The Palace-Dargah of Fatehpur Sikri

Fatehpur Sikri (1570 – 85), the new capital city of Mughal emperor Akbar (1556 – 1605), was founded around the hospice of Shaikh Salim Chishti, the Sufi saint of Sikri, a small hamlet, some 38 kilometres, west of Agra. According to the contemporary Persian sources, the emperor shifted his capital from Agra to honour the Shaikh, through whose intercession he had been blessed with an heir, the future Jahangir. Just as earlier, his father Humayun’s tomb was placed near Shaikh Nizam ud-Din Auliya’s Chishti dargah (a Sufi shaikh’s tomb or shrine) at Delhi, so did Akbar make another Chishti shrine, the site of his new capital. The palace, the public areas, and the religious structures of the Jami mosque and the khanqah (the Sufi hospice) were combined together in this enigmatic city. The khanqah must have become a dargah at the demise of the saint (1572). The city was however, abandoned within 15 years, because of the political exigencies that prompted the Mughal capital to move to Lahore or as some hold, the move came because of lack of water supply.

Built on a rocky ridge, 3 kilometres long and 1 kilometre wide, the city is surrounded by 11 kilometres of wall, except on the south where there was a lake. Structures are made of the locally quarried red sandstone, called the Sikri sandstone. Roughly the plan of the city follows the naqsha-i manzil, the layout of the imperial destination/camp, as described by the court historian Abul Fazl, when the emperor was on the move and how his dwelling was laid out in chintz, cloth and props. But the identification and original purpose of most buildings of this camp in stone, remains in question till today. The names the structures bear today were invented for the benefit of 19thcentury European visitors by the local guides. Also, it is possible, the buildings did have many functions as in traditional pre-modern societies there is little to separate the private spaces from the public, as the buildings were adapted to serve many functions. The palace complex with the religious structures makes up the main city but besides these, the city had dwellings of nobles, baths, serais, a bazaar, gardens, schools and workshops. It was more than a simple royal residence, was an economic, administrative and an imperial base.

The khanqah, situated on the west, is the highest point on the ridge, the focal point of Akbar’s city of victory (Fatehpur). Inside this sacred place, in the courtyard stands the lofty Jami Masjid, entered from three sides. Its southern portal is the enormous gateway, the Buland Darwaza. The courtyard of the mosque contains the tomb of the revered saint. Beneath this courtyard are water reservoirs, connected to the lake on the southern side.

The Buland Darwaza, towering to a height of 54 metres, was built in 1573, to commemorate Akbar’s victory of Gujarat, and then Sikri began to be called as Fatehpur Sikri. The Quranic inscriptions on the gate allude to a promise of a paradise to true believers. The purpose of the gate, in this sense befits an entrance to a khanqah much more than a victory gate. The Jami Masjid is situated on the west side, the qibla (direction of prayer) being the west, to face Mecca, as required. An inscription on the mosque’s east facade states that it was built in 1571 – 72 by the Shaikh himself. Interior inscriptions give the date 1574, probably that of completion. Measuring 89 by 20 metres, the mosque must have been at that time the largest Mughal mosque. The exterior is a high central pishtaq (a high arch or a portal), flanked by delicately arched side wings. A row of small chattris (free standing canopy turret) lines the eastern edge of the roof. Multiple arched openings, resting on slender pillars are reminiscent of pre-Mughal Mandu and Chanderi mosques. The superstructure too, seems modelled after these mosques, only difference being that here there are small chattris, instead of small domes. The facade overall is pre-Mughal but the pishtaq, a Timurid feature is a Mughal innovation. In the interior, the main prayer chamber is just behind the high pishtaq. It is ornamented with white marble inlaid into red sandstone to form intricate geometric patterns. Painted arabesques and floral motifs with a use of polychrome and gilt suggest the intricacy of Timurid prototype once again. Such embellishment is known from Lodi and Sur times but never with such sophistication. Side wings that flank the central bay are composed of multi-aisled trabeated bays and a double- aisled pillared verandah. The slender pillars here are like the ones at Jahangiri Mahal in Agra fort.

Akbar himself swept the floors of this mosque, read the khutba (Friday sermon) himself in 1579, and inspite of the orthodox ulema (the religious custodians of Islam), a few months later issued a declaration (mahzarnama), assigning himself powers to decide even religious matters. The portals of Fatehpur Sikri became the ground for the emperor to play his imperial vision of consolidating his unfettered authority and establishing a rule based on the still nascent concept of Sulh-i Kul (peace with all), the basis of his power, on which rests his lasting legacy.

Shaikh Salim Chishti’s tomb was completed almost a decade later in 1580 – 81, after his demise in 1572. The white marble dargah, jewel like, is a single domed building of 15 metres square. A passageway runs around in the interior to facilitate circumambulation. The outer walls of this Gujarat derived structure are composed of intricately carved white marble screens (jalis). This feature is earlier seen at Shaikh Ahmad Khattu’s tomb at Sarkhej, Gujarat. Beautifully carved serpentine brackets support the deep eaves (chajjas) that encircle the shrine and its projecting south entrance porch. This pre-Mughal tradition was derived from Indo-Islamic architecture of Gujarat, Mandu and Chanderi. The screens and the multi-coloured stone flooring, similar to the one at Sarkhej, were donated by one of Akbar’s nobles, who had served Gujarat. There is a possibility that artisans may have come from Gujarat to build this tomb.

Among the non-religious structures at Sikri, the palace complex lies to the southeast of the mosque. This part was clearly planned, for the palace is axially and geometrically related to the khanqah. Geometry here serves as a metaphor for Akbar’s control and power. The Hathiya Pol, or Elephant Gate, at the southern end was the main imperial entry point. Here was a drum house (naqqar khana) and a large serai. As one enters inside, there is access to both the mosque side and the palace quarters, including the Daulat Khana-i Khass o Amm (Public Audience Hall), an important administrative building. At the foot of the Hathiya Pol is a minaret, the Hiran Minar, considered to be a hunting tower. Derived from Iranian prototypes, the structure with its protruding stones was probably a mile post (kos minar). The Daulat Khana-i Khass o Amm to its west was entered by a long road, lined with shops. This secular complex faces the other religious end of the Jami Masjid and the dargah, the two focal points of Akbar’s empire. The structure is a simple pillared flat-roofed verandah. In the central west side is a projection for the emperor’s seat. Behind on the west side, between the Jami and the Public Hall are the rest of the private palace structures, most of whose functions are unidentified.

One of these structures is the Anup Talao, a square pool in whose centre is a pavilion, where the emperor may have sat to have religious discussions or the tank was filled with coins, which were distributed by the emperor. Surrounding the tank is Turkish Sultana’s House, almost surely wrongly named so. It is distinguished by a rich tapestry of carvings of intricate geometric patterns, trees, flowers, vines, birds and animals, again reminiscent of Timurid prototypes. The floor level ornamentation indicates that people here sat and not stood like in the Public Audience Hall.

On the south edge of Anup Talao, is a multi-storied building, called the Khwabgah, the imperial sleeping chamber. Traces of figural painting and calligraphy can be seen on its walls. One of the painted verses proclaims: ‘the adorner of the realm of Hindustan’, thus confirming the building’s imperial association. The top storey of the pavilion is a central rectangular block, earlier seen at his fort in Allahabad. Immediately to the south of the Khwabgah is the Daftar Khana, or the Records office. It has an open window that overlooks the terrain below. This was Akbar’s Jharokha (a small projecting window/balcony supported on brackets), in which he showed himself daily to the public at daybreak.

A small square building, with a pillar shaft in its midst, named the Diwan-i Khass (Private Audience Hall) has evoked much speculation among art historians. Its location, just behind the Public Audience Hall, and aligned with the Jharokha, indicates it might have been the Private Audience Hall. The exterior is like the rest of pavilions but the interior with an elaborated carved pillar in the centre is unique. Its capital is composed of similar serpentine brackets, as in the Saint’s dargah. These brackets, fuller at the top than at the bottom, support a circular platform on top, which is connected to each corner of the building by stone slab walkways. A narrow path, running around connects these walkways. Akbar probably sat on this platform. Some believe that here he projected himself as the Hindu/Buddhist chakravartin, the universal ruler, presiding over all and sundry. However, the eclectic mind of the emperor developed later, after much of Fatehpur Sikri was constructed. As a matter of fact, this is the phase when he looked more towards Islam, both orthodox and popular to draw his legitimacy. Most likely the emperor sat on this platform to project himself as the dominant figure of the empire, its axis and pillar.

To the west of this area are small multi-storied trabeated structures. Often they are assumed to be Akbar’s residences for his queens and nobles. Most probably, they housed only princes and women of the household, for all of them are linked to the Khwabgah by covered screened passageways. The tallest of these is the Panch Mahal of five tiers with a large chattri. Pierced stone screen can be seen on its facade, hence would have been meant for imperial women use. The structure looks to be a pleasure pavilion, with its open spaces for cool breezes.

The largest among these trabeated structures is today called Jodha Bai’s Palace. This might have been the first palace to be constructed because it directly leads through a once covered passage to the Hathya Pol, the main imperial entrance. The building encloses a courtyard, entered by an arched gate. The rooms of the interior are trabeated, and covered with Gujarat type ornamentation. The brackets atop recessed niches in the walls are like the temple and mosque niches of Gujarat. Similarly the hanging bell and chain motif carved on many pillars has precedents in the Hindu and Muslim architecture of pre-Mughal Gujarat and Bengal.

The so called House of Birbal, one of Akbar’s courtiers, inscribed with the date 1572, is also in the vicinity. A phrase that follows the date says: ‘royal mansion of initiation’’, suggesting that its purpose was not residential, but ceremonial or even administrative. The carved ornamentation here as well goes back to pre-Islamic as well as Sultanate architecture.

The employment of both ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ forms by the emperor in the architecture at Fatehpur Sikri has earned for the complex, the epithet of ‘Sulh-i Kul(peace with all) in stone’ – a ‘Hindu’-‘Muslim’ synthesis in stone, running parallel with his eclectic policy of universal toleration. Art historian, Ram Nath, while searching for the sources of Sikri structures has elaborated on the influence of indigenous motifs, ornamentation, local roofs and pillar types, derived from domestic architecture, on the architecture of Fatehpur Sikri. The ‘Hindu’ forms from Gujarat and Jamuna-Chambal region (Delhi, Agra, Dholpur, Gwalior and Malwa) were harmoniously fused with ‘Islamic’ ones to create the perfectly blended Fatehpur Sikri structures. These influences, argues the author, should be seen against the backdrop of the patron’s own eclectic personality.

However, we have already mentioned that it is difficult to assign monolithic identities to cultural forms. There is no ‘Hindu’ trabeate nor is there a ‘Muslim’ arcuate. Both the types of buildings used both the systems of construction and ornamentation. Also, Akbar’s choice of a style that would appeal to all regardless of sectarian differences may not have been consciously done at this time because his future policy of universal toleration was still in its formative years. Nonetheless, it certainly speaks volumes for the man that he chose the best from all parts of India and put it all together in a consolidated form. The assimilation of regional forms should also be judged against the backdrop of his earlier policies when he abolished many discriminatory laws against the non-believers.

Most historians today look at the shift to Fatehpur Sikri and its architectural forms in a wider context. To Monica Juneja, Fatehpur Sikri was conceived of as a microcosm of the Mughal Empire through reuniting within its spaces a distillation of visual and structural forms that had once belonged to regions brought under the imperial umbrella. She further interprets the complex as flexible, as one open space opens into another, with no central visual control. There is no consummation, no arriving at a point. The functions of the structures are flexible too. It was a manifesto of an empire in the making that had architectural features from all over.

For Michael Brand and Glenn D. Lowry, Akbar and his planners focussed on two structures, the mosque, containing the jewel like tomb of Shaikh Salim and Akbar’s imperial palace. The two were ‘ideologically linked’ and ‘formally related’ through the layout of the city and the design of its principal buildings. Beyond these were laid the rest houses, gardens and villas. Fatehpur Sikri and its environs was a 300 mile long corridor running from Agra to Ajmer in the west. In Ajmer, was located Shaikh Muin ud-Din Chishti’s dargah, to which the emperor made annual pilgrimages. The new capital represented a formal point of connection between the older political and spiritual poles of Agra and Ajmer, and Akbar, in situating and designing the city, clearly stated that the spiritual basis for his rule was Islamic. The authors further argue that the new city was an expression of political stability and military victory. The Hall of Private Audience, sometimes identified as the Ibadatkhana, the House of Worship, symbolized the new order of social harmony that Akbar was trying to promote.

John F. Richards interprets Fatehpur Sikri against his larger discussion of imperial authority under Akbar and Jahangir. In the first two decades Akbar established his infallible spiritual authority, to make his person the metaphor for the empire. Part of this campaign was to reject Delhi as the seat of power. At this time he built the forts of Agra, Allahabad, Lahore, Rohtas and Attock. Fatehpur Sikri too is a part of that, as it represents the final break with Delhi in 1571, while its forms represent the orthodox religious ideology that he relied on for legitimacy. He combined the mosque and the dargah, legal and mystical Islam into his political authority, against the backdrop of the mahzarnama that gave him unfettered authority. Eventually these forms of Islam were further subordinated to his authority when the sons of the Shaikh were recruited in the imperial service and were not made heirs to the shrine. The Sikri years saw assimilation into his political authority the orthodox and popular Islam, symbolized by the combination of palace and the mosque and the dargah. The abandoning of Sikri led to a change in ideology as well, from religious to more imperial for his legitimacy, as orthodoxy was given up after 1580. Finally, Richards sees Sikri as a secure common post to mobilize forces west towards Rajasthan and Gujarat, and if need be to the east to tackle the Afghans. For Richards, the move to Sikri was to lend an Islamic (in all forms) religious basis to his sovereignty and a political need of a military corridor.

Attilio Petruccioli sees a grid system behind the planning of Fatehpur Sikri, though he observes an incongruity within that grid. To him, the romantic association of Fatehpur Sikri and it foundation with the need to honour the saint needs to be shelved. For Petruccioli, Sikri was a political operation to achieve two aims: an attempt to centralize the court and to uproot the nobility from its stronghold of Agra. Fatehpur Sikri is a residential city, a gilded prison for the court, with a lack of military defences here. This was to keep the nobility firmly under control. Petruccioli further sees the city as representing ‘cultured architecture’ in a vernacular style, where tradition piece by piece was put at a higher level. To him the Sikri ‘new style’ was just this, an expanded scale architecture of an imperial ideal and not quite like the European Renaissance style which was based on intrinsic factors and configurations that coalesced in a movement.

Glenn D. Lowry is concerned with the rigid alignment of the city’s structures that are east to west or north to south, while the ridge itself is aligned southeast to northwest. This means the terrain is better suited for a diagonal layout but the structures are rigidly aligned following the cardinal directions. The seat of the emperor in the Diwan-i Khass o Amm is oriented to the west. From contemporary sources, it seems the Hall was also a site for prayers till 1582, after which public prayer in the court was abolished. This would mean the people, when they faced the qibla to pray, they actually faced the emperor. The emperor here then symbolically became the qibla of the empire and the city became the setting for articulation of the imperial vision of himself as the master of the physical and spiritual worlds. Lowry further argues that the palaces located between the Diwan-i Khass o Amm and the Jami Masjid are caught between the dual forces of these structures, the two poles of the empire, spiritual and temporal. They are in the middle ground between the formal and spiritual needs of the empire. They are a theatrical setting on a microcosmic level, to enact this vision. The microcosmic is completed by the macrocosmic parallel in Fatehpur Sikri’s position as a royal corridor between the two poles, the temporal Agra and the spiritual Ajmer.

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