On a ridge of red sandstone jutting up from the flat, endless alluvial plains of northern India's Ganges basin, some thirty kilometers (20 miles) west of Agra, lies what must be the most spectacular ghost town iri the world. An entire royal capital, built just over 400 years ago and abandoned a scant 14 years after its completion, stands almost unscathed by the passage of time. We owe its presence to Jalal al-Din Akbar, third of the great Moghuls, the Muslim emperors of most of northern India for more than 200 years, from 1500 onwards.
Always overshadowed by its more famous neighbor, the Taj Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri nonetheless continues to haunt the imagination of builders and dreamers, artisans and poets around the world. Its red walls rise elegantly against the hot blue of the Indian sky; its courtyards, walled gardens, latticed balconies and carved pillars, its gates and towers, cupolas and arches, workshops and mosques and palaces present to the modern world a harmony and beauty often sought but seldom found.
Babur and Humayun, Akbar's predecessors, had ruled Moghul India from Delhi and Agra. When Akbar acceded to the throne at 13, he first followed this tradition: It was he who raised the imposing walls of the Red Fort in Agra. But a curious set of circumstances conspired to change his mind.
Still without a male heir in 1568,12 years after he came to the throne, Akbar stopped one day at the village of Sikri to ask the help of a famed mystic, Salim Chisti. Chisti predicted the emperor would soon have not one son but three. And in fact the following year one of Akbar's wives bore him a son, the future emperor Jahangir, and two other sons followed. Out of gratitude, Akbar moved his capital nearer to the seer's village and began building a new city on the ridge above the lake. To the name of the village he added the qualifier fatehpur - the place of victory.
But Akbar was not content simply to build a seat of government for his empire. A man of tremendous energy and vitality, he wanted also to redirect India's social, political and cultural attitudes through a series of bold experiments at his imperial city. Fatehpur Sikri was to be the empire's center of political and spiritual power.
"Akbar," says Michael Brand, curator of Asian art at the Rhode Island School of Design, "is the man who firmly established the Moghul Indian empire. He was keenly aware of the social and political potential of art, and during his 49-year reign he brought art and architecture to unrivaled heights in the Indian empire."
A tireless patron who slept little and thought much, Akbar commissioned individual paintings, carpets, textiles, carvings and manuscript illustrations which were no longer in the traditional static Persian mode, but teemed with action, life and color. He was also an avid collector of manuscripts and paintings, was interested in drawings from life - an unheard-of break with tradition - and even in European art.
Akbar's biographer, Abu Faisal, quotes the emperor as saying that "knowledge is itself regarded as the summit of perfection, yet unless displayed in action... it may be considered worse than ignorance." So because he believed that art should not be just for esthetic enjoyment - that ideas must be tempered with practical experience - the philosopher-king could often be found out in the stone quarries with his laborers, sawing and cutting the stone for his city himself.
The plan of the capital he laid out was brilliant and centuries ahead of its time. Bringing in architects, artists and designers from all over the known world, he instructed them in his wishes: There would be lots of light and air and gardens. There would be clean water, proper sanitation and plenty of green space. Privacy and security were paramount. Residential areas would be separate from work areas. Above all, Fatehpur Sikri would be a city where all the arts flourished, where scientists and other scholars pursued their studies, and where all people, all religions, and all races lived together in harmony.
His dream came true.
In less than 14 years of work, armies of stonemasons, hordes of laborers, and the cream of the empire's creative artists built the complex still visible today. In its time, however, that royal precinct was surrounded by a large town of lesser buildings, most of which have now vanished. English visitors then reckoned that both Agra and Fatehpur Sikri outranked London in extent, sophistication and wealth. In the words of Ralph Finch, one of the first Englishmen to visit the Moghul court,
"Agra is a very great city, and populous, built with stone, with a fair river running past it. ... Fatehpur Sikri ... is larger than Agra but the houses and streets are not so good. The king hath in Agra and Fatehpur Sikri 100 elephants, 30,000 horses, 1,400 tame deer, 800 concubines and such a store of leopard, tiger, buffaloes, cocks and hawks, that it is very strange to see. He keepeth a great court. Agra and Fatehpur are very great cities, either of them much greater than London."
Indeed, during Fatehpur Sikri's 14-year peak between 1571 and 1585, over 100 workshops housed artisans of each craft and art. There were studios and workrooms for weavers, goldsmiths, painters, calligraphers, tapestry-makers and potters; workers in jade, ceramics, wood and metal; carpet makers and manuscript illustrators. There were dance and music studios, rooms for writers, a library of 4,000 books - though Akbar himself never learned to read - and every Thursday groups gathered with the emperor for discussions of religion and philosophy.
Architecturally, Fatehpur Sikri was a pleasure to live in. It had no streets. The graceful sandstone buildings, ranging from golden to maroon in color, rose around courtyards and gardens, giving the inhabitants shaded walks to tread and flower-filled gardens in which to work and rest. The few architectural motifs - the arches, domes and turrets, the pillars, pavilions and arcades - repeat like themes in a concerto. The names of some of the buildings give an idea of the life at court: the Hall of Private Audience, the Friday Mosque, the Elephant Gate, the Pachisi Board, and the Tomb of Salim Chisti, then as now a place of pilgrimage for childless couples of every religion.
On the northern edge of the city, the Elephant Gate, overloooking the lake below, was the formal entrance to the city. Inside the walls the city was divided into huge mosque and palace complexes. At all times of the day and night, according to Abu Faisal's Akbarnama (the history of Akbar and his times), the vast courtyards and parks vibrated with life.
There were constant religious festivals, exhibits and games. On the large maidan below the city there were polo matches, elephant battles, gladiator contests and stunt-flying performances by the trained imperial pigeons. Writes Abu Faisal: "His majesty was very fond of perfumes, thus the courtyards and palace halls were continually scented with fragrances composed of ancient recipes and mixtures invented by his majesty. Incense was daily burnt, and sweet-smelling flowers were used in large quantities."
One of the buildings so adorned - and the most prominent in Fatehpur Sikri - is the Panch-Mahal, a pavilion of rare delicacy. Old pictures show that each of its five stories was covered with red sandstone screens, and today the structure affords an excellent view of the whole complex, so the Panch-Mahal was probably used to allow the ladies of the court to observe the goings-on from decent seclusion. The building's second floor is supported by 84 pillars, the next by 56, and its roof by only four, but each of the seemingly identical pillars is subtly different in design and decoration.
"There was nothing experimental or amateurish in [the city's] architecture," states Dr. Stuart Cary Welch, curator of Islamic Art and Indian Painting at Harvard's Fogg Art Museum. "It was, quite simply, a work of genius: a composite style of art which incorporated all previous forms and is representative of a cosmopolitan outlook. It is eclectic, inventive in its approach, and had all the elements to become a classical style - which it did. It is a cumulative contribution of Akbar's great personality."
Two of Fatehpur Sikri's buildings give us some insight into that strange personality. One is the Hall of Private Audience, a small, square building. Inside, the hall is a single chamber surrounding an extraordinary central column, an octagonal pillar carved from base to top with symbols of India's four great faiths - Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity. Walkways run from the capital of this column to the four corners of the room's second-floor balcony.
At the intersection of the walkways, atop the pillar, Akbar sat to give audience, with his courtiers and guests ranged along the balconies on all four sides. Below, on the floor of the room, were assembled those who were allowed to listen but not participate in the exalted discussions above. We know that Akbar had very little patience with those scholars whom he considered narrow-minded and hairsplitting, and given his great interest in art, statecraft, ethics and other topics, it is likely that many a session here in the Diwan-i Khas was wide-ranging and provocative.
The other evocative and illuminating building is the Friday Mosque, spacious enough for 20,000 worshipers and the only part of Akbar's royal complex still alive today, teeming with people when the call to prayer rings out. Its main gateway serves as monumental testimony to Akbar's triumphs, but the juxtaposition of inscriptions on its two sides testifies to his character. On the left it says, with no minced words, "The king of kings, shadow of God, Akbar the emperor, on his return from [conquest], came to Fatehpur in the 46th year of his reign." On the right, another side of this extraordinary man is revealed: The inscription reads, "The world is a bridge; pass over it but build no house upon it. The world endures but an hour; spend that hour in devotion."
Fatehpur Sikri, perhaps the ultimate architectural expression of royal will, was inhabited for only 14 years. In 1585, Akbar decamped for Punjab and later returned to Agra to rule. He never restored Fatehpur Sikri to its status of an imperial capital; soon it was inhabited only by a skeleton staff, and later by no one. To this day the exact reasons for his departure are unknown. A favorite theory is that the city's lavish use of water for ornamental lakes, fountains, baths and even a primitive air-conditioning system exhausted the local water supply. Or possibly Akbar came to feel that the established and fortified city of Agra was more suitable as the seat of power. Probably a combination of circumstances coalesced to remove its inquisitive, imperious and protean founding spirit from this red-sandstone city.
Akbar seems to have left Fatehpur Sikri behind as an insect leaves behind its outgrown skin - a duller, discarded imprint of itself. And even that is intriguing and exquisitely beautiful.
Torben Larsen visited Fatehpur Sikri during a year spent doing entomological research in India.
Aileen Vincent-Barwood is a veteran reporter on the Muslim world.