From the outside, with its high, stone battlemented walls, Bihishtabad (‘garden of heaven’) looks more like a fortress than a tomb. It’s what makes the mausoleum of Akbar (r. 1556 – 1605), the third Mughal Emperor, unique.
The mausoleum is situated in Sikandra, 12 km north-west of Agra, the city he founded and from where he ruled. A combination of red sandstone and white marble, it is five storeys high and bears a distinct Persian influence. But in spite of its majestic appearance, the tomb also looks hybrid, incomplete, even. But we’ll get to that in a bit.
Visit the mausoleum of the greatest Mughal Emperor and the centuries simply fall away. On 27th October 1605 CE, Akbar’s court historian Inayatullah wrote, “When the age of His Majesty had reached sixty-five lunar years, he bade adieu to the life in the capital of Agra and took his departure to the paradise of love.”
Of Akbar’s three sons, Murad and Daniyal had died early. Both were alcoholics. When his surviving son, Salim, reached the bedside of the dying Emperor, he was unable to speak. He gestured for his imperial turban to be placed on Salim’s head and his sword to be hung at his side. When Salim stepped out of the room, he was hailed as Jahangir, ‘World Grasper’.
Salim now carried his father’s bier from the embalming room to the daulatkhana-i-khas-o-aam of his magnificent fortress of Agra. From there, a procession of Sufis and nobles, all barefoot and bareheaded, carried their Emperor through the streets of Agra, down the Mughal road to Lahore and Kashmir. Chanting “Allahu Akbar”, they distributed money and sweets to one and all.
Akbar’s body was interred in ‘Bihishtabad’, the Mughal name for Sikandra. Bihishtabad must have still been under construction when the Emperor died as work had begun only two years earlier. But when Jahangir visited Sikandra to look in on the construction in 1607 CE, he found that the architects had taken the liberty to make many improvisations and innovations which he thought were unsuitable.
Jahangir hired a new team of architects and engineers, redesigned the monument, and had parts of it demolished and rebuilt. This is what accounts for the mausoleum’s hybrid style and its somewhat incomplete appearance.
The mausoleum, which was completed in 1612-13, rises to a height of about 100 feet, diminishing in size with each level. It is built largely of red sandstone but the top storey is clad in white marble. Jahangir built a magnificent gateway to the north of the complex, with four unusually slender marble minarets. Through the gate one enters a typical Mughal char-bagh, at the centre of which lies Akbar’s tomb.
Through the central gateway to the mausoleum, one enters a portal richly decorated in red, green and blue, with inscriptions and drawings in gold. From here, a set of stone steps takes the visitor into the taikhana, where the Emperor’s actual grave used to be.
At the end of staircase is a large, vaulted hall, its high ceilings and walls once covered in blue and gold plaster. The hall was once filled with the finest carpets, and gold and silver plates, along with books, armour and weapons of the Emperor. In the middle of the hall, under a simple marble slab that is in stark contrast to the ostentatious mausoleum outside, lies “the dust of Akbar”.
In 1688 CE, the Jats of Bharatpur, fed up with the repression of the sixth Mughal Emperor, Aurangzeb (r. 1658 - 1707), attacked Sikandra under their leader Raja Ram Singh. They mutilated the delicate minarets, smashed the great bronze gates and robbed the mausoleum of its precious decorations and jewels. They are also said to have ransacked the grave of the Emperor.
It was Lord Curzon, Governor General of India (1899 - 1905), who restored Akbar’s mausoleum. It was part of a campaign to conserve the magnificent monuments in the subcontinent. Curzon, who will always be remembered for the partition of Bengal, which in turn gave rise to the Swadeshi Movement, said the following in his speech to the Asiatic Society on 7th February 1900: “Since I came to India, we have spent upon repairs at Agra alone a sum of between £40,000 and £50,000… Agra will be given back to the world, a pearl of great price.” One of his last acts before leaving India was the rebuilding of the shattered minarets of the tomb.
The grand mausoleum of Akbar is an excellent example of a well-preserved Mughal monument. It is a pity that access to the roof is not permitted because the roof contains the stunning cenotaph of Akbar, inscribed with the 99 names of Allah and beautiful floral motifs. While the Taj Mahal and Humayun’s tomb are usually cited as the most beautiful of Mughal tombs, if architectural uniqueness is what one is looking for, it is Akbar’s mausoleum in Sikandra that enjoys that privilege.