Steve Gillick • May 18, 2017
Travelling the highways and regional roads of India can challenging at the best of times. Patience, mixed with a calm outlook and the reality that ‘we’re not in Kansas anymore’ can help bus, van and car passengers endure roads, many of which are officially 4 lanes but in reality have 6-7-8 makeshift lanes of honking vehicles, skittish camel and horse carts, pedestrians riding bicycles or walking across traffic, cows grazing in the middle of the roadway and hawkers approaching vehicles to sell newspapers, good luck charms, bottled water and what have you.
On an eight-day trip to explore India’s Golden Triangle (Delhi-Jaipur-Agra-Delhi) we left Jaipur on the morning of Day 5 and set out for the 3 ½ hours (roughly 200 km) drive to Fatehpur Sikri, which itself is only a short drive from Agra.
This day might have been best be described as ‘wickedly hot’. We were told to be prepared with the essentials: sun screen, drinking water, hats and optional umbrellas to combat the stinging rays of the sun. Still, when we finally arrived at Fatehpur Sikri, many in the group decided to stay in the shade of the bus and nearby trees and only a few of us, with water, hats, curiosity and determination, braved the heat to tour the famous “ghost city”.
The New Mughal Capital
Sometime around 1568, the 26 year old Mughal Emperor, Abu'l-Fath Jalal-ud-din Muhammad, known as Akbar (“The Great”) travelled from Agra to the village of Sikri to seek the counsel of the Sufi Saint, Salim Chisti. The holy man predicted that three sons would be born to serve as potential heirs to the Mughal throne, and when the prophecy came true with the birth of Salim in 1569, Akbar chose Sikri as the site of his new capital. The town was named Fatehabad, from “Fateh’, a Persian word that meant ‘victorious’. The name was later changed to Fatehpur Sikri.
The red sandstone in the area provided the perfect building material and a lake, that actually constituted one of the 4 sides of the rectangular shape of the new Capital, would provide the town with water. Construction began in 1571 and was completed in 1585, only to have Akbar abandon the complex completely and move the Capital to Lahore, and then eventually back to Agra. One theory was that Sikri was simply too close to Akbar’s enemies.
Well preserved in the dry heat of the region, Fatehpur Sikri, is often hailed as one of the best examples of Mughal architecture (a mixture of Hindu and Islamic styles) in India, and this resulted in its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We had a short guided visit of some of the highlights of the palace complex as well as time to explore on our own. An in-depth visit of the entire complex, surrounded by a 5 mile-long wall, would take the better part of a day.
Highlights of Fatehpur Sikri include:
- The Diwan–I-Am or Hall, or Public Audience is a larger complex with a courtyard in which the Emperor received petitions, dispensed justice and occasionally visited the royal stables.
- The Diwan-Khana-I-Khaas, or Hall of Private Audience, identified by the 4 chhatris (elevated dome-shaped pavilions) that sit atop the building. The main feature inside the Hall’s single chamber is the Throne Pillar, an incredibly detailed carved column holding up an impressive-looking capital. The belief is that Akbar’s throne was positioned over the capital while the four chhatris were the offices of his ministers.
- The Jama Masjid, one of the largest mosques in all of India was completed in 1571. The design is said to be based on design of the mosque at Mecca and can accommodate 25,000 worshippers.
- Inside the Mosque courtyard is the tomb of Saint Salim Christi, which continues to this day to be a pilgrimage site. Women tie a small cotton thread to the screens that surround the tomb in the hope that the Saint will bless them with a child.
- The Gate of Victory (a.k.a The Gate of Magnificence), or Buland Darwaza is the entrance to the Mosque, accessible by a 13 meter high flight of steps.
Life in Akbar’s Palace
And then there is the Panch Mahal, a Five Story Palace that marked the Women’s Quarter in the Palace complex. Throughout his tenure at Fatehpur Sikri, when Akbar wasn’t at work promoting his architectural ideas or trying to create one religion for all of India, or visiting his horses and elephants in the Royal stables, he was, shall we say, “active" in other pursuits.
The Royal Harem or Zenana at Fatehpur Sikri included roughly 5000 women, of which 300 were official wives, while others served as concubines, dancers and slaves. The Panch Mahal would have been used by the ‘senior’ wives who could entertain or relax behind the Jali Windows (perforated stone screens) to protect their privacy. And to ease boredom and monotony for the royals, it is said that copious amounts of Persian wine, Araq (an anise-flavoured alcoholic drink), Bhang (an edible cannabis-based treat) and Opium were available.
Fatehpur Sikri, Akbar’s “victorious” vision, is an important site to visit while in the area of Agra. The history, architecture, amazing stone carvings and the vastness of the complex are well worth the visit, with stories of the people and their life and times as fuel for the imagination.
Steve Gillick loves to travel and loves to talk to people who love to talk about travel. He’s been at it since 1967 when he visited nine European destinations on a school trip. With 30 years of experience in the travel industry, Steve coaches travel professionals to enhance their destination, niche market and specialist skills through his consultancy, Talking Travel.
Steve is a travel writer with over 200 published articles in consumer and travel trade publications. As a popular industry speaker, he delivers Keynotes and Workshops that underline the importance of connecting and engaging with people and places. Steve has explored 82 countries to date.