Fatehpur Sikri

by Martin Noval

Fatehpur Sikri is the deserted, wonderfully preserved 16th-century capital city of the Mughal Emperor Akbar. One of the world’s great monarchs, Akbar was a “renaissance” man: hunter (he once killed a tiger with his bare hands) and warrior, poet and philosopher (all the more remarkable for he was illiterate), ruler and statesman. Under his rule the Mughal Empire came of age. He consciously strove to synthesize the subcontinent’s two apparently incompatible religions: monotheistic, expansionist Islam and pantheistic, pacific Hinduism. Even Buddhists, Jains and Christians were included in his famous religious debates.

Akbar located his capital here in Fatehpur Sikri, in what was probably a rare weak moment of emotional exuberance, in gratitude to a Sufi Saint who predicted that a male heir would be born to Akbar and survive to inherit the throne only if his wife spent her confinement at Sikri, which was then a small village. The city is a wonderful expression of Akbar’s personality. The architecture is restrained yet heroic, masculine yet elegant, almost classical in its quiet grandeur, certainly noble, if not truly simple. All in dark red sandstone, the scale of the buildings is majestic but not pompous. It has been called a city of stone tents, harking back to the semi-nomadic past of the Mughals. The buildings are without the profusion of marble and semi-precious stone inlay favored by his successors, but which Akbar would have found decadent.

The Hall of Private Audience is a masterpiece of design. The fairly small chamber is dominated by a great pillar in its center (yet another cosmic pillar) carved in a variety of styles representative of the different religions of the empire. Akbar sat on a platform atop this pillar, which is connected to the corners of the room by catwalks (or “rays of the sun” that emanate from the Emperor himself) where members of various religions sat to discuss theology.

Other noteworthy buildings abound, including a palace with five recessed stories designed to catch every stray breeze, and an open-air dance hall where the dancing platform is an island in a reflecting pool.

Fatehpur Sikri bears the imprint of one man, Akbar, but Agra’s Fort is the legacy of the three greatest Mughal Emperors: Akbar, Jehangir and Shah Jahan. Here we see the evolution of Mughal style from the restrained buildings in red sandstone favored by Akbar to the elegance and opulence of white marble with semi-precious stone inlay and cusped arches of Shah Jahan’s buildings.

Inside this vast space, surrounded by double, beautifully striated red sandstone walls with two moats between them (one for crocodiles, the other for tigers), we move through courtyards, each containing a palace and garden. We compare the earthy vision of a rugged man of action (Akbar) with the refined, delicate tastes of his cosseted, sybaritic son and grandson (Jehangir and Shah Jahan). The marble inlay work in Shah Jahan’s palace here is as fine as anything ever made. The sweeping curved roofs of his daughters’ twin palaces flanking his own are bold strokes. One courtyard contains a gigantic tub carved from a single block of stone with steps both outside and inside so that Nur Jahan (wife of Jehangir) could get in and out of her bath. Here, it is said, she bathed in rose-petal-scented water, which led her to invent attar of roses, the rose perfume still widely used in the subcontinent.

Copyright © Martin Noval 2012