Fatehpur Sikri: Symphony in Red



For just 15 years, Fatehpur Sikri was the capital of Emperor Akbar (r. 1556 – 1605), one of the greatest rulers of the Mughal Empire. A beloved city of the Emperor, it was here that a Sufi saint told the king that his wish for a son and heir would be granted. When his prayers were answered, Akbar built a magnificent city in red sandstone on the ridge where the saint lived, fortified it with strong walls, and shifted his capital here from Agra, 36 km away.

Four centuries on, Fatehpur Sikri still exudes elegance and grandeur and is one of the most-visited sites in India today. Part of the Golden Triangle of Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur, it receives lakhs of tourists every year, who come to marvel at its exquisite Mughal architecture. Built-in 1571 and serving as Akbar’s capital till 1586, it was completely abandoned by 1610 but the historic township stands still in time, as a fine example of medieval town planning.

Ruins of Fatehpur Sikri, 1860s
Ruins of Fatehpur Sikri, 1860s|Wikimedia Commons

The history of the Fatehpur Sikri region is quite ancient. Historian Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi, in his paper Sikri Before Akbar, writes of remains from the post-Mauryan Sunga dynasty (c 185 – 75 BCE) found here. He also believes that the town got its name ‘Sikri’ from the Sikarwar Rajputs, who ruled the region before the advent of the Delhi Sultanate in the 10th century.

The place came to Mughal attention in 1527 CE, when the famous Battle of Khanwa (between the army of Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire, and that of Rana Sanga of Mewar) was fought just a few miles from Sikri village. At the time, Babur was residing at Badalgarh Fort, the site on which the Agra Fort was later built, and to commemorate his victory, he is said to have renamed the place ‘Shukri’ or ‘thanks’ and built a garden there.

General plan of Fatehpur Sikri city in 1917
General plan of Fatehpur Sikri city in 1917|Wikimedia Commons

After his death in 1530, Babur was succeeded by his son Humayun, who ruled from Delhi. During this time, Sheikh Salim Chishti, a Sufi saint of the Chishitya Sufi order, moved to Sikri and began living on the hilltop. We do know that he was a Sufi saint of some political importance as there are references to Afghan ruler Sher Shah Suri’s sons, Islam Shah and Adil Shah, visiting him here.

In 1568, Humayun’s son and successor Emperor Akbar besieged and captured the famous fort of Ranthambore from the Hada Rajputs. On the way back to his capital, Agra, he visited Sheikh Salim Chishti and prayed for a son. The saint blessed the Emperor, and the following year, a son was born to him. Not only did Akbar name his son ‘Salim’ (later Emperor Jahangir) after the saint, he even nicknamed him ‘Shekhu Baba’ after Sheikh Salim.

It was in 1571 that Akbar decided to establish a new city on top of the ridge, surrounded by 11 km of fortifications. He shifted his capital from Agra to Fatehpur Sikri, which became the new Mughal capital. It was from here, in 1572 that Akbar marched on his Gujarat campaign and returned victorious. To commemorate his victory, he renamed the place ‘Fatehpur’ or ‘City of Victory’. Over time, a number of splendid buildings such as courts, palaces, mosques and other structures were constructed here.

Abul-Fazl ibn Mubarak presents Akbar Nama to the Mughal emperor Akbar.
Abul-Fazl ibn Mubarak presents Akbar Nama to the Mughal emperor Akbar.|Wikimedia Commons

Emperor Akbar’s biographer Abul Fazl in the Akbarnama writes:

"Inasmuch as his exalted sons [Salim and Murad] had been born at Sikri, and the God-knowing spirit of Shaikh Salim had taken possession thereof, his holy heart desired to give outward splendour to this spot which possessed spiritual grandeur. Now that his standards had arrived at this place, his former design was pressed forward, and an order was issued that the superintendents of affairs should erect lofty buildings for the special use of the Shehenshah.’

Fatehpur Sikri in the 1890s
Fatehpur Sikri in the 1890s|Wikimedia Commons

The grandeur of Fatehpur Sikri can be gauged from the accounts of the English merchant, Ralph Fitch, who visited this grand city in 1585. Fitch writes:

"Agra and Fatehpore Sikri are two very great cities, either of them much greater than London, and very populous. Between Agra and Fatehpore are 12 miles (kos) and all the way is a market of victuals and other things, as full as though a man were still in a town, and so many people as if a man were in a market."

It was at Fatehpur Sikri that European influence began to be felt at the Mughal court. The earliest arrivals were Portuguese missionaries from Goa. A Jesuit mission composed of Eodolfi Aquaviva, Antonio Monserrat and Francis Henriquez, a Persian convert, arrived at Fatehpur Sikri in February 1580. They were received in the palace, where they built a small chapel, and were given full liberty to preach and convert. They also opened a hospital here, the first European-style hospital in North India. Emperor Akbar also tried to establish ‘Din-i-Illahi’, a syncretic religion, intending to merge some of the elements of the religions in his empire. He also established an ‘Ibadat Khana’ or ‘House of Worship’ for this new religion.

In 1586, Akbar set out for his campaigns in the Punjab and Kabul. For several years, he remained in Punjab, using Lahore as his headquarters till his return in 1598. When he returned, he took up residence at the Agra Fort, not at Fatehpur Sikri, which appears to have been completely abandoned by 1610 CE, apparently due to inadequate water supply.

Akbar’s son and successor Emperor Jahangir stayed at Fatehpur Sikri for three months in 1619, when the bubonic plague swept Agra. The buildings continued to deteriorate till the advent of the British East India Company here in 1803. In 1815, the then British Governor-General Francis Rawdon Hastings ordered the repair of the monuments at Fatehpur Sikri. They are now under the protection of the Archaeological Survey of India.

Fatehpur Sikri is built in a style of architecture that blends Hindu and Islamic elements and is heavily ornamented. Here’s a tour of the iconic monuments at this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Buland Darwaza
Buland Darwaza|Wikimedia commons

Buland Darwaza

Buland Darwaza is one of the world's tallest gateways. Standing tall at 52 meters, it is about the same height as a modern 15-storey building. It is constructed from red sandstone and white and black marble. On the façade are calligraphic inscriptions from the Quran in Naksh script. To the right of the central archway is an inscription by Akbar, dated 1601 CE, commemorating his victory over Khandesh in Central India.

The tomb of Sheikh Salim Chishti
The tomb of Sheikh Salim Chishti |Wikimedia commons

The Tomb of Sheikh Salim Chishti

The tomb of Sheikh Salim Chishti was built between 1580 and 1581, during Akbar's reign. It stands where the Sufi saint’s meditation chamber used to be. The structure has been built with black and yellow marble. Chhaparkhat surrounds a marble cenotaph, which is largely covered by a green-colored fabric. The door of the central chamber contains inscriptions from the Quran. Citizens come here to pray for blessings in order to get their wishes fulfilled.

Jama Masjid
Jama Masjid|Wikimedia commons

Jama Masjid
Completed in 1571, the Jama Masjid is one of India’s largest mosques. It can be entered from Buland Darwaza. The mosque has a wide courtyard, where around 25,000 people can congregate and worship.

Ibadat Khana

In 1575, Akbar established the Ibadat Khana or the ‘House of Worship’ for philosophical discussion among different religions. It is here that he tried to establish a new religion called ‘Din-i-Illahi’, combining different beliefs.

Panch Mahal
Panch Mahal|Wikimedia commons

Panch Mahal

Panch Mahal or the ‘Five Storied Palace’ is one of the most important buildings in Fatehpur Sikri. It was used as a summer residence during the hot summer months. Consisting of four stories of decreasing size, it is open on all sides, where khus curtains hang.

Pachisi Court
Pachisi Court|Wikimedia Commons

Pachisi Court

The pool in front of Panch Mahal is called the Anoop Talab. It was a setting for musical concerts and other entertainment. Next to it is a ‘Pachisi Court’, an ancient Indian board game similar to Ludo, where Emperor Akbar would play the game, with his servants acting as board pieces.

Birbal’s Palace, Fathepur Sikri
Birbal’s Palace, Fathepur Sikri|British Library

Birbal’s Palace

The so-called Birbal’s Palace stands in the middle of the Shahi Zanana Mahal and was the residence of Akbar’s queens. Over time, it became associated with the story of Raja Birbal, Emperor Akbar’s favourite minister, but there is no truth to this.

Jodha Bai Palace

Jodha Bai Palace

Jodha Bai Palace was also known as Raniwas and Zenani Dyodhi. The palace is huge and double-storeyed. The Hindu motifs used here indicate that the palace was designed for a Hindu lady. Although it was called ‘Jodha Bai’s Palace’, Akbar had no queen by that name. Several motifs like swans, elephants, parrots etc are visible in the interiors. The palace contains a set of rooms that served as a temple.

 Diwan-i-Khas
Diwan-i-Khas|Wikimedia commons

Diwan-i-Aam & Diwan-i-Khas

The two halls in the complex are the Diwan-i-Aam, and Diwan-i-Khas. While the former was used to address the local population, to hear their grievances and pronounce judgements, the latter was where the Emperor met with royal officials, courtiers and guests. Next to the Diwan-i-Khas is the Khwabgah or the bedroom of Emperor Akbar.

Fatehpur Sikri may have been abandoned a long time ago but visit at sunset for a glimpse of its glory days. At sundown, the sandstone turns a fiery red, and the beautifully sculpted palaces, courtyards and ponds resonate to stories of yesteryear. According to some estimates, Akbar’s ‘City of Victory’ generates more revenue from tourists than Delhi’s Red Fort!

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