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Niggling ghosts of the Sunset City

The sheer opulence of a city hewed on to the spine of a 3-km long and 1-km wide hard rock ridge does inspire awe.

travel Updated: Jun 01, 2012 17:34 IST

It is perhaps the grandest of sites; and also the saddest. 

The sheer opulence of a city hewed on to the spine of a 3-km long and 1-km wide hard rock ridge does inspire awe. Indeed, the beautifully laid- out plan in a series of geometrical shapes still seems as new and livable as it did in 1573 when the Great Mughal Mohammad Jalaluddin Akbar surveyed his creation wherein taste matched style, the scale off-setted itself against ornate detail and the sheer audacity of the plan tingled with the nervous energy of romance. At 28, the Shahenshan-e-Hind had built a dream. He rode through the Agra Gate of Fatehpur Sikri to inhabit it.

Ironically, the fate of the new capital city of the Mughal empire was prophetically inscribed on the façade of its Buland Darwaza, the highest and the mightiest gate ever built in the world. It reads: "Isa, son of Mary, said: The world is a bridge, pass over it, but build no houses on it.... He who hopes for an hour may hope for eternity. The world endures but an hour ..." And Akbar's dream house did indeed last "but an hour." It was abandoned in 1585, barely eight years after the Darwaza was raised.

The tragedy of desertion of a spanking new city, 40 km from Agra, which the English traveller Ralph Fitch considered in 1585 as 'considerably larger than London and more populous', is clearly etched out in the series of palaces, public buildings and mosques, as well as living areas for the court and the citizenry. The buildings still stand tall in all their imperial majesty but their emptiness lingers like a niggling ghost.

History has it that Emperor Akbar (1556-1605) decided to construct Fatehpur Sikri in 1571 on the same site where the birth of his son, the future Emperor Jahangir, was predicted by the wise saint Shaikh Salim Chishti (1480-1572). The work, supervised by the great Mughal himself, was completed in 1573. The architect was a Hindu, Tuhir Das, and Fatehpur Sikri was constructed using Indian principles with a synthesis of various regional schools of architectural craftsmanship such as the Gujarati and the Bengali styles. Influences from Hindu and Jain architecture were also blended with Islamic elements to give it visual scale and narrative depth. The locally quarried red Sikri sandstone was used in the construction to give the palace-city complex its rich regal brunt-red look.

Fatehpur Sikri is accessed through gates along the five-mile long fort wall, like the Delhi Gate, the Lal Gate, the Agra Gate, Birbal's Gate, Chandanpal Gate, etc. It starts with the traditional Naubatkhana and reaches along the ridge to end with the Buland Darwaza at the highest point. In fact,the city offers a unique example of architectural ensembles of very high quality constructed between 1571 and 1585. Its form and layout strongly influenced the evolution of Indian town planning, notably at Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi).

Some of the important buildings in this city are:

Buland Darwaza: Set into the south wall of the Jama Masjid mosque, this stupendous piece of architecture is 54 metre high from the outside, gradually making a transition to a human scale in the inside. The gate was added some five years later after the completion of the mosque as a 'victory arch' to commemorate Akbar's successful Gujarat campaign.

What to do here: Just stand and stare at the mammoth gate, stupid! How did they build it, ask yourself and then shake your head in disbelief.

Jama Masjid: It is a congregational mosque and was perhaps one of the first buildings to have come up in the complex in 1571. It was built in the manner of Indian mosques with iwans around a central courtyard. A distinguishing feature is the row of chhatris over the sanctuary. There are three mehrabs in each of the seven bays, while the large central mehrab is covered by a dome. It is decorated with white marble inlay in geometric patterns.

What to do here: Stare some more at the scale of this building and its courtyard. It can accommodate 10,000 devotees on any given day. Imagine Akbar and his entourage walking into the mosques from the King's Gate.

Tomb of Salim Chishti: The white marble-encased single-storey structure is built around a central square chamber. It has the grave of the saint under an ornate wooden canopy encrusted with mother of pearls mosaic.

What to do here: The sufi saint blessed Akbar and his successor, Salim, was born. If it were not for his blessings, we wouldn't have had the legendary Salim-Ankarkali episode and Salim wouldn't have later married Noor Jahan, who 'invented' the recipe for gulab jal. Pray hard at the dargah, tie a thread on the jaali and your wish will come true.

Diwan-i-Aam : The Hall of Public Audience is a building typology found in many cities where the ruler meets the general public. In this case, it is a pavilion-like multi-bayed rectangular structure fronting a large open space.

What to do here: Apart from looking closely at the pavilions, one can picnic on the well-kept lawns.

Diwan-i-Khas: The Hall of Private Audience is a plain square building with four chhatris on the roof. However it is famous for its central pillar, which has a square base and an octagonal shaft, both carved with bands of geometric and floral designs, further its thirty-six serpentine brackets support a circular platform which is connected to each corner of the building on the first floor by four stone walkways. It is here that Akbar had representatives of different religions discuss their faiths and gave private audience.

What to do here: The stone carvings are beautiful. Walk up to the circular platform and sit where the Emperor of Emperors, Zeenat-e-Hind Mohd Jalaluddin Akbar used to conduct conversation with the nine jewels of the court.

Anup Talao: The ornamental pool with a central platform and four bridges leading up to it is surrounded by important buildings of the royal enclave, including the Khwabgah (House of Dreams) Akbar's residence, Panch Mahal, a five-storey palace, Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audience), Ankh Michauli and the Astrologer's Seat, in the south-west corner of the Pachisi Court.

What to do here: The Khwabgah is where Akbar used to sleep. It has a system which was filled with scented water to make the bedroom cool and aromatic. It is said that the legendary Tansen sang his Deepak Raag which lighted a lamp while sitting in the middle of Anup Talao. Relive that impossible moment!

Pachisi Court and the Panch Mahal: The Pachisi Court is a huge square marked out as a board game, the precursor to modern- day ludo, where live people served as the playing pieces. Next to it is the five-storied palatial structure with the tiers gradually diminishing in size, till they end as a single large-domed chhatri. It was perhaps built for the ladies of the court. The floors are supported by 176 intricately carved columns.

What to do here: Take lots of picture,s for every corner presents a unique photo-op. Enjoy the view from the Panch Mahal, specially the sunset. And remember, Ankarkali first romanced Salim on the terraces of the Panch Mahal.

Ashwini is a Lucknow-based media professional who culls out travel experiences while on mundane assignments