When Marion and Sally, two English teachers of St Thomas’ School, Mandir Marg, set out on a trip to Fatehpur Sikri in 1978, they boarded the last train from Delhi. “It sounds ominous, like the last plane from Da Nang, when South Vietnam was overrun by the Viet Minh,” remarked Sally, “Yes,” recalled Marion. “Many struggled to board the plane. Some were left behind but in the melee an enterprising Western reporter was not only able to capture the heart-wrenching scene, but also played the hero by helping a hysterical woman and her kid take his seat on the plane as he jumped down to shoot what later turned out to be award-winning pictures of the airport scramble.”
The last train from Old Delhi station did not cause any such frenzied commotion. Over 40 years ago it was the one that was supposed to leave just before midnight, but the departure was invariably delayed. From Delhi Main station it ran up to Agra Cantt, its destination, and took seven hours to do so, usually even more. The passenger train had a whole lot of policemen travelling in it. As a matter of fact, right from the ticket window they made their presence felt when they pulled suspicious-looking youths out of the queue and slapped and punched them before asking questions like, “Where are you going? Where did you get the money to buy the ticket? Are you drunk? Who else is travelling along with you? Where do you live?” before searching them with their shirts off and pants down,” the two teachers recalled.
When they caught the train they didn’t see those young men again. The train made three false starts, provoking someone to remark that the driver was shaking the compartments to fit in more passengers. Finally it started rolling, with several urchins rushing to catch it. By the time the train reached New Delhi station it was nearly 1 a.m. After that the Passenger stopped at every station big or small and as people got down, many were detained and searched by policemen on the platform. But the two girls reached Agra Cantt station safely. From there they were escorted by friends Sam, Lewis and this scribe by car to Sikri.
The shrine at Fatehpur Sikri is one of the most venerated places. Where wild animals once roamed a gem of a monument now greets the eye,” disclosed Sam. “It was here on a hill that Sheikh Salim Chisti dwelt and thither came Akbar the Great to seek his help for the birth of a son and heir apparent. He came on foot, leaving his camels, elephants and horses behind. The hermit sat with a rosary (tasbi) reciting the 99 names of Allah. The emperor’s prayers were heard and his Rajput queen bore a son, Salim, whom Akbar always called Sheikhu Baba, after the saint. Not only that, he built this magnificent city to commemorate the event and dwelt here with his Nine Jewels, like the Nine Worthies of the ancient world. “I have heard about the Nine Jewels,” said Marion, “but who were the Nine Worthies?” “Hector, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Joshua, David, Judas Maccabaeus, King Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey of Bouillon,” replied Sam without batting an eyelid.
Sam related his tale standing by Sally’s side. She listened, her doe eyes thoughtful. As they approached the trellis of the shrine where people who seek favours tie a thread, she tied one too, making Sam wonder what she had sought. They next went to the Buland Darwaza and saw the town of Sikri spread out before them. Nearby is the water works set up by Akbar and from above the ramparts a man dived 80 feet into the baoli or step-well. They looked aghast. “Just you wait and see,” said Sam as Lewis nodded in approval. Soon a dare-devil emerged and salaam-ed them. They tipped him and he walked away to prepare for another demonstration. “These divers have been continuing the tradition for several centuries. VIPs and common people alike tip them. Perhaps, it will continue so long as there is water in the baoli. But it is a paradox that Akbar, who built a new capital here, had to desert it because of water scarcity.” Sam informed the party. They went down the steps of Buland Darwaza, Sam pointing out the Hiran Minar from where the shikar was shot in Mughal times, though some think that Akbar’s famous elephant was buried there and perhaps that’s why it is also called Elephant Tower.
At Sikri town they had the fabulous 24-layer Mughalia parantha. “Why is this parantha so thick?” enquired Marion. “It could feed one whole family.” “Quite right,” said Sam. “Ask Sally, when we were last here she had to take half the parantha to Delhi where we had it for breakfast the next day and the remainder for lunch.”
“Did Akbar really play with women as chess pieces? “enquired Sally.” Off course he did,” replied Sam. “Don’t talk rubbish. Listening to you one would imagine the great Akbar had nothing else to do but seduce maids of honour”, admonished Lewis. From there the party went to the Taj Mahal and then caught the Taj Express back to Delhi after a memorable day. Marion and Sally are now back in England and Sam works in Bangalore, where Lewis keeps reminding him of the visit whenever he rings up from Kolkata.