There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Thursday, 28 February 2013

Fatehpur Sikri: Part 10 of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh

In the morning we set off on the 40km journey to Fatehpur Sikri, picking Solanky up en route. Agra in the morning rush hour presented the usual cacophony of horns as cars and buses attempted to shove their way through a tangle of bicycles, motorcycles, tuk-tuks and bicycle rickshaws; scary, but unlike Varanasi everything kept moving.

Leaving the Uktarsh Villa Hotel, Agra

Fatehpur Sikri, the purpose built capital for the Mughal empire, was founded in 1569 by the emperor Akbar - sometimes tautologously known as Akbar the Great - the grandfather of Shah Jahan who built the Taj Mahal.

Akbar’s palace sits on a ridge above present day Fatehpur Sikri. We skirted the small town and arrived at the old city car park, where a crowded shuttle bus took us on the last part of the journey.

Alighting, we ran the gauntlet of eager stall holders. Sending a winsome child to walk alongside you until you have, at the very least, promised to visit their parent’s stall on your return was a popular technique.

Akbar’s palace, like the older Topkapı Palace, consists of independent pavilions geometrically arranged on level ground, a pattern which derives from the nomadic encampments of central Asia in which both the Ottoman and the Mughal empires had their origins.

Akbar was personally concerned with the design of the buildings which, though based on the ideas of his Persian forebears, have many Indian embellishments and are constructed in the local red sandstone.
Fatehpur Sikri

Akbar occupied Fatehpur Sikri for only fourteen years. In 1585 problems in the north required him to move his capital to Lahore and when he returned to Uttar Pradesh in 1598 he re-established himself in Agra. Why Fatehpur Sikri became a well preserved ghost town is unknown. It has been suggested there was a problem with the water supply, but maybe it was simply the caprice of an autocratic ruler.

Passing through the gate we entered a grassed area surrounded by red sandstone buildings. Akbar's favourite method of execution was to have miscreants stamped to death by an irritated elephant and the iron ring set in concrete to which victims were chained can still be seen. Akbar had a fiery temper and he was aware of this character flaw, so issued a standing order that death penalties should never be carried out hastily. Given twenty four hours to calm down he was more likely to temper justice with mercy.

Women labourers, Fatehpur Sikri
Wandering into the next courtyard we passed two women carrying baskets of bricks on their heads. There have been many powerful women in modern India, Indira Ghandi to name the most obvious, but women more often play a subservient role. It comes as a shock to see women working in heavy manual labour, but there are women labourers at road works and on building sites, and here doing the heavy work of the restoration programme.

Diwan-I-Khas, the Hall of Private Audience, Fatehpur Sikri

The Diwan-i-Khas, the Hall of Private Audience, is a striking building from the outside, but is even more remarkable on the inside. Akbar’s advisors would sit in the hall discussing the issues of the day, while the emperor sat above them unseen in the nest on the central pillar. Enclosed walkways allowed him to come and go unnoticed, so if he was not joining in the discussion nobody knew if he was listening intently or had taken himself off to the Turkish bath.

Inside the Diwan-i-Khas, Fatehpur Sikri
The wall decorations are worth a look, too. Many are in excellent condition, but some have been defaced by stricter Muslims than Akbar who objected to the figurative carvings.

If the Diwan-i-Khas was for business, much of the area round it was designed for recreation. The Panch Mahal, a five storied  building resting on columns, gives views across the palace complex and surrounding country. It backs on to the harem, and was intended as Akbar's pleasure palace.
Panch Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri
Outside is a pool with walkways to a central area where musicians would sit. The pool both cooled the courtyard and improved the acoustics.

Anoop Talao, the bandstand in the pool, Fatehpur Sikri
Beside the pool is an outsized Pachisi board. Akbar played the game - essentially the same as ludo - with real people instead of counters.

Akbar's outsized parchisi board, Fatehpur Sikri
The tower of elephant tusks is a little off-site and could be seen by those approaching the palace. Ivory was an expensive product used for luxury goods, and to have a tower with whole tusks - rather hidden in the picture - protruding like this was Akbar's way of announcing his wealth to the visitor. The original ivory tusks were long ago replaced by stone tusks.

The Elephant Tusk Tower, Fatehpur Sikri
Leaving the complex we failed to dodge the stall holders, who were disappointed that we only bought a fridge magnet - until we visited an ATM it was all we could afford.

We walked round the outside to the Buland Darwaza, literally ‘Great Gate’. When Akbar returned from Lahore he may have settled in Agra, but he did at least drop by Fatehpur Sikri to build a gate to commemorate his victory over Gujarat. Inscriptions round the gate record not only this victory but also his conquest of Uttar Pradesh. A further inscription pays tribute to his religious broad mindedness. Respect for other people's faiths was a hallmark of all the early Mughal emperors and explains, to a certain extent, how Muslim emperors could reign over a largely Hindu populace without too much unrest. When Shah Jahan was usurped by his son Aurangzeb, this tolerance came to an end - and so did the Mughal golden age.

Buland Darwaza, 'The Great Gate', Fatehpur Sikri
We caught a tuk-tuk back to the car park, took our leave of Solanky and of Fatehpur Sikri and started the long journey back to Delhi.
Solanky pays off the tuk-tuk, Fatehpur Sikri
We had not gone far when we were halted at a level crossing. We joined the queue and sat there as the queue grew larger, though not necessarily longer – as is the Indian way. After a protracted wait without seeing any trains the driver and I went to see what was happening.

The level crossing gate, a red and white striped pole across the road, should have been raised by a power driven winch, but the cable had snapped leaving the gate in the down position. When we arrived the crossing keeper and his assistant were busy putting a joint between the two pieces of cable. That such a piece of equipment was readily available suggested this was not an unknown occurrence. A few years ago near Hospet in the far south we had encountered a level crossing which consisted of two elderly men holding a piece of string across the road. It may have been basic, but at least it couldn't break down.

While the driver and I watched the repair Lynne was observing a small boy climbing onto the roof of the crossing keeper’s hut, intent on grabbing as much of the low hanging fruit as he could cram in his mouth and pockets.
Climbing onto the roof, level crossing near Fatehpur Sikri
Eventually the repair was complete and we moved on, joined the main road and made steady if hardly speedy progress towards Delhi.

Grabbing the fruit
Level crossing near Fatehpur Sikri
Our driver had little or no English, and we are equally ignorant of Hindi, but as time went on and he showed no sign of stopping for lunch we managed to indicate that we were ready for something to eat. He nodded, tapped his watch and carried on driving. We passed several suitable places, but clearly he had been given instructions and intended to carry them out to the letter.

We had been late setting out even before the level crossing delay, so it was three thirty by the time we stopped. It was a large restaurant, once posh but now looking tired and unloved. It was empty except for one other European couple, and was precisely the sort of place tour operators imagine we would want to stop at, and precisely the sort of place we would avoid, given the choice, but we had no choice, or at least none we could communicate to the driver. We ordered soup and a chapatti knowing it to be overpriced and expecting it to be woefully thin. We were not disappointed.

Places that attract - or at least are frequented by - Europeans, also attract anybody who thinks they can make a rupee or two. A man standing in the doorway of the toilet, handed out a piece of toilet paper, whether required or not, and then pointed out where the soap was (because, being a pampered idiot European, I could never have spotted it on my own). If he had put more effort into cleaning the place rather than pretending to offer a service, then he might have received a larger tip. As we got back in the car a 'musician' turned up with a child to entertain us. It was such a half-hearted performance I would have preferred an honest beggar. I know they are poor people and it is my duty as one blessed by fortune to put my hand in my pocket, but the whole place, the decor, the cooking, the service and the hangers-on seemed steeped in cynicism.

We moved on down the main road, passing continuous habitation. Much building was going on, including this ambitious mosque, and the roadside was lined with builders’ waste and litter. We saw so many people sitting outside their roadside homes surrounded by rubble and plastic bags as though that was a normal environment. Plastic bags have, at least, been banned in Delhi, and it would be a good idea if they disappeared from the rest of India – and, indeed, the world.

Building project
Approaching Delhi from Fatehpur Sikri
Although the Indian cuisine is rightly regarded as one of the world's finest, the food on this trip had rarely risen above ‘adequate’. We were looking forward to returning to Delhi as we had started our journey with an excellent garlic chicken at the Chowra Chick-Inn, a short walk from our hotel, and thought we might finish it the same way. Lynne was particularly keen; it was the first time for days she had felt like eating.  It was a good plan until we reached the door and found Thursday was their closing day. The hotel restaurant – something we generally try to avoid - seemed the only option.

Slightly to our surprise, the hotel's butter chicken turned out to be very good indeed, up there with the garlic chicken of the Chowra Chick-inn and the Mughal goat curry of the Royal Café in Lucknow. Those were the only three meals of the trip I would happily to eat again.

The next day we returned to Indira Ghandi airport and thence home. Our thanks to Travel Inn of Delhi who made all the ground arrangements, providing drivers, guides and train tickets. Almost all of their arrangements worked perfectly, and when they did not - at the Kumbh Mela - they responded quickly to our request for assistance.

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