A Visit to the abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri – Part I

In 16th Century, childless and desperate for a heir, The Great Mughal Emperor Akbar undertook a pilgrimage on foot to the shrine of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti in Ajmer. On the way he visited Sheikh Salim Chisti – a great Sufi Saint of that time. Sheikh Salim correctly prophesied that he would have three sons. Soon after, when Maharani Jodhabai was pregnant, she was sent to Sikri and gave birth to Akbar’s first son in saint’s cave. The grateful king named his first son, Salim(who later became Emperor Jahangir), after the Sufi saint and moved his capital to Sheikh’s village of Sikri to give Mughal grandeur to this spiritual abode. He created a city, away from crowd and congestion of Agra, that perfectly reflected his imperial power and artistic interests. This magnificent fortified city, built between 1565-1585, was the capital of Mughal Empire for around 15 yrs during Akbar’s reign.

Sikri was the first planned city of the Mughals. Akbar chose to construct this capital on the natural feature of the terrain. Terraces on receding level were used for three main complexes: The mosque complex at the highest level – comprising of Jami Masjid, Tomb of Sheikh Salim Chisti and Buland Darwajah. Royal complex on the lower level comprising of Raniwas, Mahal-I-ilaahi, Shahi Bazaar, Meena Bazaar, Baithak and gardens. And the public complex at the lowest level comprised of Panch Mahal, Khawabghah, Shahi kutub khana, Ibaadat khana, deewaan-i-aam.

The city did not last long as the capital; it was abandoned around 1600, according to some, the meager water supply that proved incapable of sustaining the population was the cause for it and according to others it was because Akbar shifted to Punjab owing to political reasons. Now deserted it is perfectly preserved, a masterpiece in sandstone, glowing in subtly changing shades of pink and red as day progresses & light fades.

7th Nov. 2007 – We decided to drive to Fatehpur Sikri. The route we took was Delhi-Faridabad-Palwal-Mathura-Bharatpur-Fatehpur Sikri. We started at 8:30 am and with a small lunch break reached Fatehpur Sikri at around 2:30 pm.

I am always fascinated by sight of a temple on a hilltop or distant ruins sometimes standing in perfect solitude. They make me wonder about the stories behind those constructions – who, why and how constructed them and left them to be forgotten. For me Fatehpur was a real treasure with so many stories of by gone era enveloped in its red stone. When we reached Fatehpur the silhouette of the fortified ghost city was looking very impressive.


As we reached Fatehpur, we were gheraoed by a number of touts/guides/agents even before we could park our car. The most difficult part of visiting Fatehpur Sikri is to get rid of these irritatingly persistent guides/touts. We were told numerous lies like – we would not be allowed to enter the complex without a guide. The Auto-wallah would charge the same amount as the CNG bus going to the fort. The “Tanga” (Horse cart) would not go as close to the fort as the Auto would go. After persuasions (that we didn’t need guide), strict warning (that they are wasting their time and we would not take them at any cost) and finally totally neglecting them, we board the CNG bus and reached at the entrance. We were not charged a single penny for that though I don’t know it was a mistake or the bus was free for tourists.

We bought the ticket to enter inside and were about to enter that a tout got hold of me and suggested us to visit the mosque complex first (which is free) and then to enter the main complex. My Brother-In-Law resisted it and we entered from the paid part of the complex. That was a very good decision.

The first courtyard in the complex was “Deewan-i-aam”. That was the place where major festivals were celebrated by the Emperor with the public and also the one where common man could put-forth his problems/petitions (Fariyaad) to the king. To the right of the path that leads into the Deewan-i-aam is a great stone ring embedded into the earth. It is believed that at that place the condemned were crushed to death by an elephant in full view of the emperor and his court.

The first impression of the complex was very nice, very well maintained lawns suiting the grandeur of this Mughal fort.

From “Deewan-i-aam “ we entered into “Deewan-i-Khaas”or “Ibadat khana”. Akbar was a philosopher and a connoisseur of religions. In his pursuit of the truth behind religions he encouraged debates on religious subjects. Initially these debates were only open to Sunnis but later on multi religious environment of India attracted him. He started listening discourses from all the major religions of that time – Islam, Hinduism, Jainism, Jesuits and Judaism.

The centerpiece of that room was a highly decorated pillar – Throne pillar, from which four bridges were radiating. Akbar’s throne was placed on the circular platform over the central pillar. Akbar, seated on his throne, listened to the discussions/debates among representatives/gurus of all the major religions of that time .

Throne Pillar

I felt that the design of that room was very symbolic – bridges signified that the various religions were the various ways to reach the GOD, Pillar signified that there is only one GOD and the choice of King’s throne on central pillar was to signify his closeness to the GOD.

In the later years of his life Akbar founded a new religion – Deen-i-elaahi. At the time when in Europe people were burnt on the charges of heresy and blasphemy by churches for their philosophies and scientific discoveries, there was a powerful Mughal Emperor trying to synthesize the best practices of all Indian religions into one. Isn’t this amazing? More significant was that even after proposing new religion he never forced his subjects to follow that. In-fact that religion was only embraced by very few nobles, most notable among them was Birbal – Akbar’s close friend and famous for his wits among Akbar’s “nauratna” – The nine Jewels.

My mind counter argued, Deen-i-elaahi was proposed to put Emperor as Supreme authority. It may be out of Akbar’s need to counter, sharp criticism of Ulemmas for marrying more than four women. He never forced this religion, as he was very shrewd. He knew it very well that the religious tolerance was the only way to expand his empire. Akbar built and strengthened Mughal Empire through his religious tolerance and the same empire crumbled three generations later due to religious intolerance of Aurangzeb .


View from the window in Deewaane-Khaas.

From Deewane-Khaas we entered Treasury or Aankh-Michauli.
The Treasury or Aankh Michauli was composed of three rooms. Current thinking suggests that that building was used as the imperial treasury of gold and silver coins. Its brackets had mythological sea creatures carved on it signifying the guardians of the treasures of the deep sea – indicating its usage as treasury. But the popular belief is that Akbar used it for playing “Aankh Michauli” (hide and seek) with the ladies of his harem. I personally felt that it was a perfect place to play “Aankh Michauli” than being a treasury. Rachit and Shashwat (My Brother-in-law’s kid) immediately started running around,

The Treasury  or Peekaboo Courtyard?

and we started to wonder that how the kings used to used to guard the enormous treasure they had at their disposal. Did the common practice of hiding the gold in the walls, floors was followed only by common man or kings also used to do the same? Did they use to hide a part of it for their difficult time? In short, can there be gold buried in the complex or around. Am I inciting a sort of Gold rush :)?

From Treasury we came to the courtyard “Pachisi Court” that was separating Deewane-khaas and the opposite side of the complex (Daulatkhana / Khawabgah). There was the most conspicuous and beautiful structure of the whole complex – The Panchmahal on our right hand side. There are five-storeys that taper to single kiosks at the top. It was like a house of cards where each of the five storeys was stepped back from the previous one. Akbar enjoyed beautiful evenings, the full-moon nights and the cool breeze sitting in the top kiosk. This Mahal was connected with haram on the third floor from where his wives could join him. All the storeys originally had stone jaalis on their sides – these walls are now removed. There are in total around 176 columns in it none of which are similar to each other.

Panch Mahal

In Pachisi court there was a giant stone board of the game “Chausar”. It is believed that Akbar used to play this game using slave girls as live pieces. According to Abul Fazal – Another jewel of Akbar’s Nauratna- at a time there were about 200-300 people playing the game with Akbar and they were not allowed to go home till the Emperor had played 16 rounds of this game. If those playing with Akbar ever become restless, they were served cupfuls of alcohol.

Pachisi Court

At this point I stopped and analyzed, there are still many things I would like to share, in-fact my post is not yet half done. There was a continuous debate in my mind that praising the patience would help readers to continue ;) or I should post the rest of the story in second part. I realized I am not Akbar and I don’t offer my readers even a glass of beer, so sanity demands that I stop here and post the second part later.

CHEERS!

Deewan-I-khaas as viewed from Pachisi court.

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30 Comments

  • nandanjha says:

    Its very early morning and I am just done with this stupid office tea (the one which comes from a vending machine, if i find the person who invented it, I would kill him, really cherish old times to have that paka-hua-tea (boiled)). anyway.

    What a marvelous piece, with all the history strewn-n-sewed amid the background of Sikri. I been to this place many times and I am sure that any further visit needs a thorough read of this story.

    Typically it takes not more then four hours to drive from Delhi, if you can avoid office peak traffic, so if you start at 7, you would reach by 11.

    Part 2, part 2, part 2…

  • SilkRoad says:

    thanks we sure appreciate your kind comments.

  • lonelygirl says:

    Fatehpur is a great city and there are many great photoes , I love this page. I hope I will havechance to visit this city in near future.

    Fatehpur is a marvelous master piece of ancient India .

  • smitadhall says:

    great article, Manish! In the forthcoming “Jodha Akbar”, I’m hoping to see a lot of Fatehpur Sikri :) It is one of the most lavish yet well-defined forts that I have seen around. Each area seems to make so much sense, though most of it is at the mercy of tourist guides. I always recommend this over the Taj and the Red Fort (Agra), if the guys have already seen Taj once.

  • Manish Khamesra says:

    Nandan,

    Thanks for your beautiful comment. You can understand my appreciataion for your comment as I am also writing it, sipping the same vending machine tea ;). I was wondering that how people make to Sikri/Agra in 3-4 Hrs as we too didn’t find much traffic and were moving at fast pace. I think may be we were moving fast after leaving Faridabad behind.

    LonelyGirl

    Thanks for your appreciation. It was my first visit to fatehpur Sikri, though its so near by, but I am totally impressed by this very well kept fort. Please do visit it. Its worth a day.

    Smita

    Thanks again.I am also waiting to see “Jodha Akbar” for the lavish dresses and historical sets. Sometimes I wonder that can we make period movie with the true faces of all the characters involved ?
    I was also very impressed by Fatehpur Sikri. In the beginning I thought that Sikri means Buland Darwaza and that’s all. I was so happy to see that all my presumtions were wrong. Its a beautiful place to be visited. I have yet to visit Agra. The places that are near by, they tend to get postponed in your travel itinery as those places can be visited anytime.
    In general I have noticed that Unesco sites/ monuments are really well maintained.

    Thanks again to all.

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Manish,

    Your beautifully written article on Fatehpur sikri came right on time. A friend of mine from USA is joining me for a visit to Agra within the next 2-3 days and your post will be of immense help to us.

  • Manish Khamesra says:

    Ram Sir,

    Thanks for the appreciation. I felt good and bad too. In first reading I thought its 2-3 weeks and was happy that till that time I would post the II part too. But its 2-3 days and in this time frame it would not be possible for me.

    It gives immense pleasure to be part of a portal where we have contributions from a kid to people of your experience. I look ghumakkar as a legacy that we can leave for the next generation. To propel them to explore so many beautiful places of the world.

    Thanks again.

  • Manish Khamesra says:

    Thanks East Lione & Silk Road.

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Manish,

    I am touched and honoured by your generous comments. The fact remains that we learn a lot from youngsters (that’s how the civilisation progresses).Being still in the process of learning, I must take this opportunity to thank persons like you, Backpakker, Nandan and the whole lot of contributors for keeping us updated.

    Though a little late, I am very happy to be associated with portal.

    Would keenly look forward to Part II of your article and others too.

    God bless you all.

  • backpakker says:

    Ive been buried in websites and books looking for some info on south indian history and I badly needed to get some inspiration to write …and lo ! I found your post ….I think I found my muse…thanks..great legacy indeed :)

  • nandanjha says:

    Guys – Dont make me feel old :) so early. Its the first small baby step, I am sure we would turn this into a splendid journey for all.

    Sanjay – Desi Trip Part 2 – ???
    Ram – Rest of Switzerland please ?
    Manish – More of Sikiri
    Ashish – London ?
    Vivek – San Diego ?
    Ajeet – Golkunda Drive ?
    Shubham – Renuka (or was that somewhere else) and of course Singapore ?
    Geetha – What about tales when Gayatri was not 5
    Sanjeev Panchmarhi Kumar – Madurai ?
    Karthik – Brhma Temple thingie. Motivate dad more please

    and many more who I wont name since they are first story away and I see lots of drafts.

    Check the new ‘Destinations’ page, it looks all Red (which I need to fix) but there is already quite a bit of good inspiring text.

  • poojapillai says:

    I love Fatehpur Sikri. It’s one of my favourite places in the world. There’s a certain charm it has which only ancient, dead cities which have seen greatness, have.

  • Manish Khamesra says:

    Ram Sir,

    Thanks for your blessings. I am proud to be part of this family. And yes, your switzerland posts are highly awaited. Please write them also in the same detailed way as part I.

    Nandan,

    Destination page is better. Do we need something more ? Don’t kill me, if I say yes a few more things. I will write my suggestion after thinking a little about them.

    Desipundit,

    Thanks Lekhni for liking the post. For me its a pride to get a recommendation at Desipundit.

    Backpakker,

    Thanks.
    A few days back I was searching for a good book in local book store. A very good book that is simple, easy to read, with beautiful description. I should say that with limited time at my hand and limited knowledge of the kind of author I was really looking for, I couldn’t find one very fast.
    I am sure if there were a book with backpakker as author, I would have picked it up immidiately :)

    Pooja,

    I completely agree with you. Sikri has something very special in it.

    Problem with Indian history is that there is so less written account is available that most of the time its difficult to be sure about the correctness of them. While writing and reading we have to believe our instincts.

  • Celine says:

    Hi
    Nandan Jha directed me to this site and I am thankful to him for that. It’s a nice place here.

    I got naturally fascinated with this post, having just returned from a visit to Agra (and other incredible places in MP, about which I shall be blogging in due course as I am currently at the Taj Mahal.)

    When you can spare sometime, please drop in at my post on Fatehpur Sikri at:
    http://indicaspecies.blogspot.com/2008/01/fatehpur-sikri-palace-complex.html
    and a couple of posts in and around it as they are kind of inter-related.

    Your post here is impressive and detailed and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Fatehpur Sikri is indeed incredible. I shall be dropping in at ghumakkar more often to read further. :)

  • Manish Khamesra says:

    Hello Celine,

    Thanks for your generous appreciation. In-fact before reading your comment I just browsed through your blog. You are very keen photographer, esp the photographs of places in MP are incredible.

    I also read your post about Fatehpur Sikri, I can say that the interests in knowing more about a place are the same. Ghumakkar is my first blogging experience and I have started to feel that with it I am knowing more people with similar interests in travelling.

    Celine, please start contributing to ghumakkar (for reading you are always welcome, but your writing will enrich us with the beautiful places in the world). I wish that you would enjoy the experience of writing on it too.

    Thanks again.

  • Manish Khamesra says:

    Celine,

    One more thing: At present I just browsed through your post on Sikri, but I will read in detail from home. My first feeling is that its a great post as well as blog and I would definitely know more about Sikri.

    Thanks for inviting to your blog, I am impressed by the travel you have done. More after going through it in detail.

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Manish,

    Thanks for giving us a whole lot of information about Fatehpur Sikri, especially the practical aspects, which saved us from many headaches, specifically from the touts (which unfortunately were in plenty both at Taj and Sikri). As per your advise, we took the CNG bus and within three minutes reached the complex. The touts would not only have charged an exorbitant price, but would also have taken to all obnoxious emporia for making unwanted purchases (this happened to us at the Taj)

    Sadelled with your article I and my friend Eddy Jayaraj from U S visited the complex. Though I had been to Sikri earlier, this trip proved to be more informative, thanks to your handsomely written article.

    There were a few observations.

    1. Visiting the Dargah of Hazrat Salim Chisti Saheb has always been a great soul stirring experience.

    2. The small time guide, who offered his services for twenty rupees took us through the Shahi Darwaza from which Akbar and his family visited the Dargah. The Dargah, as you know is still being managed by the Saint’s family members (perhaps the sixteenth generation now) As soon as you turn to the right, you will find the graves of the family members of the Saint through the generations. we were told that the women were buried in the covered verandas and men folks were buried in the open courtyard. Over a period, owing to the space constraints, they also buried a few women in the open. When asked about the differenciation mark for the male / femalee graves, Mohd. Tajibuddin, the guide told us that while male graves carried the mark of a “pencil”, the ones for the ladies carried the mark of a “slate” (children in the good old days learnt to write on the slates).

    The other thing we came to know that in the Masjid there was a separate room for prayer for the visiting ladies (normally muslim women pray at home).

    I would keenly look forward to the Part II of your visit at the complex.

  • Manish Khamesra says:

    Thanks Ram Sir,

    Its good to know that you were able to use the information provided (It gives a sense of satisfaction). I was not aware of the informations you provided about the difference in tombs, separate area for prayer for ladies & the Mosque complex area being managed by Salim Chsti’s family.

    We also took a small time guide, but I felt that his only interest was to make us buy some thread or the Chaddar to be put at the Majar, once he knew we are not interested in doing so, he lost interest. He charged only 10 Rs, so no complain about it.

    I think with my second post too, we would get some detailed enhancement from you as you have just visited it or may be a post from you as we all have different experiences and in this way we can put all our versions together.

  • Jaspreet Kaur says:

    You have penned down brilliantly Manish…I felt like i am living in those times of Akbar!!!

    i too will visit the place soon now after such a miraculous desciption…

  • Manish Khamesra says:

    Thanks Jaspreet for the appreciation. I always wish that people travel a lot as I feel that it helps in broadening one’s vision. After getting associated with Ghumakkar, I wish that people should travel a lot and should come back with their own story and vision of the place they visited on ghumakkar.

    As a contributer or as a reader, I hope to see you more often.

  • nandanjha says:

    When is part 2 coming ? I hope its soon.

  • Manish Khamesra says:

    Nandan, Here I am with the second and concluding part.

  • Celine says:

    Manish,

    I’m back to reading your Part I after reading your Part II and I am not quite sure where and how do I begin to comment on Part II? Lately, probably because of my recent trip, I felt the need to get more information on the history of Mughals, Akbar in particular, and with special interest in his liberal approach to religion, and therefore could comment on this topic. You seem to be admiring him in this post, while I did not feel you felt similarly in Part II.

    Anyway, until I put my thoughts together to comment on Part II, let me first thank you here (though belated) for your generous compliments. I’m delighted that you liked my pictures.

    As I’ve assured Nandan, I shall contribute to ghumakkar shortly and yes, I’m sure to enjoy it since it will be my first experience beyond my humble blog. Once again, thanks a lot for your encouragement. :)

  • Shreyasi Singh says:

    Hi Manish,

    It was good reading your post on Fatehpur Sikri. It was one of my favorite destinations too…until I revisited it again at the end of January. We had actually gone on a bird watching trip to Bharatpur and I was very keen that we cover Fatehpur as well. But, now I wish I hadn’t gone. It was disillusioning to see the degeneration of the place, the way it has been forced to become a parasite for the entire town around it. I don’t blame the residents of the area but how can one not be upset at the way our rich history is sold for so little every single day? I had gone to Fatehpur Sikri after 9 years! I hope things are better in 2017.

  • manish khamesra says:

    Hi Shreyasi,

    Thanks for visiting Ghumakkar as well as liking the post. I went to Sikri in Nov last year for the first time. I was not expecting it to be so beautiful and well kept.

    It seems you had some very bad experience there. In case you feel things can change by putting forth your observation, please do share them. In general we like a place or not highly depends upon the experience with the people in that place too. We MUST learn as we Indians (esp the North indians, I am part of it) have very bad reputation among tourists and its our conduct in general that create such reputation.

  • Sarwar Tch says:

    I am very happy to read your articles its very useful for me,About “Fatehpur Sikri”

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