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

Table of contents for Fatehpur Sikri

  1. A Visit to the abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri – Part I
  2. A Visit to the abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri – Part II

Akbar is often remembered as a liberal ruler who expanded Mughal Empire to the vast region but his lust for women is lesser known. The royal complex of Fatehpur Sikri was witness to his typical Mughal attitude towards women. The number of women in his harem increased with every victorious expedition. The defeated kings and nobles were forced to gift their most beautiful daughters, who together with their maidservants were installed in Royal Zenana. Akbar collected and amassed women like an antique collector. At its height of splendor the royal harem at Fatehpur had around 5000 women, guarded by an army of eunuchs and no man was allowed inside. Akbar counted Hindu, Muslim and even Christians among his wives. These women were brought from all corners of his kingdom and even from far away places like Russia, Afghanistan, Turkey, Iran and Tibet. There is even mention of a Portuguese woman gifted to him.

I read a book “Goli” by Acharya Chatursen. This novel details the life inside Zenana Dyodi of Rajput kings; situation in Mughal harem should be similar. King’s arrival to the harem was often a reason for celebrations and usage of drugs and liquor was very common among its inmates.

Some of the women in Harem were very powerful and rich too. It is believed that during Jahangir’s rule, Nurjahan managed empire from Harem. Jahangir was mostly too drunk to manage the daily affairs. As a result of money and power at some women’s disposal, jealousies in the harem was also rife. The work of maintaining law and order among all of Akbar’s wives, minor wives, their kaneez and baandis, paramours, musicians, dancers & whatnot was major preoccupation. It was noted by Abul Fazal that the government of the kingdom was an amusement compared with such a task. I don’t think anybody would disagree.

The house of Turkish Sultana is on the left hand side of the Pachisi court That building is thought to be palace of one of Akbar’s favorite wife, Sultana Ruqayya Begum. The building had one large room surrounded by pillars with beautiful designs of trees and flowers. The design on the pillars and walls of the room, built with redstone, was so minute and delicate as if done on wood.

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This design is also showing some chinese influence.

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Another intricately carved panel.

Detail from a pillar outside  the House of Turkish Sultana

A carved pillar outside the house of Turkish Sultana.

On one side of the house of the Turkish Sultana, is Anup Talao, a pretty tank. In its center was balustrade platform approached by four causeways supported on narrow stone pillars. It was intended for imperial amusement and private functions. During Akbar’s reign it was filled with perfumed water.

It is said that sitting on central platform, Akbar’s another Nauratna & greatest composer musician in Hindustani classical music, Mian Tansen would perform different ragas at different times of day, and the Emperor and his select audience would honour him with coins. Legend is that on Akbar’s continuous insistence Tansen once sang Deepak raga sitting on the dais of this platform. Deepak raga is a raga of Indian classical music that generates so much heat that can even light candles but the heat generated could be fatal for the performer. He was successful in lighting the candles but he himself grew hotter and hotter. In order to save his father from burning, his daughter, Saraswati Devi, performed Megha Malhar Raga . It is a Raga associated with rains. Understandably, nervous at this great responsibility, she faltered on the seventh note of the scale and this deviation from main note is called “Mian ki Malhar” – one of the famous and stirrings raga. Finally, she succeeded in bringing the desired effect; rain fell and cooled down master performer’s body and soul.

Anoop Talav

Facing Anup Talo from other side of gardens were Akbar’s private quarters – Deewan-Khana-I-Khaas / Daulat Khana or the khawabghah. This imperial residential complex was composed of two rooms on the ground floor and a well-ventilated pavilion on the first floor. The room on the ground floor was the Emperor’s library, where he would be read to from a collection of 50,000 manuscripts. Akbar was an illiterate, but he had enormous interest in books. He was very possessive about his books and allegedly took them with him wherever he went. On side note I feel that the “Daulatkhana” is a perfect name for library. On this lower portion there was raised platform and it is believed that this was the place where Akbar slept. Behind the platform there were stone jaalis & women of his harem came through this passage and met him. The platform was very high and I felt that without a ladder it was not possible to go over it. Either there was a stairs that are now removed or may be for Emperor’s safety a ladder was put when he wanted to sleep, which was removed later on.

The gang enjoying the beautiful views of anup Talao from the pavilion

From here we moved towards Akbar’s main harem – Jodhabai’s Palace. Rani Jodhabai was daughter of the king of Amber. It was through this high profile marriage Akbar secured his alliance with the fierce Rajputs. The palace blends traditional Islamic architecture with Hindu elements from Gujarat and Rajasthan. It had a very big courtyard with many rooms around it. On north and south sides there was a thatched roof kind of structure that was tiled in blue color bricks. The Hindu wives of Akbar used it as their worship place. It is also believed by some that this was Akbar’s main harem that might be wrongly attributed as Jodhabai’s Palace.

I peeped into one room, it was perfectly dark, no provision for any light. I am writing this to emphasize the kind of accommodations women in harem used to live in. On lighter note, with the kind of news we get on 24 hours news channel I would not be surprised if one day TV channels would reach there and show us the dark rooms as evidence that Maharani Jodhabai was a photographic enthusiast and those were the dark rooms where she developed them.

View of Jodha Bai's Palace

View of Jodhabai’s Palace

From Jodhabai’s Palace when we moved to Birbal’s palace, we saw the Turkish bath.

Birbal Palace fronts into the lower Haramsara. This is not clear that why this building was called Birbal’s palace. This building was an integral part of Akbar’s harem. So it’s unimaginable that Birbal lived in this area. Most probably Akbar’s senior queen Salima Sultan Begum lived in this house.

Lower Haramsara – In the beginning this large colonnaded structure was thought to be camel, elephant and horse stable. Now it is believed that this place was probably intended for housing the servicing maids of the ladies harem. The stone rings in evidence there were used for partitioning the space by fixing curtains rather than to fetter pachyderm as believed earlier.

Lower Haramsara

From Lower Haramsara we moved out of the Royal complex and after removing our shoes entered the mosque complex through Shahi Darwaza. The tourists need to pay entrance fee for Royal and Public complex, but the mosque complex is free. We passed through “Zenana Rauza” tomb of royal family and then we were shown a small tunnel and our guide claimed that that tunnel was going till Agra & was used by Akbar in case of emergencies. As there was no official notice that claim fell on deaf ears. In most of the forts and Palaces there are such claims, whose authenticity is difficult to prove.

In the northern part of the Mosque complex is the superb white marble Dargah of Sheikh Salim Chisti. Before entering into it we had an eyeful of the vast cloistered courtyard of Mosque complex.

Courtyard of Mosque Complex

One has to cover his head before entering into the tomb. At the entrance we were given caps to put on our head. The lattice screens in this tomb are among the most beautiful and intricate in the world with striking serpentine designs done on marble.

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View from one such screen.

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Another lattice screen.

The Dargah still attracts many childless women, who come here to pray for offspring tying strings on to the marble screens, just as Akbar came to the saint praying for a son four centuries ago.

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Jama-Masjid – Fatehpur Sikri’s mosque also known as Dargah mosque is said to be a copy of the mosque at Mecca. It is also a Sufi shrine as it houses the tomb of Sheikh Salim Chisti; this makes it unique.

Buland Darwaja

The main approach to this complex is through 54 m high Buland Darwajah. This gate was constructed to commemorate Akbar’s victory in Gujarat. The Mosque complex can be approached through this gate after climbing an impressive flight of steps.

It may be world’s tallest door.

"Buland Darwaja"- viewed from Sheikh Salim Chisti's Tomb

The imposing Buland Darwajah as viewed from Sheikh Salim Chisti’s tomb.

It was time to return. For around 4 hours we were living in the bygone era – getting glimpses of Akbar’s life. We moved from Royal complex to the Mosque complex and it was like moving from imperial grandeur to spiritual simplicity. The courtyard was live with the devotees, the tourists, the vendors and the guides. Even with so many people around us there was serenity, peace and a general feeling of joy and happiness. An effect that could be contributed to the prayers in the air, the setting sun that always leaves one in philosophical mood or may be it was due to our satisfaction to see and enjoy this beautiful place. We slowed our pace, started to relax and left the place in tranquil mood.

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I would like to end this post with the beautiful and soul stirring message inscribed in calligraphy on Buland Darwazah – The World is a Bridge, pass over it, but build no houses upon it. He who hopes for a day may hope for eternity; but the World endures but an hour. Spend it in prayer, for the rest is unseen.

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  • Superb. The sikri stock would now be going north, splendid story.

    I am sure a lot of research has gone behind this story and its all worth it, with all those minute details. For me the high point of the post was ‘Mian ki Malhar’. I dont think that many people know this.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Manish Khamesra

    Thanks Nandan.

    Good thing about trying to know more about a place is that sometimes you also stumble across the beautiful lesser known facts. And I think when one read about a place he has seen, apart from rekindling his own memories he also look forward to know more about that place or to know about something he missed in his visit.

  • Smita

    now, WOW! this story is a masterpiece, a piece of literature and history. Manish, congratulations on such a great description. I am sure that as you’ll turn 55, you’ll read it again on Ghumakkar and be right there! With this elaborate experience you can never lose it.

    Very fascinating!

  • Manish Khamesra

    Sometimes I am looking forward to 55 ( I hope my retirement will only be three years away after attaining that age :)

    Ghumakkar is a place where I am putting across my travel experiences in the hope that one day even my kid will be happy to see all the places he visited readily available. Ghumakkar is like a old photo album, whose pages one may turn to remind of the beautiful days of the past.

    And yes its also helping me making new friends, sharing their beautiful experiences too and knowing about so many beautiful places of the world.

  • Ram Dhall

    Manish,

    What an astounding piece of writing on Fatehpur Sikri. My heartiest congratulations.

    Mirza Ghalib’s wife stichted a new “Angrakha” for the poet and was helping him in wearing it. Mirza asked his wife” Begum aap jaanti hain hum kahan jaa rahe hain!!!” and told her that he was going to visit Nawab Jaan, the Domni, who was madly in love with him. Begum said ” To le aaiye naa use bhi”, to which Mirza replied ” Paon ki ek hi juti nahin sambhaalti, doosri pahan kar, qayamat laani hai kya”.

    Though I was aware of Akbar’s extra curricular activities and had seen around 365 rooms in his harem at Agra Fort, I always wondered how he was managing all these women.

    Your beautiful description stating that some of the women were virtually helping him in running the administration is a great piece of information.

    Very well written. Write more, more and more. We all would look forward to your contributions.

    I would look forward to meet you one of these days.

  • Sudhir Raina

    Astounding details, Manish !

    Your attention to detail is excellent and took me on a virtual tour of Fatehpur Sikri.

    On a lighter note, you are a historian in the making, post retirement :-)

  • This is an interesting read and thank you for the details. The sleeping place of Akbar was something new that I learned about for the first time on this post.

    With some of your initial description, I do not know if you are trying to portray an image of Akbar as one who led a hedonistic lifestyle. From what I read, Jehangir is more of a thoroughbred pleasure seeker than Akbar. You have pointed out Acharya Chatursen’s philosophy of the Rajput kings lifestyle and their harems, so overindulgence of the royalty was common in those days.

    Akbar may have been illiterate but he was not certainly uneducated. In fact, Akbar was constantly keeping himself well informed, and was one of the greatest promoters of music, architecture, art and anything related thereto. The best about him, in my opinion, was his tolerance for other religions but sadly, that trend changed since Jehangir’s reign.

    You write about a room “perfectly dark, with no provision for any light” to “emphasize the kind of accommodations women in harem used to live in.” As far as I am aware, the royal women of the Mughals spent a considerable time pursuing art, poetry, literature etc. For example, Noor Jehan, as you pointed out, unofficially ruled the Empire while Jehangir was ruled over by alcohol.

    If you have been to the Agra Fort, inside the Fort premises you might have seen the Jehangir Place which was the zenana for the women of the palace. Inside it is a beautifully adorned white marble structures (my pictures shot there turned out hazy for some reason) and the Shish Mahal whose walls were inlaid with tiny mirrors. This was meant as a dressing room for the women in the harem. No dark rooms there at all. After Jodhabai, Noor Jehan continued to live there. A picture of the Jehangir’s Palace is among the set of pictures here:
    http://indicaspecies.blogspot.com/2008/01/magnificent-agra-fort.html

    I could have commented more but I see this has already got lengthy. Apologies if I sound critical, I did not mean to be. Perhaps I should write a post on this subject separately explaining my point of view in detail.

    Thank you very much for the awesome pictures you have shared here Manish. :)

  • Manish Khamesra

    Ram Sir,

    Thanks for adding the beautiful anecdote from Mirza Ghalib’s life in your comments. I found the comment very lyrical. With such comments, not only the post but the comments also becomes worth reading. Thanks for the comment which shows how well read you are.
    It would be a pleasure for me to meet you. I think our common contact is Nandan. Lets us see how and when we can meet. I have started to realize that ghumakkar is giving me opportunity to make friends with similar interests.

    Thanks again for your appreciation.

  • Manish Khamesra

    Thanks a lot Sudhir for liking the post. I love history and I shared all these information as I feel that many of us are less aware of our history. History do attracts me. I love reading historical facts.
    For this post, I wrote what I saw facts from a few books available to me.

    Thanks again for generous appreciation.

  • Manish Khamesra

    Celine,

    Many thanks for such a detailed comment. I will write in detail from my home about my feelings on the subject. I think such discussions help us to know about the facts more critically. Its history and hence open for interpretations.

    But let me tell you I am very happy with this comment of yours. If you won’t have commented so, something might be missing in the story.

    Please don’t hesitate to be critical too. I love arguments as I feel it helps us to understand the truth. Yours is one of the best comment I got.

  • Manish,

    Thanks are due to you – for the compliment, for the encouragement to voice out my views and for having written such a lovely post that has opened up a channel for more interesting discussions on the subject.

  • One day I will bring my whole family to these places so they will appreciate the little things that make up our world

  • Manish khamesra

    Celine,

    I wrote the reply and somehow clicked on another post and lost the reply. I will try once more.

    When I was writing the post, it came to my mind also that how am I trying to portray the GREATEST Mughal emperor. Am I putting him in good light or criticizing him ? And the answer I got was that I am only putting forth a few of facts, some of which are lesser known. Why a person’s character should always be classified as black or white. While most of us are Grey. There is something good in us and something bad in us too.

    Akbar was most tolerant Mughal Emperor, he was a GREAT Military strategist, he is always described as benevolent king and is known for his magnanimity, He encouraged art, literature, Music and all forms of arts. But it does not mean that putting fort that he was a womanizer too is wrong.

    Aurangzeb is criticized a lot. Still there are a few qualities he should really be appreciated for. He led the simplest of life among all Mughals, he was the one who married only 4 woman, he used to sew caps to ear n his wages as Emperor. So you can see the goodness in his character too. Though we all know his religious intolerance, the kind of life he gave to his father, his suspicious nature.
    This is just to put forth that Akbar had many qualities, but he had some weaknesses too.

    Power corrupts and this may be viewed as minor corruption by many. Still unfortunately I felt that this was true, there were many women in his Harem. More than that should be there and if you leave apart a few, most of them cannot be happy. Only a few of them could be influential and some of them might be influential only at some point of time. So in most cases conditions of these women in Harem cannot be something to be happy about.

    I fully agree with you that though Akbar was an illiterate, but he was not uneducated. He had great respect for the books and the scholars. How else we can explain so many renowned people among his Navratnas. I recently bought a book and the bookmark with it read: The man who doesnot read has no advantage over the man who cannot read. Akbar, on the contrary never allowed his illiteracy to became his handicap and he got all that he cannot read to be read by others. In my opinion this is something very remarkable about him. He was passionate about his books and I think he also regarded his scholarly subjects a lot – Abul Fazal, Khane-i-Khana in his navratna’s explain so.

    I am looking forward to your post on the subject. I know I would be reading many new things and of course I enjoy a lot lovely photographs taken by you. I visited your blog and left the comment, that came as my wife’s name as we share same google account.

    I would be reading your recent post and would be commenting on it soon :)

  • Manish khamesra

    Jenny,

    I too wish that you would be able to make the trip soon :) Life is beautiful as its so different in different places. Till the time you visit these places, I wish that you keep coming on Ghumakkar and having a virtual tour with us. We all are learning and knowing more from each others :)

  • I agree on all the good that you had to mention about Akbar and the other Mughals and those details are well documented. My view is that Akbars lifestyle, whether it is womanizing or being power hungry was nothing extraordinarily different, as it was a similar lifestyle of the monarchs and kings of the olden times.

    Your post has somehow made me wonder on the situation of those women in his harem. A few questions that crop up are: Were they exploited? Were they really kept in a dark room? Were they unhappy? Did they seek independence? Did they prefer to die? Or were they content within the harem? Did they have the freedom to pursue arts, music, literature etc as recorded? How much of influence and power did Noor Jehan exercise? How different were they from the women of modern times?

    Those are my thoughts. It would be unfair on my part to expect from you answers to all the questions above and I will not. I also do not think we can ever get an accurate idea of the condition of the women then, but it has sure enough left me wondering and also seeking for a better picture of the situation that time, if not a complete answer.

    Thank you for your response Manish and I hope we get to hear more opinions on this subject from other readers as well. If and when I write a post on this topic, I will certainly leave a comment here for your ready reference. :)

  • Manish,

    Yesterday I had said that if and when I do write a post, I would leave you a comment here. I have written my thoughts and posted them on my blog. Here it is:

    http://indicaspecies.blogspot.com/2008/02/akbar-and-cultural-synthesis.html

    You will note that I have made a reference to this post of yours. Please let me know what you think.

  • Manish Khamesra

    Its a great post Celine. I have voted for that too :)

    On your previous comment about Harem: I am a person who loves his freedom of speech, movement and freedom to write. And hence whatever people may write about the life in Harems & beautify it, I think that most of the inmates there cannot be anywhere near to happy and feel good about it.

    It was a cage, may be of Gold.

    On lighter note, how can you expect the acceptance of Supremacy of Akbar from the one who is born in the land of Maharana Pratap ?

  • very interesting..liked the way you wrote the story starting with the harem and then to the history…the carvings are amazing..one of the best posts ive read..thanks

  • manish khamesra

    Thanks Backpakker,

    I learnt this way of story telling from you. I analyzed that what is so different/engrossing in your posts and the answer I got is what I adopted in my writing style too :)

  • Manish,

    We all love our freedom, don’t we?
    Gilded cage, perhaps …. but dark rooms? No, please. ;)

    Thank you for your kind words here and also for visiting my blog and leaving your thoughtful comments there. Much appreciated. :)

  • manish khamesra

    Thanks Celine, now I understand the strong objection you have on my post. I should accept that its misleading. This is true that what I have written is what I saw, but we should not forget that that once you are out of that room, you are in the vast courtyard (Picture with caption – View of Jodhabai’s palace) and that remark too, I made seeing only one room.
    So I may be wrong :)

    And this building may have undergone some changes than what was their at Akbar’s time. I too don’t think that the main rooms of the main queen (If there are really many) would really be so bad as the dark room.

  • Manish,

    With just some details provided to us, we have tried here to portray in words what has happened in the past. However, no matter how much we read or how many discussions we have, an accurate presentation of the facts can never be done, and probably be never known.

  • manish khamesra

    Well Summarized Celine :) thanks for your comment.

    I will keep my fingers crossed to get at least one decisive vote for (a) choice at your site.

  • Viswanath

    I found your article very informative. I am on way to Agra and will be there on thursday.

    One of the things that surprises me is that they choose to abandon just because of water shortage. Water can be brought to the palace through water channels from a close by river to the fort. If Akbar wanted it, it would have been done.

    I believe it was a deliberate plan on part of Akbar to change palaces to keep hold on power and change the politics in the palace.
    It is something like a clean up act. A legitimate strategy by a ruler.

    There are many rock star singers and sports men who bedded more than
    thousand women in the modern era.

    As far as harem goes, I bet he would have slept with many of them sometime or other. I bet some got it more than others. But, that is expected when you have that many women. In their spare time, I would think they led a care free life.

    I definitely like the meaningful verse on Bulund Darwaja.

  • Manish Khamesra

    Thanks Viswanath for liking the article, I wish you a wonderful trip.

    Though I read two versions of abandoning this city one was water and another being that Akbar had to shift to Punjab due to military reasons. It is noted, even by those who believe that this city was abandoned because of meager water supply, that channels were dug to supply water from nearby Lake. According to them later on that lake started to dry. This can be a valid reason, though ASI specifically wrote at fort that this city was not abandoned for the lack of water supply. It sort of augment your belief.

    History can only be revealed in pieces and it gets distorted, so we should read about all and can have our own beliefs.

    But, scarcity of water can cause abandoning of a city. I believe that Rahimji was not wrong when he said that:

    Rahiman pani rakhiye, bin paani sab soon,
    paani gaye naa ubaare, Moti maanas choon.
    (This simple doha from Rahimji has so many meanings and all of them being so profound).

    I pity those women/men who are crazy about a person who is not committed. In my opinion there is a big difference between them and Kings/rulers (supporting harem and having many women) – these star crazy women are not “forced to go to bed” with rock stars/ sport stars while the kings could force any to be in their harem/Jenana Dyodi.

    Care-free life! I think it was more of a life dependent on liquor, drugs and those maintaining law and order inside Harem. Those closer to King had upper hands and those not might be treated like slaves.

    Indeed the verse written on Buland Darwaza is very profound and this is what I expect from a learned king like Akbar who had spiritual interests too.

  • I recently visited this place.Guide charged me INR 750 and now i think he gave me not even half the information what is here. Please beware of touts.

  • Hi Rahul

    Its a pleasure to know that you find the article informative.

    Thanks for your comment.
    Manish.