Fathpur Sikri Revisited

Item Code: NAG134
Author: Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Language: English
Edition: 2013
ISBN: 9780198084037
Pages: 268 (Throughout B/W Illustrations With Maps)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 10.0 inch X 7.5 inch
Weight 670 gm
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Book Description
About The Book

Fathpur Sikri, Akbar’s capital, emerged as a prominent urban centre of social, cultural, and political significance during the Mughal period. Yet much remains to be known about it: Was it known before Akbar decided to settle there? Was it just the result of an individual’s vision? Who were the builders? Why was it abandoned at all? What about the structures other than the imperial palaces? Analysing these and many other questions, this book delves deep into the untold history of Fathpur Sikri.

Combining literary sources, surveys, and archaeological finds, Rezavi brings to life this imperial capital of Akbar. He discusses architectural traditions, town planning, economic centres, location of imperial and bureaucratic establishments, the bazaars, the waterworks, road networks, and residential areas to provide a wider understanding of the Mughal world.

The book traces the history of the town before Akbar made it his capital, an aspect hitherto unexplored. It also studies paintings, carvings, the architectural style, and identifies for the first time many new structures like the palace of Shahjahan.

Replete with plans, maps, miniatures, and photographs, this book will be a definitive guide to scholars and students of medieval Indian history, and Mughal art and architecture.


About The Author

Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi teaches at the Centre of Advanced Study in History at the Aligarh Muslim University. He is currently editing (with Shireen Moosvi) volume VI of the prestigious Comprehensive History of India, sponsored by the Indian History Congress. He has been Charles Wallace Fellow at the Centre of South Asian Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and Visitor at the Fondation Maison des Sciences de I’ Homme, Pris.



I was first drawn to Fathpur Sikri in the mid-1980s. professor Irfan Habib, then Co-ordinator of the Centre of Advanced Study in History at the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), often asked me to accompany scholars and participants of various workshops and seminars at AMU on tours to Agra and Fathpur Sikri. While walking around the red sandstone-paved courtyards of Akbar’s palaces, many a question would be thrown at me by the accompanying delegates and visiting scholars. Some questions I would easily answer; others had no readily available or satisfactory answers. These repeated trips and the ever-accumulating questions led me to delve deeper into the subject and start reading up all available material on Fathpur Sikri. The more I read,, the more I realized that there was much to be discovered and understood about this city.

On some of the early trips, I was accompanied by authorities in the field: Hasan Dani, who had been ‘in-charge’ of the archaeological sites of the Agra Circle before Partition; and the Italian architect and specialist Atillio Petruccioli who has written extensively on this city and has even named his son ‘Akbar’, as a tribute to the founder of this town. On these and other such occasions, it would be my turn to not only be awe-struck, but also question them on my ever-rising doubts on established and received knowledge.

I came to realize that much remained to be deciphered and interpreted about Fathpur sikri. True, it was a ‘fossilized’ town made and unmade in a couple of decades. But then, where was the ‘city’? Every book had explained some aspects of the renovated palatial’ buildings. What about the other built components of the town? How was it that the Meena Bazar (where royal and noble women were supposed to frolic) came to adjoin Birbal’s House? And why was the house of the Turkish Sultana situated in proximity to the ‘Private Audience’? did not Mughal conduct and culture dictate, as gleaned from the Akbarnama, Ain-I Akbari, Muntakhab ut Tawarikh, Tazkira-I Humayun wa Akbar, that a male, even if he was only fourteen-years-old (and a prince to boot) would not be allowed entry into the haram, the female quarters? Or that the male quarters of palatial structures were out of bounds for women, except dancing girls and public women?

Or for that matter, why was this town, built at all in the first place? Was it just a passing whim of a new emperor? Was it just a passing whim of a new emperor? Was it just a tribute to the miracles of the old revered Sufi, Shaikh Salim Chishti, whose boon had given a doting father and a powerful emperor three sons? Or, was it a result of a growing need for a new emerging empire to have a new capital, a town planned around a visionary, appropriate to the new vision of an empire?

In the past two or three decades, varied interpretations have been offered about the Mughal Empire under Akbar. According to some historians, the Mughal state was a huge leviathan; to others it was just a paper tiger. These interpretations have been based principally on the mansabdari system, which was introduced during the reign of Akbar.

Historians like M. Athar Ali and John F. Richards, based their analysis on a detailed study of the administrative system of the Mughals as gleaned from contemporary sources. According to Athar Ali, Akbar’s vision was a cohesive all-India empire and thus he attempted to make the entire administrative structure of one suba into the exact replica of the other, ‘with a chain of officers at various levels ultimately controlled by the ministers at the centre, [which] gave identity to Mughal administrative institutions, irrespective of the regions where they functioned.’ Further, according to him the mansab system was ‘a unique and unrivalled device for specialists’. This system, however observes Richards, fell short of ‘a centrally recruited and paid, bureaucratic, standing army’.

Another cluster of interpretations of the Mughal Empire is more esoteric in nature and bases itself on the assumption of a distinct inferiority of the ‘Asian’ as compared to the ‘European’. This group represented amongst others, by scholars like Stephen Blake and Christopher A. Bayly challenged the notions of an ‘absolute’ empire created by Akbar. Stephen Blake characterized the Mughal Empire as the ‘Patrimonial, Bureaucratic Empire’ where Akbar was the father-figure who was emulated by his nobles, who in turn were role models for the common masses. The capital city was an extension of the imperial household. Bayly, on the other hand, brought the very existence of a Mughal ‘empire’ under dispute.

However, it is a fact that the Mughal Empire under Akbar was an absolutist state that was presided over by a despotic ruler who held his sway over the ruling elite, which was organized on the basis of the innovative institution of the mansabdari system. It generated centripetal tendencies in linking the remote areas to the heart of the empire, the king. To suit administrative purposes, the entire land of the empire was divided into two categories, the khalisa and the jagirs. The khalisa sharifa was the land that was kept aside for imperial use and establishment. The size of this imperial khalisa, according to Irfan Habib, was not constant. The revenues from the khalisa were not exclusively for the ‘personal’ use of emperor and his household. The ‘personal’ in Mughal jargon was connoted by the term khasa (khasa sharifa in the case of the emperor). The income from the khalisa was collected by the officials for the khizana-i-‘amira (imperial treasury) and was spent to maintain the ‘imperial establishment’. A large number of officers, bureaurats, troopers, and artillery men, in addition to a number of retainers and servants made up the imperial establishment, which in no way could be termed as belonging to the ‘household’. The large number of karkhanas (workshops), including the stables for various kinds of animals, were also maintained out of this income. The first section of the Ain-I Akbari, which Abu’I Fazl labels as ‘regualtions’ (a’in) for manzil abadi (imperial administration)deals with the institutions and heads concerned with such establishments.

Except for the matbakh (kitchen), which might be termed as-khasa, the other departments mentioned in this section are purely related to the state and have nothing to do with ‘purely domestic matters’, as alleged by Blake. Horses were the mainstay for any pre-modern and pre-industrial army and society. The invention and diffusion of the stirrup in the preceding centuries had enabled the horse and rider to be ‘effectively welded into a lethal fighing unit capable of unprecedented violence’. Further, transportation of army equipment and material in a pre-modern society depended solely on the strength of the bullocks, carts, and mules. Their availability and maintenance would ensure the health of the state more than that of an individual. Their inclusion in the imperial establishment, whether Western or Asiatic, along with the mint, the state arsenal, and the treasury was thus not symbolic of the ‘patrimonial’ nature of the empire.

It cannot be denied that the Mughal State was an absolute monarchy where the emperor tried to shape the lives of his subjects. The Mughal emperor tried to regulate not only the marriages of his nobility but also their educational curriculum. As rightly pointed out by Blake, Akbar tried to include rational sciences like arithmetic, agriculture, household management, rules of governance, and medicine in the educational curriculum. Along with it there was a stress on reason (‘aql), which was to be given precedence over traditionalism (taqlid). This stress on rationalism and reason was something unique.

Studies on the Mughal administrative system have further shown that the administrative system at the centre was duplicated and replicated at the suba and pargana levels. At the central level, the administrative posts were held exclusively by the ruling elite, the mansabdars, while those at the provincial level were shared between the elite mansabdars and the petty officers who could be generally assigned mansabs of not more than 500 zat.

Further, Abu’I Fazl narrates a new vision for the empire and kingship. The Ain-I Akbari elaborates the theory of social contract, which simply meant that Akbar, as sovereign, theoretically would enjoy absolute powers so long as he ‘performed’ his part of the contract: the welfare of the people. The strength of this theory lay in its secular character: Akbar was the king, not because it was divinely ordained, or that he belonged to an illustrious lineage. He was no khalifa but a person ‘chosen’ to perform certain duties. If he did not, he could then, following this theory, have no claim to rule. This was but an attempt towards rationalism.

Akbar was living at a time when the first millennium of the Muslim calendar was coming to an end and there were speculations that there was no prophecy for the period after that. The change of the millennium meant a change in everything. Islamic history as was known was coming to an end. Speculations were rife about what would come to pass in the new millennium. It was during this period that people talked about a new law and a new leader to address the new needs. There was a rise of new movements like that of Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi who came up with the title of mujaddid-alf-sani, the redeemer of the second millennium, and the Mahdavi Movement (Shaikh Mubarak, for instance). Akbar, too, minted new coins and started a new calendar and asked for a history of the millennium (Tarikh-i-Alfi) to be compiled.

Was the founding of Fathpur Sikri, then, an extension of the needs of a ‘new empire’? A need which could not be fulfilled by the old capital city, Agra?

Was Fathpur Sikri not the city where Akbar tried to don the mantle of a mujtahid (jurisprudent, an interpreter of law-in this case, Islamic law, that is, Shari ‘at)? And then, was it not the city where the enlightened principles of Sulh-I Kul-the Absolute Peace-were formulated? And was this not the city where Father Monserrate, the Jesuit missionary to the Mughal court, had been constrained to note that Akbar was, in fact, negating all religions? Yet, was it not the city where Akbar constructed his largest mosque, the Jami’ Masjid?

There are other questions too: everyone describes (and visits) the imperial palaces. But what about the residential structures of nobles or for that matter, the homes of commoners? The city would surely have had its share of bureaucratic establishments, offices, workshops, and other work places. Surely, there were markets and shops. What about them? Where were they placed and what role did they have in the overall urban plan? Did the city with all its components grow at once? In other words, was it pre-planned, or did it germinate gradually? To put it another way: was Fathpur Sikri artificially planned or did it have a natural growth?

Another set of questions that still go unanswered about this city revolve around the identity of its builders. Did the city grow out of just the vision of an individual, the emperor, or was it a result of a team of professionals who laid out its plans and then executed them? Were these professionals part of an organized sector? Who were they, and what were their inspirations? That is, what were the sources of Fathpur Sikri’s urban design?

Questions do not stop here: there is much controversy, which has not been satisfactorily settled, as to why the city was finally ‘abandoned’? is it, as has been generally maintained, that the town was completely ‘abandoned’ during the reign of Akbar? Was it abandoned at all? Or was it that it just ceased to be the capital town but continued to flourish as an urban centre? Was this ‘abandonment’, in whatever form, caused by the paucity of water-a thesis that is repeated in every second book and pamphlet written on Fathpur Sikri?

Answers to these questions are not easily found in works published so far; however, there have been sporadic attempts by certain individual scholars to grapple with them. This book is an attempt to address some of these questions.

Let us first make a survey of the existing works on Fathpur Sikri.

Since the monumental work on Fathpur Sikri by E.W. Smith published in 1894, much has been written about the imperial city of Akbar. Almost all these studies confined themselves to the architectural features of the palace structures, which were based on the findings of Smith and his cartographers, or were essentially guides for tourists. When, in 1975, Athar Abbas Rizvi along with his friend and student V.J.A. Flynn attempted a fresh and serious survey of the city, they also consciously shaped their work in the form of a guide book. Although based on contemporary source material-Persian chronicles, histories, accounts, letters, and the records of foreign travellers-Rizvi and Flynn accepted Smith’s many assumptions. They produced a work that encompassed a lot of information in one volume. However, little attempt was made by them to comprehend the town as a whole as it had developed under Akbar. Ralph Fitch had commented in 1584:

Rizvi tried to interpret the town in light of a description given by Abu’I Fazl of Fathpur Sikri as an imperial encampment. The attempt, however, remained a hypothetical one in the absence of any archaeological surveys and findings to support it. Around the same time, a new beginning was sought to be made towards attaining a better understanding of Fathpur Sikri. Satish Davar, through a series of papers, examined Fathpur Sikri’s plan and approached the city’s structures in terms of their function. In his path-breaking Sir George Birdwood Memorial Lecture, delivered in April 1975 in London, Davar for the first time used a modular grid of nine squares to interpret the plan of Fathpur Sikri was that by Kulbhushan Jain, who pinpointed the various alterations and additions made to the palace structures. This work sought to focus on the role of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the destruction caused by its functioning and attitude. We know that since the time of Lord Mayo, E.W. Smith, and Lord Curzon, a number of structures at Fathpur Sikri were altered or demolished.

The work of Satish Davar was ultimately carried forward by the Italian scholar and architect, Attilio Petruccioli. Petruccioli reiterated Davar’s thesis (albeit without directly acknowledging this) that the palace complex-if not the whole town of Fathpur Sikri-developed along a grid system based on the Ilahi gaz’. But we know that this unit of measurement was introduced in 1586, after Fathpur was abandoned, and further, being about 5 per cent longer than the earlier Sikandari gaz, measurements based on it cannot really be expected to yield exact results. Further, according to Petruccioli, a close relationship was maintained between the design of the typical Mughal garden-the chaharbagh-and the design of the town in the Indo-Persian areas. Although the plans and maps drawn by him are quite detailed and largely accurate, there are a number of discrepancies in the application of this thesis. Petruccioli appears to give undue importance to Akbar’s alleged sun-worship and religious philosophy, which according to him influenced the very nature of Fathpur Sikri. He holds that the palace’s layout responds to the presence of the Jami’ Masjid.

An important contribution to the study of Fathpur Sikri was made by Michael Brand and Glenn D. Lowry in 1985. They published a sourcebook containing passages from almost all known published Persian and non-Persian sources on Fathpur Sikri, making it easy for scholars with no knowledge of Persian to reconstruct the history of Fathpur Sikri. The source book also contains a list of 184 inscriptions compiled by Ziauddin Desai. Although impressive, the list is not comprehensive, more so, since a large number of minor inscriptions (some dated in Devnagari) and Persian graffiti are not included. Brand and Lowry also published a catalogue of an exhibition held on Fathpur Sikri during the Festival of India (a year-long festival held in the USA in 1985; the symposium on Fathpur Sikri was held at Harvard University’s newly opened Slacker Museum during 17-19 October 1985). Apart from the development of Mughal art, the imperial library, and workshops and their products, the authors also discuss the history and evolution of Fathpur Sikri, Akbar’s capital.

During an international seminar at Harvard in 1985 organized by Brand and Lowry, scholars like Milo C. Beach, John F. Richards, Irfan Habib, Ebba Koch, Bruce B. Lawrence, Attilio Petruccioli, and others participated. The proceedings of this seminar were published in 1987. The themes ranged from planning of the city to its economic and social setting, architectural forms, and the philosophical traditions. Irfan Habib, highlighted the textual references to the living conditions of the common masses and their thatch and mud houses, as opposed to the usual focus on the monumental palaces of the emperor and his nobility. He also discussed the population count of Fathpur Sikri during its heydays. Ebba Koch discussed the Timurid, Central Asian, and indigenous inspirations for the Akbari structures at Fathpur Sikri. Ram Nath, another contributor to this volume, on the contrary, asserted that sources of Akbari architecture were embedded in the ancient Indian architectural tradition. However, the designations coined by him like Mahal-I Ilahi (for the so-called Birbal’s House), Ekastamba Prasada (for the structure with the Lotus Pillar), and Raniwas (for the haramsara) do not find spport in any contemporary or later Persian or non-Persian sources. Other articles and books, which need no special comment, are listed in the Bibliography of this volume by Brand and Lowry.

Significant data was unearthed on Fathpur Sikri by the excavations conducted during mid-1970s and 1980s, under the national project of the ASI conducted in collaboration with the Centre of Advanced Study in History, AMU, under the directorship of R.C. Gaur.

The excavations brought to light a number of structures on the slope of the ridge in front of the Badshahi Darwaza, a bazaar extending from the Agra Gate of Lord Curzon’s Dak Bungalow, residential structures on the northern spurs of the ridge and in the area south of the Hathipol. Structures like the shuturkhana, cheetahkhana, the house of the Animal Superintendent, and some other structures were also excavated.

Fathpur Sikri raises more questions than answers, despite a host of published works on it. Textual sources shed little light on the purposes of individual buildings or the morphology of the town. A close scrutiny of the buildings and their possible interrelationships is necessary to understand how much of the construction achieved under Akbar can be linked to the builder’s purpose and its actual functions.

Second, as we have seen in the brief survey of the modern works, there have been very few attempts to deal with the city as a whole. Most books, including those by Athar Abbas Rizvi and Atillio Petruccioli, deal primarily with the palaces and have very little to add to our knowledge of the other sections of the town. Also, they do not concern themselves with the builders and their identity. Rizvi is probably the first to base his description of the palaces on primary Mughal sources. Petruccioli, on the other hand, solely depends on his architectural surveys.

The present work is largely based on surveys and surface cleanings conducted at Fathpur Sikri, including that of the excavated areas. The initial survey was conducted by the author in May 1989, followed by a series of trips in the subsequent years till July 1997, all finance by the Centre of Advanced Study in History, AMU. I have also made repeated trips subsequently as well and also toured the surrounding area.

This book collates information collected through surveys financed by the Centre of Advanced Study in History, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh, with the available textual information, and seeks to answer some of the questions raised earlier. I have also tried to extend the study beyond the palace complex.

In the Chapter 1 a number of Sultanate period structures are studied. In Chapter 2, the personnel involved in the construction of the structures at Fathpur Sikri are discussed. A study is also made of the theories and sources of urban design at Fathpur Sikri. We also take up an aspect generally missed in the works on Sikri: its overall plan and layout. In Chapter 3, the sequence of construction is studied in detail. Chapters 4 to 7 provide a study of the town itself: the palaces, the residential structures, markets, and commercial hubs as well as the gardens. An attempt is made to collate the written knowledge with the archaeological finds in order to understand the various aspects of the town. The imperial and bureaucratic establishments, their location and identification, the bazaar, the gardens, waterworks, and the residential areas, have all been discussed in detail-a town can never be properly understood without studying these functional elements. Chapter 8 studies in detail the water conservation and management system devised in Fathpur Sikri. Chapter 9 discusses the fate of Sikri after Akbar. This chapter also discusses Shahjahan and the gardens that were constructed by him at Fathpur Sikri. Chapter 10 deals exclusively with surface decorations. The wall paintings at the Fathpur Sikri palaces (the khwabgah and ‘Maryam’s House’) had been discovered by E.W. Smith around 1895. Very few references to the wall paintings have been made since. I argue that during the reign of Akbar, no bare red sandstone was visible-they were coated with intricate geometrical, floral, or miniature paintings. An attempt has also been made in Chapter 11 to get acquainted with the real architects of the marvels of Mughal architecture, based on interesting information left by them on the stones. Discussions on architectural techniques have, however, generally been left out, as this aspect has been very ably dealt with by E.W. Smith in his four volumes and by Athar Abbas Rizvi and V.J.A. Flynn in their book on Fathpur Sikri. However, I have included a brief survey of Akbari architecture at the end of this volume to help give the reader a broad perspective.

This volume does not provide answers to all the questions raised. Instead, it is hoped that this work will help in formulating many more new questions, which when answered would go a long way to help develop a proper understanding of urban centres under the Mughals. There is much more left to be discovered if proper archaeological work is carried out within the walled area and outside of it. A reading of non-Persian contemporary sources would also hopefully throw much more light on the subject.




  List of Illustrations viii
  List of Table and Charts xii
  Acknowledgements xiii
  Introduction 1
1 Sikri before Akbar 10
2 The Enterprise of Building Construction 21
3 The Chronology of Construction 46
4 The Official City 56
5 Residential Houses 91
6 Bazars and Markets 119
7 The Gardens 126
8 Hydraulics and Water Management 134
9 Sikri after Akbar 150
10 Wall Paintings 160
11 Identifying the Builders: Masons' Marks and Their Signatures 176
  Appendix I: Akbari Archittechture: A Note 203
  Appendix II: 'Conservation and Preservation'at Fathpur Sikri 211
  Glossary 227
  Select Bibliography 232
  Index 245
  About the Author 253
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