Fatehpur Sikri is a planned city lovingly constructed by Emperor Akbar in 1571. The imperial capital thrived for 14 years and was abandoned when Akbar moved to Lahore. It soon became a ghost town. Water shortage is an explanation provided by some for the city’s abandonment.
Why did Akbar choose Fatehpur Sikri, a non-descript town 36 km from Agra, as his Imperial capital? Read on to find out. Legend has it that Akbar had three wives but no male heir to his throne. Bleak, he walked bare feet to Sufi saint Salim Chishti’s tomb at Sikri to plead for a son. His wish was granted, and the emperor was blessed with a son who he named Salim (More popularly known as Jahangir) after the Sufi saint. Akbar then built a new citadel at Sikri as a tribute to the saint.
After exploring Agra, we headed to Fatehpur Sikri to explore the UNESCO World Heritage Site. We reach the city through Agra Gate. The driver parks the car at the parking area, from where shuttle buses take us to the Imperial Palace complex. Our guide explains how the entire site is divided into two major parts-The Imperial Palace Complex and the Jama Masjid and structures in and around it.
The museum is located before the Imperial Palace complex, and we decide to pay a visit quickly. We are the only ones exploring the museum as all other tourists have rushed to the palace complex. The museum houses several artefacts unearthed when excavation work was going on at Bir Chhabilli Tila, a small mound near Sikri. Sculptures of Jain Tirthankaras, pots, metal objects, figurines are all on display. The chronological order of the Mughal Emperors with pictures and write-ups of them are on display.
Opposite the museum is another deserted but beautiful structure that our guide tells us is the mint. However, the signage outside mentions it was either the mint or workshop.
We then head to explore the Imperial Palace complex. The Diwan Khana-I- Aam, or the People’s Court, is a collonaded pavilion where the emperor gave audience to the commoners.
Next, we enter the Daulat Khana, which means ‘Abode of Fortune’ and houses numerous structures like the Diwan-I-Khas, Anup Talo, Paanch Mahal, etc.
The Diwan-I-Khas or ‘Hall of Private Audience’ has a central ornamental pillar linked to four diagonal bridges. Our guide explains how the emperor would sit and discuss important issues with his team of advisers called nine jewels. Some historians believe that it was the ‘Jewel House’ where Akbar hoarded his gems and jewels and sat and inspected them.
Near the Diwan-I -Khas is a structure with ornamental brackets called ‘Astrologer’s Seat.’
Another structure called ‘Ankh Michauli’ or ‘Hide and Seek’ is where Emperor Akbar spent time with his wives and mistresses. Our guide explains that this was not just the Harem but also the Treasury where the royal ladies kept their jewels. There are openings at the bottom of niches with lids where jewellery was stored. We had seen similar structures at the Agra Fort, and the guide had told us they were used to store water and hence cool down the structure.
The Paanch Mahal is a five-storey structure that overlooks the Pachisi courtyard. Pachisi was a board game played using slave girls as living pieces.
Turkish Sultana’s House
Another building near the courtyard is the Turkish Sultana’s House. Although made of red sandstone, the detailing on it resembles wood carving. Grapevines, geometrical patterns and floral designs are carved on the walls, columns and even ceiling. Do spend time here admiring the craftsmanship and ornamentation.
The Anup Talao or ‘Peerless Pond’ is a water tank with four bridges leading to the central platform. It is believed that Tansen sat here and sang some of his most melodious songs.
We then visit the Diwan Khana-i-Khaas Mahal and Khwabgah. The former was where the emperor had discussions with his advisors, while the latter was used as a sleeping chamber.
The next structure we visit is Mariam’s House. Mariam was Emperor Akbar’s mom, as well as one of his wife’s names. Our guide mentions it was perhaps emperor Akbar’s Christian wife’s home, although historians debate if he had a Christian wife. This structure has murals that have faded with time. Strangely they seemed more clearer when we try to view them with mobile phone cameras rather than the naked eye.
Jodha Bhai was Akbar’s Hindu wife whom Akbar had permitted to follow her religion. Her palace and kitchen are what we visit next. The palace has jharokhas, niches, ornamental pillars, all reflecting Rajasthani influences. Her bedroom with lattice windows called Hawa Mahal is located on the top floor.
Near Jodha Bai’s palace are a garden and a mosque called Nagina Masjid where the women prayed.
Birbal was one of Emperor Akbar’s closest advisors, and his home is what we visit next. The carvings on walls, ceilings and pillars are worthy of mention. The Haramsara is what we see next. There is some debate whether this was the haram or used as stables for elephants and horses.
After visiting the Imperial Palace complex, we head to the second most important section of the site. The Jama Masjid and the Tombs of Sufi saints. We enter the mosque complex through a majestic entrance. Our guide explains that it is the Badhshahi Darwaza through which Emperor Akbar entered the mosque for prayers.
The Jama Masjid is where the faithfuls assemble for obligatory prayers. The detailing inside the mosque is beautiful, and we can see the Mirhab, which points in the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca. The pillared bays with columns and arches make for excellent picture composition.
Tomb of Salim Chishti
On the right of Jama Masjid is the Tomb of Sufi saint Salim Chishti. It is with his blessings that Akbar had finally got an heir to his throne. The structure in white marble has lattice work on it. The faithful tie strings on it and ask for favours from the Sufi saint. Our guide insists that we put a chadar and offer flowers. The money he claims is utilised to educate orphans and the poor. This is not compulsory but the locals, guides, vendors can get very pushy and whether the money goes to the poor is not guaranteed. We resist but then eventually give in by putting the chadar on the tomb. His actual remains are in a crypt beneath.
A qawwali group is sitting in front of the shrine singing qawwalis to praise the Sufi master and religious figures. Nearby a family has assembled to tonsure their child’s first hair on the head who was conceived by the blessings of the Sufi saint. Urchins roam around pestering tourists to buy replicas of Taj, jewellery anything and everything.
Tomb of Islam Khan
Next to the Tomb of Salim Chishti is the Tomb of Islam Khan, also referred to as Jamatkhana. There are graves of several people inside it as well as around it. It gives an eerie feeling as one is walking around them.
Anarkali’s secret underground passage
Our guide then takes us to the entrance of an underground passage locked with a wooden door. Legend has it that Anarkali, with whom Salim the emperor’s son was madly in love, was not left to die when she was walled. She escaped to Lahore through this secret underground passage. How much of this myth and reality is anybody’s guess.
We then head to the Bulund Darwaza, which Emperor Akbar remodelled after his victory over Gujarat. A wooden door with hundreds of horseshoes can be seen. There are people selling bags, jewellery and other knick-knacks near the door.
We then hail a rickshaw that takes us back to the parking lot where the driver had parked the car. Numerous kiosks are selling assorted things like clothes, bags, jewellery, magnets and other trinkets.
Our trip to Fatehpur Sikri has finally come to an end. My dad had always mentioned that one mustn’t just visit Agra but also explore Fatehpur Sikri. I now know why he insisted and am glad I could finally do it. The heritage site, with its splendour and magnificence, rich architecture and heritage, is a must-do.
Nearest Airport: Delhi
Distances: Delhi-Fatehpur Sikri: 245 km (4 ½ hours by road via Taj/Yamuna Expressway)
Agra – Fatehpur Sikri: 36 km (1 hour by road)
Where to stay: Most people travel from Agra to Fatehpur Sikri and prefer staying in Agra.
Travel Tip: Located 23 km from Fatehpur, Sikri is Bharatpur. It has the Keoladeo Ghana National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, palace, and fort are worth visiting.