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
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
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.