The city of emperors

In northern India lie the ruins of a centre of religious tolerance and enlightenment. William Dalrymple visits Fatehpur Sikri

In late December, the plains of north India suddenly turn cold and grey. Toward evening, as the sun starts to set over the village mosques, smoke from the cooking fires masses in a layer at the level of the treetops. By dusk, that layer has turned into a vaporous mist which thickens and curdles overnight to form a dense fog by morning. In 1984, on a similarly bleak dawn, I climbed the great flight of steps leading to the mosque at Fatehpur Sikri near Agra in northern India. I was a 19-year-old backpacker and enjoying the sensation of disorientation. It was immediately before Christmas, I kept thinking, but not only was there not a Christmas tree in sight, there was nothing remotely Christian to be seen.

In late December, the plains of north India suddenly turn cold and grey. Toward evening, as the sun starts to set over the village mosques, smoke from the cooking fires masses in a layer at the level of the treetops. By dusk, that layer has turned into a vaporous mist which thickens and curdles overnight to form a dense fog by morning. In 1984, on a similarly bleak dawn, I climbed the great flight of steps leading to the mosque at Fatehpur Sikri near Agra in northern India. I was a 19-year-old backpacker and enjoying the sensation of disorientation. It was immediately before Christmas, I kept thinking, but not only was there not a Christmas tree in sight, there was nothing remotely Christian to be seen.

But when I reached the top of the steps that rose to the Buland Darwaza - the great arched victory gateway leading into the mosque - I saw something that startled me. Here was one of the greatest pieces of Muslim architecture, but the calligraphy which framed the arch read: "Jesus, Son of Mary (on whom be peace) said: 'The World is a Bridge, pass over it, but build no houses upon it. He who hopes for a day may hope for eternity; but the World endures but an hour. Spend it in prayer, for the rest is unseen'." The inscription was doubly surprising: not only was I taken aback to find an apparently Christian quotation given centre stage in a Muslim monument, but the inscription itself was unfamiliar. Did Jesus really say that the world was like a bridge? And even if he did, why would a Muslim emperor want to place such a phrase over the entrance to the main mosque in his capital city?

Although I lived in Delhi for much of the 1990s, I never revisited Fatehpur Sikri. But the place - and particularly that strange inscription - made a strong impression on me. Akbar, the 16th-century Mughal emperor who built the city, sounded much the most intriguing of his remarkable dynasty, and wherever I went in India and Pakistan I came across traces of him and his ambitious building programme: in Lahore, Agra, Ajmer, Delhi - even the hilltop fortress of Mandu in the distant jungles of central India. Not only did Akbar establish the Mughal Empire from the fragile and unstable north Indian conquests bequeathed to him by his father, Humayun, and his grandfather, Babur, he also planted the roots of two of that empire's greatest single achievements: Mughal art and architecture.

It was as a philosopher and connoisseur of religions that Akbar is most fascinating. He was a Sufi mystic who firmly believed that all existence is one, a manifestation of the underlying divine reality, and that love of God and one's brethren was more important than narrow religious ritual.

Guided by this enlightened philosophy, Akbar's rule succeeded through tact and conciliation. His method, which he came to as much from religious conviction as realpolitik, was to make Mughal rule acceptable to the empire's overwhelmingly non-Muslim population. He issued an edict of sulh-i-kul (universal tolerance), forbade the forcible conversion of prisoners to Islam and married a succession of Hindu wives, whose magnificent five-storey zenana palaces I saw at Fatehpur Sikri that cold December morning. He also promoted Hindus at all levels of the administration, ended the jizya - a tax levied on non-Muslims - and ordered the translation of the Sanskrit classics into Persian.

Last year the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibited miniatures from the most magnificent illuminated book ever painted in Fatehpur Sikri: Hamzanama. It made me want to return immediately to this place again, this time in the bright sunlight depicted on the great epic's pages. Hamzanama displays the same strange mix of apparently different - even contrary - worlds which I had seen on the arch. Just as the ideas of the Christian and Muslim worlds seemed to fuse on the Buland Darwaza so, under the same guiding hand of Akbar, Hindu India and Islamic central Asia could be seen coming together in Hamzanama.

Hamzanama is a great miscellany of folk tales, legends, religious discourses and fireside yarns which over time gathered themselves around the story of the travels of the hero Hamza, the father-in-law of the Prophet. In Akbar's wonderful version of the book, some of the illustrations are Persian in style: flat and linear with a beautifully precise, angular, geometric perfection. Other pages are pure Indian in spirit: there are Indian clothes and gestures, the palette is brighter than in Persian art and there is a love of the natural world that is very specific to the subcontinent. The playful elephants seem to have charged straight off the walls of some Hindu cave sculpture. But already you see the two worlds beginning to mesh, as wholly Mughal images emerge fully formed from the chrysalis of the Fatehpur Sikri manuscript atelier. The hillside of Sikri was the place where this fusion, this grafting of these two very different shoots took place.

There was also one other, rather less intellectual, reason for wanting to revisit the area. Agra now boasts what is arguably India's most sybaritic and luxurious hotel, the Oberoi Amarvilas, where from your bed - or even, in some rooms, your bath - you can sit back and gaze at the greatest of all Indian buildings, the love monument erected by Akbar's grandson, Shah Jahan: the Taj Mahal. The hotel's swimming pool is heated in winter - unusual in India - and chilled in the heat of summer. The Mughal cuisine of the hotel is also some of the best in the country, and makes a suitably indulgent base for any exploration of India's Mughal past.

Agra is one of the most interesting towns in northern India. Most visitors tend to spend a night here, pop in to see the Taj then head off again, but Agra can easily support a week-long visit. It was, after all, the capital of north India during the Lodhi dynasty, which preceded the Mughals, and continued to be the principal residence of the Mughal emperors Babur, Humayun and Jehangir. Half-ruined gardens and tombs stretch out in all directions, while the bazaars are full of unvisited but elaborately carved havelis, or courtyard houses. Many of these are being destroyed to make way for new shopping centres and hotels as Agra expands outwards, and as I headed slowly through the narrow streets on the Fatehpur Sikri road, I saw the bulldozers hard at work, and the gutted remains of unprotected late-Mughal courtyard houses collapsing on all sides.

Passing the crumbling cupolas of the old imperial gardens, we drove out into the fields of yellow winter mustard beyond. Trucks and camel carts headed slowly in the opposite direction as monkeys lolloped across the road and saras cranes preened themselves on the edge of irrigation runnels.

After less than half an hour the dark, gaunt, crenulated walls of Fatehpur Sikri rose ahead of us, rearing out of the camel thorn of the flat plain, as impressive as they must have been five centuries earlier - though today the traffic consists of Tata trucks and rickety buses rather than the caparisoned war elephants and the imperial Mughal cavalry who once lined this road.

I left the taxi at the old Agra gate of the city and climbed on top of the battlements for a better view. Immediately under the gate was a modern Indian village of mud-brick huts: pumps pumping, women winnowing, goats being milked, chillis being fried, babies being weaned and old men relaxing in the sun on charpoy beds. Beyond the roofs of the huts - some of them bright red from the chillis left out to dry in the sun - lay the wreckage of the ruined city, scattered over a dry, rocky sandstone ridge: dismantled caravanserais and collapsing hamams; the foundations of gutted bazaars and ruined streets; octagonal fountains and water runnels that once lay at the centre of gardens; and elaborate archways that led into the harem courtyards of a grand mansion. Only the great Imperial Palace complex remains intact - that and the mosque which encloses the exquisite, white-latticed marble tomb of Sheikh Salim Chisti, Akbar's pir, or spiritual guide, at the very top of the ridge.

Akbar decided to build Fatehpur Sikri in honour of his pir, and it was around his hermitage that the great city was constructed. He had confidently predicted that the childless Akbar would have two sons, and on 30 August 1569, Akbar's Hindu queen, Jodha Bai, gave birth to the first of these - Prince Muhammed Salim Mirza, the later Emperor Jehangir - in the mystic's own hut. Soon after this, the emperor decided to "give outward splendour to this spot which possessed spiritual grandeur". In other words, he would make Sikri his capital - though what Salim Chisti thought of this invasion of his peace is not recorded. He can hardly have been thrilled that his remote place of spiritual retreat should become the capital city of Akbar's empire.

Work began in 1571, when Akbar was only 29 but had already been emperor for 15 years. He supervised the plan. As his biographer and friend Abu'l Fazl put it: "When the engineer of sound judgement [Akbar] drew the line of its foundation on the paper of fancy, he ordered it to have a circumference of six miles on the face of the earth, and for houses to be built on top of the hill, facing the lake, and that they should lay out orchards and gardens at its periphery and centre".

Today the wide silver lake onto which the city looked has dried up. As when Akbar first came here, the sufi shrine and a nearby village are all that remain, with peasant women in billowing yellow saris leading their goats out to graze. The efforts of the Emperor - the miles of walls, the great palaces, the bazaars and schools, the workshops and the great houses of the nobles - are all deserted. As you walk around the walls - much the best way of seeing everything - you realise how large Fatehpur Sikri once was, and how much more there used to be than the palace complex, which many visitors take to be the complete city. The 11 miles of walls enclose great acres of town that have now reverted to agriculture, and what once stood there now lies under mulberry groves and mango orchards which in turn give way to lines of poplars and endless winter mustard.

Yet for all this, the principles which guided Akbar in his project are still ones we recognise and respect today. He intended to translate his spiritual ideas into stone. As you walk down from the walls, your feet crunching on potsherds as you head past the goatherds and over the ruins of the city's domestic houses, you can still see what Akbar was trying to achieve. He consciously combined Hindu and Muslim elements in an innovative and highly syncretic fusion. This mixed the arch and dome of Islam with Hindu Indian elements such as delicate latticed screens, sharp chajja eves and chattri (umbrella) pavilions. He also had his new city filled with a fabulous efflorescence of wonderfully eccentric Gujarati-Hindu decorative sculpture, shipping over to the site a team of Hindu temple-carvers from the Gujarat region. All this he oversaw personally, camping in the building site and even helping to quarry the stone. He also made sure that his Hindu wives - who had also moved onto the building site - were not deafened by the construction work by ordering that the stone be finished at the quarry before being brought to the new city already prepared and fitted, like a sort of a vast IKEA self-assembly kit.

The city rose in less than five years. The chronicles record the incredible speed with which it swelled and prospered: trade blossomed, merchants from all over Asia set up bases and the caravanserai were so packed that a visiting party of Portuguese priests complained of the noise. But as well as a centre of trade, Fatehpur Sikri soon became a philosophical laboratory for Akbar's spiritual enquires. Holy men from all of India's religions were invited to the city to make the case for their particular understanding of the metaphysical, including the party of Portuguese priests from Goa.

The room where these discussions took place - the diwan-i-khas, or hall of private audience - still stands completely intact. It is covered with intricate interlaced designs that appear to have been transferred from the wooden architecture of Gujarat to the red sandstone of Fatehpur Sikri. At the centre of the room is a tall, highly decorated pillar on which rests a round platform; under it cascade the serpentine pendentives of one of the most elaborate capitals ever conceived or carved.

From this pillar, four walkways branch out to the corners of the building, where there are four smaller platforms. Though academics argue about the exact purpose of this strange structure, most agree that Akbar would sit on silken cushions raised on the central platform - thus proclaiming his position as the axis mundi, the central pillar of the Mughal Empire - as holy men of four competing faiths knelt at the ends of the walkways debating the merits of their conceptions of spirituality.

Akbar's thesis was that "the pursuit of reason" rather than "reliance on the marshy land of tradition" was the proper way to address religious disputes. Attacked by traditionalists who argued in favour of instinctive faith in the Islamic tradition, Akbar told his trusted lieutenant Abu'l Fazl: "The pursuit of reason and rejection of traditionalism are so brilliantly patent as to be above the need of argument. If traditionalism were proper, the prophets would merely have followed their own elders [and not come with new messages]." Taking note of the fabulous diversity of religious beliefs in India - Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jains, Parsees, Jews and atheists - Akbar laid the foundations for the secularism and religious neutrality of the modern Indian state. In the event, neither Akbar's religious tolerance nor Fatehpur Sikri lasted long. The city went into decline after 15 years when, in 1585, Akbar was forced to move his capital to Lahore to face the threat posed by marauding Persian and Afghan armies. The policy of tolerance lasted only another few generations, until Akbar's great-grandson Aurangzeb reverted to a policy of persecuting Hindus and tore the empire apart.

Yet as I walked back to the car, passing along the spine of the ridge, the sun setting over the burning plains, I thought how good it is - in an age when ignorant commentators talk of clashes of civilisations and Samuel Huntingdon lectures us on what he believes to be the essentially aggressive nature of Islam - to be reminded by Fatehpur Sikri that for much of the past 400 years, Indian Muslim rulers presided over an empire whose traditions of religious tolerance and freedom had no counterpart in the West until the end of the 19th century.

Akbar declared that "no man should be interfered with on account of religion, and anyone is to be allowed to go over to a religion that pleases him" at a time when most of Catholic Europe was given over to the Inquisition. Indeed, while Akbar built Fatehpur Sikri, in Rome the philosopher Giordano Bruno was being accused of heresy; in 1600, he was burned at the stake in the Campo dei Fiori.

Just as Akbar's religious ideas were attacked by the Orthodox Muslim fundamentalists of his day, so a new generation of Hindu religious bigots is currently trying to bring to an end that extraordinary tradition of syncretism and assimilation that lies at the heart of India's genius. Over the past few years, fundamentalist politicians have been coming to Fatehpur Sikri to try to dissuade the town's Hindus from visiting the Sufi shrine. They attempt to drive the communities apart by making violent verbal assaults on the town's Muslims and their holy places.

The Hindu far-right received a major check at the recent general election, with the secular Congress Party being voted back into power in place of the divisive BJP. One can only imagine that Akbar would thoroughly approve.

William Dalrymple's most recent book, 'White Mughals', won the Wolfson Prize for history

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

William Dalrymple travelled to India as the guest of Greaves Travel (020-7487 9111; www.greavesindia.com) and stayed at the Oberoi Amarvilas Hotel in Agra (91 562 223 1515; www.oberoiamarvilas.com).

Greaves Travel offers a seven-night tour from London Heathrow, flying on British Airways and staying for two nights at the Oberoi New Delhi and five nights at the Oberoi Amarvilas, from £1,495 based on two sharing, including private car transfers, sightseeing and a local guide. A three-night trip is available from £999.

Travelling independently, the closest international airport to Agra and Fatehpur Sikri is Delhi. You can fly there non-stop from Heathrow on Air India, British Airways or Virgin Atlantic, though seats are scarce and fares are high - at least £600 return through discount agents.

Lower fares, starting at around £500 return, are available for indirect flights on airlines such as Air France via Paris, KLM via Amsterdam, Lufthansa via Frankfurt and Emirates via Dubai.

From Delhi, you can fly to Agra in half an hour or travel by train in four hours.

RED TAPE

British-passport holders need visas to visit India. If you call the premium-rate visa information line on 0906 844 4544, you will spend a lot of time and money finding out the following information. For a tourist visa, apply in person or by post to one of the following: the High Commission of India, India House, Aldwych, London WC2B 4NA; the Consulate-General of India, 20 Augustus Street, Jewellery Quarter, Birmingham B18 6JL; or the Consulate-General of India, 17 Rutland Square, Edinburgh EH1 2BB.

Visa application forms can be downloaded from www.hcilondon.net, or obtained by fax by dialling - from an ordinary phone - the premium-rate number, 0906 844 4543; obviously you need a fax machine available.

If you are applying by post, first send a stamped addressed envelope for a visa application form to the Postal Visa Section at one of the addresses above. Once completed, send the form with two passport photos, and the fee of £30. Postal applications take up to four weeks.

"You are advised not to finalise your travel arrangements until your visa has been issued," says the High Commission.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Government of India Tourist Office, 7 Cork Street, London W1S 3LH (020-7437 3677, www.tourismofindia.com)

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