Thursday, August 26

15 years to build, 14 to abandon

Fatehpur Sikri has to be one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever visited in India. This red sandstone complex, located 37 kilometres from the city of Agra (home of the Taj Mahal), served as the capital of the Mughal Empire from 1571 to 1585. It took thousands of workers almost 15 years to build but was abandoned 14 years later by Emperor Akbar as the growing population overwhelmed local water supplies. Almost overnight Fatehpur Sikri became an empty ghost town.

Four hundred years later it remains a vast and empty place. I’ve visited Fatehpur Sikri twice. On both occasions its spotlessly clean courtyards and palaces hosted less than a dozen visitors. It's a surreal experience as the silent, open spaces stand in stark contrast to the noisy, dusty, cluttered cacophony that exists beyond its walls. Daily life in India is never quite so peaceful and calm.

Most visitors enter through the Diwan-i-Am, a multi-chambered pavilion encircling a rectangular courtyard. It was here that the Mughal ruler met the public and heard their grievances. From here one moves to an even larger courtyard where the Diwan-i-Khas, or Hall of Private Audience stands. This building was once the place where the royal gold, diamonds and other expensive articles were stored. Inside is also contains a raised platform that rests on an ornately carved central pillar from which Akbar would observe proceedings.

Perhaps the most memorable structure is Panch Mahal. This five-storied wind tower was built to provide its royal residence with a cool, breezy venue during the hot summer months. Each floor is proportionately smaller than the last and is supported by fewer and fewer pillars. The bottom floor has 176 intricately carved columns; the second floor has 84 pillars; the third 56; the fourth 12 and the top floor crowned by a simple cupola held aloft by four pillars.

Every tour of Fatehpur Sikri ends with a visit to the local mosque, the only structure currently in active use. This grand building is said to be modeled on the mosque at Mecca. Visitors are often greeted by local goats loitering on the steep entrance steps. I’ve never been able to work out why these animals are there and what it is about the stairs that most appeals. Inside the mosque opens up to a broad courtyard where a white marble shire can be found in stark contrast to the red sandstone construction everywhere else.

This shire is the tomb of Salim Chishti, a local guru or sufi saint, who predicted that Akbar would have another son. His prophecy came to pass. The child was named Salim in the guru’s honour and went on to rule the Mughal Empire as Emperor Jahangir. The miracle of his birth reputedly motivated Akbar to build Fatehpur Sikri, despite the area’s dire water shortage. Four centuries later is remains a truly remarkable place to visit.

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