• Photo: Peter Guttman/Peterguttman.com
  • Photo: Peter Guttman/Peterguttman.com

Fatehpur Sikri

The capital of the Mughal Empire for only 14 years (from 1571 to 1585), the majestic red sandstone buildings of the now uninhabited fortified city of Fatehpur Sikri are remarkably well preserved, and showcase elegant architecture and an inspired sense of planning.

In a sense, Fatehpur Sikri was built on faith: in 1569, so the story goes, the Mughal emperor Akbar was driven to despair because he didn't have a male heir. He made a pilgrimage to visit the Sufi mystic Salim Chisti, who blessed him. The blessing evidently worked, as Akbar had a son within the next year, naming him Salim (the future emperor Jahangir) in honor of the saint. Two years later, Akbar began building a new capital in Chisti's village of Sikri, later renaming it Fatehpur Sikri (City of Victory) after a great triumph in Gujarat. Standing on a rocky ridge overlooking the village, Fatehpur Sikri originally had a circumference of about 11 km (7 miles). Massive walls and seven gates enclosed three sides, and a lake (now dried up) protected the fourth. When the British came to Fatehpur Sikri in 1583 to meet Akbar, they were amazed to see a city that exceeded contemporary London in both population and grandeur—with more rubies, diamonds, and silks than they could count.

What remains is a beautiful cluster of royal dwellings on the top of the ridge, landscaped with lawns and flowering borders. The structures elegantly blend architectural styles from Persia as well as Akbar's various Indian holdings, a reflection of the synthesizing impulse that characterized the third and greatest of the Mughal emperors. Also notable is how Akbar synthesized Muslim and Hindu beliefs here. The magnificently carved Brahma pillar is testament to his stand on communal harmony. Akbar ruled here for only 14 years before moving his capital—perhaps in pursuit of water, but more likely for political reasons—to Lahore and then eventually back to Agra. Because it was abandoned and never resettled, the city was not modified by later rulers, and thus is the best reflection of Akbar's aesthetic and design philosophies. Fatehpur Sikri now stands as an intriguing ghost town, reflecting a high point in India's cultural history.

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