Indian History Part 81 Akbar Section VII – The Builder

Canberra, 19 September 2020

Around his tenth regnal year, Akbar embarked on a journey of extensive building activity, being personally involved in all aspects of the endeavour—from influencing he designs to supervising the actual construction. The earliest project was the construction of a hunting lodge in a village called Kakrali, about 10 kilometres south of Agra, completed rapidly in 1564 and named Amanabad, the ‘Abode of Peace’. However, this building seems to have been demolished later. The why, when and how for the demolition remains a mystery.

In Agra, the old Hindu and then Afghan fort, called Badalgarh, had fallen into disrepair. Around 1561-63 Akbar started to build within the brick walls of the dilapidated fort, erecting two palaces the ruins of which are still visible at the site. In 1565, Akbar started to build a new fort at the same site. He had the old brick fort of Sikandar Lodi pulled down and built a magnificent wall of red  sandstone 70 feet high, which gives the fort its name of the Red Fort of Agra. The fort is planned in the shape of a bow, with the straight side facing the River Yamuna and palaces being constructed on top of the walls. Jahangir, Akbar’s son and successor, mentions construction of the fort continuing for 16 years and costing three and one-half million rupees, the equivalent of 400,000 pounds sterling at that time. Akbar, always a conservative economist who was loath to expend money from his treasury, levied a special tax on the peasantry to construct the fort.

Most of the buildings inside the fort were destroyed later by Akbar’s grandson Shah Jahan, when he undertook re-construction to suit his own taste. Even so, some old buildings of Akbar survive as relics to this day. It is reliably reported that during the construction of the core fort, which is estimated to have taken about six years, Akbar moved to a temporary city, built for the purpose, to avoid the noise, dust and confusion of the construction. This temporary city was built about seven miles south of Agra and was called Nagarcin. Akbar played polo, raced dogs and generally relaxed in this city. No ruins or signs of this temporary abode of Akbar remain to corroborate the report of its construction.

Humayun’s Tomb

The first great Mughal monument built in the Indian sub-continent was the mausoleum of Humayun.

Humayun’s tomb was built under Akbar’s patronage but under the direct supervision of Haji Begum, Akbar’s mother and Humayun’s principal consort, with her own finances, with construction starting around 1569-70. It was designed by Mirak Mirza Ghiyas, a Persian architect, and took nearly nine years to complete. The entire complex covers an area of 27 hectares and was the first garden-tomb to be built in the sub-continent. It is a classic example of the ‘charbagh’ style that delineates a four quadrant garden with the four rivers of Quranic paradise represented.

The mausoleum stands on a high wide terraced platform and has an irregular octagonal planform, with four long sides. It is surmounted by a 42.5 metre high double dome, which are flanked by marble chhatris. The interior is a large octagonal chamber with vaulted roof compartments connected by galleries and corridors. Humayun’s garden-tomb is also called the ‘dormitory of the Mughals’, as more than 150 members of the Mughal dynastic family are buried in its vaults.

The tomb is on the UNESCO Heritage List. Their websites states, ‘Humayun’s garden-tomb is built on a monumental scale, grandeur of design and garden setting with no precedence in the Islamic world for a mausoleum. Here for the first time, important architectural innovations were made including creating a char-bagh – a garden setting inspired by the description of paradise in the Holy Quran. The monumental scale achieved here was to become the characteristic of Mughal imperial projects, culminating in the construction of the Taj Mahal’.

The Door Keepers

At this stage in this narrative regarding the stupendous achievements of the intrepid Emperor Akbar, it is necessary to at least attempt to provide what this author believes is the correct understanding of a prevalent but wrong interpretation of some actions that Akbar carried out.

Francois Bernier (1625-1688), was a French physician, who for a period of time was the personal doctor for Prince Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of Shah Jahan, and stayed on in the Mughal Empire during the reign of Aurangzeb. He wrote down his impressions of the time he spend in India in his travelogue, Travels in the Mughal Empire. In this book he mentions two elephants of stone on either side of the main entrance to Delhi, on which are mounted statues of the Rajput princes Jaimall and Palta, the defeated chieftains of Chitor. It has been confirmed that these statues were initially erected by Akbar in Agra and placed outside the fort gates; and also that Jahangir continued this custom, creating similar statues of Rana Amar Singh and his son Karan Singh, after they had surrendered.

Bernier goes on to state that Akbar was attempting to ‘immortalise’ the valour of these two warriors by creating these statues and further goes on to state that this was an act of reverence to the martyred chiefs, intended as one of reconciliation. This sentiment is echoed by a number of later-day British historians, such as Vincent A. Smith and even some modern Indian historians.

In this assessment, Bernier is wrong and mistaken. He was obviously unaware of local customs and based his narrative on hear-say and the information from clearly biased people, mainly the court chroniclers. The statues in question were kept in the position of the ‘door-keepers’, or ‘dwar-palak’, a custom of Hindu kingdoms where chiefs and senior aristocratic families had such guards outside their palaces and forts. This author contents that by placing statues of the defenders of Chitor in the role of dwar-palaks, Akbar was unequivocally making a point to the larger Rajput nation that their heroes were only fit to be door-keepers of the great emperor. It was, if anything, a demeaning gesture and was never intended to celebrate the bravery of the fallen heroes; far from it. The Mughals never celebrated their enemies. It is necessary to remove this fallacy of Akbar ‘immortalising’ the valour of the heroes of Chitor and attempting reconciliation from the common narrative of Indian history. Neither Akbar, nor his successors ever made such an attempt.

‘Akbari’ Architecture

The term ‘Akbari’ architecture refers to a style of Indo-Islamic (Persian) architecture conceived, developed and practised during Akbar’s reign using the elite Indic architectural model. It is characterised by a strength made elegant and graceful by its rich decorative work that reflects many traditional Hindu elements—both secular and religious. Its design philosophy was directly influenced by Akbar’s ardent desire to embrace India as his native country. The style is actually a synthesis of earlier ones—Hindu, Jain and Buddhist—with the Persian and Timurid styles of Central Asia. It was scientifically oriented and lavishly used the red-stone that was locally available, a methodology that helped to minimise the stylistic clashes that was bound to come up in the bringing together of two architectural styles that were poles apart in ethos, sensibilities and aesthetics.

Akbar’s buildings were all blends. There is also a school of thought that the Akbari style was inspired by the architectural efforts of Sher Shah Sur, which in turn was a continuation of the older and more established Lodi style. This hypothesis may just be true.    

Fatehpur–Sikri

After Chitor had been overrun, in order to redeem a pledge made earlier, give thanks and to celebrate, Akbar made a pilgrimage to the tomb of Moin ud-Din Chishti in Ajmer. He had been paying homage at this holy place for the previous six years. Akbar, who by this time had a large number of wives and concubines, was still without a living son since his male off-springs had not been surviving beyond infancy. There was a renowned Sufi saint of the Chishti order, Shaikh Salim Chishti (1478-1572), who lived in an obscure small village called Sikri near Agra, with whom also Akbar interacted regularly. During one of the Emperor’s visits, Shaikh Salim predicted to Akbar that he would have three sons. Soon after, the prophesy came true with the eldest son being born in the Shaikh’s house in Sikri and being named Salim in his honour. Akbar was so impressed with the Shaikh’s ‘divinity’ that he decided to build a new capital around the holy man’s hermitage in Sikri.

After the military victory in the Gujarat campaign, Akbar renamed the site of the proposed new capital as Fathabad, changed it later to Fathpur and then to Fatehpur. For all his rationalism, Akbar was extremely superstitious and considered Sikri to be a place of luck for him. In 1571, on his return from the Punjab expedition, he stayed with the Shaikh and it is believed that it was during this sojourn that he decided to convert the village into a great city. The construction began with a wall of masonry built around the town, although it does not seem to have been completed. All classes of dwellings, schools, and public institutions were constructed along with laying down of some gardens, a compulsory part of Mughal construction. Although Akbar had started to conceive the design from 1569, the construction actually started in 1571 and lasted 15 years.

The city was built around the hermitage of the old saint Shaikh Salim, who had settled in the wilderness in 1537-38 and had managed to construct a monastery and school house on a low hill. The workmen for the construction of the capital had on their own built a mosque for the hermit adjacent to his own modest living quarters. This mosque, now known as the ‘Stone Cutter’s Mosque’ still exists and is studied as a great example of the Indo-Islamic architectural style. The Great Mosque of Fatehpur-Sikri, said to replicate the style of the grand mosque in Mecca bears an inscription dating its completion to May 1572.            

The ‘Bulund Darwaza’, or the Lofty Gateway, was completed a few years later, in 1575-76, and is considered to be a memorial to the conquest of Gujarat in 1573, when the city was also named Fatehpur. The gateway also has an inscription recording the ‘triumphant’ return of Akbar from the Deccan campaign. Because of this, some analysts have erroneously considered the gateway to have been built in 1601-02 on his return from the Deccan. This estimate is wrong since by that time Akbar was no longer a practising or believing Muslim and would not have sanctioned the building of a particularly Islamic celebratory structure. Also, by the early 1600s, Akbar the invincible Emperor, had very little to celebrate. Multiple sources confirm that the Bulund Darwaza was constructed after the successful campaign in Gujarat. Fatehpur-Sikri contains many fanciful individual buildings, such as the Panch Mahal, the palace for the ladies, Birbal’s palace and Jodh Bai’s palace. The Diwan-i-Khas, Hall of Private Audience, is famous for its architectural dexterity.

Description of the Diwan-i-Khas

‘The inside of Akbar’s diwan-i-khas or ‘hall of private audience’ is rightly famous both for its architectural ingenuity and for its concept, which very accurately reflects Akbar’s character and idea of himself; from the outside the building appears to have two storeys but within it consists of one high room, in the middle of which stands a sturdy swelling pillar, joined to balconies half way up the wall by four delicate bridges. When Akbar was in conference, he would sit on the circular platform at the top of the pillar; those involved in the discussion would sit on the balconies on all four sides, and if they needed to bring anything to the emperor they could approach him along one of the bridges; those in attendance but not expected to participate could stand on the floor below, where they could easily hear what was said.’

—Bamber Gascoigne,

The Great Mughals, p. 87.

Royal Occupation

From its conception in 1569, which was also the year of Prince Salim’s birth, till the beginning of the great Punjab expedition in 1585, Fatehpur-Sikri was the principal residence of the Emperor, with the royal court also being located there. Unlike later Mughal architectural style, which is an intricate and equal combination of Persian and Indian styles, Akbar’s buildings tend to favour the Indian style in design and execution. They were obviously inspired by the exquisite palace in early 16th century Gwalior.

Since the location of the new city was not scouted out and arrived at through a considered process, but selected on a whim because of the location of the residence of an old hermit, water supply to the city turned out to be defective. At the end it was this fundamental drawback that led to the abandonment of a planned and well-laid out city, on which the Emperor had lavished his attention. The deficiency in water supply was recognised early and an attempt to ameliorate the challenge was undertaken by the construction of an artificial lake, approximately six by two miles in dimension, to the north of a ridge. An elaborate system of water works was established to supply the city. Unfortunately, the dam burst in 1582 and damaged some of the works, although Sikri continued to be habitable and the royal court was in residence there for three more years.

Akbar lived in Fatehpur-Sikri for the last time in 1585, when he moved out on the Punjab campaign and stayed in that region for the next 14 years. He only made a flying visit to the city in 1601, when he used an existing edifice, the Bulund Darwaza, to record a ‘fictitious’ recent military triumph in the Deccan. By the time of his death a few years later, Fatehpur-Sikri was deserted and gradually falling to ruin. In September 1585, an English traveller, Ralph Fitch, visited the city when Akbar was still in residence. Although Fitch left some notes, it is generally agreed that he was neither a good observer nor a good writer; his notes are incomplete and meagre—they have to be taken with a large dose of scepticism. Fitch’s comparison of Agra and Fatehpur-Sikri as cities categorically state Agra to be superior, though he does not compare the palaces in both the places. In any case, withdrawal from Fatehpur-Sikri was already well advanced by the time of Fitch’s visit. By end-September, with the departure of the Emperor to Punjab, the place became empty and desolate.

‘Agra and Fatepore are two very great cities, either of them much greater than London and very populous. Between Agra and Fatepore are 12 miles and all the way is a market of victuals and other things, as full as though a man were still in a towne, and so many people as if a man were in a market. … Hither is great resort to merchants from Persia and out of India, and very much merchandise of silke, cloth, and of precious stones, both Rubies, Diamonds, and Pearles.’

—attributed to Ralph Fitch,

in Vincent A. Smith, Akbar: The Great Moghul 1542 – 1605, p. 108

None of Akbar’s successors or descendants resided in Fatehpur-Sikri, which very rapidly became an insignificant appendage to Agra. Fatehpur-Sikri, Akbar’s fanciful capital, remains a silent and sad, but eloquent and elegant tribute to the great and vanished dreams of an incredibly active and thoughtful Emperor.

‘Nothing sadder or more beautiful exists in India than this deserted city … It still stands, with its circuit of seven miles, its seven bastioned gates, its wonderful palaces, peerless in all India for noble design and delicate adornment: its splendid mosque and pure marble shrine of the hermit saint; its carvings and paintings—stands as it stood in Akbar’s time, but now a body without a soul.’

—Stanley Lane-Poole,

Medieval India under Mohammedan Rule (AD 712-1764), p. 271.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2020]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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