An Old Mughal Capital

Fatehpur Sikri: Hall of Private Audience (Wikimedia)Fatehpur Sikri, located 40 km west of Sikandra in India's Uttar Pradesh state, was the capital of the Mughal Empire from 1570 until 1586, when it was mysteriously abandoned. It is not a city in the modern sense, but a redoubt that is probably the best preserved archaeological site in India. It hasn’t been pilfered like every other site and this may be attributed to the presence of a venerated Sufi tomb: Shaikh Salim Chisti. Akbar of the great Mughal Empire was a Muslim and it is said that he revered Chisti's Sufi. The original name for the town was the Persian form, Fathabad, but this gradually became Indianized to Fatehpur Sikri. Over time, a fortification was erected which surrounded the town and protected it from any potential threat, though it was abandoned in 1585. Though more than four centuries have passed, it still looks much the same today.

I arrived at Fatehpur Sikri mid-morning and instructed my taxi driver to wait outside the palace complex. Everyone here is a guide. I didn't remember all the touts when I was last here, some 15 years earlier. Some old coot, who was old enough to be Jehangir’s grandson, came up to try and solicit my attention. He was an old toothless wreck of a man who needed a cane to steady himself on the cobblestone pavement. But he had a regal distinction about him, which made up for his physical shortcomings. His glasses didn’t fit properly either; probably something given to him by a VisionCanada project. He was hassled by other, equally old men: "He is too old a man,” scoffed one guy; "He is not an 'official guide'," yelled another. "We are 'official guides' and he is stealing money away from us!" He pulled out a dog-eared card to prove his claim. I felt sorry for Gramps, so I gave him a five rupee note for his trouble and a package of #30 beedies. He nodded his head from side to side in thanks. The other guides were nodding their heads the same way, so I figured I must have done a good thing.

I choose one of the “official guides” more than anything as a way to get the others off my back and a way to keep other touts away from me so I could photograph the place. It was nice and warm for a change so I changed into my shorts in the Maruti before going into the palace area. Kumar told me he would wait in the taxi until I returned. I gave him some money to go and buy some chai and have a snack. He insisted that I move quickly: "Please don’t' dally as we have to be driving to Jaipur," he said. "No problem. We have lots of time, don't we?" I said in an attempt to assure him. "No, I am not wanting to be driving to Jaipur in the dark," he answered. "Kumar," I said. "In India, anything is possible."

Kumar laughed, but I really didn’t heed his advice and this would come back to haunt me later on. My guide was good and he knew his history about Fatehpur Sikri and he probably wondered if I was paying attention to his constant prattle. We spent quite awhile in the Sikri part, photographing everything that was standing, including some striking Korean femme model who posed for me on the Paunch Mahal or five-storied palace. The whole place felt as magical as it did when I first visited here in the early 1980s.

Today was quite a hazy set with all the red or pink buildings that were made from the nearby sandstone of the Arvilla Hills. It is an impressive city to be sure, spread out over the neighbouring hills and in a state of disrepair. Fatehpur Sikri must have been something in its heyday, especially with the Mughal royal court in tow. Today, quite a busy little cottage industry has sprung up from all the tourism that must pour through the main gate. I mucked about in the Sikri section longer than I should have, paying no attention to the time, only to the detail of the architect or artisan’s eye. I was impressed in 1982 and I am still impressed in 1998. It is suppose to be the best preserved archaeological or architectural site in India. I can see why. I was left wondering why Akbar and his royal retinue just up and left this fabulous preserve. 

I had a wonderful photography session as I let the light play with the articulated forms, recessed shadows and delicately carved arches. This was Mughal architecture at its finest, its apex. It has been posited by many scholars that the lightness and simplicity of the architecture is more representative of desert traditions such as Islamic pavilions or tents. Nevertheless, there were lots of craggy fortifications, crenellated machicolations, and other difficult architectural names that usually impress people. Wonderful delicately carved sandstone pillars with Jain-Persian-Hindu-Arabic artistic styles clashed with each other for prominence. I am not so sure if I fully believe the story about the so-called ‘Christian style’ that my guide kept referring to. According to him and some history books, Akbar’s Rajput, Turkish, Christian and Persian wives must have kept him busy with raising the red lanterns. Apparently, the structures and buildings reflect the tastes of the different wives and thus explain the various artistic and architectural styles found at Sikri. In some cases, the outcome is a little confusing and one wonders why bother at all. It’s a real Heinz 57 mish-mash of religious concepts and spiritual attributes. In one case, my guide pointed out the representation of a wine bottle that had been carved in detail on a sandstone pillar—is said to be inspired by the Persian poet Omar Khayyam. I wonder about that one and I will have to check into the history of it.

Much of the inlay work is in light blue tile or faience that offsets the heavier red tones of the local sandstone and is quite a good complement. The Mughal artisans have quite a penchant for inlay work involving geometric designs that are surrounded by template of sandstone. Many of the designs are derived from a circle that is broken down into eight or sixteen pointed stars. Patterns of repetition, symmetry, negative and positive spaces are counter-changed with materials of contrasting colours to create an overall geometric design. Many of the designs are extremely intricate and one can almost see where Escher might have developed some of his artistic ideas. Unfortunately, many of the eight-pointed stars and octagon shapes have fallen out of their template.

However, some of the carved columns inside the buildings looked garish and transparent; maybe the sculptors were taking the mickey out of Akbar without his knowledge. In the Paunch Mahal, there are over 84 columns with intricate carvings upon a sandstone base, so who would notice whether they were ugly or not? The Mughal architects had an eye for detail especially in the char-bagh or fourfold garden. This garden concept of the char-bagh comes directly from the Safavid Kings of Persia, in particular Shah Abbas. These gardens are amazing and it was a shame that I was not here when all the flowers were in bloom. Intermixed in these gardens are ponds and pools that are everywhere within the complex and they allow for wonderful reflections of the Mughal royal palace. The shimmering pools add another dimension to the view that are characteristic of Mughal architecture: depth and illusion. The centre court is broken by bands or strips of darker sandstone/granite that have been inlaid to form a gigantic game of parchesi. Because of the immensity of this ancient Persian board game it would appear that Akbar might have used people of the royal court instead of the usual counters.

After mucking about for awhile, I decided that we better go onto the next area—the Fateh section and the Mosque complex. Unfortunately, we had not allowed enough time and when I got back to the taxi, Kumar told me that I had 20 minutes to see the main section of the complex. So the guide and I hurried back into the main town of Fatehpur Sikr, or the City of Victory. Fatehpur Sikri - King's Gate (Wikimedia)

The Fateh part of the town was impressive to say the least. But I still had to get to the raison d'être for this royal site: Sikri. In order to gain entrance into Sikri one must enter through the Agra Gate in the northeast corner of the site. The main feature in this complex is Shaikh Salim's tomb and it is quite impressive. The tomb is dominated by the brightness of the use of translucent white marble, which contrasts with the sombre heaviness of the red sandstone construction. The saint's tomb was actually built from carved white marble by a later Mughal emperor, Shah Jehan, he of Taj Mahal fame. The tomb is the main focus of the mosque courtyard and its bright hue is the result of the tomb being carved from white marble. The tomb is built on a raised platform with a verandah around the outside. Fine perforated marble screens or jalis enclose the tomb and once you are inside this enclosure, it’s as if you have been transported to an airy tent. The Shaikh's cenotaph is covered by a canopy that is decorated in mother of pearl. According to local tradition, this is a subject of much veneration for those women - Hindu or Muslim - who are barren and want children. The legacy of the Shaikh Salim still lives on at his tomb. However, on this day, there were just a few scholars and other mendicants who were taking in the warm rays of the spring sun. Outside the mosque were a couple of itinerant musicians playing a harmonium and tabla drums as if to invoke the spirit of the great saint. Just why this majestic palace complex was so quickly abandoned remains a mystery. Some historians claim that it is because the water supply dried up, but a more likely explanation is that Akbar moved his royal retinue up to the northwest frontier to bolster his burgeoning empire. In doing so, he established a new capital in Lahore and from here he battled on to save his Mughal Empire. Neither Jehangir nor any of the later Mughal emperors ever lived at Fatehpur Sikri again. As a result, the 'Town of Victory' has remained untouched since the days of Akbar.

Unfortunately, my short sightedness of time didn’t allow me to enjoy the true splendour of Akbar’s city nor enough time to photograph the main entrance into his city. I could have easily spent 3 days at Fatehpur Sikri and inshallah, the next time I will. Fatehpur Sikri is a city of great expanse that is spread out over a large area. There must have been a lot of people living here when it was a flourishing seat of Mughal power.

With real regret, it was time to leave, so Kumar and I beetled off down the winding road that leads to the Amber City of Jaipur. We stopped the car so I could look back and get a final glimpse of Akbar's royal city. In the far distance, I could barely make out the skyline of the "Town of Victory"—it was shrouded in a haze and in history. Its silhouette contrasted nicely with the brilliant mustard fields in the foreground and the colourful village women drawing water nearb: a lasting impression.

About the Author

Emerson Grossmith grew up in Toronto before heading west and working for Parks Canada for 20 years. He received a B.A. and an M.A. in Near Eastern Studies from the University of Toronto, and has travelled through Africa, Asia and the Middle East. He currently teaches English as a Second Language in the UAE. Check out more of Emerson's musings on his blog, What the Traveller Saw, at

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