Writing Fathpur Sikri Revisited

It was while doing my M Phil under the Supervision of Professor Irfan Habib, the job of accompanying official tours of the Department of History came to be assigned to me. Probably I was chosen as none else was ever ready to leave Aligarh on trivial pretexts, and not that I knew something on Architecture or Monuments! In fact I had never ever offered architecture as a course of study in my graduate or post graduate days. In school I have had science, so that what to talk about monuments, I did not ever had even studied History.

But then, old monuments and structures had always interested me, outstation trips excited me, and sitting for long hours in libraries and reading rooms bored me stiff! These outings provided me escapades from the usual uninteresting dreary life chores!

Thus whenever the then Chairman and my research Supervisor, Irfan Habib asked me to accompany the participants of workshops or Seminars to Agra and Fathpur Sikri, I would readily agree. One additional factor in my agreeing was that I had been visiting the Taj, and the palaces at Sikri since my childhood days!

Since birth we had been a regular to the annual congregations (jalsa) at the Mazār of Qāzi Nurullah Shustari at Agra, whose mutawalli was my revered father. Each time, I would hop in a bus with someone or the other for a day trip to palaces at Sikri, or an afternoon trip to the Taj Mahal. Both places fascinated me as well as intrigued my young mind! What was this room? Or what was the purpose of that structure?

When as a researcher I went with “delegates”, more and more questions were disturbing my mind. Sometimes even very trivial queries of those whom I accompanied, eluded answers. I would reply to them but my heart would know that I was merely bluffing a reply!

One of our close family friends was Athar Chacha, the famous Professor S Athar Abbas Rizvi, a frequent visitor to my father from Canberra. Athar Chacha was the author of two books on Sikri: one a guide book for ASI and another a major work which he wrote with his Australian student, AJ Flynn. But, neither the discussions with him, nor reading the two books, were able to provide me answers to my questions.

On some occasions I was exposed to some other experts on Sikri. Once I accompanied a team of foreign delegates of a UNESCO Conference organised by Irfan Sahib. We first went to the Taj and then to Sikri. An old gentleman, whom I had mistaken to be an American, who had been silently listening to my nonsense at Taj, suddenly came to me at a Palace at Sikri and with a twinkle in his eyes, enquired: “And what is this? Explain!” As I was replying, I saw his eyes moisten, and then he exclaimed: “Do you know lad, I was the in charge of these monuments before Independence?”

Shocked, I just barely managed to ask for his name. “I am Dani, Ahmad Hasan Dani!” And then from that point to the end of the trip, Professor Dani, the celebrated Archaeologist of Pakistan was explaining to us his views on Sikri!

At another time, I was summoned by Irfan Sahib to accompany a European visitor to Sikri. Neither Irfan Sahib cared to divulge his name, nor did I ask! At Sikri he kept on asking me questions about structures and excavated sites, and I kept on answering. At lunch time, we went to the then newly opened ITDC hotel at Sikri, Hotel Gulistan. There, as we dined, I asked him from which country he was. And then he replied “Oh so sorry, I haven’t introduced myself to you: I am Attilio Petruccioli from Italy”. I sat there stunned and in shock! I had been with THE EXPERT since morning without realising it!

More sweet amazement awaited me when next day in the lectures which he delivered, he cited my interpretations with much appreciation!

In fact a couple of years before this trip, I had taken up Exploratory trips to Agra and Sikri. The first in 1989 on my own to record the mason’s marks: something which had been on my mind since long; and then 1992 to survey the noble’s excavated houses at Sikri. Both the time I had gone with vengeance as a retaliation against a caustic remark of Professor Iqtidar Alam Khan that such work was beyond my “capacity”.

By the time I started collecting material on the Mughal Architects, on whom I had a chapter in my PhD, I got more interested in their work. I left my PhD midway and started exploring Fathpur Sikri instead.

Irfan Habib supported me to the hilt and kept on giving me yearly grants to carry on my surveys. And when after Irfan Sahib, Departmental financial support dried up, with chairmen mean enough not to give me a penny, Professor Shireen Moosvi started providing funds from Aligarh Historians Society, an NGO of secular Aligarh historians.

By 2006 my draft for the book was ready!

Ultimately it was in 2013 that Oxford University Press came out with Fathpur Sikri Revisited.

It was released during the Indian History Congress Mumbai session.

In 2015, the Indian History Congress awarded it the Mohammad Habib Best Book in Medieval Indian History for the period 2012-14. The panel of experts included historians like Satish Chandra, DN Jha and Harbans Mukhia.

Even otherwise the book was received well.

It comprises of 11 chapters, apart from an Introduction and two Appendix.

It’s one of the first works which tries to combine literary sources, archaeological explorations & surveys, Archaeological finds and Visual records. The Mughal miniatures are used as a source for interpreting the structures.

Apart from reinterpretation of various structures, it also tries to clear many myths: for example, was it ever “abandoned” or that was there a “paucity” of water? It demonstrates that when in 1585 Akbar left it for political reasons, never to return, it continued as a commercial hub, instead of an “Imperial” capital. And that it emerged as a Centre for indigo production and carpet weaving. Some of the waterworks constructed by Akbar are not only still functional but till date meet the daily needs of the modern town! Briefly grappling with architecture, it instead deals in detail the Mughal town planning with Fathpur as an example.

Further, for the first time the step-well and garden of Babur which he constructed after his victory over Rana Sanga, which he named Bāgh-i Fath are recorded and identified. Also identified is the location of Akbar’s Ibådatkhāna.

Without doubt this book is a must read by not only students but also all serious scholars of History. I unabashedly say so not because I am the author, but because the book demands so!

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A history buff interested to unravel the past as it was!

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