Monday, 10 December 2018

Akbar's Tomb, Sikandra

“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



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.

After having compelled Khusrau to watch his supporters being impaled one by one in Chandni Chowk, and finally blinding him, Jahangir returned to Agra in 1607 and visited Sikandra to check on the construction. With no one to guide them, the architects, he found, had proceeded with the monument in a manner they saw fit, making many improvisations and innovations which he thought were unsuitable. Most importantly, they had polished off the entire budget sanctioned and the monument was nowhere near completion. Jahangir hired a new team of architects and engineers, redesigned the monument, and had parts of it demolished and rebuilt to create something that “travellers from the remotest corners of the world should confess that the equal of it they had never seen anywhere on the earth’s surface”. This is what accounts for the uniqueness of Sikandra; it’s apparently hybrid style and its somewhat incomplete appearance. Jahangir’s final touch to his father’s tomb consisted of a magnificent gateway to the north of the complex, with four unusually slender marble minarets. The whole was completed around 1612-13, and cost the Mughal exchequer some 15 lakh rupees.


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.

The northern half of the garden however, is in a significantly different state than the rest. The entire northern half is covered in impenetrable jungle. The northern gate, unlike the other three, is in a completely derelict state. Approaching it is impossible, and when I tried, security guards watching my every move, warned me that the jungle contained several species of poisonous snakes. I can find no explanation for why one particular gate is in such a bad shape. But there are other animals as well, of a more benign variety. Some years ago, the authorities had introduced a few deer into the garden. Lacking any natural predators and completely unmolested by tourists who are not allowed to step off the causeway into the grass, the deer have now multiplied in number to over a 200, including more than 90 blackbucks. The only risk to the deer was jackals that preyed on them, but in 2015, ASI took special steps to relocate them and save the deer.


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.

Through a narrow doorway, I went down a set of dark, cool stone steps into the taikhana, the basement chamber where the Emperor’s actual grave was. It felt like I was descending into a pyramid. At the end of staircase was a vaulted hall, some 38 square feet in size. The high ceilings and walls were once covered in blue and gold plaster, which existed even in 1896. But by 1912 Havell reports that the entire hall had been whitewashed. The hall was once filled with the finest carpets and gold and silver plates. Along with that were the books, armour and weapons of the Emperor. All of these were carried off by the Jats and if one searches hard enough, perhaps some of Akbar’s belongings may be found in Bharatpur even today. In the middle of the hall, under a simple marble slab that is in stark contrast to the ostentatious mausoleum outside, lies “the dust of Akbar”. The khadem in the hall cupped his hand around his mouth, raised his face to the heavens and let out a long cry. “Allaaaaaaaah”! His voice reverberated around and around the dark cavernous space in a never-ending echo.

Photography of the grave was not permitted, said the Khadem. But I could not resist breaking the rule this one time, sneaking a shot while he was distracted. Touching as a part of veneration is a part of South Asian culture. It is so deep rooted that several centuries of Islam have failed to wipe it out. Many Muslims from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh try to touch the Kaaba when performing the circumambulations of the Hajj, even though it is not required and does not earn one any extra credits in the afterlife. Like my countrymen, I too could not resist reaching out and touching the marble slab. It felt cool, smooth, almost comforting, like the promise of rest one feels from the familiar touch of one’s own bed. And then, in an act repeated by millions of Hindus in India every day, my hand reached, as if by instinct, first to touch my forehead, and then my chest. The gesture is an act seeking blessings, whether from a person, living or dead, or from a deity. But although I am fascinated by religion and study it and write about it, I am not myself a religious person. I do not believe that more than 400 years after a person has died, he can bless me from beyond the grave. So why did I do it? Perhaps it was social conditioning. Perhaps it was subconscious. Or perhaps I was simply too overcome by emotion and knew no other way to express it. One cannot be cold and objective all the time. I walked up the staircase and out into the winter sunlight, in my head still echoing, Kipling’s immortal lines…“Jalaluddin Mohammed Akbar, guardian of mankind”.

- by Deepanjan Ghosh



  • 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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  • Qanungo, N.N. - Akbar’s Tomb at Sikandra (Proceedings of the Indian History Congress Vol. 26, PART II)
  • Sagoo, Harbans Kaur - Banda Singh Bahadur and Sikh Sovereignty (Deep & Deep, 2001)
  • Asher, Catherine Ella Blanshard - Architecture of Mughal India, Part 1, Volume 4 (Cambridge University Press, 1992)
  • Findly, Ellison Banks - Nur Jahan: Empress of Mughal India (Oxford University Press, 1993)
  • Sharma, Tej Ram - Historiography: A History of Historical Writing (Concept Publishing, 2005)
  • Lord Curzon in India Vol. I (Macmillan & Co., 1906)
  • Hansen, Waldemar – The Peacock Throne (Motilal Banarasidas, 1972)
  • Latif, Syed Mohammed – Agra: Historical and Descriptive (Calcutta Central Press Company, 1896)
  • Havell, Ernst Binfield - A Handbook to Agra and the Taj (Longmans, Green & Co., 1912)
  • Keene, Henry George - A Handbook for Visitors to Agra and Its Neighbourhood (Thacker, Spink & Co., 1888)
  • Manucci, Niccolao - Storia Do Mogor Vol II (John Murray, 1907)
  • Qanungo, Kalika Ranjan – History of the Jats Vol. I (M.C. Sarkar & Sons, 1925)

1 comment:

kapilg said...

Absolutely mesmerizing piece. There is so much more to History than is taught in our grade school curriculum. Someone should make this blog compulsory reading for all middle and high schoolers.