By Rana Safvi
December 10, 2017
My first visit to Fatehpur Sikri was as a teenager and the beauty and haunting loneliness of the majestic red buildings made me fall in love with them. That love affair continues — I visit Fatehpur Sikri as often as I can.
On my first visit, being ignorant of Mughal architecture, I followed the imaginative guides around as they showed us Jodha Bai and Birbal’s palace. On subsequent visits though, I came to know that no wife of Akbar was called Jodha. I was content to just soak in the grandeur of the palace.
Revisiting the Imperial City
On my last visit, however, I went armed with Fatehpur Sikri Revisited, a book by Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi, and realised just how many myths are created and retold in that imperial city.
There were other buildings in that area prior to Akbar’s construction of a royal city named Fatehpur Sikri on the Vindhya hills. The book informed me that the name Sikri came from the Sikarwar Rajputs who controlled it briefly at the end of the 12th century. The Mughal association with it began with the Battle of Khanwa between Babur and Rana Sanga in 1527. After his victory, Babur constructed a garden there, which he named Bagh-e-Fatah (victory garden). The village was renamed Shukri (place of thanksgiving). Babur’s grandson Akbar ordered the construction of a royal city, which then served as the capital of the Mughal Empire from 1571, on an isolated elevated, rocky ridge. Thus was built a majestic imperial city.
We left our vehicles at the car park and walked up the short distance via the Agra Gate through the ruins of the Chauhar Suq with a triple-arched gateway. We entered the royal complex via the Diwan-e-Aam where Akbar held public court. It’s a large complex with galleries on four sides with an imperial box in one gallery, meant for the emperor. When we came out of this, we passed by what is named the Hakim’s quarters, which, Rezavi writes, was too close to the emperor’s chambers and too grand to be anything else except the quarters of Prince Salim. Salim, Akbar’s first son, was the result of a blessing by Sheikh Salim Chisthi whose shrine is also in this same complex. In fact, Salim was born in one of the Mahals near the shrine, as Akbar had sent Salim’s mother there for confinement and delivery.
We went to a building with beautiful red sandstone columns with delicate carvings running on three sides to form porticos around a small hall. The Archaeological Survey of India identifies this as Daftar Khana (record room), but Rezavi gives references from various contemporary sources such as Muntakhab-ut-Tawarikh (Badayuni), Akbarnama (Abul Fazl) and Tabaqat-i-Akbari (Nizamuddin Ahmed) to prove that this is the Ibadat Khana (house of worship) where Akbar met with scholars and priests of every religion. The descriptions of the building with Aiwans (porticos) given by these chroniclers, along with location, seem to indicate that this was where Akbar held philosophical debates on religion.
Rezavi also says that the palace known as Maryam’s house was actually a royal dining hall. Given that the kitchens were nearby and it was cordoned off from the female quarters and lay outside the Haram Sara, this sounds feasible.
The Shabistan-i-Iqbal (seraglio), which is commonly known as Jodha Bai’s palace, has exquisite carvings, columns with beautiful mouldings, and brackets. Only the emperor’s seven or eight main wives lived there. The rest lived in the minor Haram Sara, with the emperor accessing the area via covered passages from his chambers.
Akbar, the Universal Ruler
The king’s own quarters in the imperial palace were divided into private and public areas: Daulat Khana-e-Khas and Daulat Khana-e-Aam. The courtyard of this private area has some of the most stunning buildings, including the Anup Talao or peerless pool, and the rectangular, colonnaded, five-level Panch Mahal. The most carved and decorated room in the courtyard which is known as the Turkish Sultana’s room is actually the Hujra-i-Anup Talao, another room used for receiving guests by Akbar.
Since I had learnt so much by then, the fact that the free-standing square Chahar Khana (known as Diwan-e-Khas) in this courtyard was actually just symbolic and meant to emphasise Akbar as a universal ruler sitting in the round column head didn’t surprise me. I like the idea of Akbar “presiding like a god like Vishnu (seated on a lotus seat) or like the sun, domineering over all regions.”
Fatehpur Sikri was abandoned by Akbar in 1585 and later used by the British as an army outpost.