There is one legend that eclipses all other stories about Fatehpur Sikri, the magnificent capital built by Mughal Emperor Akbar (r. 1556 – 1605) around 240 km south of Delhi. It is said that Akbar abandoned the city, never to return, because it ran out of water.
The ‘abandonment’ of Fatehpur Sikri is a favourite story with tour guides intent on feeding the imagination of tourists hungry for exotic and dramatic tales. Not only is it untrue; this decision to shift capitals is but one pivot in the connected histories of the three imperial cities. The story is an excellent example of how Shashank Shekhar Sinha, in his new book Delhi, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri (2021), deftly uses monuments and heritage sites to discuss the multi-layered and shared history of these three capitals.
Adding heft to his book is the latest research in archaeology, architecture and art heritage, which Sinha makes accessible to readers by presenting them in an authoritative yet engaging format. He weaves in and out of these cities of the Delhi Sultans and the Mughals, while tracing their multi-dimensional histories from the medieval to the early modern period.
Sinha discusses the life and times of the rulers who built and inhabited these cities and sites, the political and cultural influences that shaped them, the migrations and invasions that impacted them, their afterlives, the legends and folklore that embellish them, and the efforts to restore and conserve them.
Sikri After Akbar
Under Akbar, [Fatehpur Sikri] became the cultural, commercial and administrative centre of the empire. It is estimated that around 1580 CE, the total population of this city was just short of a quarter million. Ralph Fitch, the English traveller who visited the city around 1585, wrote: ‘Agra and Fatehpore [Fatehpur Sikri] are two very great cities, either of them much greater than London and very populous.’
This picture is somewhat countered by another version which talks about the ‘sudden decline’ of the city – a narrative emphasized primarily by the tourist guides but even some travellers and historians. William Finch, an English merchant who travelled to Fatehpur Sikri in 1610, wrote that it had declined as a capital city soon after the death of Akbar. It had turned into a ‘waste desert’ and was ‘very dangerous to pass through in the night.’ That the city was ‘abandoned’ or ‘deserted’ soon after Akbar left is a picture now firmly ingrained in popular imagination.
In July 1585, Akbar’s half-brother Mirza Hakim died in Kabul. Expecting troubles from rivals in the north-west region, including the Shah of Persia and the Uzbek ruler of Badakshan, the emperor shifted the imperial seat to Lahore and ruled from there for the next thirteen years.
Akbar’s presence (1586–98) in Lahore helped in establishing Mughal control over the strategic Punjab and surrounding regions including Kabul, Lower Sindh, Kashmir and Qandahar.
It also brought the advantages of a flourishing commerce to the empire. When the emperor left Lahore in 1598, he came back to Agra instead of Fatehpur Sikri.
Why did the emperor abandon the new capital within just thirteen to fourteen years of its construction? The answer may be more complex as there are many reasons for this shift. Perhaps, Akbar never intended to make Fatehpur Sikri a permanent imperial capital.
It was comparatively better situated for Akbar’s imperial designs in Rajasthan, Gujarat and the Gangetic plains. Agra, on the other hand, had continued to remain a flourishing economic and trade site, and its fort was comparatively more impregnable. After the Lahore sojourn, Agra was also better situated to deal with the political unrest in the Deccan.
Some historians have offered a more spiritual-religious explanation for the shift of the imperial seat. They say Akbar’s reverence for Sufi saints was a factor behind the choice of Fatehpur Sikri as an imperial capital and the later change in Akbar’s religious temperament was the reason for the city’s decline. By 1585, the emperor’s connection with Sufism had become considerably diluted and he also stopped going on pilgrimages to Ajmer.
Other scholars however shift the terms of the debate by arguing that Fatehpur Sikri’s ‘decline’ has to be seen in relative terms – decline in the status of the city from an imperial capital to an ordinary town. It however continued to remain an important mercantile centre flourishing in carpet-making and indigo manufacturing.
Peter Mundy, the English trader who visited the city in 1633, still described it as a flourishing city though the palace buildings had been ruined. It also survived as a pilgrimage centre for the disciples of Salim Chishti. Many pilgrims, with desire for an offspring, continued to visit the saint’s shrine to seek his blessings.
Evidence shows that the city retained its imperial connection at least until the reign of Shah Jahan, the fifth Mughal Emperor. Akbar himself visited the town briefly in 1601 to pay a visit to Mariam Makani, the queen-mother who continued to live there even after the former’s migration. Both Jahangir and Shah Jahan took refuge in Sikri when Agra was hit by the plague.
Jahangir stayed in Sikri for three-and-a-half months in 1619 and the twenty-eighth solar birthday of the prince Khurram (later Shah Jahan) was celebrated here.
The emperor also visited the residences of his nobles, Itmad-ud Daulah, whose tomb in Agra is known as the ‘Baby Taj Mahal’, and Asaf Khan in Sikri during his stay. He also ordered Akbar’s chaugan or polo ground, near the lake and adjacent to the Hiran Minar, to be enclosed and converted into a reserve for antelopes.
Jahangir’s son and successor, Shah Jahan, in fact made several visits to Sikri, including setting up a camp in the region when he rebelled against his father and laid siege to Agra. Shah Jahan made multiple visits to Sikri – in 1628 when he ascended the throne and had a weighing-in ceremony, 1635, 1637, 1643 and then in 1644 when the plague broke out in Agra.
He also had his own palace constructed outside Akbar’s and stayed there during his last two visits in 1653 and 1654. Sikri also continued to supply red sandstone for Shah Jahan’s ambitious architectural projects including the Taj Mahal.
After Shah Jahan, the city became less visible though there are stories about the coronation of a later Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah Rangila in Sikri in 1719–20. Some historians say it was Rangila who got the pachisi board created in the Daulatkhana complex.
In the late 18th century, Jats and Marathas held control over the city. By the 1840s–50s, some imperial buildings were being used by colonial officials and, after the suppression of the revolt of 1857 – in which locals led by the descendants of Salim Chishti participated – some buildings were used as reception areas and eateries for the visiting sahibs and memsahibs. The city came under conservation efforts of the British during late 19th and early 20th centuries when many imperial buildings were freed from the clutches of official administration and the villagers.
Was shortage of water the reason for decline of Sikri?
There are several theories regarding the decline of Fatehpur Sikri, the most important being that the city declined because of the shortage of water. Most guides taking visitors around the monument complex underline the scarcity of water as a factor in the abandonment of the city.
According to a popular local legend, the water bodies in the region dried up because of the curse of a dancer named Zarina. The dancer was falsely implicated in a case involving the theft of Jodha Bai’s golden bangles. Theories upholding the role of water shortages in the decline of the city have been systematically countered by historians working on the site.
The availability of water was never a problem at Sikri. Babur’s decision to set up a camp here during his battle against Rana Sangram Singh in 1527 was related to the fact that Sikri happened to be ‘a well-watered ground’.
Akbar later dammed the water body and converted it into a lake. Historian Nadeem Rezavi argues that the city had enough water; besides the lake, there were at least thirteen stepwells and eight tanks, apart from several others spread across the city.
The presence of water bodies – lakes, public baths or hammams, baolis (step wells), tanks, garden channels and waterworks – indicate how availability of water was integral to the planning of the city. They served a variety of utilitarian, aesthetic and recreational purposes. Water was brought from the lake and supplied to the official/semi-official areas through a network of storage tanks and aqueducts. Fatehpur Sikri probably constitutes the largest surviving concentration of hammams in Mughal India. The Hakim’s Baoli, one of the largest step wells located close to the southern waterworks, still supplies water to the town.
Other water bodies are also being discovered. A recent excavation conducted by ASI revealed a square water tank with a fountain in the centre at the Todarmal Baradari. Water was, therefore, not the reason for the decline.
In fact, it was political expediency which led to the move of the imperial capital, as we have discussed – political instability in the north-west of the Mughal empire following the death of Akbar’s half-brother, Mirza Hakim in 1585. And once the emperor came back from Lahore in 1598, he shifted to Agra because it offered a more strategic setting for countering political unrest in the Deccan region.
The years between 1598–1601 saw Akbar hugely embroiled in a war against Ahmadnagar and Khandesh besides battling against his own son Salim, who was trying to take control over Agra. The son, whom the father had sought through divine intercession, had attempted to upstage the father.
Excerpted with permission from Delhi, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri by Shashank Shekhar Sinha, published by Pan Macmillan. You can buy the book here.
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