“Jalaluddin Mohammed Akbar, guardian of mankind” – I learnt the Kipling poem when I was in school, and its opening lines were all I could think of as we drove the 5 miles from Agra to the Emperor’s final resting place, Sikandra. Growing up in India, the history you are taught in school is somewhat one sided, but creates a lasting impression, especially about the Mughal Emperors of India. Babur was the conqueror. Jahangir was the just one. Shah Jahan was the romantic. Aurangzeb was the angry old man. But only Akbar was “The Great”. A king who was just, fair, a great warrior, a wise administrator, a man who gathered around him a court of such brilliance that stories about it are told to this day. Every child in India knows the stories of Akbar and his court wit, Birbal, about his Hindu Rajput wife, Jodha Bai, who in all fairness is more legend than fact, and about how his court musician, the Vaishnava Tansen, could make it rain by singing the raga “Malhar”. Akbar is to Indian history what Shahrukh Khan is to Bollywood cinema – a superstar you see on screen or read about, but never imagine will be able to approach. Needless to say, I was excited as I stepped into the vast funerary garden at Sikandra – this is the closest any human being could get, to Akbar the Great.
|Akbar's Mausoleum, Sikandra|
THE DEATH OF AN EMPEROR
On the 12th August, 1602, the Grand Vizier of the Mughal Emperor Akbar, Abul Fazl was assassinated while on his way to the court in Delhi, from the Deccan, by Bundela chief Bir Singh Deo. As a result, the Emperor’s sunset years were chronicled by Inayatullah in his Takmiat-i-Akbarnama. On the 27th of October, 1605, he writes, “when the age of His Majesty had reached sixty-five lunar years, he bade adieu to the life in the capital of Agra and took his departure to the paradise of love”. Of the Emperor’s three sons, Murad and Daniyal had already died of drink. In spite of his dangerously reckless love of drink, Salim had surprisingly managed to survive. He was the Emperor’s eldest son, the first of three to have been born by the blessings of Shaikh Salim Chishti of Fatehpur Sikri. When his wife, Mariam-uz-Zamani was near her date of delivery, she was sent to the Shaikh’s house where the prince was born. As a mark of his devotion, the prince bore the saint’s name. Salim, Akbar’s beloved “Shaikhu Baba”, now carried his father’s bier from the embalming room to the daulatkhana-i-khas-o-aam of his magnificent fortress. From there, noblemen took over, with the prince walking alongside them. A procession of Sufis and nobles, all barefoot and bareheaded, carried their Emperor through the streets of the city that bore the Emperor’s name - Akbarabad, down the Mughal road to Lahore and Kashmir, chanting “Allahu Akbar” and distributing money and sweets to one and all.
Akbar’s body was interred in “Bihishtabad”. The name, undoubtedly of Mughal origins, means garden of heaven. It was what the House of Timur had named Sikandra, which got its name from Sikandar Lodi, whose successor Ibrahim would be unseated by Babur on the battlefield of Panipat in 1526. Bihishtabad then must have still been under construction, work having begun only two years earlier. But the death of the Emperor and the succession would leave its mark on the structure. For the weeks preceding Akbar’s death, the atmosphere in Agra had been tense. In spite of all the affection that the Emperor had for his first born son, the two had become estranged over the last decade. Salim had been a constant thorn in his father’s side, attempting to poison him in 1591, declaring open rebellion in 1601 and finally having his prime minister and chronicler, Abul Fazl murdered in 1602. Akbar’s foster brother, the powerful nobleman Mirza Aziz Koki Khan-i-Azam as well as his commander, Raja Man Singh of Amer, had hatched a plot to bypass Salim and place his son Khusrau on the throne instead. Even though this had the Emperor’s tacit support, the plot came to nothing. Warned that the conspirators intended to seize him the moment he entered the palace, Salim did not enter to make his salutations to his father until he was certain that his supporters had placed themselves within, and taken charge of the crucial treasury. When Salim finally reached the dying Emperor, he was unable to speak. He gestured for his imperial turban to be placed on Salim’s head and his sword to be hung at his side. When Salim stepped out of the room, he was hailed as Jahangir, “world grasper”. Raja Man Singh wisely withdrew to govern distant Bengal. But Khusrau rebelled, laying siege to Lahore. Salim, now Jahangir, spent the next two years of his life putting down the rebellion.
ARCHITECTURE OF AKBAR’S TOMB
Within the architectural park at Sikandra, the first monument one encounters is a tomb from the Lodi era. The tomb, the sides of which have collapsed, is architecturally interesting but obscure. Who was buried here remains unknown, but it is a reminder of the history of the place. Further north lays the so-called Kanch Mahal. This two-storied building, commissioned by Jahangir contains some striking inlaid stone and enamelled tiles. Immediately to the west of the grand gateway is a domed structure that locals call the elephant stables. Unless the Mughals had pygmy elephants, this is highly unlikely. At first glance, from the outside, with its high, stone battlemented walls, Bihishtabad looks more like a fortress than a tomb. The grand gateway, unlike any in India, is clearly Persian influenced. Within this structure once stayed the “nullas”, devout Muslims in the employ of the Mughal court, who perpetually read the Quran at the grave of the Emperor. On both sides of the gate, inscribed in marble are elegant verses in Persian, written by Abdul Haq of Shiraz – another departure from the norm. One would expect Quranic verses to be inscribed on a Muslim tomb, as is the case with the Taj Mahal. Above the gateway is the “Nakkar Khana”, or music gallery from where kettle drums were beaten every day at dawn and dusk to honour the Emperor.
Through the gate one enters a typical Mughal char-bagh – a square garden divided into 4 by a central water channel and causeway. At the centre of the garden, lies Akbar’s mausoleum. The one word that experts use to describe the style of Akbar’s mausoleum is Buddhist. To my untrained eye, however, it was clearly Mughal with its typical Rajasthani accents. But a Mughal tomb with no onion dome? No inverted lotus finial? Jahangir had clearly achieved his aim. The whole mausoleum rises to a height of about 100 feet, diminishing in size with each level. Turrets, pillars, columns and arches of red sandstone hold up open arched galleries on each floor until the top floor is reached. Here, in sharp contrast to the otherwise red building, the material used in white marble. The top floor is approximately 157 feet on each side, exactly half of the ground floor. In the middle of this open enclosure lies Akbar’s cenotaph, a faux tomb which marks the exact position of the grave below. The upper levels, sadly, are not accessible to visitors. Syed Muhammad Latif in his book “Agra: Historical and Descriptive” had located four additional cenotaphs to the east and west of the main entrance, marking the graves of two of Akbar’s daughters, Aram Bano Begum and Shakurulnissa Begum, Mirza Suleiman Shikoh, son of Emperor Shah Alam and a fourth unknown grave, which he conjectures could be of Rukia Sultan Begum, a senior wife of Akbar, who died in Agra in 1030 Al Hijra. Of the four, I could only locate three, although, being unable to read the Persian inscriptions on the cenotaphs, I didn’t know which was which. It would be a good idea for the Archaeological Survey of India, the present custodian of the monument, to place boards at each cenotaph.
FACE TO FACE WITH THE EMPEROR
Through the central gateway to the mausoleum, one enters a portal richly decorated in red, green and blue colours, with inscriptions and drawings in gold. The extremely intricate and busy patterns are so beautiful that their effect is almost overwhelming. The walls do show signs of damage though, and not all of it is because of age. In 1688, the Jats of Bharatpur, fed up with Aurangzeb’s repression, attacked Sikandra under their leader Raja Ram Singh. The Jats used their cannons to mutilate the delicate minarets. Smashing in the great bronze gates, they robbed the mausoleum of its precious decorations, jewels and gold and silver plates. What they could not carry away, they destroyed, and according to one report they dug up the Emperor’s bones and burned them. When Curzon arrived as Governor General in India in 1899, he toured the country, seeing first-hand the decaying condition of its magnificent monuments. Concerned that the poor condition of the empire affected the image of Britain, he set into motion perhaps the most far-reaching movement for restoration in the history of India. Among the monuments restored was Sikandra. In his speech to the Asiatic Society on 7th February 1900, he said, “Since I came to India, we have spent upon repairs at Agra alone a sum of between £40,000 and £50,000. Every rupee has been an offering of reverence to the past and a gift of recovered beauty to the future…Agra will be given back to the world, a pearl of great price”. One of his last acts before leaving India was the rebuilding of the shattered minarets of Sikandra.
- by Deepanjan Ghosh
MORE STORIES ON AGRA
- My sincere thanks to Wasim Beg, who drove me around Agra. Wasim Bhai knows Agra like the back of his hand and if you are going to explore the city, you can have no better guide.
- My thanks to journalist Fahim Khan of Amar Ujala.
- Thanks to my friend Utpal Pathak, one of the finest journalists in Uttar Pradesh.
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- Sagoo, Harbans Kaur - Banda Singh Bahadur and Sikh Sovereignty (Deep & Deep, 2001)
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