Back to Cities & Architecture

Click on thumbnails to enlarge them

Perhaps the greatest of the Mughal emperors, Akbar (ruled 1556-1605) moved his residence from Agra some 26 miles west to Fatehpur Sikri, where he erected a major new palace complex. Most sources connect this decision with the emperor's veneration for a local Sufi holy man, Shaikh Salim Chisti, to whose prayers were attributed the birth of a healthy son, Jahangir, who would eventually succeed Akbar. It was in Chisti's honor in 1568 that Akbar ordered built the Jami Masjid (mosque), which is one of the most impressive in all of the Islamic world and in whose courtyard the Sufi saint's tomb is now located. Most of the adjoining palace complex was built between 1568 and 1575. In the mid-1580s, Akbar abandoned it for Lahore, and in the last years of his life the court moved back to Agra. Problems with maintaining an adequate water supply may have contributed to the decision to abandon the site. According to one contemporary English observer, during its brief period of glory the city around the palace was "much greater than London" and "a great resort of merchants from Persia and out of India, and very much merchandise of silk and cloth, and of precious stones, both rubies, diamonds and pearls."

The red sandstone architecture of the palace reflects largely Hindu architectural traditions. As one might expect, it is primarily in the great mosque that Islamic architectural forms dominate, although mixed with some traditional Indian decorative motifs. The palace buildings display ample evidence of the impact of Muslim decorative elements, some apparently drawn from sources such as Persian miniature painting. These latter can be seen especially on the ornate "House of the Turkish Sultana." Impressive as the abundant carving is, it is difficult in any of the Mughal palaces to capture today a sense of their original visual impression. Many of the walls were brightly painted, but little of that painting remains. Floors would have been covered with carpets; a variety of other furnishings, collections of ceramics and glass, and other objects would have filled the rooms.

Sikri village (?) from palace complex.


The imposing southern entrance to the Jami Masjid, the Buland Darwaza, is more than 130 feet high; its height is further emphasized by the flight of 123 steps leading up from the roadway below. Its main arched entrance (iwan) follows Persian architectural models, but there are also Indian decorative features such as the small kiosks at the very top of the structure.

Cistern to north of palace.

The Diwan-i-Am (Hall of Public Audience) was the pavilion where the emperor sat on his throne to dispense justice, review troops and carry out other regular administrative functions. Other examples of such public audience spaces will be seen in the Red Forts at Agra and Delhi. The court yard is a 181 x 368 foot rectangle, with cloisters enclosing it. Tourists today are shown a large stone ring, where supposedly an elephant was tethered in readiness to trample any criminals who had been sentenced to capital punishment.


The most intriguing of the buildings at Fatehpur Sikri is the Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audience), located in the eastern or public court area of the palace. With the exception of some Muslim decorative elements (for example, the arabesque carving on the pillar), the architecture comes from the Hindu tradition. The interior is dominated by a central pillar, where the emperor presumably would have been seated. Walkways connect his elevated seat with a gallery extending around the walls.

View south toward the Girls' School, with Panch Mahal on right.


Some believe that the "Astrologer's Seat," the little pavilion facing out into the large eastern courtyard of the palace would have been used by the royal astrologer, although it seems as likely the emperor himself would have sat there. The decorative struts suggest a connection with the Jain architectural traditions of Gujarat in western India, which Akbar conquered in 1572.


Although it is not certain that the Pachisi (Indian backgammon) court laid out in the middle of the eastern block of the palace dates from Akbar's reign, it is similar to one in the Red Fort at Agra. The seat probably was for the emperor himself; the playing pieces would have been servant girls. The original purpose of the "Girls' School" is not known for certain, nor is that of the distinctive five-story Panch Mahal, whose columned interior spaces may have been inspired by Buddhist architecture. The decoration of every one of its eighty-four columns is different. The best guess is that the lowest floors, which were originally surrounded with screens, would have been used by the women of the harem, and the emperor might have tried to escape the heat by relaxing in the breeze on the upper floors.


The Khwabgah probably housed a major part of the royal library, where the emperor would have engaged in learned discussions. It is possible that another of the rooms served as an imperial dining hall. The rooms are of particular interest for the wall paintings, now only dimly visible, which seem to have portrayed scenes from Akbar's own life as well as Buddhist imagery.


The Turkish Sultana's House with its one small 13 x 13 foot chamber is the most elaborately decorated of all the buildings in the palace. Its interior carved panels probably are based on Persian miniatures and even contain some Chinese cloud motifs (transmitted not directly from China but via Persia). The arabesque motifs on the columns include pomegranates and lotuses. The identity of the "Turkish Sultana" is uncertain, but we know two of Akbar's wives were apparently of Chaghatai Turkish origin (i.e., presumably related to the Mongol descendants of Chingis Khan who were part of the Mughals' own imperial lineage).


"Birbal's Palace," located in the west courtyard, was undoubtedly built for one of Akbar's wives, but we cannot be sure which one. It is one of the best preserved and most elegantly decorated of the palace buildings. The decorative elements include Islamic arabesques similar to those in the Turkish Sultana's House and Islamic muqarnas (staltactite) decoration as well as Indian "elephant's trunk" brackets.

Back to Top

The most important of the palace buildings, commonly called Jodh Bai's Palace, was probably the main residence of the emperor's harem. Its apartments opened into the enclosed courtyard; access to the grounds would easily have been controlled by guards at the southern entrance. Among the facilities in the palace were baths which apparently were heated by hot air flues and had hot and cold running water. The largely pre-muslim Indian architecture suggests that Gujarat architects were brought in to build it following Akbar's conquest of that western city in 1572, although in some ways the structure resembles the inner palace (Akbari Mahal) built a few years earlier in the Red Fort at Agra. As with the other buildings at Fatehpur Sikri, there are many decorative motifs from the Islamic arts of the Middle East, at least some of them possibly transmitted via the buildings erected by the Delhi sultans several centuries earlier. Colored ceramic tile, common in the Islamic arts of the Middle East, was used in this palace.

© 2001 Daniel C. Waugh.
Silk Road Seattle is a project of the Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington.