosques in the country. The key intention that Akbar had as he built the mosque was to devote to the Sufi saint Salim Chishti (Akbar’s pir, or spiritual guide) but the plan of the mosque evidence Akbar’s desire in laying establishing imperial dominance for wherever he planned to stay. It is through this mosque that Akbar contradicted the popular belief in Islamic mysticism and corroborated to the orthodox Muslim foundations of the world.
Akbar made the firm to build Fatehpur Sikri in honor of his pir. And it was abode of this hermit that the great city was borne. His Pir had firmly foreseen the childless king Akbar being blessed with two sons; and on the 30th of August 1569, the first of these Prince Muhammed Salim Mirza was born by Jodha Bai. This took place in the hut of the Pir and soon after the king Akbar resolved to “give outward splendor to this spot which possessed spiritual grandeur”.
This was the major mosque for centuries and the largest in India until the 19th century when the Taj-ul-Masjid in Bhopal was constructed. Its compound is seen to have the richly ornamented marble burial chamber for the saint Salim Chisti among other small graves. There is a protected gallery that is set up outside of the mosque within its compound that displays different architectures that utilize a blend of curves, beams and corbelling to hold the roof. The prayer hall has a big white dome that is partially obstructed by a tall entrance through which the believers come to pray. The interior is ornamented with concentration given to the mihrab at the middle. The prayer hall is separated into smaller divisions with the ones at edges reserved for women.The easiest way to get to the mosque is via the Buland Darwaza which is an impressive gateway complete with a flight of stairs. Towering 53 meters above the ground from the road that lays below it, the gate was put up around 1576 upon completion of the mosque in honor of Akbar conquering over Gujarat in a military fight. The size and the detailed design that characterize the gate make it an attractive feature that requires an up-close scrutiny.
How to Reach Fatehpur Sikri?
Fatehpur Sikri is a small town located in Agra district of Uttar Pradesh and is approximately 39 kilometres away from Agra it is conveniently placed 3 km off from the Agra-Jaipur-Bikaner National Highway 11. Jaipur is give or take 210 kms away from Fatehpur Sikri.
Fatehpur Sikri has no airports whatsoever and the closest one in Agra long ceased being operational on a schedule. However, there are systematic and consistent flights to Jaipur from different parts of the nation. For an overseas traveler, the Delhi airport that is roughly 230 kilometers away is the best alternative. Delhi airport has many planned flights that connect to the rest of the world.
If traveling from Jaipur to Agra during the Golden Triangle Tour then one can swing by for a tour at Fatehpur Sikri. For those coming from Delhi, the easiest option will be going through Agra (Taj Mahal and Red Fort) to Fatehpur Sikri. This past glory that now lays as a fallen city takes only a day to go around it.
When to Visit?
It is advisable to schedule for the trip between the months of September and March or thereabout during which the weather is friendly. The place operates dawn to dusk. It is also recommended to make the trip when the day is still young for a hassle free and quiet experience; without having to push through throngs of people that characterize the place during the day.
Some Practical Tips
At the Diwan-e-Am gate, you will find some legally operating guides. It is advisable to use these ones to lead you around the city, either that or have your travel agent to make plans on how you can get a trusted guide at the parking bay. Caution should be exercised in order to avoid being misguided by the frauds that pose as guides. The hoax guides are not allowed admittance into the Imperial Complex and therefore they will possibly lead you to the Jama Mosque Complex which does not require an entrance ticket.
You will be required to take off shoes in order to go into the Buland Darwaza (the mosque area). Bring along a pair of socks. The red sandstone is known to heat up more so in the afternoons. You should be cautious when dealing with people who will come to you and attempt to sell you a piece of cloth, which is believed to be a source of good luck, to lay on the tomb of the departed saint. The rip-offs state prices as high as 2,000 rupees! This same cloth is taken once you are done with it and sold to the next unsuspecting victim.
Where to Stay
Given the few places that offer accommodation in Fatehpur Sikri, it is wise to put up in Agra.
The other option will be finding a place to put up in Bharatpur which is roughly 25 minutes from Fatehpur Sikri and gives an invaluable opportunity to visit the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary commonly referred to as the Keoladeo Ghana National Park, a UNESCO World Natural Site that is located here.