Demystifying the Popular Myths Around the Building and Abandonment of Fathpur Sikri

There are a number of interpretations, mostly mythical which centre around the medieval city of Fathpur Sikri, specially around how it originated, why it was ‘abandoned’ and when did it ‘cease’ to exist. Was it a town which was conceived, originated, flourished and then withered during a single reign? Or did it continue even after it was ‘abandoned’ by Akbar as his capital and continued to do so even during the subsequent reigns? Was it ‘abandoned due to a severe paucity of water? It is held that the city was designed and built within the span of half a generation and ‘abandoned’ in favour of another famous capital, making it one of the most unique example of its kind. Thus for example, Tieffenthaler, who visited this city around 1786, finding it almost totally abandoned was constrained to remark that its short life resembled “a flower that blooms in the morning and withers at night.

The signs of its decay appear to have set in even before it was abandoned by Akbar in 1585 as his darus Saltanat, when the Emperor marched from Fathpur Sikri for Kabul after the death of his cousin Mirza Muhammad Hakim. Although till 1585, Fathpur was considered a joint capital along with Agra, and continued as a mint-town , yet, recent studies point out that by 1580-81, it stopped uttering gold coins and by 1581-82 the silver and copper-coins also became extant. By 1591 the general population of the town also appears to have migrated for better avenues. When in the late months of this year Allami Faizi, the famous poet of Akbar, passed through it an embassy to the rulers of Khandesh and Ahmadnagar he reported:

“When I arrived at dār as -saltanat Fathpur, having first been elevated by kissing the threshold of the palace (daulatkhāna), I said a prayer for the well being of His Majesty (Akbar). What can I write about the true condition of the city? The mud buildings (imārāt-i gilīn) have all dissolved into the ground, [although] the stone walls have remained. Having inspected some of the pavilions (pishkhāna-ha) and private houses {khalwat khānaha) from afar and some from close-up, I learnt a moral lesson, Especially so from the house (khāna) of Mir Falhullah Shirazi and I also went to the pavilion (pishkhana) of Hakim Abul Fath Gilani, it too being unique on the world!s horizon.”

Similar is the comment of William Finch, who passed through the city in November 1610, that is fifteen years after it ceased to be the darul khilafa and only five years after Akbar’s death. According to him Fathpur was

“lying like a waste desert; and very dangerous to pass through in the night, the buildings lying waste without any inhabitants.”

This, and much more, has led to the forming of a general impression that Fathpur Sikri was totally ‘abandoned’ and ‘deserted’ soon after it ceased to be the capital of the Mughal Empire. Another popular thesis which has come to surround this ‘abandonment’ is the theory of paucity of water which has been repeated by almost all text-book writers and even serious historians. Here however we endeavour to show that although Fathpur was “abandoned” as a capital city, yet

(i) it was not due to shortage of water, and

(ii) it continued to “live” and thrive as an imperial Mughal town, at least till the reign of Shahjahan.

Let us first deal with the question of availability of water. This problem appears to have been highlighted for the first time by Jahangir in his 13th RY (1619 A.D.). While giving the details of the Jami Masjid and the birka (under-ground covered water tank) constructed in the courtyard of this mosque, Jahangir commented:

“As Fathpur has little water (kam āb), and what there is, is bad (bad āb), this birka yields a sufficient supply for the whole year for the members of the family (of Salim Chishti) and for the dervishes who are the mujawirs (keepers) of the Masjid.”

Khwaja Kamgar Husaini repeats the same and almost in the same words.

This charge of ‘less water’ by Jahangir is intriguing indeed, as we find that no source of Akbar’s period, whether official chronicles, or Akbar’s bitter critic Badauni nor the private letters of the inhabitants of Fathpur during the phase when it was the dārus saltanat ever make even a passing reference to it.

Contrarily, when Babur was preparing to fight his famous battle with Rana Sanga in 1527, he found that “the well-watered ground for a large camp was at Sikri.” The abundance of water at Fathpur Sikri was due to the presence of a large water body, which late during the reign of Akhbar was dammed and given the formal shake of a late. In a letter written in 1580, Fr. Henriques informs that:

“…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.”

According to Monserrate, this lake, which was dammed to supply the city with water, was ‘two miles long and halfe a mile long’. In 1610, William finch estimated this lake to be two or three ‘cos’ in length and found it “abounding with good fish and wild fowl”, and full of singhāra fruits. When in 1619, Jahangir ordered to be measured, it was found that its circumference was 7 Kos. During the same year, when he resolved not to kill with his own hands any living thing, he ordered 700 antelopes which had been rounded up for hunting to be delivered to the polo ground near the lake where they would remain unharmed. Naturally he knew the water from the said lake would sustain such large number of animals. Sujan Rai Bhadari, writing as late as 1695-96, while describing Fathpur Sikri mentioned that

“adjacent to it (the city) is a kulāb-i buzurg which in its length and breadth is 10 kuroh from which the people used to draw benefit (during Akbars period)”

A survey of Fathpur Sikri and its environs further reveals that apart from the lake there were other sources of water supply. As discussed elsewhere, there were at least 13 step wells (bāolis) and 8 water tanks apart from a large number of ordinary wells interspersed all over the walled city. [See Plan I]

Plan I

Of these at least one, the so-called “Hakim’s Baoli” (the Southern Waterwarks, no.9 on the plan) is still functional and caters to the needs of the town’s population. (The Fathpur Municipal Corporation has fitted it with pipes and a motor to draw the water).

Apart from that, the birka mentioned by Jahangir, as well as the huge water tank (jhālra), still cater to the needs of the people in the habitation on top of the ridge as well as the visitors to the mosque. Most of the other bāolis are in such a preserved condition, that some debris cleaning could make them functional.

Interestingly enough, Maryam Makani, the queen-mother, remained stationed at Fathpur even after Akbar left the capital for Lahore in 1585. When for a brief period, Akbar visited Fathpur in August 1601; the queen was much rejoiced in meeting him. From Abul Fazl’s account it appears that the residents of Fathpur Sikri were quite puzzled as to why Akbar was not returning back. Hakim Abul Fath Gilani, who resided at Fathpur, reveals his amazement and depression that Akbar was residing at Lahore and not returning to Fathpur, Had it been the paucity of water, he would have been aware of it.

In fact in 1581 he had been urging one of his friends to migrate to this city, as, amongst other reasons, commence (tijārat) was “better pursued at Fathpur, which is the capital city (pāi-takht)”. Surely till this time there was no ‘crisis’ which the city was suffering from!

We know that throughout its life as a capital city, there had only been one water related crisis, and that was when the so-called Hauz-i Shīrīn (the kulāb as mentioned by Abul Fazl) burst in 1584.

Celebrations were going on and nobles were busy playing games like chaupar (draughts), shatranj (chess) and ganjifa (cards) when suddenly:

“…A side of that little river {daryācha) gave way, and the water gushed out in fury. Though by the blessings of the holy personality (Akbar?), none of the courtiers was injured, yet many people of lower rank (mardum-i pā’in) suffered loss and many houses built below were carried away by the flood. Inspite of the great crowd of those known to the King, only one, Madadi (in another Ms. Madwi), the cheetahbān (leopard trainer) lost his life… .”

However, the tank appears to have been rebuilt soon after. Did this bursting of the tank give rise to the theory of kam āb (scarcity of water) at Fathpur Sikri and its ‘abandonment’ as the dārus saltanat by Akbar in the very next year in 1585? Had it been so, Badauni would have surely highlighted it. Surprisingly Badauni fails to even record this occurrence.

Then why did Akbar prefer Lahore over Fathpur Sikri after 1585? Abul Fazl tries to provide an answer when he mentions that:

“(Akbar’s) sole thought was that he would stay for a while in the Punjab, and would give peace to the Zabuli land (Afghanistan), clear Swad and Bajaur of the stain of rebellion, uproot the thorn of the tārikiyan (i.e. the Raushanniyas) from Tirali and Bangash, seize the garden of Kashmir, and bring the populars country of Tatta (Sindh) within the Empire. Furthermore, should the ruler of Turan remove the foot of friendliness, he would send a glorious army thither, and follow it up in person.”

This situation had arisen due to the death of Mirza Muhammad Hakim’s death. On his return, Akbar had to turn his attention towards the Dcccan and proceeded against a rebellions son. Thus, probably, it was the political reasons of why Akbar left Sikri and on return preferred the security of Agra fort.

J.F. Richards seeks to provide an ideological answer to this question. According to him Akbar preferred Fathpur till he was devoted to the Chishli saints. In 1585, his pilgrimages to the Sufi saints stopped. ‘Akbar’s departure from Fatehpur Sikri coincided with a definite change in religious attitude’.

Should this transfer of capital from Fathpur Sikri to Lahore in 1585 and then subsequently to Agra be taken as the ‘abandonment’ in the sense that it is generally perceived?

If we take the statements of Allami Faizi and Finch at their face value, then with years of Akbars leave court at Fathpur Sikri, the whole town had turned to ruins. But then, we have seen, Maryam Makani remained stationed at her palace even after Akbar’s departure. Akbar returned to his erstwhile capital, albeit briefly, in 1601, i.e., after ten years of Allami Faizi’s account.

If we read Faizi’s statement carefully, it would become apparent that he is mentioning the mansions of the nobles who, being ministers and courtiers, migrated along with the Emperor. Hakim Fathullah Shirazi had left Fathpur before Akbar went towards Lahore, and never returned back. Hakim Abul Fath died at the time when Akbar was marching from Kashmir to Kabul in 1589. Thus he too had died in the same year as Fathullah Shirazi had left Fathpur before Akbar went towards Lahore, and never returned back. Further, the imarāt-i gilīn (mud houses) which “dissolved into the ground” were either the houses of the retainers of these nobles, or temporary residences of the service class, which would have suffered due to the migration of their employers. We know that at least till 1626 a “faire” and “goodly” bazar, with “pleasant Mansions” on all sides was flourishing and thriving.

It appears that by 1610, Fathpur had emerged as a trading Centre. It had turned into a centre for Indigo plantation (nil) where foreign merchants were attracted. We know that Fathpur Sikri was situated on the Agra-Ajmer highway and was part of the indigo producing tract.

We also hear of a large quantity of“corne” which was grown in this area. We come to know that Fathpur was also known for the manufacture of Woolen carpets, apparently through the settlement of the Persian carpet weavers (qali-bāfs). This carpet weaving industry also seems to have survived the transfer of capital. Pelsaert says that these carpet weavers at Fathpur could weave “fine or course” carpets as per the requirement. It was in consequence to this that the markets at this town kept on to thrive. Incidentally none of this would have been possible had there been some scarcity of water. Indigo cultivation, we know, requires large quantities of sweet water.

Thus it appears that by Jahangir’s time, the nature of the township was transformed from being a capital-city to a merchant town. With the transfer of the capital, the nobility had generally migrated, along with its retainers to Agra, thus forcing the contemporary travellers to comment on its “ruinated” conditions and the fallen to the ground houses. These abandoned noble’s structures were then taken over, near the bāzār-i- sang (the ‘Chaharsuq’, as it is now known), by the members of the mercantile classes, which is indirectly testified by the accounts of some of the European visitors.

The ruinated condition of the noble’s houses, however, does not necessarily point to the urban decay of a Mughal Town. Describing the houses of the Mughal nobility, Pelsaert opines that “these houses last for a few years only, because the walls are built with mud instead of mortar” (compare Faizi’s comment). Elsewhere commenting on the Mughal ethos and psyche, Pelsaert writes:

“Wealth, position, love, friendship, confidence, everything hangs by a threa. Nothing is permanent, yea, even the noble buildings – gardens, tombs or palaces, – which in and every city, one cannot contemplate without pity or distress because of their ruined state. For in this they are to be despised above all the laziest nations of the world, because they build them with so many hundred of thousands [of labourers?] and keep them in repair only so long as the owners live and have the means. Once the builder is dead, no one will care for the buildings; the son will neglect his father’s work, the mother her son’s, brothers and friends will take no care for each other’s buildings; everyone tries, as far as possible, to erect a new building of his own, and establish his own reputation along side that of his ancestors. Consequently, it may be said that if all these buildings and erections were attended to and repaired for a century, the lands of every city, and even a village, would be adorned with monuments; but as a mailer of fact the roads leading to the cities are strewn with fallen columns of stone.”

This passage of Pelsaert provides an apt requiem to the information provided by William Finch, Faizi and others. We know that Pelsaert had been to Fathpur Sikri and was aware of its conditions.

Thus it was more due to the social ethos and the architectural weakness, rather than a mass exodus, that a number of once handsome, noble’s edifices collapsed.

Although Fathpur Sikri was never destined to attract the same attention as it did under Akbar, yet it was never totally neglected by the Mughal rulers at least up till the reign of Shahjahan. Herbert visited the town in the early decades of Jahangir’s accession. If he is to be believed, the new Emperor in order to commemorate the victory over his son, Khusrau, erected “a place of hunting” and a “stately castle” at Fathpur. Jahangir in his memoirs testifies to having ordered (in the 14th RY) the Chaughan (polo ground) near the Hiran Minar, to be enclosed and converted into a park to contain a large number of antelopes in order to “enjoy the pleasure of sport and that at the same time no harm should happen to them”.

From the memoirs of Jahangir, it appears that the Emperor did not visit Fathpur in the first 12 years of his rule. It was in the last few months of his 13th RY (AD 1619) that Jahangir headed towards his father’s capital city and “entered the inhabited part of Fathpur”. Prior to that, Jahangir says, he remained encamped eight days on the banks of the Fathpur Sikri lake, due to the outbreak of plague (tā‘ūn) in the city of Agra, the Emperor was forced to stay at Fathpur Sikri for a period of around three and a half months (January to mid-April 1619). It was at Fathpur Sikri that the celebrations of the commencement of the 14th RY (Nauruz), was celebrated with much festivity. The celebrations of Khurram’s 28th year of birth were also held at this time. On this occasion, Muhammad Salih Kamboh says that the daulatakhāna (royal palace) of Fathpur was decorated “according to the annual custom”. On the same day Jahangir showed the prince the grand buildings constructed by Akbar at Fathpur Sikri.

From the account of his visit to Sikri in 1619 it appears that a number of grandees had their mansions in that city. Jahangir mentions that on the invitation of Itimad-ud-Daula and Asaf Khan he visited their residences. Were these structures only temporary abodes of these nobles, the abandoned houses of Akbari nobles? Describing his first visit to the house of Itimad-ud-Daulah, Jahangir mentions:

“As the house of Itimadud Daulah was on the bank of a tank (tāl), and people praised it greatly as a delightfully place and enchanting residence, at his request on Thursday, the 26th (Bahman), an entertainment was held there…”.

The second visit to his house was after the nauroz celebrations of the 14th RY, when Itimadud Daulah is reported to have decorated his residence, the tāl as well as the “streets both near and far” with all kinds of lights and coloured lanterns. A week later the Emperor was entertained in the house of Asaf Khan which was a fine and pleasant place. These references suggest that these houses in the city had been constructed by their owners themselves.

Jahangir appears to have visited Fathpur Sikri only once again four years tale in 1623.

Shahjahan appears to have paid more attention towards Fathpur. Even before, his accession, when he had rebelled against Jahangir and besieged Agra, he made Fathpur his camp. When he ascended the throne in 1628, he held the weighing ceremony on the occasion of the completion of his 38th year and the beginning of his 39th year (of age) in the daulatkhāna of Fathpur Sikri.

In 1635, Shahjahan visited Fathpur Sikri, a second time as an Emperor, and reportedly camped there for a brief period of three days. His subsequent visits were in 1637 and 1643. On all these three visits, the purpose appears to have been to bunt for the wild fowls and excursions on the lake ‘that equalled the Ab-i Jayhun’ (a prominent river near Balkh).

The next visit of Shahjahan took place in 1644 at a time when plague once again had spread at Agra. The Emperor celebrated the festival of Id al-Adhā (Baqr Id) and offered prayers at the Jami’ Masjid. Lahori and Inayat Khan, while describing these festivities inform that on the occasion “the crowd of people had grown to such an extent that a thronging and milling assembly spilled into the gateway of the Mosque”, and during the ensuing stampede a person died and many were injured. Amongst the injured, one person was a state guest whom the emperor compensated with a grant of Rs.3000/-.

This evidence of Lahori and Inayat Khan suggests that at least till this date (1644) a sizeable civic population still inhabited this former capital of the Mughal Empire. The sizeable population also goes to explain the still throbbing bāzār which Peter Mundy encountered in 1633. The viability of Fathpur Sikri is also testified by the fact that in 1645, Mirza Hasan Safavi, a mansabdār of 3000/2000, was made its faujdar and jagirdar.

Sometime before 1653, the prestige of Fathpur Sikri was further enhanced when Shahjahan ordered the construction of his own palace outside the palaces of Akbar. Muhammad Waris informs us that this daulatkhāna was situated overlooking the banks of the lake. It was in this palace that Shahjahan stayed during his visits of 1653 and 1654.

The description as given by Waris is quite brief yet is clear enough to indicate the rough location of this structure. To be towards the lake, any imperial building could only have been constructed somewhere on top of the ridge behind the Hiran Minar and the Hathipal (the main entrance of the Imperial complex) towards the Jami Masjid and the ‘Shaikhupura’, the Chishti quarters.

During the course of a survey, the present author located the Shahjahani Daulatkhāna adjacent to the so-called ‘Samosa-Mahal’ on the Hāthi Pol – Shaikhupura road.

The structure had been initially excavated by Prof. R.C. Gaur during the course of his National Project on Fathpur Sikri and subsequently labelled as “Minor Haram Sara”. Situated on the rim of the ridge behind the Jami Masjid, this complex extends down to the plains below the side, where a subsequent survey revealed a Shahjahani bāoli, pleasure pavilions and a Chahārbāgh. [See Plan II]

Plan II

The affiliations of this complex along with the structures on the ridge (having a couple of under-ground chambers), as well as the pavilions below, with Shahjahan’s period become apparent through a profuse use of carvo-intaglio designs and shell-plaster which are typical of Shahjahan’s reign.

The year 1654 appears to have been the last when Shahjahan visited his palace at Fathpur Sikri. By 1656-57, he got involved in the war of succession between his sons, which resulted in his being imprisoned at the Fort of Agra by his own son, the future Emperor Aurangzeb.

From this date onwards we hear very little of Fathpur Sikri, until decades later when in 1719 Fathpur again attracted some attention with the coronation ceremony of the captive king Muhammad Shah ‘Rangila’.

Thus we see that Fathpur Sikri’s decline was a decline in the status from a capital city of the Empire, to that of an ordinary town. Still it remained as an important mercantile centre and a favoured Imperial spot at least till the reign of Shahjahan. Till this date, as in the age of Jahangir, it survived not only as a place of pilgrimage for the disciples of Shaikh Salim Chishti, but also as an important centre of production of the carpet industry and Indigo manufacture. It was not a city built and then abandoned during the same reign. More importantly this change of status was due to the exigencies of an Empire and not due to some water scarcity.

Source: Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi, Fathpur Sikri Revisited, OUP, 2013