had his son. And he was tired of the chaos at Agra.
He decided to make a new start at the place where his son had
been granted to him. And so the Mughal Emperor Akbar decided to
build Fatehpur Sikri. This, he hoped, would be a city more in
tune with his predilections. Here he would debate theology, indulge
in the arts and listen to his vast collection of books. (He himself
was illiterate.) Here he would build a palace complex as unorthodox
as his court, fusing Hindu and Muslim architectural traditions.
And then without knowing it, he seemed to predict its doom. On
one of the arches, severe, restrained, beautiful, there is a Koranic
inscription which reads, translated roughly:
Jesus, son of Mary (peace be upon him) said that this world is
a bridge we must cross. Build no houses upon it.
And so Fatehpur Sikri was only occupied for 14 years. They were
rich, productive years but the water supply would not support
the demands of the court. Or the death of the Sufi saint who brought
him there in the first place, made Akbar lose interest. Or there
were political reasons. (Take your pick.) Akbar left his court
so abruptly that even today the feeling that this is a palace
asleep rather than a palace abandoned still hangs around the almost
And the inscription from the Koran is still there, to remind
visitors of the hubris of kings.
How To Reach
Agra's Kheria airport is the closest.
Regular trains run from Agra to Fatehpur Sikri. The cost is a
nominal Rs 8.
Every 30 minutes, a bus leaves Agra for Fatehpur Sikri. You can
also hire a jeep that will cost between Rs 300 to Rs 400.
Sights to Visit
The Palace Complex
This is the beginning of Emperor Akbar's noble but doomed attempt
to fuse Hinduism and Islam. Thus what is called Birbal's palace
and Jodhabai's palace are the only buildings where Hindu architectural
styles predominate while the others tend to be Mughal in nature.
That wasn't the only departure Akbar made here.
Instead of aligning his buildings with the cardinal points, Akbar
broke new ground by following the diktats of the topography. Thus
all the buildings face southwest or northeast except for the Jami
Masjid and the most private apartments that face west towards
For 400 years it has stood empty, an almost perfectly preserved
a liberal emperor's tryst with syncretism and modernity. Fatehpur
Sikri is open from 6 am to 5.30 pm
The only purely Muslim building is the Jama Masjid. It is said
to be based on the mosque in Mecca. You enter it (shoeless) through
the 54 m high Buland Darwaza (Gate of Victory) which Akbar built
to commemorate his conquest of Gujarat. When critical mass accumulates
around the gate, you can watch while young men take the leap from
the top of the gate to the deep well outside it. The touts are
at their most concentrated here.
Outside the mosque are the remains of a mason's mosque, supposedly
also the place where Shaikh Salim Chishti's cave was originally
when Emperor Akbar came on foot to ask for a son.
The tomb of Shaikh Salim Chishti
In the northern part of the courtyard is the superb white marble
dargah or tomb of Shaikh Salim Chishti, built in 1580. (It was
originally made of red sandstone but was covered in marble in
the early 1800s). The canopy above his grave is inlaid with mother
of pearl. The screens (jalis) around it are unbelievably beautiful.
They are festooned with threads, tied by childless women who invoke
the saint's aid in getting a child. (When so blessed, they return
to untie a thread. It is said that no thread ever wears off and
falls away, so powerful is the intercessionary power and mercy
of the saint.) Next to it is the larger red sandstone tomb of
the saint's grandson and various other members of his family.
Remove your shoes when you enter here. Carry a pair of socks or
hire a pair of cloth shoes so that your toes won't freeze. (And
yes, they can get pretty cold even on a hot day. Marble is like
that.) And please be circumspect; a huge amount of human suffering
and hope washes around this tomb.
Palace of Jodha Bai
There is still debate over whether this was the palace of Jodha
Bai, the princess of Amber, whose son Jehangir was to rule after
Akbar. However this is the name by which the palace is known and
the name by which the guides still refer to it. Inside make sure
you visit the Hawa Mahal, a projecting room whose walls are made
of carved stone jalis; the ladies of the court could thus remain
unseen but could watch the world go by in the courtyard below
and enjoy whatever breeze there was. It can be an interesting
visual exercise to come back at three different times in the day
and note how different patterns of chiaroscuro form as the sun
Since this one is in the women's quarters, it could hardly have
been the home of the renowned Birbal, the great wit at Akbar's
court. (Good place to start a feminist discussion: was Birbal
a woman). However it could have been built by him which would
account for the name. Most scholars now maintain that it is the
senior queens' palace.
It is a rather elegant building, almost too elegant. However
when you go in you will notice how much cooler it is inside. That's
because it cleverly uses a double domed structure to insulate
the interiors and the positioning of the building itself allows
for the maximum shade. (This might be another reason why it was
called Birbal Bhavan, to tie in with his great wisdom.)
More on Birbal and Akbar
Badly defaced elephants at the Hathi Pol still guard the entrance
to the resting place for passing travellers and caravans. Fitted
into the ridge, it was probably one of several that were built
to accommodate merchants and visitors. Also notice the waterworks
with a deep well that uses an ingenious device to raise water
into the aqueducts which were above the height of the ridge. Inside
is the 21 m high Hiran Minar (the minaret of the deer), said to
have been constructed as a monument over the grave of Akbar's
favourite elephant, Hiran. It may also have been an akash diya
(a lamp to light the night sky) or the zero point from which distances
in kos were measured.
Palace of the Christian Wife
Maryamma was the Roman Catholic wife of Emperor Akbar; she was
from Goa. The palace was originally gilded, it is said, but now
no traces of that remain. (You can abandon red sandstone but you
can't abandon gold.)
One of Fatehpur Sikri's most famous structures the Panch Mahal
or five-storeyed palace tapers to a single kiosk, each storey
stepped back from the one beneath. It is a rather pretty building,
whimsical and breezy. It is supported by 84 columns of different
The guide will tell you with a knowing grin that this is where
Emperor Akbar played hide-and-go-seek with his harem. Now scholars
incline to the more mundane belief that it was the treasury. This
might account for the gargoyle-lookalikes, carved monsters that
were supposed to guard treasure. In one corner, the guide will
stop and show you the Astrologer's Seat where Akbar's Hindu sage
was supposed to have sat and instructed the emperor. The same
killjoy scholars suggest it was where the treasurer sat and watched
the counting of the revenues with an eagle eye.
This building was used for public encounters with the emperor
including prayers and celebrations. The courtyard had a pavilion
in the western end which was where Akbar sat. The position at
which Akbar sat forced his courtiers and subjects to approach
him with deference. (This had led some scholars to believe that
he saw in himself some form of a Godhead.) The women sat around
him, observing the proceedings from behind carved stone screens.
The emperor enjoyed pachisi (a board game) so much that a single
game might be played over a month. And so he had his architects
lay out a lifesized board on which he played with slave girls
dressed in red blue and yellow, the colours of the counters.
In the Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audience) Akbar debated religion
with Muslim leaders, Jesuit priests, Hindu Brahmins, Jains and
Zoroastrians. The building has a circular throne platform, 6 m
high, on which Akbar sat to debate. His courtiers could listen
in on the theological discussions. Again the use of the building
is the subject of some debate. Some say it was an agora for religious
debate. Others say it was where Akbar sat to mete out justice.
Still others maintain that this was where he was weighed on the
Persian New Year, against gold or silver coins, which were then
distributed as largesse.
The Diwan Khana-I-Khas
This is said to have been Akbar's own sleeping quarters. They
face Mecca and seem rather spartan but then history records that
he was that kind of king.
Said to be the palace of Akbar's Turkish Queen