As we went along the road to Fatehpur Sikri from Agra, our driver, Dev, pointed out the motorbikes passing us on either side. Most had women carrying a large bag on the rear seat. He said that the women were going to their parents’ home for the Bhai Dooj festival. This festival was celebrated in north India following Diwali and it was a festival where a married sister visited her brother on this day and gave him her blessings and gifts. There is an interesting folk story about the origins of this festival. We asked Dev whether he and his sister were not celebrating the festival. He shrugged and replied, “here, people celebrate. now in modern cities, people don’t care.”
Till we reached Jaipur later that evening, we continued seeing brightly clad women on foot, motorbikes, mini-vans carrying bags and going with either their husband and/or children.
We reached the ghost city of Fatehpur Sikri and our local guide was waiting for us at the entrance. We removed our shoes at the entrance as we were entering the mosque area, open to all public. This public area was teeming with people, both the local residents selling goods in tents set up around the courtyard as well as visiting tourists and pilgrims.
The guide told us that a very famous Sufi saint called Salim Chishti was said to have lived here in the 16th century. Emperor Akbar worried that he had no heir to the throne after several years of marriage, and hearing of the powers of the saint to grant wishes, visited him and sought his blessings. He had vowed that if he were granted his wish for a son, he would build his second capital in the area. His Hindu wife bore him a son, and one of the names he was given was Salim after the saint but was more commonly known by his other name, Jahangir. Akbar kept his promise and built the city of Fatehpur Sikri. He also had the tomb for the saint built in the mosque complex. The royal family lived for a few years in the city but abandoned it soon as water turned out to be a major problem, having to be transported all the way from Agra.
The tomb of Salim Chishti is now a famous pilgrimage point for people, irrespective of their faith. The guide said that Akbar had been personally involved in planning the tomb architecture and layout..
Pilgrims and visitors to the tomb generally place a cloth offering over the cenotaph, sprinkle rose petals and tie threads for three wishes on the lattice windows overlooking the tomb.
We got the cloth and bag of rose petals along with three red and yellow threads each and walked into the inner chamber. After placing our cloth over the cenotaph, the person who was taking care of the tomb said that we could place any donation, we felt like contributing for the mosque, near the cloth and it would be used for the welfare of the children of the area.
We then walked over to the lattice windows and tied our red and yellow threads. Our guide had mentioned earlier that we should not speak about the wishes we made until they were fulfilled. I can’t even remember now what wishes I made to know whether they were fulfilled or not.
We walked out of the inner chamber and walked around the outer chamber. The guide pointed us to a half-door on the side of the tomb. He said that in the past, women had not been allowed to enter through the same front door as men as they were considered inferior to men. Women were allowed to visit the tomb of this saint but to differentiate their status, they had to come in through the side door. The purposefully built door ensured that the women had to bend to enter which ensured a humble poise. They were also only allowed to sit in the outer chamber and not allowed to enter the inner chamber during Akbar’s time. For all his secular views and broad mindedness on unity and equality, Akbar did not treat women in an equal and non-discriminatory manner.
We walked out into the courtyard and took a short walk around. Adjoining the mosque and the sufi saint’s tomb was the palace complex. Akbar’s palace was interesting. There were three main houses within the palace: one for each of his three main wives – his Hindu wife, Christian wife and Muslim wife. One of Akbar’s policy in unifying India was to marry a princess of different states so that he would have that particular region’s allegiance. His three main recognized wives were privileged enough to have their own quarters as opposed to the mass harem quarters. His Hindu wife, who played an important role in Emperor Akbar’s life and politics, had her living quarters built in traditional Hindu architecture with places for lamps, worship and a traditional vegetarian kitchen etc. The Christian wife’s quarters had a chapel and lots of paintings. Each house though had some mark of all the religions to demonstrate that all religions was accepted, while giving special recognition to each wife’s particular religion.
A huge courtyard adjoining the harem was where the King entertained and was entertained or had important discussions regarding state issues. The legendary musician, Tansen, considered one of the nine jewels of Emperor Akbar’s court performed for the Emperor here, while his wives watched from their specially designed windows in their respective part of the harem. The platform where Tansen performed was surrounded by water, and was said to have been filled with jasmine and surrounded by lighted lamps during his performance.
Legend has it that fellow musicians jealous of his skill and favour that he had found in Emperor Akbar’s court tried to oust him by asking the Emperor to make him sing the Deepak Raga, which if properly sung was thought to cause all things to burn, including the singer. Tansen is said to have sung it after asking another singer to sing the raga that evoked rains simultaneously.
Across the musician’s court, the Panch Mahal or the five storey place was built for the Emperor’s pleasure where he could enjoy the moonlight and evening air. The Panchmahal opened onto a huge ludo board carved on the floor.
Across this game board square was located the secret chamber. The chamber, where Akbar gathered his top ministers for secret, urgent consultations on state emergencies. He would sit in the middle and his ministers in each of the corners built around the center like a wheel. I can’t imagine how the consultation could have been secretive, if they had to shout out to each other across the respective corners they sat in.
There was also a hall for private audience known as the Diwan-i-Khas, especially where representatives of different religious faiths met with the Emperor to discuss their concerns.
This section led into the more public area, the hall of public audience and the courtyard where the public waited to meet the Emperor and state their grievances and where public hearings were held. The guide mentioned that an elephant was usually kept waiting at these hearings as the worst offenders were sentenced to trampling by an elephant.
As we walked out of the public hearing area and towards our car, children selling knick knacks surrounded us. I always feel sad when I come across kids selling stuff at tourist sites. While I did not want to encourage child labour, we were unable to resist the plea of the kids so ended up buying a few things, hoping that the money would go towards their food.
What is the most interesting local festival that you have come across in your travels? How do you react when coming across child vendors at tourist sites?