Agra & Fatehpur Sikri: Seats of Empire

Though I must have known at one point or another, I was surprised anew that the great Mughal empire, of which I’ve heard and read so much and whose art and architecture have so inspired my imagination, really only encompassed the reign of six different rulers — naturally, there were still some Mughal rulers after Aurangzeb more or less destroyed the empire through his religious intolerance and costly expansion of empire. (Hmmm…sound like anyone in recent American history?) But the glory days of the Mughals were clearly over by the time Aurangzeb’s reign ended. In any case, the capital moved back and forth between Delhi and Agra a few times, and once it popped down to Fatehpur Sikri for fourteen years, where Akbar (still revered for his skill at enlarging his own rule while respecting differences of religion and philosophy among his diverse subjects) built a new capital in honor of a local Sufi saint who’d predicted the birth of an heir to the empire after a worrisome dry spell on the heir-production front. This set of shots are all from the main sites at Agra — the Taj, of course, but also the lovely tomb of Itimad ud Daulah and the Agra Fort — as well as the religious and governmental structures at Fatehpur.

…ah, the Taj. It’s obviously India’s most famous icon, and as these photos attest yet again, it’s magnificent. For all that, it’s not the thing I enjoyed most in our twelve day tour, nor even in Agra — honors for that go to the tomb of Itimad ud Daulah or the complex at Fatehpur Sikri, both shwown in excruciating (no doubt) detail below. My problem was both the crowds and the guide that our agency had arranged for us; since this was our first day on the tour we didn’t know enough to turn down the guides. (When I travel alone, I bypass such guides and travel agencies, but they helped us schedule a lot of places in a short time as you’ve figured out…without me needing to do much other than list where we wanted to go.) In any case, the guide suggested the silly shot above — taken from the correct angle, it looks like Howard has has hand on top of the side tower and is really kinda cute — and the nifty sunglass reflection below. Both are nice ideas, and indeed the guy did a fine job…but he rushed us through so fast!
My advice to anyone planning a visit: skip the guide, take yourself there at the crack of dawn and go through the interior tomb area when it seems as uncrowded as it’ll be, then just linger on the grounds and watch the changing light for a long long time — take a book, take some water; you can’t take much more really (check the rules on that before you leave your car or hotel!). Or go before sunset, as we did. IF you get moonlight (full moon — five nights per month, full moon plus the two nights and after) tickets, then be sure to go for an early morning or a sunset viewing before you go at night — it won’t make as much sense to you otherwise. Our moonlight, as you’ll see below, was a bit hazy from the pollution. Still, it’s very uncrowded, very atmospheric, and utterly memorable.

One aspect rarely captured in the classic photos of the Taj Mahal which we’ve all seen is the exquisite detailed carving and tilework inlaid into the glowing white marble: most shots capture its elegant proportions with shots taken from a distance against lovely blue skies, which don’t allow for close-up inspection of its details (like most of my shots, which in my case relates more to the above-mentioned crowd & guide-related hustle). I made up for missing the time to enjoy Taj’s details by savoring a luxurious morning taking in lots of little details in a long morning visit to the tomb of Itimad ud Daulah, across the river and fondly called the ‘Baby Taj.’ It was built earlier than the Taj in honor of her father by Nuur Jahan (for whose tomb the Taj was built by her husband Jehangir, fourth Mughal emperor). In any case, above is the one decent detail image I have from Taj, and below are tons of photos from Itimad ud Daulah – no doubt too many, but I’ve trimmed what I could, honest.

We loved Itimad ud Daulah’s tomb for its relative quiet and peace compared to Taj or the Fort…but we also enjoyed the energy and excitement of the huge group of school kids who toured the place, and played on its lovely grounds, while we were there. I think their presence very much enhanced our epxerience. You’ll see us interacting further below, and them listening to their teacher or playing on the grounds in other shots.

…this is not one of the private-school kids. He was wandering outside the compound by the river and is no in their income bracket, by all indicators.

…end Itimad ud Daulah, begin Fatehpur Sikri…

Just above & below are shots of Fatehpur Sikri, which served for a short time as capital during Akbar’s long reign. Not much is known any more about what purpose all the buildings served, nor even necessarily why the capital was abandoned — though shortage of water seems the strongest hypothesis.

Many of these shots are from the sacred complex at Fatehpur, which includes this large white marble tomb to the Sufi Saint Chisti, who predicted the birth of an heir to Akbar. Those strings tied into the marble latticework on the right were tied there by women hoping to have children; this theme of wanting help with having children comes up frequently in religious sites of all types that we visited.

I know I went a bit shutter-happy in these places, but the symmetry and beauty of the stonework and the buildings really never ceased to amaze me…regardless of how many such remarkable buildings I saw!

…and below, we have the Redfort at Agra, seat of government while the capital was in Delhi; it’s an impressive building, but as you’ll see it was the views of the Taj which most capitvated me. The government buildings at Fatehpur Sikri the following day (shown above) impressed me more. But one thing you’ve noticed: Itimad & Taj were made of white marble; most of the other stuff is red sandstone. It was with Itimad’s tomb that white marble with such gorgeous inlays and carving detail were first introduced. Before that most buildings were made of local red sandstone. The white marble for Taj and Itimad’s tombs came from the areas of Southern Rajasthan (Udaipur, etc.) that we visited later in our trip. Driving into Udaipur I sas firsthand lots of the marble being cut down and trucked around.

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One response

  1. Truly amazing pics – makes me excited to read more about India (after Kim and the Great Game) and hopefully go there sometime too.Keep up the good work and have a wonderful Christmas.CatherineXX

    December 18, 2009 at 11:39

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