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Wednesday April 26, 2017
From the History Books: Fatehpur Sikri
The City Of Victory
Vol: 1 Num: 3    Summer 2006
A hunting trip leads to a fortuitous listening of songs of minstrel, which leads to a pilgrimage to a Sufi mystic, who blesses the Emperor with three sons. The blessing comes true and the grateful Emperor orders a great mosque to be built under the supervision of the mystic and the foundation of a magnificent city is laid. The passage of time, however, makes it an abandoned one.

It was late in 1568 and Abu-Ul-Fateh Jalal-Ud-Din Muhammad Akbar was on his way to visit the village of Sikri in what is now the south west edge of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Few days earlier, he was out hunting game nearby and pondering over how to continue his family name after him, when he heard some songs about the celebrated Khwaja-mu’inu’d-din Chisti, the founder of the Chisti order of Sufis. Even though he was only 26 years old, in medieval era it was an age to get worried about the heir for a monarch and the songs of minstrels gave him a ray of hope.

So Akbar was off to see another Sufi mystic Sheikh Salim Chisti of Sikri, who calmly and promptly prophesied the birth of three sons to the Emperor. Lo-and-behold, Empress Mariam-uz-Zamani or Hira Kunwari, the eldest daughter of Raja Bihar Mal, the Raja of Amber, got pregnant. Naturally, the Emperor was in deep gratitude and decided to build his imperial residences in the village of Sikri, where his eldest son, Muhammad Salim, who later became Nuruddin Jahangir, was born on August 31st, 1569.

By the end of sixties in the sixteenth century, Akbar was riding high. In the years since ascending to the thrown of the fledgling Mughal Empire vacated by his just departed father Humayun, he had greatly expanded it. Humayun, the son and successor of the founder of the Mughal Empire, Babur had inherited, what some call, a hope rather than the fact of an empire. That hope soon started to disappear when an Afghan soldier of fortune, Sher Shah Sur, who, after consolidating his power in Bihar and Bengal turned his attention to Delhi. In couple of quick battles at Chausa in 1539 and Kannauj in 1540, Sher Shah dashed Mughal hopes completely, when he soundly defeated Humayun driving him out west, where Akbar was born at Umarkot, Sindh on October 15th, 1542. The homeless wanderer, Humayun first sought help from Sindh, then Marwar and then Sindh again before going further west to Persia, where King Shah Tahmasp gave him military aid to conquer Quandhar in present day Afghanistan. Humayun then had to seize Kabul three times from his own brother Kamran, before gathering enough strength and confidence to challenge the Afghan rulers of Delhi.

When in 1556, the fourteen-year old Akbar got the thrown a year after Humayun captured Delhi, his empire extended a little more than the Punjab and the area surrounding Delhi. With the help of his chief minister, Bairam Khan, Akbar gradually extended his rule. After Bairam Kahn fell out of favors with Akbar and retired, the eighteen year old became the absolute monarch in 1560.

The Emperor who once said, “A monarch should be ever intended on conquest, lest his neighbors rise in arms against him”, then went on a battle spree augmented by marriage diplomacy. First he attacked and captured Malwa. Then the Raja of Amber accepted Mughal suzerainty and offered his eldest daughter as wife to Akbar. This policy was followed with other Rajput kings, who were allowed to hold on to their kingdom in return for accepting Akbar as the emperor, providing troops when needed and forming marriage alliance with him. Those who did not cooperate like the Rana of Mewar were dealt with mercilessly by Akbar. When, after a long fight, he captured the capitol of Mewar, Chittor in 1568, Akbar massacred its inhabitant.

Fresh from his conquest of Rajputana did Akbar met with Sheikh Salim Chisti, had a son and decided to build a new capitol. Sitting at the top of a red sandstone rocky ridge just 23 miles from Agra, Fatehpur Sikri is the first planned city in Indo-Islamic style. The hamlet was named Shukri for shukriya, meaning thanks, by Akbar’s grandfather Babur. Akbar named it Fatehpur or City of Victory after his conquest over Gujarat in 1573.

Maybe Akbar built a new city, as some people suggest, as a safe haven for his huge family if Agra was attacked. Or maybe he wanted to outdo his predecessors in building great monuments that would leave a legacy. Whatever be the reason, Fatehpur Sikri establishes that he was a keen builder. Research has proved that the city was designed on a definite mathematical grid. So, perhaps, there was an architectural mastermind behind it, but definitely Akbar commanded vast resources that he put to good use in building a combination of palaces, courts, playgrounds, mosques and triumphal portals within a defensive wall of six miles. Not only that, he was also a consummate politician and put together a motley mix of Hindu and Muslim architectural styles encouraging different cultures.

Now one of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites, Fatehpur Sikri is surrounded on three sides by high red sandstone walls with nine gateways. Although most visitors enter the city via the Agra gate, the most awe inspiring of the gates is the Buland Darwaza, a towering 176 feet monumental doorway increased in stature by the many stairs needed to climb to the doorway from the roadway. It is a landmark that is visible from the Taj some twenty-five miles away in Agra. The fourth side of the city was formed by a great artificial lake, now dry. Inside the city walls, it is divided into the Palace Complex and the Mosque Complex. There are nine structures of interest inside Palace Complex and all principal buildings are on the summit of the high ridge which runs throughout the length of the city.

Though beautifully planned, the city was not designed for sustained defense except for its outer wall. The fort of Agra with its bulk of arsenal, treasure hoards and other reserves was supposed to play that role. Akbar had rebuilt the Agra Fort in 1565, which was conveniently situated nearby and in times of crisis, the court, harem and treasury could be easily moved within its stronger walls from Fatehpur Sikri. So Agra still shared the imperial duties with the new capital.

Begun in 1570, the city was completed in 1585. However, the site did not prove tenable. Maybe it was due to the lack of water or maybe Akbar was busy in faraway conquests of Kashmir, Quandhar and Sindh and the Sikri Fort did not feel secure enough that he moved his capital back to Agra. In any case, Akbar had a roaming camp and wasn’t spending much time in his capital. So the City of Victory built on an auspicious site in gratitude for the blessings for a son was abandoned in 1586.

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Neema Nene is a freelance writer based in Manassas, Virginia.

 

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