06 June 2012

Forgotten Cities: Fatehpur Sikri

By Lisa J. Yarde

In the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, the vast ruins of a sandstone city reflect a fusion of Hindu, Jain, Persian and Muslim architectural styles. Fatehpur Sikri ('City of Victory'), built on the orders of the enlightened Mughal Emperor Akbar, rises on the ridge of a plateau, overlooking an artificial lake. It is 40 kilometers from Agra, site of the more famous Taj Mahal. Between 1572 and 1585, the number of buildings within the complex ranged over two miles long and a mile wide. Most of the building facades are covered in red sandstone, with pillars, beams and pavilions. The city's planners faced a great challenge in bringing water to such a rocky region, an insurmountable difficulty that partially led to the abandonment of Fatehpur Sikri.

In 1569, Akbar had no sons despite being married and surrounded by concubines. He made a pilgrimage to a renowned Sufi saint, who prophesied that Akbar would have three sons, the first from his wife Jodha Bai. Later that year, Akbar's first son the future Emperor Jahangir entered the world. At his birth, Akbar named the boy Salim after the saint. Two years later, Akbar initiated construction at Fatehpur Sikri in gratitude for his son's life.  The new ceremonial capital soon featured elaborate palaces, surrounded by reflecting pools and cool courtyards of stone. The Jama Masjid, Fatehpur Sikri's great mosque, could accommodate 10,000 people. The great mosque also housed the tomb of the saint who divined the birth of the emperor's sons. The city contained living quarters for the court, army, public servants and ordinary citizens. Governmental buildings included an audience hall, library and state archives.

Akbar was a pious and tolerant ruler. He wanted his city to reflect India's diverse heritage. Islamic-styled vaults and domes roofed posts and beams carved in Hindu and Jain designs. There were two main approaches. From the west, past the artificial lake, the elaborate Elephant Gate gave entry to the city. The Agra gate faced the east. Other entrances, such as the gates of Delhi, Lal, Birbal, Chandanpal, Chor, Ajmere and Tehra pierced the five-mile long wall surrounding Fatehpur Sikri, bounded by hills and the lake as barriers. The city was not fortified, like Agra and could not offer Akbar a stable base against incursions from the northwest. In 1585, the emperor moved his capital to Lahore. He returned once to Fatehpur Sikri in 1601.   

In 1619, Emperor Jahangir sought refuge at the site for three months, after a devastating plague took the lives of most of Agra's residents. Later, Emperor Muhammad Shah also visited, but the city never regained the grandeur it held during Akbar's occupation.    

Lisa J. Yarde writes fiction inspired by real-life events. She is the author of two historical novels set in medieval England and Normandy, The Burning Candle, based on the life of Isabel de Vermandois, and On Falcon's Wings, chronicling the star-crossed romance between Norman and Saxon lovers. Lisa has also written Sultana and Sultana’s Legacy, novels set during a turbulent period of thirteenth century Spain, where rivalries and ambitions threaten the fragile bonds between members of a powerful family. She has written contemporary fiction including her first novella, Long Way Home, in which a young couple learns valuable lessons about love, loss and forgiveness, just before tragedy strikes.