Thirty years ago I went to India with my Mum, and inevitably my most vivid memory of that holiday is visiting the Taj Mahal. I fell for its smooth, white marble, stroking its walls like the skin of a lover, pressing my face against the gem-stone pietra dura, and inhaling its perfumed air. My other indelible memory is Mum, terrified of the slightest tummy twinge, taking handfuls of Entero-Vioform and not being able to go to the lav for a week.
“A singular report of your majesty’s humanity has reached these distant shores of the world”
Akbar’s Short-Lived Capital
Fatehpur Sikri, the Mughal Emperor Akbar’s short-lived capital, was not on the itinerary when Mum and I visited, but during my research I become slightly obsessed with seeing this important sight. Akbar, an early believer in religious and racial tolerance, welcomed all faiths to his court. Born a Muslim, he took Hindu and Christian wives, and appointed non-Muslims to his council. His rational and scientific approach to tolerance reached the courts of Europe. Even Elizabeth I sent a message saying, a “singular report of your majesty’s humanity has reached these distant shores of the world.”
We left our less-than-average hotel and headed out towards Fatehpur Sikri with hope in our hearts (let’s face it, anywhere outside Agra must be good for the simple reason it is not in Agra. How is it that one of the ugliest cities in India has some of its most celebrated treasures?)
Cliché or no cliché, Akbar’s ‘City of Victory’ really does “rise majestically” from a barren rocky plateau. Referring back to my note book, before writing up this visit, I found a string of exclamations: “The scale! Location and position! Extraordinary! Fabulously well-maintained! Power! More palace than fort!”
Built – or rather sculpted – from blood-red sandstone, the complex rams home to visitors just how powerful Akbar was. It must have been even more beautiful and terrifying when he lived here with his entourage. At the city’s entrance, standing 54m high, a monumental gate leads directly to the Jama Masjid, a mosque capable of holding 10,000 worshippers.
After taking a 5 minute horse and trap ride from the car park (cars are banned in Fatehpur Sikri) we wandered up to the mosque, the biggest I have seen so far. Like elsewhere, shoes must be removed. You have to elbow your way through the street traders selling tat, for this section is not part of the World Heritage sight and is therefore a messy free-for-all.
We have our own tactics for avoiding the traders. Mine is simple: I walk in a straight line, look straight ahead and say politely, once only, ‘no thank you’. If they persist I ignore them. They soon lose interest. If they are selling jewellery Liz just tells them their necklaces are horrible! On the whole we get hassled a lot less than many of the tourists around us. Mind you, I did get sick of the constant ‘Ali Baba’ comment from the locals, as they point at my beard. “Nice beard, nice beard. Ali Baba! Ali Baba! One photo?”. P*** off.
Within the mosque stands the Tomb of Salim Chisti. Behind its ebony door, amid incense smoke and woven offerings, we made out a carved marble shrine.
Childless, Akbar sought advice from Shaikh Salim Chisti, a Sufi saint in the village of Sikri. Salim correctly predicted that the great ruler would have three sons. The first, Prince Salim (named after the Sufi), was born in Sikri in 1569. So grateful was Akbar to the saint, that he ordered a mosque and palace to be built right where the Sufi lived (and was eventually laid to rest). Akbar re-named the complex Fatehpur Sikri (“City of Victory”) and it became the capital of the Mughal Empire, until 1585. Today women still tie a length of wool to the marble lattice windows of the tomb, in the hope that they too will fall pregnant with a male child.
I do get fed up with religious types who hang around mosques/temples/gompas ineffectually sweeping at a bit of dust, harassing you for money. If you give them a few coins you know damn well it’s going straight into their pocket. I mean, if you visited a quaint little Anglican church in a Suffolk village, you would not expect to be accosted by the W.I., demanding payment for a bit of old biscuit they baked last week. Once again, the hypocrisy of religion rears its ugly head.
In this shrine a man stands at the entrance. He asks for a donation and, if you oblige, waves a palm leaf over your head. If you don’t contribute, you get hassled. On this occasion, when we were followed out of the mosque by a persistent ‘guide’ who wanted to show us around, walking in a straight line and ignoring him didn’t work. A firm ‘p*** off’ worked well though.
The Fatehpur Sikri royal grounds gave us relief from the tourist traders and guides, who are not allowed inside the complex. Amid the tranquillity and splendour, we lost ourselves in another world of public and private audience halls, palaces, houses, an astronomer’s kiosk, Akbar’s giant bed, the Panch Mahal and ornate civic buildings. While Jamie searched the city for the best angle, I watched a turtle swimming in the ornamental pond: children played on the steps, men bathed or swam in its depths and princesses dipped painted toes in the water (although I suspect Akbar’s renowned tolerance did not stretch as far as letting women out of purdah, or the harem).
Anyone contemplating a visit to the Taj Mahal, please don’t miss out on fabulous Fatehpur Sikri too. It will stay in your memory forever.