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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Fatepur Sikri

In the distance, the Victory Gate of Fatehpur Sikri
I don't know quite where to begin with this. Fatehpur Sikri was built at the behest of Akbar the Great who ventured to Sikri to seek advice from the Sufi saint Shaik Salim Chisti. Inasmuch as Akbar was a great conqueror, ruler and visionary, he had no scion to carry on the lineage.

The Shaik prophesied that Akbar would indeed have a son and so it was: his son, Prince Salim (named after the Shaik) was born.

"Fateh" means Victory and one can infer that the victory here is as much that of the saint's prophecy as any worldly victory of the great Mughal emperor. And this is what leads me to consider something deeper here. Thus, the Place of Victory. Additionally, it is believed that Fatehpur Sikri is the first planned city by the Mughals.

I could go on and crib from a bunch of sources and cobble together a decent historical essay, but that's not what this is about. When you stand in the presence of an edifice like this, you need to listen deeply to the rhythms of centuries of worship and what lies behind that.

Akbar was pretty syncretic in his practice, I think. As a Mughal, he was de facto, a Muslim. However, he seemed to love and respect all religions and his three wives were each a Christian, a Hindu and a Muslim. He initiated a religion that was meant to bring all three together and, I think, overrule the sectarian nature of each. He founded Din-i-Ilahi, "Divine Faith", although, this is disputed by some modern scholars.

In any event, Din-i-Ilahi waas posited as an ethical system and the feeling I get from this is that it is a direct result of Akbar's allegiance to Salim Chisti. Sufism is vast and profound and is not necessarily limited only to one religion or path, but seems to be the warp and woof of the fabric of what lies behind the religious life.

Consequently, it is not easy nor I think, possible, to describe what actually lies behind this building. Yes, the historical story handed down is the obvious raison d'etre, but I would respectfully ask anyone who treads these grounds to ask if they feel some deeper resonance. I felt it at the great mosque in Delhi. I certainly felt it here.

Below are Fatehpur photos:
In the foreground, you can see the mausaleum; in the background is Salim Chisti's tomb. Above ground, are the Muslim tombs, Christians were buried below and Hindus were cremated.

Fatehpur is carved of red sandstone and this window is an example of the heights to which such carving can reach.

Below are some shots taken by my guide, about whom you can read at the end.

Below is the tomb of Shaikh Salim Chisti. No photography is permitted inside and one is tasked with a donation to the poor before entering.
I found the experience of entering the tomb quite moving. I find it so, still, in memory.

Next up are some more aspects of the complex.
Off the Jama Masjid, are porticos that incorporate architectural flourishes of Islam, Hinduism and Christianity.

Sikri is now a ghost town. Apparently, it was abandoned not too long after Akbar had founded Fatehpur Sikri as the capital. Indeed, he relocated the capital to Lahore. This is probably owing to water scarcity in the region and the economics of trying to maintain a populace of any size under such conditions.

Fatehpur Sikri is in Agra and there is certainly a thriving population, but the city of Sikri itself lay quiet. A home to ghosts, as my guide put it.

Regarding my guide:

Fatehpur Sikri is a wonder. It is magic itself and I hope I've conveyed some of that here. I was also impressed by my, who was a guy about my age who was extremely knowledgable (35 years of experience) and quite articulate. He also had a good eye for composition. But most of all, he was very much in the Sufi spirit, I think. I don't mean he was a Sufi (although he might very well have been), just that he was possessed of a very ecumenical spirit.

As informative as his tour was, it was more his bearing that I found impressive. A Muslim, he prays at the jama musjid at Fatehpur Sikri and I'm willing to bet he may be more tied into his community than he let on.

He said I was one of only five tourists who seemed to " get" Fatehpur Sikri and showed the appropriate respect. Two Americans, one Englishman and a Swiss man. I don't think he says that to all the tourists. Really, I don't.

We talked about the true meaning of jihad and we both agreed that the only real jihad is with oneself. He was very vocal that terrorism had nothing to do with Islam; quite emphatic, in fact.

I wished him "Salaam aleichem" as we bowed to each other. We parted with hugs and I truly feel that he would have been a god running buddy in another time and place. He tapped on the window, said "goodbye" and bowed one more time.

I didn't get his name.

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