Agra, Part 1: Where Mughal Emperors Reign(ed)

Having recently finished The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie, which takes place in and around the city that is Fatehpur Sikri, I have newfound appreciation for the great sandstone marvel that is this place. (I highly recommend that you read it if you have a chance…it does an incredible job of bringing alive the history of this World Heritage Site)

I share some history I learned while in India in this blog post, as we in the West (at least in the suburban NY high school I attended) do not necessarily learn these Eastern historical tidbits in school – we need to seek and ask questions and walk among the ancient structures that survive. The magic of the stories has been carved deep into and woven among the sandstone bricks that have been preserved all these centuries. And as I wander amongst the terracotta and marble structures, I am continually in awe of the handiwork, the craftsmanship and the grand vision it took to erect these palaces, fortresses and walled cities. Will they say this about our McMansions and strip malls 1000 years hence?

Depending, of course, who you ask, it is said that one of the finest Indian emperors was Akbar the Great. This was a Mughal ruler who had a vision for the future and devised – I’m sure much to the dismay of those around him – his own brand of religion, combining core principles from Islam and Hinduism. To show his broader faith, he took Muslim, Christian and Hindu wives. The Hindu wife*, a Rajput princess, was his favorite. *Rushdie introduces an alternate yet fantastic tale about her existence, which is simultaneously believable and enchanting. But I digress…

Akbar was a visionary for his time and an advocate for women, strongly discouraging the common rituals of the day of child marriage and the practise of sati – widows’ throwing themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres. This was revolutionary for the time – it wasn’t until Gandhi that the concept of women’s rights began to gain a modicum of traction in India.

Fatehpur Sikri, this palace complex and microcosm built by Akbar, contained a city within a city (markets, lakes, parks, recreation) and residences for himself and each of his three wives. These were built in the Mughal style with accents from each wife’s tradition. The Christian wife’s palace seems to have a mix of styles, and the Muslim wife had the most intricately-carved and most lushly-decorated residence (jewels, gold inlay, fine painting). But his Hindu princess received a literal palace within Sikri. As she came from Rajput royalty, she was entitled to a residence befitting a queen with a royal pedigree. While less ornately-furnished, this palace is immense and combines the Persian domed ceilings with intricately-carved columns and Hindu architecture, an immense courtyard and the layout I had seen in the other Rajput palaces. It is gorgeous.

As you wander the courtyards and the complex’s structures, you find an astrologer’s room, a “treasury” room with its hidden wall wells in which Akbar stored jewels and treasures (we are still in the age of battling kingdoms here), and Akbar’s sleeping quarters, with a 10-foot high 15’x15′ sleeping platform that allowed cooling water to pool on the floor in the summertime and fires to be placed below the platform in winter. So as not to let anyone forget that Akbar was indeed a Great, in the main courtyard his men constructed a human parcheesi board… his concubines would act the part of playing pieces and he’d order them to their respective places. Great fun for one with that level of power over human lives.

There is also a mosque dedicated to his favorite elephant, Hiran (Hiran Minar; said to have been studded with elephant tusks). This elephant was responsible for the execution of bad guys… (Tarantino might have been impressed: this task was accomplished by Hiran squashing their heads like watermelons!) A hook still can be seen in Sikri’s public courtyard, where Hiran was tied as he did his duty. Rushdie’s words come back to me in vivid sandstone colour as he writes of the raging elephant in its old age… These rulers lived in a manner and with societal rules I can’t even process.

As if Fatehpur Sikri was not enough grandiosity for the day, the next stop was Red Fort in Agra (also called Agra Fort). Truth be told, I was a little “forted-out” by this juncture and was prepared to be unimpressed. But as we arrived at this landmark, I was once again wowed by its largess. While most of this building is still currently used as a military fort (i.e., used by the Indian Army), the public side does not fail to impress…

So the history lesson continues in Agra proper. Akbar began the construction of Agra Fort in sandstone (it is reminiscent of Fatehpur Sikri, though much more fort-ified in many ways), then Shah Jahan (Akbar’s grandson, and the emperor who commissioned the Taj Mahal) finished it with touches of the white marble he loved. Agra Fort became Shah Jahan’s prison for the final years of his life as his power-hungry son, to ensure that the throne was his, killed his brothers and imprisoned his father. Bittersweetly, Shah Jahan’s quarters held a spectacular view of the Taj Mahal. The inlay work in the marble alone should be a Wonder…not to mention the lattice work (carved in marble) and the attention to the views from every angle of this part of the fort.

And so it was here that I received my first glimpse of the Taj Mahal in the foggy foggy distance and was surprised at the awe (and wonder) that this Wonder of the World elicited in me. We have all seen pictures of this iconic structure, but they don’t do it justice. It all seems surreal. As soon as I left, it was as if it was all a big fairytale. And maybe it is…