The unrelenting sun fails to cast a shadow on our plan to travel back in time. As we step out of the hotel’s air-conditioned comfort with shades, caps and many bottles of chilled water, our amused Haryanvi driver smiles, “Shaherwale ho na, dhup nahi bhayega,” (you city-dwellers cannot tolerate the sun). With that, we head out on the road to Fatehpur Sikri at 2:00 in the afternoon.
The 37 km drive from Agra is marked by the sights and sounds of a place grudgingly coming to terms with the present without losing its hold on a royal past. We pass through narrow, bustling gullies and messy markets and suddenly find ourselves in front of the menacing red walls of Agra Fort. After a brief halt at the colossal structure, we resume our journey to the City of Victory ( fateh means victory), the capital of the Mughals during Akbar’s reign.
Our nap is rudely broken by wild knocks on the windows of the car. A bunch of fly-by-day tourist guides are insisting that we will be able to appreciate the beauty of the place only with their assistance. A little boy emerges from nowhere shouting, “They are asking for 100 rupees, I will ask for 40”. It’s not easy being a tourist.
We are Internet-informed and pay no heed to their demands. But when we alight to get into the bus that will take us to the tomb of Sufi saint Sheikh Salim Chishti, we find that one of the guides has followed us all the way on a bike. We give in and Sarfaraz walks us around the breathtaking monument with his rehearsed commentary. Petty issues cease to matter when you are at the mighty 40m high Buland Darwaza, built by Akbar to mark his conquest over Gujarat. Eyes widen, jaws drop and pages of school history books rapidly flip through the mind as you look up at the semi-octagonal and magnificent red sandstone gateway embellished with intricate marble inlay work.
Amid the bead sellers, alms-seekers and petty traders, you can still find calm when the soulful strains of the singers kneeling in front of Chishti’s mazar resonate inside. The high-pitched voices remind you of A.R. Rahman’s heart-rending ‘Khwaja mere khwaja’ from Jodhaa Akbar that so beautifully captured the drama of the era. The naqqashi and jaali work, the pillars holding up the chajja (sunshade) of the pristine white marble mausoleum — they all define the grandeur of Mughal architecture.
Sarfaraz tells us Akbar came to Sikri to seek the saint’s blessings for an heir to the throne and soon three sons were born to him. In the saint’s honour, he named his first son Salim, who later assumed the throne as Emperor Jahangir. Though originally built in red sandstone , the dargah was converted to marble later. Akbar was extremely fond of Fatehpur Sikri and he took special interest in its construction that took 15 years. But water scarcity and disturbances in the North-West frontier forced Akbar to relocate after a few years.
The graves of the male members of Salim Chishti’s family are on one side of the tomb and behind it, in a small, dark room. And then suddenly you step on to the seamless pavilions, the regal corridors of power, that surround the mazar. Sarfaraz stops to show us the secret tunnel that led to the Lal Qila in Agra. The pavilions, he tells us, also served as madrasas (schools). One side leads to an open area, like a modern-day balcony, from where one could see the tiny village of Sikri and also the ground where Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty, fought and won the famous battle against Rana Sanga of Mewar. Fatehpur, surrounded on three sides by walls six kilometers long, also played host to the nine gems of Akbar’s court, the proof of which is Birbal Bhawan, the residence of Akbar’s favourite minister, known for his wit and wisdom. Tiny houses dot the arid landscape, among whose residents are also Saint Chishti’s descendants.
As I leave through the Badshahi darwaza, a young man thrusts some beaded chains in front of my face, “Haar lelo,” he says. I refuse sternly to take the proffered beads. Where’s the possibility of a haar (haar means necklace and also failure in Hindi) in a place that celebrates Abu'l-Fath Jalal ud-din Muhammad Akbar’s buland jeet (mighty victory)?
Jodha Bai’s Palace
It is quiet, strong and magnificent. Like the queen after whom it’s named. The Jodha Bai Palace with its amalgam of architectural styles, open spaces, well-defined areas and green gardens is a beautiful and well-maintained monument. Adjacent to the Buland Darwaza, the palace, although named after Akbar’s Rajput wife, was said to be the residence of various of his queens . The large courtyard is surrounded by quarters in red sandstone that are striking with their semi-circular domes, chhatris, carved pillars, slanting roofs and intricate motifs on the walls. A rectangular room with floral, geometric patterns and jhumkas carved on the walls is supposed to have been the kitchen. Another fascinating feature of the palace is the Panch Mahal. As the name suggests it has five storeys, each smaller than the one below it, and the topmost one stands on four slender pillars. A place of recreation, the Panch Mahal with its 176 intricately designed columns was accessed by the queens through a screened passage connecting the third storey to the kitchen. These structures are not just reminders of a long gone era, their designs reflect the sensibilities and persona of Emperor Akbar.