Testament to a grand plan

Fatehpur Sikri, meticulously carved in pink stone, was once the glorious capital of the Indian...
Fatehpur Sikri, meticulously carved in pink stone, was once the glorious capital of the Indian Emperor Akbar who wanted all his people to live in harmony, whatever their creed, caste or tribe. Photo by Charmian Smith.
The legacy of a Mughal emperor who wanted to unite India's many peoples and religions, Fatehpur Sikri is one of the most evocative ghost towns in the world. Charmian Smith explores this dream in pink stone, whose origins are stranger than fiction.

Wandering through the deserted rose-coloured palace of Fatehpur Sikri is like being in another world.

The silent squares and spacious courtyards, shady pavilions and bright gardens are a universe away from the Indian dust and smells and crowds outside, let alone the grubby village below.

Salman Rushdie sets his latest novel, The Enchantress of Florence, in this exquisite palace in its brief heyday, when the Mughal emperor Akbar aimed to unite all Indians to live in harmony, whatever their tribe, religion or caste.

Now it is a partly ruined ghost city visited only by tourists, in contrast to the adjoining grand mosque, which is still in use and bustling with locals and pilgrims as well as tourists. It's worth running the gauntlet of touts lining the steps of the Buland Darwaza, the triumphal gate to the mosque where the rickshaw drops us off.

It towers formidably at 52m high, with the great, dark-pink sandstone arches inlaid with marble verses from the Koran, a magnificent blend of intricate workmanship and monumental scale.

Take off your shoes and carry them with you in a bag as you visit the mosque and its several shrines.

The most important, as the queues outside attest, is the delicately carved marble shrine which houses the tomb of Sufi saint Sheikh Salim Chisti under a canopy of ebony and mother-of-pearl.

Today, it is a place of pilgrimage for childless couples who tie a thread to the lace-like marble latticework.

The legend goes that at the age of 27 the Mughal emperor Akbar (1542-1605) still had no heir, his three children having died in infancy.

He visited the saint who lived near Sikri village, who prophesied the emperor would have three sons, which duly happened.

In gratitude, Akbar built this mosque and the adjoining palace between 1571 and 1585.

Escape the touts by leaving through Badshahi Darwaz, the side gate of the mosque, which is close to one of the palace ticket offices.

We approach the complex, now a Unesco World Heritage site, through the side entrance and come first to the large Jodh Bai that housed many of Akbar's principal wives.

The emperor had a policy of making strategic alliances with the families of rulers he conquered, and is said to have had some 300 wives, although wives of nobles and other "women of chaste character" were also allowed to live in his harem.

It is said to have housed about 3000 women who were allowed to practise their own religions.

You can wander through the empty rooms and imagine the rustle of saris, the quiet pad of bare feet on the flagstones and the whispers of the women's gossip and intrigue.

Across the airy courtyard of the harem complex, the delicate structure of the Panch Mahal towers a dark pinky-brown against the deep blue Indian sky.

Five colonnaded terraces of decreasing size are topped by a small pavilion.

With its hanging staircases and open floors, the structure looks like something from an impossible Escher drawing.

Once carved stone lattice walls around the floors allowed the women to observe what was going on in the main courtyard below while remaining hidden in purdah.

In the main courtyard, the ceremonial buildings, public and private audience halls and pavilions, also in the ubiquitous pink stone, are more elaborately carved, detailed and intricate.

Interspersed with gardens and pools, they are spread around more like tents in a camp than buildings in a city.

While some of the walls of larger buildings have disappeared and the rubble cleared, there remain some of the most remarkable small buildings almost unscathed by the passage of time, among them the Diwan-i-Khass or Jewel House.

From outside it appears two-storeyed and symmetric, with pavilions on its corners, but inside it's a high, single space with a central pillar with intricate carvings and walkways from the exterior balconies.

Its original purpose is still an enigma, but it is thought to have been used for ceremonial or ritual purposes.

Akbar may have sat on a throne on the central pillar and listened to religious discussions - he invited Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Jewish, Jain, Zoroastrian and Buddhist holy men to debate and proposed to form a new religion combining aspects of each.

Observers not involved in the discussion could listen from below.

Akbar was a great patron of the arts as is obvious from the architecture of this city.

He had translators turning Hindi classics into Persian, the language of the Mughals, scribes producing manuscripts and artists making paintings, musicians playing on the island in the pool in the centre of the courtyard, and historians chronicling the times of his grandfather Babur, who established the Mughal dynasty in India.

Yet Akbar himself was illiterate, although by most accounts a wise and relatively liberal ruler.

His vision was to redirect the social, political and cultural attitudes of his empire and make it a place where people of all races and religions could live together in harmony.

During the 14 years he built and lived in Fatehpur Sikri, he expanded his empire throughout most of northern India.

Yet in 1585, he moved his court to Lahore, where there had been some insurgence, and later settled in Agra where he had built a splendid fort.

His grandson, Shah Jahan, built the Taj Mahal there in 1631.

It is still a puzzle why Fatehpur Sikri was abandoned.

Most accounts attribute it to a lack of water, but others question this.

The city had proper sanitation and clean water; a large lake lay at the bottom of the ridge and the visionary design, with airy courtyards instead of narrow streets, gardens and architectural harmony, would suggest water supply would also have been carefully planned.

Akbar's biographer, Abul Fazl (1551-1602), tells us Akbar's normal way of life was to move around with a large army, holding court in a magnificent camp laid out like a city, but made of tents.

It was a ploy to subdue opposing forces under the guise of indulging in hunting.

Perhaps his dream of a permanent camp at Fatehpur Sikri had to give way to the practicalities of controlling an empire.

• Charmian Smith visited India with assistance from an Asia-New Zealand journalism travel award.


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