Golābi: The Lake of Fathpur Sikri

The remains of Fathpur Sikri situated as it is on a ridge supply us some vital clues to the techniques of Water-management and hydraulics. As a rule the pre-modern

settlements generally grow around some major source of water, such as a river, a lake or a pond, which would not only act as a source of potable water, but also provide a barrier for security. It is also generally observed that within a settlement, the areas closer to the source of water was reserved for the more influential sections of society. This may be seen at Delhi, Agra, Ahmadabad and Cambay. It is in this light that we may study the lay-out and water-supply system at Fathpur Sikri.

Before the founding of Fathpur as a capital city, the village of Sikri was a “well-watered” ground which could sustain a large army. Babur testifies to the abundance of water at Sikri (on the plain by the side of the lake) when he mentions the ‘kol’ lake near this village. When in 1571-72 AD orders were issued by Akbar to construct the city of

Fathpur, the major elements of the town were planned not around this lake, but on the broad top of the too ridge and on the plain towards the south of the ridge. The scheme of

placing the important structures and influential sections along the banks of the water reservoir was not followed at Fathpur Sikri.

Abul Fazl specifically mentions that the lake (golabi) was situated ‘below the town’ (piwast-i shahr) on whose banks ‘His Majesty constructed a spacious courtyard (saffa), a minār and a chaughāngāh (polo-ground), where elephant fights are organized’.

Our sources however reveal that the lake of Fathpur Sikri remained the major source of water-supply to the city. To quote Fr.Monserrate who visited the city in 1580-81 with the first Jesuit Mission:

To supply the city with water a tank has been carefully and laboriously constructed two miles long and half a mile wide. The work was performed, by the King’s direction…

A survey of the dry bed of the lake of Sikri reveals that though it is formed by a natural depression of the ground between the Sikri ridge on the south and certain spurs in

the north-west near the village of Rasulpur, it was regulated by the construction of two barrages, viz., the Terah Mori and the Bāwan Mori. The Terah Mori barrage, situated exactly to the north of the lake, on the Agra-Bharatpur road comprises thirteen arches which contained wooden sluices to release the excess water.

To the north-east of it is constructed the more heavily built barrage now popularly known as the Bawan Mori, which as the name suggests once comprised fifty two sluices. This earthen barrage forms the limit of the lake towards the old township of Nagar. The excess water released from these barrages flowed into a rivulet which then passed on towards the east, crossing the Agra-Sikri road near the town of Kirauli.

This rivulet provided water to the area situated to the east of Fathpur Sikri. The lake was fed through two sources, a channel drawing in the Utangan River, now known as Khari Nadi, and rain water. It appears that these barrages and dams which regulated the natural lake were constructed by Akbar in 1579 AD. In a letter to Fr. Peres written in 1580 AD, Fr. Henrique, a member of the Jesuit Mission reported:

…about a year ago, in order to improve the city, water has been led in from somewhere to form a sizeable lake which is perennial. All the elephants, horses and cattle drink from it, and it also serves the teeming population for all purposes.

Fr. Monserrate is however, much more explicit:

Across to the end of a low-lying valley which was filled with water in the rains,(although the water afterwards drained away or dried up), a great dam was slowly built. By this means not only was a copious supply of water assured, but the discomfort of the climate was mitigated.

It is interesting to note that our sources vary when they discuss the size of this lake, though all agree that it was very large.

Fr. Monserrate, in 1580, as we have seen, mentions it to be ‘two miles long and half a mile wide’. In 1610, when William Finch visited Fathpur Sikri, he found it “2 or 3 cos in length”.

Nine years later, in 1619 when Jahangir ordered it to be measured, and found its circumference to be 7 koss. Later in 1633, Peter Mundy reported it to be “10 or 12 mile long”. Though these statements vary, they can partly be explained by the seasonal changes in the volume of water and partly by the vulnerability of the subjective estimation. But it is clear that at least until early in Shahjahan’s time the lake had maintained its extremely large size.

• Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi