Greatness on a hill

Print edition : October 04, 2013

A view of the dargah of Sheikh Salim Chishti at Fatehpur Sikri. Salim Chishti died in 1572 at the age of 92. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

Fatehpur Sikri, “where Akbar’s spirit still pervades the air”.

IT would be a grave injustice to characterise this work as “a coffee table book”. Its superb photographs in colour are matched by a text which reflects the author’s deep knowledge of both history and architecture. The Archaeological Survey of India lists over 70 monuments in Fatehpur Sikri where, the author writes, “Akbar’s spirit still pervades the air”.

The emperor greeted foreign envoys in the Diwan-i-Khas, dispensed justice from the Diwan-i-Aam, and enjoyed the breeze from the top of Panch Mahal. “Fatehpur Sikri is the first planned city in medieval India and its designer was a king.” The historian Milo C. Bleach held that it was “built during the most innovative years” of Akbar’s reign. It was the premier Mughal city in the 16th century but was forgotten when his grandson, Shah Jahan, shifted his capital to Shahjahanbad (Delhi) in the 17th century. He left behind the Taj Mahal, in Agra, whose beauty and grandeur distract from the attractions of Fatehpur Sikri. In 1502 Sikandar Lodi began to build a new capital at Agra. After his victory in the battle of Panipat, Babur chose Agra as his capital.

The reader will find a fascinating tour through history in Subhadra Sen Gupta’s lucid prose embellished with Prakash Israni’s excellent photographs. Both are left to speak for themselves. But one significant detail bears special mention—Akbar’s deep devotion to the Chishtiya Order of Sufis. In the 13th century, the Sufi saint Sheikh Muinuddin Chishti arrived in India to establish a seminary, and his dargah at Ajmer is the oldest in the country. Sheikh Qutubuddin Bakhtia Kaki, Sheikh Fariduddin Ganj-i-Shakar, Sheikh Nizamuddin Auliya and Sheikh Salim Chishti of Fatehpur Sikri belong to the Chishtiya Order.

Akbar went to the dargah of Muinuddin Chishti at Ajmer every year in the 1570s and 1580s. While returning from a trip to Ajmer he stopped at the seminary ( khanqua) of Sheikh Salim Chishti at the village of Sikri. It marked a turning point in his life. Akbar believed that the birth of his three sons was owed to Salim Chishti’s prayers.

Salim Chishti died in 1572 aged 92. “The grieving emperor placed the tomb of his spiritual mentor in the middle of the courtyard of the mosque, where it still attracts thousands of pilgrims to his grave. Akbar made sure that Sheikh Salim Chisti was never forgotten by building a resting place that has the beauty of a jewel box and the welcoming ambience of a gentle, humane faith.”

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