Saturday, September 6, 2008
Built from scratch in 1571 by Akbar in honor of the Sufi saint Salim Chisti, who had predicted the birth of a son, this grand ghost city is carved entirely from red sandstone. It was only inhabited for 14 years, after which -- some say because of water shortages -- it was totally abandoned. It's a bizarre experience to wander through these magnificent, architecturally fascinating sandstone arches, courtyards, and buildings.
The buildings combine a fine sense of proportion -- indicative of Akbar's Persian ancestry -- with strong Hindu and Jain design elements, indicative again of his embracing attitude to the conquered and their faiths. Upon entering, you will see Diwan-i-Khas, thought to be a debating chamber, on the right. Facing it is Ankh Michali, thought to be the treasury, which has mythical Hindu creatures carved on its stone struts. To the left is large Parcheesi Court, where Parcheesi (from which games such as backgammon and ludo were subsequently derived) was played with live pieces: the ladies of the harem. It is said that Akbar learned much about the personalities of his court and enemies by watching how they played, won, and lost. Surrounding the court are, from the left, Diwan-i-Am, a large pavilion where public hearings were held; the Turkish Sultana's House, an ornate sandstone pavilion; and Abdar Khana, where drinking water and fruit were apparently stored.
Walk between the two latter buildings to enter Akbar's private quarters. Facing Anoop Talao -- the four-quartered pool -- are the rooms in which he slept and his personal library with shelves carved into the walls. Also overlooking Parcheesi Court is Panch Mahal, the tallest pavilion, where Akbar's wives could watch the games and enjoy the breeze without being seen. Behind Panch Mahal are the female quarters, including Maryam's House and the Haram Sara Complex. The harem leads to Jodha Bai's Palace, a large courtyard surrounded by pavilions -- note the green glazed roof tiles. To the east is Birbal's House, a two-story pavilion noted for its carvings; beyond lie the servants' cells. From here you exit to visit Jama Masjid, a mosque even more spectacular than the larger one Akbar's grandson built in Delhi. Set like a glittering pearl amid the towering red-sandstone bastions, punctuated by a grand gateway, is the white marble dargah (tomb) of Salim Chisti, which has some of the most beautiful carved screens in India. It attracts pilgrims from all over India, particularly (given the good fortune he brought Akbar) the childless, who make wishes while tying cotton threads onto the screens that surround the tomb.
Again, the services of a good guide are indispensable to a visit here (don't bother hiring one of the "official" guides at the entrance, however).