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Architecture of Fatehpur Sikri

Abandoned city in northern India founded by the Mughal emperor Akbar in 1571.

Fatehpur Sikri derives its name from the village of Sikri which occupied the spot before, the prefix Fatehpur, City of Victory, was added in 1573 after Akbar’s conquest of Gujerat in that year. Akbar chose this site for a city out of reverence for Sheikh Salim, a religious mystic of the Chisti order who prophesied that he would have three sons. In order to ensure the efficacy of the prophecy Akbar moved his pregnant wife to Sikri where she had two sons. In response Akbar decided to build an imperial mosque and palace at the village of Sikri. The location of the palace and mosque at the site encouraged further settlement by courtiers, noblemen and their attendants so that within a few years a city had grown up which was enclosed by a defensive wall. The city is built on the ridge of a hill next to a lake which has now dried up, giving rise to the theory that the city was abandoned because its water supply had failed. The centre of the city was the palace and mosque, which are located on the top of the ridge overlooking the lake, while the rest of the city was located on the sides of the ridge away from the lake. The city occupies an area of 5 km square with a wall on three sides and a fourth side open to the lake. There are three main gateways in the city wall between which there are semi-circular buttress towers.

The rise of the city from 1571 was very rapid so that after 1573 it was regarded as the capital of the Mughal Empire. However, after the city was abandoned by Akbar in 1585 to fight a campaign in the Punjab, the city seems to have declined just as rapidly so that by 1610 it was completely abandoned. The reason for the sudden decline of the city is usually given as the failure of the water supply, however the real reason may have been the emperor’s loss of interest in the place. As the sole reason for the city’s existence seems to have been a whim of the emperor, the fact that he was no longer in residence meant that there was no longer any incentive for anybody else to stay. The effect of the emperor’s presence on the place may be gauged from an early description of the town which described the road from Agra to Fatehpur Sikri as completely filled with merchants’ shops and stalls as if the two cities were one. A useful analogy may be with the Abbasid capital of Samarra which flourished for fifty years until the caliphs moved back to Baghdad when it declined to the level of a market town.

Buland Darwaza

The first major structure built at the site was Jami Masjid (congregational mosque) which was completed in 1571 the year of Sheikh Salim’s death. At the time of its construction it was the biggest mosque in India measuring 160 m east-west by 130 m north-south. The central courtyard is surrounded by arcades of pointed arches which lead into small cell-like rooms. The centre of the west of the courtyard is dominated by the sanctuary which has a huge central iwan leading on to a domed area in front of the main mihrab. Either side of the central dome are two smaller domes each covering the area in front of a smaller mihrab. As elsewhere at Fatehpur Sikri the building is covered with Hindu architectural features, thus the arcade of the sanctuary and the central iwan are capped by lines of chatris and internally the roofs are supported on Hindu-style carved columns, whilst the domes are supported on corbels in the tradition of Indian temple architecture. Approximately in the centre of the north side of the courtyard are two tombs, one belonging to Sheikh Salim and another to his grandson Islam Khan. The tomb of Sheikh Salim consists of a square domed chamber with an outer veranda filled in with a pierced marble screen (jali). The outside of the tomb is protected by a sloping canopy (chajja) supported on snake-like brackets. There are two main entrances to the mosque, a small private entrance from the palace on the east side and a monumental public entrance on the south side. The public entrance is known as the Buland Darwaza and was built in 1576 to commemorate Akbar’s victory over Gujarat. The gate’s name Buland Darwaza, Tall Gate’, refers to the gate’s outstanding height of 40 m. Like most Mughal mosques this building is raised up on a terrace so that the entrances are approached by flights of steps; in the case of the Buland Darwaza the stairs rise up another 12 m from ground level. The gate has an iwan plan with a large, deep central iwan flanked by two pairs of side iwans. In the middle of the back wall is a smaller gateway leading in to the mosque also flanked by two blind arches of equal size. The frame of the central iwan is surrounded by a monumental inscription and is capped by domed chatris.

Diwan e Aam

The largest building complex at Fatehpur Sikri is the palace, covering an area approximately 250 m square. The layout is similar to that of other imperial Mughal palaces with three main areas, the public area, the mardana or men’s area, and the zenana or women’s area. Visitors approaching the palace first enter through a gateway to a large arcaded courtyard with the Diwan-i Amm (public audience hall) in the centre of the west side. In other Mughal palaces this is usually a grand, highly decorated building, but in this case it is a small rectangular pavilion with a central bay at the front to accommodate the emperor. There is no direct access from the courtyard to the pavilion which is raised at least 2 m above the level of the courtyard. This arrangement suggests a greater degree of security than at other palaces, a theme which is repeated throughout the palace particularly in the women’s quarters.

The overwhelming impression within is of a Hindu palace, with few indications of Islamic design. Immediately behind the Diwan-i Amm is a large courtyard in the centre of which a cross is marked out; this is a giant version of a Pachisi board which is an ancient Indian game. To the north of this courtyard is the most intriguing section of the palace, called the Diwan-i Khass. This is a square two-storey building with a balcony supported on heavy corbels above which is a chajja also supported on heavy corbels. On the roof there are domed chatris at each corner. Inside the building consists of a two-storey hall with a gallery at first-floor level. Bridges which run diagonally from the corners of the gallery connect to a balcony supported by a central pillar. The pillar is richly carved in the Hindu tradition with a mass of heavy corbels supporting the circular balcony above. This arrangement does not correspond to any other private audience room in a Mughal palace, nor is it encountered elsewhere in Mughal architecture. However, the arrangement of a square building with a central pillar may reflect some Hindu mandala whereby the central column represents the axis of the world; in this, if this was also the place where the emperor sat, he would be identifying himself as the axis of the world. In the context of his conquest of Gujarat Akbar may have been wishing to describe himself in Hindu terms of power.

The arrangement of a central column approached by four bridges is repeated in a less formal setting in the courtyard known as the Anup Talao where there is a square pool with a central island approached by bridges from each of the four sides. The Anup Talao forms the central area of the private residence of the emperor and the main part of the mardana, or men’s area. To the south of the pool is a pavilion known as the khwabagh or bedroom although its exact use is not known.

Plan and section of Diwan-i Khass, Fatehpur Sikri

The area to the east of the Anup Talao is the zenana, or women’s area, separated from the rest of the complex by a long wall. This is the most magnificent part of the palace and was decorated with painting and rich carvings. One of the most highly decorated buildings of the palace is the Sunahra Makan which is decorated with both geometric and figurative wall paintings. The most visible building in this area is the Panch Mahal, a five-storey pavilion crowned with a domed chatri which overlooks the men’s area. The heart of the women’s area, however, is known as Jodh Bai’s Palace, a rectangular courtyard enclosure separate from the rest of the palace. The enclosure is entered through a single fortified gateway on the east side which leads into the rectangular courtyard. The courtyard is surrounded by arcades on all four sides and in the middle of each is a two-storey house with staircases to the upper floors and apartments. To the north of Jodh Bai’s Palace is the Hawa Mahal or wind palace, which is a raised pavilion designed to catch the breeze. Another of the residential areas for women is a structure known as Birbal’s House which is located to the west of Jodh Bai’s Palace and is thought to be one of the earliest parts of the palace (it is dated by an inscription to 1571).


Although the palace and city of Fatehpur Sikri are remarkably well preserved, the design and decoration present a problem of interpretation. First it should be pointed out that, although the city was not inhabited for very long, at least two phases of construction can be discerned. The period during which Fatehpur Sikri was built coincided with two important events, the conquest of Gujarat in 1573 and the convening of an inter-faith conference in 1575. The conquest of Gujarat was one of Akbar’s major achievements marking the Mughal domination of all northern India; it is commemorated in the gate of the mosque and in the name of the city. It seems likely that this victory may have been the impetus which changed the city from religious shrine to imperial capital. The conference of 1575 involved participants from the major religions in India at the time and included several Muslim sects, Hindus, Jains, Zoroastrians and Catholic Christians from Goa (Jesuits). The debates took place in a part of the palace known as the Ibadat Khana which is now thought to have disappeared. The end result of the conference was the formulation of a controversial new religion called Din Ilahi of which Akbar was the head. Akbar’s interest in other religions may explain why he was prepared to have so much Hindu-style architecture in his palace, in particular the enigmatic form of the Diwan-i-Khass. The design of Fatehpur Sikri is unusual in Mughal architecture as a whole but may be regarded as characteristic of Akbar’s reign. Other examples of Akbar’s Hindu-style architecture are the Jahangari Mahal in Agra fort, the Ajmer fort in Rajasthan and Akbar’s tomb at Sikandara near Agra.


Andrew PetersonAndrew Petersen is an archeologist specializing in the Islamic Middle East. He is currently a research fellow at Cardiff University, Wales, and was formerly a research officer for the Amman-based Council for British Research in the Levant. He has specialized in research on Jordan ‘s Hajj forts since 1986. His e-mail address is [email protected].


Further reading:

M.Brand and G.D.Lowry, Akbar’s India: Art from the Mughal City of Victory, New York 1985.

-Fatehpur Sikri, Bombay 1987.

S.A.A.Rizvi, Fatehpur Sikri, New Delhi 1972. S.A.A.Rizvi and V.J.Flynn, Fatehpur Sikri, Bombay 1975. G.H.R.Tillotson, Mughal India, Architectural Guides for Travellers, London 1990.

About the Author
Dr.Andrew Petersen is Director of Research in Islamic Archaeology at the University of Wales Lampeter. He has carried out fieldwork in many parts of the Islamic world including Iraq, Oman, Jordan, Palestine, UAE and Qatar. His current research interests include Islamic urbanism, pilgrimage routes and fortifications. For the last two years he has been working on the archaeology of coastal settlement in northern Qatar in collaboration with the Qatar Museums Authority and the Qatar Islamic Archaeology and Heritage project.
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