In January 2017 I traveled in northern India. The first part of my trip in India took place in the colorful region Rajasthan. The golden fortress of Jaisalmer, the blue houses of Jodhpur, the white palaces of Udaipur and the terracotta pink city centre of Jaipur. It was a true feast to capture these cities with my camera. The next stop was 250 kilometers to the east: Agra. But before I got to Agra I stopped at Fatehpur Sikri. In the sixteenth century, this city was the capital of the Islamic Mughal empire (not to be confused with the Mongol empire). It only had this title for a brief period of time, because after 15 years the new capital was abandoned. The result: a ghost capital where no one lives anymore. Now, that is a background story that intrigued me when planning my trip in India. I was really looking forward to visiting this city. But now, looking back on it, I think Fatehpur Sikri is still a great historical place to visit but you have to be prepare yourself for constant hassling. Hopefully this post will guide you.
Urbex in India?
Before you think that Fatehpur Sikri is the perfect spot for urban exploring in India, let me stop you right there. No, Fatehpur Sikri is more like an open air heritage site than an urbex location. This temple complex has been on the UNESCO World Heritage list since 1986 and it is in an incredible good shape. There is no sign of decline or decay. The red sandstone temples and monuments are a great example of the Mughal architecture.
Fatehpur Sikri is the story of the Mughal emperor Akbar the Great. This emperor had no heir ready, despite his many brides and big harem of women. For advice he visited the local Sufi saint Salim Christi. Christi made a prediction: Akbar was going to have three sons. And a year later the prediction came true; a son was born. And after that the others followed. To thank the saint, Akbar chose the village of Sikri, the home of Salim Christi, for his new capital. In 1571 he started building the ‘City of Victory’ (translation: Fatehpur). Akbar was known for his tolerance towards muslims, hindus and christians. Unfortuntely his new capital was only inhabited for 14 years. According to the stories there was a great shortage of drinking water and the city was soon abandoned.
The red palaces of Fatehpur Sikri
Fatehpur Sikri consist of two parts: the palaces and the mosque. Let’s start with the red sandstone palaces. These are located in the closed-off part. You can enter by buying a ticket. The most beautiful palaces are the Panch Mahal, the palace of the royal ladies with five stories of colums and a shape that reminded me of a cake. Or is that just me? Also the Birbal Bhavan is worth a visit, a massive red palace with beautiful carvings around the windows. But for me, the Dirwan I Khas was the true highlight. This small four-sided palace was the private audience hall that was used for the visits of kings and ambassadors. Especially the construction from the inside is interesting to see.
Jama Masjid: big, bigger, biggest
The magnet of Fatehpur Sikri is the Jama Masjid, the Friday Mosque. This is one of the first buildings in Fatehpur Sikri, built in 1571. The Jama Masjid is a special site. It is one of the biggest mosques in India, but it also contains the highest city gate in the world: the Buland Darwaza. This 54 meter high gateway was built to commemorate the victory over Gujarat in 1572. Inside the walls of the mosque Akbar the Great built a white tomb for the saint Salim Christi, marked by the white marble square in front of it. I have read that today local women, who want to have children, come here in the hope that their wishes will also be granted just like Akbar.
The awful side of Fathepur Sikri
The Jama Masjid in the busiest place of Fatehpur Sikri, and this is something you will notice. As a tourist you are continuously being approached by young vendors, touts, Madrasa students, fake guides and beggars. They will ask for rupies, foreign coins or your entrance ticket to make a postcard of it. This last one is not true. It is a scam: they will sell your used ticket to the guards at the palace and they will use to trick the tourists. At a ticket control they switch the tickets and tell you that your ticket is not valid. At the spot you have to pay for a new ticket and the guard earns extra money. Luckily, we did not experience this, but it shows that you always have to pay attention in Fatehpur Sikri.
The worst thing was that all the people who want something from you, are also incredibly demanding and pushy. With a simple ‘no, thank you’ you won’t scare them off. They will keep harassing you. Inside the palaces this is not the case. The palaces are under control of the ASI (Archeological Survey of India Officials). You have to pay about 7 euros to get in, but once inside you are almost not bothered. Apart from the occasional selfie with the Indian locals, there is no hassle. But when you want to visit the Jama Masjid my advice is: ignore everyone who tries to talk to you. How unpleasant that might feel.
Despite the crowds and the obnoxious touts, I still think the Jama Masjid is a highlight in Fatehpur Sikri. The grand courtyards and the entrance gates reminded me of the mosques and the madrassas I saw in Uzbekistan. The Mughal architecture is also a mixture of Persian and Hindu architecture. The only thing is: if the Indian government had a better control over the madness at the Jama Masjid it would have been much nicer to visit it. Now tourists are scammed or feel annoyed or harassed by the locals.
More tips for Fatehpur Sikri
- There is a governmental shuttle bus that brings you to the entrance of the old city. A bus ticket is 10 rupee per person and you pay on the bus. Caution: it can be really busy at the bus and people are not afraid to push to get inside. Also a little warning for the parking lot: you have walk from the parking lot to the spot where the shuttle bus leaves and you will come across aggressive touts. Also here, a simple no is not enough. They will keep walking next to you and talking to you.
- The entrance fee for the palaces is 550 rupee per person. You buy the tickets at the counter near the palaces.
- Always keep your entrance ticket with you. Do not give it to the young boys who ask for it. They say they will use for a postcard, but that is not true. Also watch the guards at the palaces. They might want to check your ticket, do not let them swop it for a fake one.
Would you want to visit Fatehpur Sikri after reading about my experiences?