Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Fatehpur Sikri

After my concert in Mumbai a lady at the reception told me that if I went to Agra to see the Taj I should also visit the palace at nearby Fatehpur Sikri, which was also quite beautiful but not as well known. The idea of a ghost town with an abandoned palace intrigued me, though I had great difficulty remembering the name. When I met up with my companions I told them I wanted to add Fate. .. Fateh. . . . something, to our itinerary. We went through a lot of city names that started with F before figuring out which one it was. Then we decided to add F.S. to our Taj Mahal day.

After spending the morning at Taj Mahal, we hired a car and headed for Fatehpur Sikri. We had limited time, maybe a couple of hours at the palace, so on the way I read to my companions the descriptions of the palace sites and historical intrigues from the Lonely Planet Guide to India. This way we could go and have a look around on our own without having to hire a guide, and maybe save some time. The driver dropped us off at the parking lot, and immediately we were approached by a guide for hire. We tried without much success to tell him we were not looking for a guide. He just kept following us, trying to talk Vinny into hiring him for the afternoon. We tried to walk faster so that he would stay behind, but he kept coming along. There were no signs to tell us which way to go to the palace, and we didn't want to give the guide any indication that we needed a guide, so we just followed some people who ended up going into a hotel type place. I asked the guy sweeping the floor there where the palace was, and he pointed to a hill across the road. "Behind the trees," he said. There was no path leading up the hill so I was kind of confused. Then he said we could either take the road to the right or or to the left to get to the place behind the trees. When we got to the road we looked both ways, no signs, no sign of entrances either way.

Hawley decided, why not go straight? Cielo and I agreed. We were still trying to lose the guide, so we crossed the street quickly and walked straight into this abandoned field with the intent to hike up the hill to where the trees were. Vinny, who was wearing all white, said he would go around and find a path and meet us at the palace. I turned back and saw the guide with a look of confusion on his face as he watched us take our "shortcut." He did not follow us anymore after that. There were some goat herders nearby, but they did not pay much attention to us. No more than 10 steps into the field, Hawley got snagged by a huge dried thorn bush. Cielo and I were both pricked by the thorns as we tried to dislodge its tight grip on H's pants. Already, it was looking like a strange adventure. But we were short on time, so we forged ahead.

After climbing up the steep dry hill I saw the horns of a cow float across the top of some bushes, then some hats of school children, and their teacher. . . indeed, there was a paved road up there. We got to the road and decided to cross it and go beyond where there was an official looking building. There we found a cliff looking down at a few houses. There were no signs on the building, and it seemed closed. Hm. . . maybe not here? We turned to the right and kept walking, but it was looking more and more desolate with brick ruins here and there. Nothing palatial, mostly overgrown with weeds. Could this be it? No one was around to give us directions. Hawley and Cielo got a little ahead of me as I stopped and looked around for someone to ask directions. Just then a yellow dog came up behind me and stopped to say hello. Half in jest I asked her if she knew the way to the palace. She listened to my question, then made a gesture with her body that clearly said we should be headed in the opposite direction. Having received such a clear answer, I suddenly found myself doubting that one could actually ask a dog for directions. Just then two men passed by and when I asked them, they confirmed what my new canine guide had just told me.

I gathered my companions and we followed the dog back to the road and took it all the way up to the front gate of the Palace. She went inside through the garden into the main courtyard and made a small circle and settled down right in the middle of the square, her job finished. At last, we were at the fascinating red palace of Akbar the Great, a very unusual emperor who ruled with surprising religious tolerance, and who had great appreciation for the arts. One of the first buildings we saw was the Diwan-i-Khas.

Inside there was a big column in the middle with lots of carvings. Above it was a circular space, almost like a podium. This space is connected by four narrow walkways to the four corners of the building, each with a smaller podium supported by a column. If I understood the guidebook correctly, this is where Akbar used to have debates on religion with learned scholars and clergy of various different religions. He stood in the middle, while the others stood in the four corners, sometimes representing four different religions. I wish these discussions could happen again, different religious leaders gathering together, with respect and curiosity for one another's religion. But instead of debating about religion, they gather to find a way for everyone to co-exist, to outlaw violence in the name of religion, to find solutions for peace on this crowded planet.

Everything was built with huge slabs of red rock. There was an interesting building with many layers, each layer getting a little narrower, and supported with elaborately carved columns. Supposedly each column had different carvings on it. The guidebook mentioned something about placing the Akbar's harem on it, layer by layer. But it was a bit unclear what the purpose of that would be, other than to amuse the architect.

There was a pond with a square platform in the middle, with four narrow bridges leading from the outside to the platform. First chance I got, I went and stood in the middle of the platform. It just seemed like the thing to do for whatever reason. It looked to me like a place to stand in order to receive inspiration. Besides, I was text-messaging Vinny who had gotten separated from us, and this also looked like it might be the place with the best phone reception. I didn't read about this structure in the guidebook, but it was the one that fascinated me the most. When I got home, I read about it online. It seems that Akbar had a musician in his court by the name of Tansen who is supposedly the most famous musician in Indian history. He had the ability to conjure rain and fire with his singing. According to legend Tansen died in one of the fires that he had called forth with his song. The platform in the middle of the pond was where Tansen performed for Akbar and his court.
Hm. . . with his pyro tendencies, it's no wonder his stage is surrounded by water.

The sun was getting lower on the horizon and it set the red stone buildings ablaze. They must have done special rituals at this time of day back in the day of Akbar the Great, because the palace square looked magical, like a ghost town on Mars.

No comments: