UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE
Palaces and Friday Mosque in
FATEHPUR SIKRI
TAKEO KAMIYA
Buland Darwaza
About 200km south of Delhi, Uttar Pradesh
Inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1986

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The third emperor of the Mughal Empire, Akbar, constructed a new capital, Fatehpur Sicri, and transferred his court from Agra. However, this emperor, who spent all his time fighting, suddenly left the new capital and never returned. After the court district was abandoned, people dismantled the ramparts of this vast city to sell off the stones for their livelihood. However, pilgrimage to the great mosque, and saints’ mausoleums annexed to it, has not ceased. One can see even nowadays beautiful silhouettes of continuous arcades, domes, and pavilions on the high ground of the city.



CREATION OF A NEW CAPITAL

The third emperor of the Mughal Empire, Akbar (r.1556-1605), after deciding to relocate his capital from Agra to Sikri about 40km away, wanted to reside there as fast as possible and gathered masons and craftsmen from distant states to northern India. He supervised with great expectation the process of the construction that had started in 1571.

It is said that the emperor himself selected the materials, including expensive red sandstone, and even calculated wages and costs. Thus the various facilities such as brilliant palaces, the great mosque, and housing estates for the high officials were completed on the hill of Sikri in a short span of time.

Shortly after the transfer of his court from Agra Fort, which was called Akbarabad at that time, to the new city, Akbar gained a victory on campaign to the Gujarat region in western India in 1573, enlarging his territory. When returning from the victorious campaign, he nominated the new city Fatehpur (City of Victory) Sikri in commemoration of the conquest.
Simultaneously he constructed the magnificent Buland Darwaza (Great Gate) with a grand Iwan in Persian fashion in the south side of the Friday Mosque. This largest gateway in India was the Triumphal arch of Akbar and symbolized the supremacy of the Mughal Empire.

Naubat Khana
Naubat Khana near Agra Gate


RISE AND FALL OF THE NEW CITY

Akbar had an inscription carved in the archway of the gate; ‘Isa (Jesus) said: The world is a bridge, pass over it, but build no houses on it. He who hopes for an hour may hope for eternity. The world endures but an hour.’ Nobody imagined that this pessimistic phrase foresaw the future state of this new capital.

14 years after the beginning of the construction of Fatehpur Sikri, Emperor Akbar went to the northwestern frontier to defeat the Afghan army in 1585, he would never look back on Fatehpur Sikri thereafter. From the strategic point of view, he constructed a fort in Lahore in Punjab district to make it the new base.
Although Fatehpur Sikri became a ghost town, the appearance of its palaces even now gives an impression that Akbar has just departed only some hours ago.

Anup Talao
Anup Talao in the Palace Quarter

However, there was an unexpected occasion on which the palaces of Fatehpur Sikri were used, when the plague occurred in 1619 in Agra, again the Mughal capital. Emperor Jahangir, Akbar’s son, escaped to Fatehpur Sikri from Agra to protect him inside the red sandstone walls, though he went back to Agra only three months later.

According to legend, the construction of Fatehpur Sikri commenced with a prediction of a Sufi saint Salim Chishty. After losing an infant son, Akbar was worried about gaining a successor. Salim Chishty foretold in 1568 that Akbar would be blessed with a child on the hill of Sikri. When Akbar got a healthy heir, Salim (later Emperor Jahangir), at Sikri on August 30 of the next year, he ordered the construction of palaces on this land. It saved Akbar from overcrowding Agra and its fierce summer heat too.

Pavilion
Pavilion looking like wooden construction


THE MOSQUE QUARTER

Fatehpur Sikri was a city based on a grand scheme. The length of the city wall attained 11.2km with gates in various directions; the main one was the Agra gate in the east. Though the urban district at that time does not remain, the mosque quarter and palace quarter are kept almost intact on the central high ground, not being involved in any wars, thanks to having been abandoned.

The mosque quarter is occupied in most part by the Jami Masjid (Friday Mosque), while its western area of small palaces and southern area of Hammam (public bath) are both dilapidated.
The Jami Masjid has a scale equal to the largest Friday Mosque in India that would later be erected in Delhi, being able to accommodate as many as 10,000 people at an occasion of congregational worship by also using the courtyard.
In the vast courtyard surrounded with cloisters, two mausoleums were built, one of which, the magnificent tomb of white marble for the saint Salim Chishty especially became a pilgrim site for women desiring to be blessed with children.

Jami Masjid
Interior of the Jami Masjid

The worship hall in the Macca side (western side in India) of the Jami Masjid was entirely constructed of red sandstone, mingling the Indian traditional post and beam system and the Persian arch structure. This is the mosque that best expresses Akbar’s thought intending the reconciliation of various religions.

BRILLIANT SPACE FOR COURT LIVES

Plan

Plan of Palace Quarter of Fatehpur Sikri, 16th century
(from "Architecture de l'Islam" by Henri Stierlin )

The palace quarter is located northeast of the mosque quarter, with most buildings arranged on a completely geometrical grid. As the axes are directed toward Macca as at mosques, the buildings are parallel with some gaps according to the configuration of the ground, providing varied outside spaces.
Each building is not enormous, showing the intention to make a comfortable residential court.

The existing palace quarter gives an impression of stiffness because of its formation exclusively by stone, but during its active age, the surface of palaces were furnished with soft materials such as textile curtains, screens, cushions, carpets, and wooden furniture. Its manner reminds us of the lives in tents of Mongol nomads, the ancestors of the Mughals.
It is said that Akbar created a ‘moving court’ with such tents and other furnishings on military campaigns.

Panch Mahal
Panch Mahal (Five-storied Palace)

A particularly conspicuous building in the palace quarter is the Panch Mahal (Five-storied Palace). In spite of being a five-floored pavilion crowned with a domed chhatri, it does not have a wall or an arch, and is composed of a wooden-like post and beam structure with brackets, braces, and protruding stone slab eaves. One can look down the whole palace quarter from its top floor, and at its foot is a garden called the ‘Pachisi cout.’

According to a court historian of the time, Abul Fazl, who wrote the “Akabarnama” (Memoirs of Akbar), Akbar was fond of testing people. The vassals were particularly afraid to be summoned to participate in a game of ‘Pachisi,’ an ancient Indian form of chess. A court document says that 200 participants occasionally joined in a single game.
They could not withdraw until they had finished at least 16 games. Slaves classified in different colored costumes were made to move as living pieces at an open air Pachisi court. It was a quite hard game for both participants and slave pieces, because a game could to take up to three months to be completed. The emperor enjoyed watching the games from an upper floor of the Panch Mahal and scoring the participants’ abilities.

Miriam's house
Miriam's House

On the eastern side of this area is the Diwan-i-Am (Public Audience Hall) with a square-like courtyard, on the southern side is a rectangular pond called Anup Talao and the emperor’s house, and on the northern side is the Diwan-i-Khas (Private Audience Hall). In the center of the Diwan-i-Khas, a gem of a building constructed in 1570, is a 7m high pillar with a tree-like shaped capital, on the top of which is a circular throne.

Such governmental and public facilities occupy the eastern half of the palace quarter and the western half is taken up by the emperor’s private area, in which the largest building, called Jodha Bai Palacem is the Imperial harem, the square courtyard of which faces four halls in the center of each side. Though the plan of this palace is distinctly Persian, those halls are not Persian Iwans but traditional Indian hypostyle halls with deep stone eaves in the Akbar style.
The other remarkable palaces are Birbal Bhavan and Mariam’s House (also called Sunahra Makan), though small in scale, both are built of red sandstone with delicate relief carvings in arabesque pattern.

Kiwan-i-Khas
Central Pillar of Diwan-i-Khas


CONSERVATION OF THE ABANDONED CITY

The reason that Fatehpur Sikri was abruptly abandoned has not yet been established. The most common theory, a shortage of water, is not certain because there was an artificial lake surrounded by heavy walls in the west of the city, though dried up now.

After the abandonment of the city, people destroyed buildings to sell off the red sandstone. A great number of buildings made of brick and stone were completely lost. A full-scale archaeological survey and restoration began in 1881, and conservation was commenced under the command of the viceroy of India, Lord Curzon of Kedleston (in office 1899-1905).


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© Takeo Kamiya
E-mail to: kamiya@t.email.ne.jp