Fatehpur Sikri – An Emperor’s Ghost City
More myths surround the extraordinary city of Fatehpur Sikri than any other Mughal capital. Built by Emperor Akbar in the early 1570s, just fifteen years later in 1585 it was deserted by him, for reasons that may never be entirely clear.
The site was originally known as just Sikri and is where Akbar’s grandfather, Babur, ordered the construction of a garden. Later Akbar visited a Sufi holy man called Sheikh Salim ud-Din Chishti who was living in Sikri, who proceeded to predict Akbar’s long awaited son and heir. Akbar’s wife, Mariam, remained in Sikri under Chishti’s protection during her pregnancy and gave birth to that son in 1569 – the future Emperor Jahangir.
Akbar’s recent successful military campaigns in Gujarat coupled with the correctly predicted birth of his son compelled him to build a new city at Sikri. He prefixed the word Fatehpur, meaning ‘city of victory’ to the name of Sikri to celebrate these events.
Fatehpur Sikri rose rapidly from a nondescript village to a thriving center of commerce once Akbar’s court took its seat here in 1572. Historians estimate that the total population of the city in 1580 was nearly 250,000. In 1585, the English traveller Ralph Fitch visited the city and wrote :
‘Agra and Fatepore are two very great cities, either of them much greater than London and very populous.’
The state of preservation at Fatehpur Sikri is of course remarkable due to only being occupied for such a short space of time. However, the purpose of many of the buildings is unclear. Tour guides will of course do their best to spin colourful stories into their narratives, not helped by the misleading names of some of the buildings that were invented during the 19th century.
This blog post will be a virtual tour of the structures that can be seen within the Fatehpur Sikri palace complex. Separate blogs will address the spectacular Jami Masjid, some of the other peripheral structures that lie outside of the palace. and the Archaeological Museum.
Also known as ‘Jewel House’, this is a remarkable building with no precedent and was never repeated, it is utterly unique. Its main feature is a central intricately carved stone pillar supporting a circular platform connected by four diagonal bridges leading to a walkway that encircles the room interior.
This is probably the most discussed building at Fatehpur Sikri as there has been no definite theory as to its purpose. Today the building is best known as Diwan-i-Khas (‘place of private audience’), projecting one of the many theories that Akbar would be seated on the central platform whilst discussing court matters with his ministers who were seated in the corners or on the peripheral passage.
A second theory is that this was a storehouse (treasury) for the imperial hoard of gems and jewels. The Emperor would be suspended above the ground to inspect the tangible wealth he had amassed below.
The third theory is that it was here that Akbar sat enthroned on the central platform while listening to arguments from different religions. The specific layout of the interior of this building could signify Akbar’s domination over the four quarters.
We have contemporary accounts that a building existed for this very purpose, known as the Ibadatkhana (‘hall of worship’), which was essentially a debating chamber where Akbar welcomed learned men of other faiths. Although the building is often mentioned in contemporary accounts, the description of this chamber doesn’t really match this building and there is no concrete evidence for where it was located within the Fatehpur Sikri palace complex.
These first three theories are solely practical explanations. The forth theory comes from the interesting carvings on the central pillar, and specifically the pattern of mandalas which stand for the axis of the world in Hindu cosmology. This perhaps suggests that there may have been a more ritualistic and ceremonial function for the building, where anyone who sits on the central platform adopts the position of supreme power.
Near to the Diwan-i-Khas is a small pavillion known as the ‘Astrologer’s Seat’. This has some exquisitely carved stone brackets perhaps influenced by Akbar’s time in Gujarat. There is a remarkably similar structure at Cambar Mosque in Gujarat.
The purpose of this pavillion is not clear, it may have been where the emperor sat to watch copper coins being distributed to pay officers or the poor. We do know from European accounts that this occurred with the money being piled up on the floor of the courtyard.
The Panch Mahal is situated on one side of the Pachisi Courtyard, so named because of the chequerboard paving that it is believed was used with human pieces moving from square to square.
Panch means ‘five’, and comes from the number of receding floors which from a distance gives this building the appearance of a pyramid. The ground floor contains 84 uniquely carved columns, a number regarded as auspicious by Hindus.
The exact purpose of this building remains unknown, although the design is modelled on the Persian badgir (or ‘wind catcher’) and would have certainly helped mitigate the intense summer heat.
It was once thought that the Panch Mahal was part of the Zenana where women of the imperial household would live, but it would seem to be too open to public gaze to have been used by Akbar’s wives and concubines.
The Abdarkhana is located immediately in front of the Panch Mahal. The purpose of this single storey building with a verandah also remains unknown.
Linked by four bridges to a central platform, the Anup Talau (or ‘Peerless Pool”) is a 29m square tank, similar to types found in many later palace courtyards
Also known as Daulakhana-i-Khas, the Khwabgah (meaning bedchamber) is a mysterious building just beyond Anup Talau. It is thought this is where Akbar slept, the actual room being on an upper level that is not accessible to the public.
The lower half of the building may have served as a library, with access via a covered passageway from the Harem for Akbar’s wives and concubines.
Turkish Sultana’s House
This is a wonderfully decorated single room building with partly defaced forest scenes on the interior walls and some fine depiction of creepers on the columns.
There is absolutely no evidence to suggest this was a private residence. Badauni, a contemporary historian, records than one night in 1575 a very important religious discussion took place in the Hurja-i-Anup-Talau (Chamber of Anup Talau), which may be this very building.
This building has been described as a ‘superb jewel casket’, the prolific carvings are so intricate that they appear to be the work of wood carvers rather than stonemasons.
Jodh Bai’s Palace
To the south of the Panch Mahal is an impressive building with a large courtyard, known as Jodh Bai’s Palace.
The name is misleading as Jodh Bai was the wife of Jahangir, not Akbar, but the building has so many similarities to the Jahangiri Mahal in Agra Fort that perhaps it was incorrectly considered contemporary in the past.
What is certain is that this was a building that was part of the Zenana, today you can still spot subtle elements that helped secure privacy, such as offset entrances and raised private screened corridors.
The exterior of the palace which was the residence of a number of the emperor’s principal wives is plain, but the interior is ornately carved. The bases, columns and capitals in the central rooms are carved in a more Hindu manner, and the overall plan draws inspiration from Rajput traditions.
Although less elaborate than the Jahangiri Mahal at Agra Fort, here we see more examples of the use of Gujarati motifs on the decorated wall niches and elaborate corbels.
Balconies at the corners of the courtyard allowed the residents a view of the outside whilst the interiors were kept well concealed.
The main entrance to the palace is double-storeyed, and would have been guarded by eunuchs.
Mariam was the title given to both Akbar’s mother (Mariam-Makhani) and his wife (Mariam-al-Zamani, also known as Jodh Bai). The title is in memory of Jesus, an important prophet in the Islamic faith, and has nothing to do with the belief that Akbar may have had a Christian wife.
There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that this building had anything to do with either Mariams. The interesting element to this building is that it was painted rather than lavishly carved.
Here there are very faint scenes of Rama attended by Hanuman, various elephants, and another of a pair of fat geese, clearly inspired by Hindu imagery. The best preserved paintings form colourful geometric patterns on the ceiling.
Some of the images are now very hard to make out. A passing guide told me that the condition of these murals have deteriorated due to a botched conservation effort a number of years ago. I have tried to find evidence for this on the internet and have failed, so this might be just another one of those stories projected by tour guides to add a little more interest.
Birbal’s House seems to be associated with the similar sized Mariam’s House and Jodh Bai’s Palace, with the two smaller buildings flanking the palace entrance although they are not aligned in perfect symmetry which perhaps one would expect.
Birbal was a much valued courtier of Akbar’s. He was considered to be one of his inner circle, and had risen up the ranks from a moderately humble background. It is said he achieved his influential position through wit and intelligence, and would appear to have been quite a colourful character.
As is becoming a familiar theme throughout this tour of Fatehpur Sikri, there is not a shred of evidence to suggest this building had anything to do with Birbal, even if we dismiss the potential association with the Zenana.
The wonderfully elaborate high quality carving in the interior would suggest that this building was used personally by Akbar, or by people close to him. One theory is that this was the house for Akbar’s two senior queens, Ruqaiya Begum (1542-1626) and Salma Sultan Begam (1542-1612), who would have each occupied one floor of this two storey building. The geometric patterns, carved flat ceilings, and ornate brackets are all trademark Akbari features.
Stylistically the building represents both Hindu and Islamic architectural traditions, but no attempt has been made to fuse or blend them together. Here these designs and motifs are simply placed together, but this more simplistic approach works extremely well.
This large courtyard surrounded by an arcade of shallow alcoves at the back of each bay has proved to be a bit of a puzzle for historians.
Numerous theories have been presented; a harem (where perhaps female servants lived), a bazaar, or alternatively stables. The solid roundels at the base of the back wall at regular intervals could be there in order to secure animals.
So stables would initially seem the most likely explanation, and yet it would be odd to have such a building so close to the Zenana with the associated smells, noise, and men nearby. This is just one of hundreds of mysteries that cloud our understanding of Fatehpur Sikri.
North-west of Mariam’s House is a pretty small secluded garden laid out on the charbagh principal, a garden design that can be frequently seen in Mughal palaces and forts, the best example I have seen thus far is at Deeg Palace in Rajasthan.
In the middle of the garden is a small fishpond, the water from which used to run out to the south over a sloping stone slab carved with a pattern known as ‘mahipusht’, which represented the scales of a fish.
Although no attribution can be made to any Mariam, this garden does probably date from Akbar’s time, which makes it one of the earliest Mughal gardens still existing.
Directly opposite Mariam’s Garden is the Hawa Mahal (‘Wind Palace’).
The most striking element of this building has to be the beautifully carved stone screens that enclose the upper floor, which would have kept those rooms cool and shaded with only muted light being allowed to filter in.
Located not far from the palace complex entrance, the Diwan-i-am will either be the first or last building you visit.
This colonnaded courtyard is where the emperor would have held his public courts, the pavilion is accessible from the more private palace area. The courtyard was probably originally paved and not a garden as it looks today, this inauthentic representation has led to this area perhaps being the least impressive element of the entire palace complex.
By all accounts, Akbar’s obsession with the construction of Fatehpur Sikri was all-consuming. Father Monserrate, a Jesuit priest who visited the city in 1580 recorded :
‘He (Akbar) even quarried stone himself, alongside the workmen.’
Given the meticulous planning that went into building the city, it would seem unlikely it was abandoned because the water supply failed. It’s worth noting that the present day village is still adequately supplied by the cisterns and wells that were installed during the time of Akbar’s rule.
The more likely explanation is that Akbar perhaps never intended to establish a permanent capital here. He often shifted court when he felt it necessary to do so, and just fifteen years in 1585 he moved to Lahore. When Akbar did return to the area in 1598 he made Agra his base, and visited Fatehpur Sikri just a single time in 1601.
Fatehpur was never used as a capital city again, and the population shrunk rapidly. When William Finch, an English merchant in the service of the East India Company, visited the city in 1611 on his way to Bayana to buy indigo, he records that the city was uninhabited and :
“…all ruinate lying like a waste desert’
For centuries Fatehpur Sikri has captured the people’s imagination, and understandably so. It has a dream-like ambience, entwined with so many stories and still shrouded in myth. Akbar took the life from Fatehpur Sikri, leaving it a vast ghost city – the best known deserted city in all of India.
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