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Published: March 30th 2006
In order to comply with my vow to never take an Indian bus again, I was forced to hire a taxi for the day to visit Fatehpur Sikri. This place is about 40km away from Agra and for a short period of time was the capital of the Moghul empire of Akbar. However its dribble of a water supply was insufficient to support the inhabitants, so it was soon abandoned and has been a ghost city for about 400 years.
My driver was a young chap called Bobby, predictably driving a Tata Indica, whose English was specialised enough to allow him to discuss Kate Winslet's acting ability in "Titanic", but not to have a mundane conversation about where he was born, how many siblings he had, etc.
On arrival at Fatehpur Sikri, I was immediately set upon by some highly aggressive guides, who told me that it was a waste of time me coming to the place if I didn't make use of their services (which was a slur on the RG if I ever heard one). One of them followed me, insisting that I should start my tour from a different place in the complex. Even after several
polite statements from me that I wanted to be left alone, he still persisted so I turned to face him in order to add emphasis to my words with some eye contact, and at that moment fell down a step that had no doubt been constructed 4 centuries ago for precisely that purpose. An ungainly sprawl resulted, and by the time I was on my feet again the guide was somewhere close to the horizon. My trousers, made of some space-age everything-resistant fabric, were unharmed but my right knee, made of the traditional skin and bone, will be sporting a corker of a bruise in the next 48 hours. I continued my tour at limping pace.
The complex is in very good condition given the length of time that it has been uninhabited for. Reflecting its sponsor Akbar's policy of religious tolerance, it contains Hindu and Muslim buildings, as well as Christian and Buddhist content, all standing proudly in red sandstone. Though carvings, sculptures, and murals abound, there were two constructions that took my fancy. One was a giant pachisi (game like ludo) board laid out in stone in the middle of the Diwan-i-Khas courtyard. Akbar apparently used slave-girls
instead of counters to play with and games could go on for weeks, with the Emperor taking this opportunity to assess the character strengths and weaknesses of members of his court.
The second was the Throne Pillar in the Diwan-i-Khas itself. This column contains motifs of the 4 religions mentioned previously, and supported a large platform from which 4 bridges spanned the gap to the outer wall of the building. Here, Akbar would discuss religious matters with representatives of the various faiths.
Outside of the palace complex is the Jami Masjid, a massive mosque that has a truly enormous main entrance gate (I didn't enter by it, due to the RG warning of multiple touts and unofficial guides, and went in a side gate instead). Inside, there's a large open courtyard with 3 smaller (though not exactly minute) gates, and a shrine to the Sufi saint Sheikh Salim Chishti covered in fine marble carving that's supposedly among the best in the world. I was hassled my several people, who all proclaimed that they weren't guides but then turned out to be shopkeepers instead - as if that was somehow a more respectable occupation.
After Fatehpur Sikri, we
then drove to Akbar's mausoleum at Sikandra on the outskirts of Agra. As expected for a ruler of such high status, it's a magnificent effort in sandstone and marble. It supposedly marks the transition point in Moghul architecture between red stone monuments and the white marble ones usually associated with Shah Jahan, and was reminiscent of Humayun's Tomb in Delhi.
The entrance to the mausoleum complex is through Buland Darwaza, the huge "Gateway of Magnificence". This is so large it blocks views from the outside of the mausoleum within. It supports 4 minarets and is covered with tiles set in repetitive geometric patterns. Through the gate, the grounds open out in typical Moghul fashion - divided into 4 quadrants, with black buck grazing under the trees and monkeys grooming each other in the sunshine.
The mausoleum is set in the centre of the gardens, with marble domes rising above the greenery. The entrance chamber is covered with amazingly colourful frescos and calligraphy. I hope my photos do it some sort of justice, as the detail and vitality were simply astounding. The grave itself is in a plainer room at the heart of the building, sprinkled with rose petals
and watched over by a baksheesh-seeking attendant.
On the way back to the hotel, I saw a road distance sign showing "Agra 3, Calcutta 1,295", as though there was nowhere of interest in the intervening 1,292 miles (or km - I never can tell here).
The hotel showed their unhelpful side when I asked if they could tell me the best rooftop terrace restaurant nearby from which to watch the sunset over the Taj. Despite them not having a rooftop terrace restaurant themselves, and hence having no conflict of interest in telling me the truth, they told me there were no such places in Agra (which was a lie of such brazenness that I was surprised the guy's nose didn't suddenly poke my eye out) but that I could get a view from the restaurant-less terrace at their sister establishment 600 metres away. I ended up back at the same place as yesterday, from where the view was pretty good.
I'd been hoping to catch up on some of my blog but the Internet cafe I'd chosen closed early. Apparently for the few days each month when the moon is at its fullest, you can buy tickets
to see the Taj by moonlight. It costs two thirds (I think) of the price of a normal full-day ticket, but you only get 30 minutes of viewing time - which strikes me as very poor value for money. For security reasons, the markets near the gates have to close down early for this period. With dinner already having been eaten, and no pressing need to drink more beer, I had an early night.
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