INDIA'S MOGHUL MAGNIFICENCE
India and the Taj Mahal are almost synonymous terms in the minds of most visitors to the sub-continent. But there is a group of lesser known, but no less dramatic Moghul monuments that lie a mere thirty-five miles away from Agra, (the site of the Taj) in the little village of Fatehpur Sikri.
The story goes that in the mid 1600s, the Moghul Emperor Akbar the Great, beset with anxiety because none of his wives had borne him a son, sought an audience with the reclusive Muslim saint Salim Chisti. The saint blessed the Emperor, and the following year, the birth of Akbar's firstborn son occasioned tumultuous rejoicing throughout the land.
Akbar decided that as a mark of honour to Salim Chisti he would move his capital from Agra to Fatehpur Sikri. and he proceeded to build a wondrous city with buildings of glowing red sandstone, splendid courtyards and airy pavilions.
Along with a couple of friends, I'm in a rather ramshackle, (read cheap!), public bus rattling through one of the huge, now crumbling, entrance archways to the walled city. We dismount only to be assailed by a small army of wannabe guides. Eventually we succumb to the most velcro-like of the lot-an eager young man with an engaging grin. His name is Mahmood.
Despite his fractured English, Mahmood turns out to be a good investment. He also has a flair for the dramatic. "Prisoners killed here on courtyard" he says, throwing himself on the grass beside the stone-flagged entrance pathway. "Elephants trampling on their heads, which are breaking open like coconuts- phut!" He writhes in simulated death throes. "Brains are bloody mess on grass." I am a little dubious about this: Akbar, by all accounts was a humane Emperor and it seems unlikely that he would be capable of such savagery.
The large rust-red palace buildings flank an open courtyard. "This is Parcheesi board," says Mahmood, pointing to an inlaid chequer-like design in one area of the courtyard. "Emperor sit here," pointing to one side, "and opponent, he sit there. Pieces are all beautiful slave girls, or sometimes bad traitors. If traitors killed in game-then killed afterwards too. But slave girls not killed-they only given to winner for enjoy." We nod, bemused.
Photo 1. Carved Archway
The extraordinary Diwan-I-Khas has four sandstone balconies situated high above our heads, representing the Moslem, Christian, Hindu and Buddhist faiths, and they are all linked by bridges to a central column, symbolic of spiritual unity. The Emperor sat on a throne above this central column and held debating sessions with philosophers and intellectuals. Akbar tried to establish a universal religion incorporating the truths common to all faiths, which he labelled "Din I'lahi", but after his death, this idealistic notion faded into obscurity..
Photo 2. Diwan-I-Khas
For all his high seriousness the Akbar also had a sense of play. The Ankh Micholi palace has colonades around which, Mahmood says, the Emperor "did peek-a- boo" with the beauties in his harem.
Photo 4 Hall of Private Audience
It is easy to imagine the Emperor and his court sitting on the terrace of the Panch Mahal (five-tiered palace) listening to Urdu poetry, or the plaintive notes of a sitar. Or perhaps looking on appreciatively as nautch girls thrummed their anklets to the beat of tablas, their silhouettes dipping and whirling against a flaming sunset sky.
Photo 5 Panch Mahal pleasure palace
A little later we stand before the main entrance, subdued by the sheer bulk of a 54-metre high archway called the Buland Darwaza. A Koranic inscription reads "The world is a bridge; pass over it but build no house upon it." Bees, unhindered by this lofty admonition, have built gigantic hives, hanging dark and swollen like malignant tumors, against the inner ceiling of the archway.
Photo 8 Beehives, ceiling of Bulund Darwaza
And then, Fatehpur Sikri lays its final treasure before us: the exquisite shrine of Salim Chishti. Fashioned out of white marble, sunlight filters through its intricately carved marble lattice-work screen. The tomb itself lies under a canopy inlaid with shimmering mother of pearl.
Photo 6 Tomb of Salim Chisti
Yet all this splendour was short lived. The furnace of summer and years of drought reduced the city to a wasteland. The court reluctantly moved to Delhi. And Fatehpur Sikri lay empty and deserted through the succeeding centuries.
Photo 7 Marble lattice windows -Salim Chisti Tomb
Today the village of Fatehpur Sikri is a huddle of poor hutments below the Buland Darwaza, and visitors now flock through the once grand entrance archway not to find an audience at the court of Akbar, but to marvel instead at his legacy of palaces and pavilions that have endured through time. The shrine of Salim Chisti continues to draw devotees: childless women of all faiths still come in pilgrimage, seeking the same blessing that a mighty Emperor craved more than four hundred years ago: the gift of a son.
IF YOU GO:
Getting There: The airconditioned and well-appointed Shatabdi Express runs daily from Delhi to Agra and back the same day. Tour packages which include a visit to the Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri are available through travel agents in Canada. Many Delhi hotels also have a travel agent's desk situated in their lobbies..
For personalized service contact Mr. Javed Ali (firstname.lastname@example.org) who runs Real Tours India, a small family owned travel agency in Delhi. Their website isn't impressive, but their service is. See http://www.realtoursindia.com/same_day_agra_tour.html
PHOTOS: Courtesy http://scottuae.blogspot.com/2010/12/india-travels-11-fatehpur-sikri.html except when otherwise attributed.
1. Carved archway detail
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