A group of men threw themselves over the jeep as we almost skidded to a halt, but the driver continued to drive past them in a hurry, ignoring them. I was thrown out of my seat and wondered what had possibly gotten onto my erstwhile sober driver that he drove so recklessly for the next couple of minutes ignoring more such men and their waving hands. The men on the road worried me as much as my overspeeding driver.
When he finally slowed down, I demanded an explanation. “This is Agra, madam,” he said nonchalantly. I looked at him rather baffled, wondering when Agra turned out to be filled with reckless drivers and men throwing themselves on the cars. But before he explained any further, we were already entering the portals of Akbar’s old capital city, Fatehpur Sikri. And in that parking lot, I heard the story - not about the city, but behind that drive. These men, my driver said, are guides who accosted tourists on the road and are often so aggressive that you are left with no option but to hire them. Even before he completed the warning, the car was surrounded by these guides screaming their lungs out, yelling at each other as they insisted that we hire them. It took a lot of resilience to ward them off as I walked up towards the beautiful, abandoned city.
There was something tragically beautiful about Fatehpur Sikri. A melancholic poignancy radiated through its rich sandstone walls. The monuments sparkled in the glow of the mid afternoon sun, like faded jewels of the past. It was intriguing why Akbar would abandon this capital city that he lovingly built and ruled for fourteen years.
The guides returned, this time trying to be polite and persuasive. We finally hired one just to get them off my back and listened to some stories. Sikri as a village was first noticed by Babar, not Akbar, when he defeated Rana Sangha in the 16th century. He apparently gave it a title, Shukri, feeling grateful, as a token of thanksgiving. But it caught Akbar’s attention as it was the home of the Sufi saint, Shaikh Salim Chisti, who predicted that the heirless emperor would soon be blessed with heirs. Perhaps it was an emotional decision or a political decision to win the favour of the Sufis, but Akbar decided to build his capital here. And true to the prediction, Salim or Jahangir was born in this new town.
The name Fatehpur came much later, as it was from here that Akbar marched to a successful victory over the rulers of Gujarat and renamed it as the city of victory. The Bulund Darwaza was built here to commemorate the victory. Many more legends echoed from these walls, as it went down in history as the court of Akbar’s legendary courtiers. This was where Tansen sang for rains and Birbal polished his wits.
Dazzling in rich sandstone, the monuments beckoned us. Some local people enjoyed their afternoon siesta while others headed to Salim Chisti’s dargah. The musicians started performing louder, a cue for asking for more money, as we entered. Looking around at the edifices, palaces and assembly halls sparkling in red against the blue sky, I was still drawn to the music, drowning the murmurs and voices around. There was the Jami Masjid and the imperial palace complex with more than fifteen monuments that included the Diwani-i-am or the public enclosure, Daulat Khana or the Abode of Fortune with the Dhiwani-i-khaas which was the Jewel House, the Anup Talao, Jodhabai’s palace, and Birbal’s house among others. A little monument called the Ankh Michauli or Blind Man’s Buff was believed to be Akbar’s favourite haunt where he played the game with his harem.
I headed to Anup Talao as the guide told me that this was where Tansen regaled the court with his music. Seated in the island in the centre of the pond, he used to sing four different ragas during the day. Suddenly history was forgotten amidst lore. Did Tansen charm Akbar’s daughter Mehrunissa and marry her eventually? Did he really make the clouds melt with rain with raga Megha Malhaar? Did he really die when he was engulfed by the fire that broke out when he was singing raga Deepaka? History does not really answer these questions, but very often these are the stories that linger in our minds.
But the story of Fatehpur Sikri itself defied logic. Here was a king who passionately built the city brick by brick. It was believed that he was at the quarry personally working along with the workers. But the city that took 15 years to build was inhabited for just 14 years. When Akbar moved his capital, he left it as a ghost town. One wondered if he moved because of the shortage of water or as some historians say that he had no intention of building a permanent capital. Whatever the reason may be, Fatehpur Sikri remains Akbar’s masterpiece as he seems to have left a piece of him in these red walls.