Sikandra, where Akbar the Great rests

S Balakrishnan
Akbar is one of the good souls who ruled Hindustan. Well, I can’t vouch for it but it was what I was taught in my boring history classes. You see, better be cautious with the Hindutva forces. Despite being a Muslim ruler, he was a secular person who even founded a new religion ‘Din-e-ilahi’ (Divine Faith) by assimilating all the good in the other religions. His head was not heavy with power. Above a victory gateway (Buland Darwaza) that forms part of his palace complex in Fatehpur Sikri near Agra, he had inscribed ‘The world is a bridge; pass over it, but build no house upon it’. But he did build his own tomb, choosing himself the suitable site also. Constructing one’s own tomb during one’s lifetime is said to be a Tartary custom. [Great Tartary was a nation in northern and central Asia, mostly inhabited by Turkic people, and extending eastwards from Caspian Sea and Ural Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. The Mughals were a branch of the Timurid dynasty of Turco-Mongol origin from Central Asia]. Thus begins the story of Sikandra.
Akbar was the grandson of Babur who founded the Moghul Empire in India in 1526 AD. ’ahîr al-Dîn Mu%ammad Bâbur hailed from the steppes of Central Asia. His ancestors had settled in the Uzbeg-dominated Fergana valley. Babur was the 14th generation descendant of the notorious Mongol emperor Genghis Khan and the 5th generation descendant of Timur the terrible who ransacked Delhi. By defeating Ibrahim Lodhi, an Afgan sultan who was then ruling Delhi sultanate, in the First Battle of Panipat (near Delhi) on 21st April 1526, Babur ‘The Tiger’ established himself as the first ruler of Mughal dynasty that would rule Hindustan for the next 350 years or so. But Babur died within four years, aged 48, on 26th December 1530, and he was interred in Agra where he had created his Garden of Eight Paradises, world’s first Mughal Garden. Later, it was taken to Kabul in Afghanistan by Akbar for final resting at Bagh-e-Babur (Garden of Babur). Babur was followed by his son Humayun and then his grandson, Akbar, who ruled from 1556 to 1605. The Mughal empire ended in 1857 after the First War of Indian Independence (Sepoy Mutiny) when the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah II, was captured by the British and exiled to Burma (Myanmar), ending the more than three-century-long Mughal Empire in Hindustan. Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal Emperor, breathed his last in Rangoon (Yangon) in 1862, unsung! Coming back to Akbar, the third of the 19th Mughal rulers, he ascended the throne in 1556 and ruled for almost half a century until 1605. Akbar was the most outstanding of the Mughal rulers, hence called Akbar the Great. He was a great patron of arts & crafts, literature, philosophy, and sciences. Remember, he had behind him the Nine Gems of courtiers in his court, including Birbal, Tansen, Abul Fazal, etc.! Akbar was also a great builder. Agra Fort, Fatehpur Sikri palace complex, and his own tomb at Sikandra stand testimony to his architectural eminence. He laid the foundation for the new Indo-Islamic culture known for aesthetic beauty and courtly grace.
At Sikandra, Akbar’s chosen final resting place, his taste is reflected in massive and virile fashion. Even the marble inlay works assert in a bold manner like flashes of lightning. Of course, one also finds intricate, richer inlays reminding the zardozi embroidery, but these could have been the work of Akbar’s son Salim (Jehangir), who completed the Sikandra mausoleum complex in 1613, eight years after Akbar’s death.
In 1980, without realising its beauty and historical importance, I passed by it just like that, only clicking its Southern gateway from the moving bus, after eye full of Taj Mahal & Fatehpur Sikri. It took another 23 years to visit this marvellous mausoleum. I regret being so stingy with analog still photography, because I took only one photo – of the calligraphy work in red sandstone in the southern gateway. Maybe the heat of April 2003 made me dizzy, or I was overfed with the beauty of Taj & Sikri and could not stomach anymore. The result is I do not remember much about Sikandra. Sad! The red sandstone mausoleum complex is within a serene forty acre garden divided into four squares. This is enclosed by a compound wall, pierced with a monumental gateway on all four sides, though the entry is now only through the southern. And it is the southern gateway that is the most decorated with floral mosaics and arabesque patterns. Its four red sandstone minarets on the top are completely covered with white marble inlay work. So much so, the ornamentation appears to be overdone for ordinary eyes. As per Islamic convention, representation of living beings is generally avoided at least in religious art & architecture. It exhibits Akbar’s patent style, a mixture of various architecture styles – Hindu, Islamic, Christian. Of the five floors of the mausoleum, the ground floor has Akbar’s tomb and that of his two daughters, Shakrul Nisha Begum and Aram Bano. His tomb and the vestibule to it are profusely ornamented. The storeys above have nothing in particular but full of bays, arches and chhatris. While the fifth storey is entirely in white marble, the rest are made up of red sandstone. As if to prove his secular belief, Akbar married a Rajput princes and a Christian, besides Muslim women. The Bollywood film of 2008 ‘Jodha Akbar’ brings forth the life of Akbar with the Rajput princes, played by Hrithik Roshan & Aishwarya Rai. Though he stood for Hindu-Muslim unity and married a Hindu princes and made her son the next ruler, he could not stand the rich-poor mingling, at least in his own royal family. There lies the famous love story of Salim (who assumed the royal name of Jehangir when he ascended the throne) and Anarkali, a courtesan dancer in Akbar’s court. Two classic movies were made on this theme – Anarkali (1953) in which Pradeep Kumar & Bina Rai paired, and Mughal-e-Azam (1960) which paired Dilip Kumar & Madhubala with the legendary Prithviraj Kapoor donning the majestic role of Akbar the Great. The latter is one of my favourite movies which I watched thrice within a week when it was re-released in 2004 in digital avatar and in full colour. As I write this I plan to download and watch Anarkali which also carries mesmerizing songs, and Jodha Akbar, though I am somehow unable to connect with Hrithik Roshan. Oh, well, the flame of love had veered me off. Sikandra is a suburb of Agra, 13 kms. away on the road to Mathura. Akbar’s tomb at Sikandra is considered the most unique among the crypts of Asia! That sums up Sikandra, I suppose. So, next time you pay a visit to Taj Mahal, the Monument of Love, the most outstanding crypt of the world, do call on Akbar the Great in Sikandra.
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