Akbar’s Cook, His Residence and the Kitchen Establishment

The Palaces of Akbar survive at Fathpur Sikri almost in toto. Royal residences, courts, the haram, the offices, the workshops and the arsenal are all identifiable. But one thing which is not properly identified is the royal kitchen, which, if we go through the pages of Āīn-i Akbari, or the various Akbarnāma miniatures, was a full-fledged mega-establishment with a large cooking staff headed by a Master Chef, supervisors and workers. The Matbakh or the Royal Kitchen constituted cooking areas, water storage areas, as well as sherbetkhānās. Where was this located? Who was the Master Chef? Such questions sometimes raise in our mind.

The Setting

Just to the north of the Diwān-i ām, the Public Audience Chamber, situated between the so-called ‘Mint’ or the Kārkhāna, the Workshop, and a large massive water reservoir, nomenclated as hauz-i shīrīn, the Sweet Water Tank is located the Kitchen.

The Kārkhāna as per our sources, was the royal workshop where goods needed in the Court were prepared: wicker baskets, presentation items, medallions – and possibly also muhrs, the gold coins.

The Potable Water Store: The Hauz-i Shīrīn

Let us start this discussion on the Kitchen with some information on how the water was collected and supplied to the kitchen.

At Sikri, the water was of two kinds, sweet drinkable and potable water, and, (mostly) the saline, brackish water, which was not potable, but used for irrigation and to run the fountains and ābshārs. Thus in Sikri, we find water sources of both kinds, with the potable sources generally linked with the kitchen or other human consumption needs.

The Hauz-i Shīrīn, was is a tank situated north of the Diwan i Ām, at a point where the ridge tapers off. It was named so for two reasons: a) that it was the water from this tank which was used for human consumption. It was sweet, drinkable and in which food was cooked; and b) It was mixed, on the orders of Akbar, with Gangājal before being consumed. Akbar strongly believed in the efficacy and sacrality of the water from the Holy Ganges!

This tank in itself is a marvel! Built on a sharp slope of the ridge, it rests on inverted arches. On the slope are raised a series of circular vaults held on broad piers. On them are then constructed inverted arches which hold the massive weight of the water stored above. The water itself was brought from the Northern Waterworks situated at some distance to the west of this tank, near the Hathipol.

From the Northern Waterworks, the potable sweet water was transported through a series of aqueducts raised atop masonry pillars.

The Matbakh

It was but natural that the matbakh – the kitchen was situated very near to this Sweet Water Tank. The dark coloured building and the area behind it in the picture below was the area of the kitchen complex.

It was a large enclosed quadrangular area comprising of a ‘kitchen’ with a series of masonry ovens (bhatti) and hearths (chūlhā). This cooking area was located on the north-eastern corner. A series of platforms and corridors lined the northern and southern sides of the quadrangle. A few chambers were built on the eastern side adjoining the Royal Kārkhāna.

From the south a staircase connected this Kitchen to the roof of the Dįwān-i ām from where the cooked food and beverages were taken to the Daulatkhāna and the ābdārkhāna (Beverage House) from where after being further tested the food was laid before the Emperor or taken to the Royal Haram.

A triple layered platform is also constructed in the middle of the Kitchen courtyard. Was this the place from where the Royal Chef supervised?

Office-cum-residence of the Superintendent

To the west of the Kitchen quadrangle, just adjoining the ramp besides the Hauz-i Shįrīn, on the road leading from Hathipol to Diwān-i ām, are a group of buildings comprising a hammām and a multi-chambered structure.

Such structures are usually constructed near each and every workplace, a kārkhāna or a buyūtāt, even sarais. Our sources, both European (eg., Fr. Monserrate) and Persian sources (eg. Abu’l Fazl and Badauni) inform us that there used to be yātishkhānas (or yatashkhāna) [Fr. Monserrate mentions iataxqana] which were residential quarters built near workplaces for the dāroghā ( Superintendents). They were office-cum-residences of the Incharges: just as today a Hydel Engineer has his residence and office near the canal or project under his charge!

The term Yātishkhāna technically meant a place to quench one’s thirst. Such residential office abound in Fathpur Sikri: thus we have one attached to the Sarai, another to the Imperial Kārkhāna, yet another near the stables and animal pens!

During the 19th Century a scholar Molvi Saeed Ahmad Marahravi, who wrote in Urdu a book entitled Āsār e Akbari, noted an inscription adorning the external wall of the structure near Hauz-i Shīrīn which informed it to be the house of the Superintendent of Kitchen Establishment, a certain Muhammad Bāqir.

The inscription according to him ran as follows:

Yātishkhāna-i Dārogha-i Matbakh Banda-i Dargāh Muhammad Bāqir Sufrachi

The Office-cum-Residence of the Superintendent of Kitchen Establishment, the slave of the threshold, Muhammad Baqir, the Cook

By the time Professor Athar Abbas Rizvi started looking for it, it was lost and untraceable.

The present author rediscovered it in 1990’s. It had having fallen to the ground, where it lay unrecognised until some enterprising villager on seeing a Persian writing over it, but probably unable to read it, mistook it to be a gravestone and thus placed it on top of a platform adjoining the very building, which once adorned it and converted it into a “tomb” or mazār of a holy man.

Today it is taken to be a grave, a mazār of a “Syed Bābā”, white washed with flowers and a green chador covering it. It is visited by many a gullible who believe in its miraculous powers!

What better tribute could have been given to the one who used to feed Akbar the Great three times a day for at least a decade! Muhammad Bāqir, as the Superintendent (darogha) of Kitchen also had the daily duty of tasting the food being laid before his emperor to test it for poison!

We are fortunate to have the account of Fr Monserrate, the Jesuit priest, who visited the Imperial Court at Fathpur Sikri. He in his account tells us how the food was delivered through stages from the kitchen to the table of the emperor. He was a witness to this when he had once been personally invited by Akbar, and visited him where the food was being served to the Great Mughal!

For details do read my book Fathpur Sikri Revisited (OUP, 2013).

Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi

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

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