As a kid, Agra and Fatehpur Sikri were the first heritage monuments I visited. My father was posted in Bharatpur and these places were weekend outings. First saw the heritage place in the black and white album that has pictures from my growing up years in chronological order. And the very first picture is that of this place. I am sitting in niches or standing in a corner or trying to read in the madrasa. Heard the stories of Salim Chishti dargah – of the threads that make the wishes that come true. I was a year old or so and I had no memory of that place except these pictures.
We re-visited the place when I was about 12 years old and I have some vivid memories of that visit though not of the whole trip. I remember the yellow frock that I was wearing when we were on board the train to Agra. I remember the young boys who would jump into the water from the top of the Buland Darwaza for a rupee or so. They would jump, collect their money, look for the next customer. And go back to the top of the door to jump again. I was in awe of these young boys roughly my age. They were brave heroes for someone who was yet to be a teenager.
I again visited this place in Oct of 2015, this time wearing my travel blogger hat on the invitation of UP Tourism. As soon as we reached Fatehpur Sikri I went looking for those jumping boys. But my guides informed me that the practice has been stopped a few years back. From a human rights perspective, I agree with them. But my memories were looking for a re-enforcement. I was curious to see how I would look at the young boys jumping from one of the tallest doors to a pond. Alas, the pond has also vanished and now there is no water body next to the Buland Darwaza.
This time, however, I was more historically and culturally inclined. When I looked at this tall door, I visualized the old simple gate being broken after the news of the victory of Akbar in Gujarat came. And the vigor with which the victory would get immortalized through this tall gate. You can still see the much smaller height gate at the backside of this tall façade.
Salim Chishti Dargah
Salim Chishti dargah stands out behind the Darwaza with its pristine white marble and with mélange of Jali patterns. While you admire the paintings inside the dargah and the jaali patterns playing with the sun rays and enchanting you, what stands out at this dargah is the devotion that you see on the faces praying here. Or tying little red threads on the jaali – as if jaali was made for this purpose only. So that the wishes of the devotees can stay with the saint as long as they are not fulfilled. Does it not sound like a reminder call to the saint? Salim Chishti dargah belongs to the same Silisila as Moinuddin Chisti dargah in Ajmer or Baba Bakhtiar Khaki dargah in Delhi or Nizamuddin Auliya dargah in Delhi.
Saint Salim Chishti
Fatehpur Sikri was built in the honor of the saint Salim Chishti. Who blessed Akbar with sons and once his blessings came true, Akbar decided to move his capital near the saint. And built this whole new city in the late 16th CE. He smartly combined the two words – an Arabic ‘Fateh’ for victory and Hindi ‘Pur’ for the city. Sikri was the name of the original village here that existed on the edge of a natural lake and finds a mention in Mahabharata.
This is a great example of the city that had to be abandoned due to the scarcity of water. In fact, now that I look back, I do not recall any water management systems there like step wells or lakes. The grandeur of this city in red sandstone lay neglected for more than 400 years. And has recently become a tourist attraction and the UNESCO World Heritage Site tag helps.
You probably need a couple of days to explore the heritage here, but unfortunately, there are not too many options to stay back and hotels in Agra are the only solution. Most Agra hotels would help with a day trip to Sikri. Given a chance, I would want to stay back and explore prehistoric rock shelters and rock paintings. As this area had been inhabited since prehistoric times. However, as most tourists spend a few hours or little more than half a day, here are a few things you must not miss there.
Must see things at Fatehpur Sikri
Jodha Bai Palace
Jodha Bai was the Rajput queen of Akbar and someone who apparently never gave up her religion for marriage. Her palace is designed around a temple-like structure. You can see the niches that would have housed the idols of deities. Idols are no longer there but the bells and pots carved on the sandstone are evidence enough that a temple existed here. This palace has a central courtyard, there is a temple at one end and rooms all around it. I assume this must be ladies’ quarter and Jodha Bai being the principal queen would have given the palace its name.
The ASI board outside the Palace though claims Jodha Bai had nothing to do with this place and the building has been wrongly ascribed to her. They still call it Jodha Bai Palace on their board.
The Panch Mahal is the most beautiful part of the heritage here. As it stands today – it is a skeleton-like five stories open structure. The higher you go the more vantage point view you get. Before you think ahead, let me tell you tourists are no longer allowed to climb it. The red frame looks absolutely stunning against a blue sky. Believe me, your camera is going to love it.
Diwan-i-Khas or Diwan-e-Khas
This is a unique piece of architecture with a single carved column in the middle that has a platform to sit on top where apparently Akbar sat. And from this lead four vestibules like paths to four corners where it is said his advisors sat. It symbolizes the fact that he listened to all four directions or ideas from all corners before he took important decisions. To me what makes it a must-visit place in India is its unique architecture in red sandstone.
ASI board calls it Ibadat Khana and indicates that it was probably used for weighing the royal family members on the day of New Year. My guess is to do charity equivalent to their weight.
A long corridor with 100 plus bays forming the backdrop to the high pedestal on which Akbar used to sit and listen to the public petitions is Diwan-e-Aam. I assume the public used to sit in the sprawling green lawns in front of it.
You have to visualize the people were lining up before the King with their petitions, with their disagreements. And the king spending time listening to them sorting out their problems in a just manner. Think if this was a fast way to get resolutions than our times when our court’s decisions can take more years than what is left in your life.
Akbar’s Bed at Khwabgah
Now history books tell us that Akbar was not really a tall or well-built man. But if you look at his stone bed you would expect him to be at least 7 feet tall. I even wondered how he got onto that tall bed that was well above my head. I guess it only proves that uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.
What you must see here is the carvings on the pillars surrounding the bed. You would see a variety of flowers and fruits and particularly bunches of grapes.
Think of Birbal and the smile automatically comes on your face. To visit his palace is like peeping into the life of the wittiest man we know from history. This is a lovely small Palace – more like Birbal’s corner in the complex.
I could see him roaming with his trademark cap, be making fun of people, asking them puzzling but insightful questions and smiling when they can’t answer.
A small lake surrounded by all the buildings mentioned above has a red sandstone platform in the middle where they say Tansen used to sit and sing. Now we know him through the Bollywood biopic made on him. Musicians attribute the creation of many classical ragas to him. We have heard about anecdotes where he could make the clouds burst or lamps light just with his singing. For someone who has grown up on these legends, it is a treat to walk through this platform. And imagine Tansen’s music reverberating in the surroundings as queens listened to him from Panch Mahal and the King from his private chamber, or maybe they sat together to enjoy his music.
Palace of the Christian Queen in Fatehpur Sikri
Until the time you reach this palace, you are getting used to the palace structure. Strong red stone walls all around and you start looking for the nuances and this palace is perfect for observing them. If you look intently at the walls of this palace that supposedly belongs to the Christian queen of Akbar you would see the faint remains of the paintings. You can see elephant fight scenes pretty much the ones painted at Chitrashala in Bundi. You can see the processions on elephant tops. And you can even see the elephant-headed dancing Ganesha in one of the niches. Ceilings have geometric patterns in bold red, black and yellow, just like you see it in Ajanta paintings.
Fatehpur Sikri is made on a ridge so you need to go up and down a lot. The juxtaposition of red sandstone against a blue sky is stunning.
I have no idea if I will ever get to go there again. But this visit should remain loud and clear in my memory for this lifetime.
Recommend you to read nearby Places to Visit and Uttar Pradesh Tourist attractions on this Indian Travel Blog.