Getting a sense of Indian village life and exploring an abandoned Mughal city
As we left Agra to travel across to Ranthambore National Park, where we had a couple of days of tiger safari planned, our schedule allowed for us to make a couple of stops on the way.
The first of these was to visit a local village to get a sense of Indian village life. We drove out into the countryside and through some small towns, past a truck stop and after which we pulled to the side of the road next to some fields.
Not for the first time on this trip, a thought crossed my mind that we might get dragged out of the car and get shot! Anyway, there was a nice young man waiting for us who was to be our guide. We were taken across the fields where freshly planted crops were sprouting and came across a family busily working on preparing food in a basic lean-to attached to their house, which was currently undergoing some building work. It was quite chilly in the morning fog, so they were warming themselves by a small fire. Further on we came into the main part of the village. As it was Sunday the children were not at school so they were entertaining themselves playing badminton (no mobile phones or TV for these kids) and they seemed to be full of joy with beaming smiles on their faces. All through our journey through India, we would experience young children, who despite the poverty and squalor they were living in, seemed to be happy. As we strolled through the village we passed small shops selling their wares and people going about their daily business. It was somewhat surreal as our presence was largely ignored (apart from the small children) despite being total aliens in these surroundings. Our guide took us to a very ancient mosque in the village which apparently served Muslim communities from all around the area. He proudly pointed out two public toilets (there were no sewage services to any of the houses) which served the 500 or so people living in the village. Having public toilets in a village is such a rarity still in India. For our final stop, we were taken into a small building that showed the work that NGOs were doing in this village, with a strong focus on health care education. Having spent much of our time so far in big cities and visiting tourist areas it was really a great privilege and experience to spend time in a village and see how most of India’s population live.
We met back up with PK, our driver, to take us to visit the fort at Fatehpur Sikri. The journey took about 90 minutes, and by the time we reached there the fog had finally begun to clear and the sun had peeped its head from behind the misty shroud. To access the fort we had to take a bus from the parking area. Unfortunately, we had to run the gauntlet of hawkers who, like sirens tempting passing unsuspecting mariners, tried to lure us into the gift shops adjacent to the car park. There was one very persistent man who we fobbed off saying we’d look on the way back, hoping he would not remember us.
The ancient city of Fatehpur Sikri was founded by Emperor Akbar as the capital of the Mughal Empire in 1571. Akbar’s son Jahangir was born at the village of Sikri in 1569 and that year Akbar constructed a religious compound to commemorate Sheikh Salim who had predicted the birth. After Jahangir’s second birthday, he began the construction of a walled city and imperial palace here. The city came to be known as Fatehpur Sikri, the “City of Victory”, after Akbar’s victorious Gujarat campaign in 1573.
The Imperial complex was abandoned in 1585, shortly after its completion, due to the exhaustion of the small, spring-fed lake that supplied the city with water, and its proximity to Rajputana, with whom the Mughal Empire was often at war. The capital was shifted to Lahore so that Akbar could have a base in the less stable part of the empire, before moving back to Agra in 1598. Because the palace area has been in nearly continuous use over the centuries, much of the imperial complex which spread over nearly two-mile-long and one-mile-wide area is largely intact. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the rest of the city which, after it was abandoned in 1610, has fallen into a state of ruin.
The fort, a listed UNESCO World Heritage site, is a wonderful complex of buildings, constructed from local red sandstone, sitting on a rocky ridge with excellent views of the surrounding areas. The complex has several sections starting with the public spaces where the Mughal emperor and his consorts would meet with the local people and then progressing into private spaces when the royal family lived.
The most impressive of the buildings are set around the palaces of the royal family. The Buland Darwaza or the loft gateway at Fatehpur Sikri was built by the great Mughal emperor, Akbar in 1601. Akbar built the Buland Darwaza to commemorate his victory over Gujarat. The Buland Darwaza, approached by 42 steps is 53.63m high and 35 meters wide and is the highest gateway in the world. The most striking of all the buildings at Fatehpur Sikri is the Panch Mahal, a five storey building that provided shelter to the royal ladies and mistresses. The top story of the building offers a panoramic view of the surrounding area.