Monday 13 July 2020

F is for Fatehpur Sikri

As you would expect from an institution largely created for the military, the Agra Cantonment station is neatly laid out on broad lines.  It is carefully structured with separate offices for stationmasters and under-stationmasters, and has numerous bilingual charts and diagrams detailing trains, times and platforms. The town's ldgah bus station, on the other hand, is a pokey hole in a row of undistinguished shops, The battered buses are parked anyhow, and with its drab crumbling walls and stout window-grilles, the ticket office looks more like the entrance to a prison. Yet buses are cheap, uncomplicated and popular, a vital link between cities and the outlying villages. They are a good way to see India the way most Indians do.

From Agra to the village of Fatehpur Sikri by bus costs just Rs 4.60; it takes about an hour to cover the 40 km distance. For all the bus's bone-shaking lurches and leaps, and despite the continual protestations of the grinding gearbox, this turns out to be considerably faster than most trains. Along the way you pass through fields and villages which seem remarkably similar. The fields have the same toiling bullocks, looked after by the same small boy watching you watching him; the villages display the same wares in the same shops, with the same women carrying small snivelling children on their hips as well as miraculously-balanced bundles on their heads. Occasionally a small hill in the distance emerges then disappears in the dusty heat haze.

Fatehpur Sikri is like and totally unlike all these villages. Like in that it has the same shops and the same women; unlike in the massive red sandstone wall which girdles it some kilometres distant. Amidst this inexplicable grandeur, the thin strip of the town's single fly-blown street lies like the shrivelled innards of a giant tortoise, dwarfed now by the massive shell which rests baking but intact in the sun. When the wall was built, Fatehpur Sikri was worthy of it, a mighty city, capital of the Moghul Empire of North India. Today it only draws attention to the vanity of human achievements, a monument to an Indian Ozymandias.

Not only the wall remains. Beside the village is one of the region's rare hills; on it was built the great Jami Masjid mosque, reached by a giant's causeway of red stone, and an extensive complex of palace buildings. These buildings remain to this day, as perfectly preserved as when they were abandoned some four hundred years ago, shortly after being completed. Lack of sufficient water supplies is thought to be the reason.

Whatever the cause, be grateful. Fatehpur Sikri is everyone's coffee  table image of India. The silent brooding sandstone buildings, their dull redness glowing in the midday sun; the deep shadows of the rooms and corridors, starkly contrasted with the glare of the empty courtyards. The architecture, intricate with luxuriant stone swags and minutely-carved columns, the piling up of storeys and towers. The stillness of the pools, and the silence of the open spaces. And around it all, the unending flatness of the Indian plain. Watching from the topmost tower of the palace, you can see a bus's tiny dust cloud bowling towards you along the ribbon of empty road. It is late.

A Partial India A to Z

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