Mughals and Sultans ruled much of northern India in the 16thand 17th centuries leaving behind beautiful architecture. We visited three sites that are not often visited by tourists, and we’re so happy we did.
Forty km east of Agra is the historical ancient city of Fatehpur Sikri. The capital was moved here for 15 years in the late 16th century by Shah Akbar, who also built Agra Fort. He moved the capital to Fatehpur Sikri after a local sage accurately predicted the birth of his son and heir to his empire. The capital was moved back to Agra after his death. There is no grand entry to the fortress, but there are many fascinating buildings inside. There’s a large open courtyard surrounded by red sandstone buildings with an ornamental pool at one end. Most of the buildings from afar look plane, but on closer look you find intricately carved designs on the vaulted ceilings, walls and columns.
The Hall for Private Audience is a very interesting building. There are 4 white-domed chhatris on each corner of the roof. Inside is a large engraved pillar with raised walkways going from the pillar top to the building’s walls. Akbar debated with different religious leaders here, each standing at a different corner of these walkways.
In the middle of the grounds is Panch Mahal, a 5-tiered open-air building with many pillars on each level. Akbar spent his evenings on the top tier enjoying the cool breeze and the view with ladies from his harem.
On the edge of the fort is a row of rooms which is residence for his harem of 5000 as well as 250 maids. Apparently, there was a passage from the harem to the 5-tiered Panch Mahal.
Much of the fortress has been renovated, but behind the renovated area we found a beautiful old, large gate with elephant carvings. The path from this gate led to a tall, strange pillar that looks like a hairbrush with pointy barbs. The barbs are actually stone carvings that are supposed to represent elephant tusks.
Beside the fortress is a large mosque, Jama Masjid, that was also built by Shah Akbar. The mosque is surrounded by a huge wall of red sandstone brick with an elaborate high arched gate. Inside is a large open courtyard with a few small buildings. One of the buildings is a simple mosque with a long prayer room. Another is a white tomb for the sage that predicted the birth of Akbar’s son.
East of Agra is a run-down town with an ancient hill-top fort. There is a 3km long plateau on top of the hill and Gwalior Fort spreads along most of it. The fort’s first buildings were built under Sultan rule and later ones by Hindu Maharajahs. There aren’t many buildings remaining inside the fort walls, but we were able to visit a few of the remaining ones.
Inside for fort walls is an 8th century aqueduct with an interesting legend. Apparently, a hermit used water from the aqueduct to cure a Sultan chieftain of leprosy. The hermit then told the chieftain that as long as his family used the name Pal, they would remain in power. Legend goes that they did and only lost the kingdom when the 84th descendant changed his name.
Across from the aqueduct is a colourful 15th century Hindu Palace called Man Singh Palace. The outer walls are painted with blue, yellow and green tiles with depictions of ducks, elephants, crocodiles and lions. Inside are two courtyards with remnants of colourful tiles and elaborate carvings on the walls and doorways. There were many small rooms off the courtyards and a few had bats hanging from the ceilings.
The unusual feature of this palace is the two-stories of basements with circular rooms surrounded by large pillars. The basements were used in the summer months to keep cool, but later the Mughals used the basements to hold prisoners. The rooms were quite eerie and it was easy to imagine prisoners being locked up in them for years.
Further down the road, within the fort walls we found two Hindu temples called Mother-In-Law and Daughter-In-Law Temples. Both temples are decorated inside and out with hundreds of small sculptures on the pillars, walls, doorways. They’re quite beautiful.
Teli Ka Mandir is an interesting 8th century temple. It’s a tall, stone building with many carvings on the exterior. What makes it different is the a rounded wagon-style roof. It is the oldest building in the fort grounds. Apparently when the British were in power, they used this temple as a tea house.
Down the hill on the backside of the fort, outside of the wall, are huge 15th century carvings up to 5m tall, carved right into the cliff. They are carvings of the 24 Jain teachers. Jain is an ancient religion, as old as Buddhism. (More on Jainism in an upcoming blog.) Many of the carvings are being renovated after years of carnage, but you can still see much of the original detail that went into these.
In Gwalior we went to the iconic Indian Coffee House. The coffee wasn’t very good, but the waiters in their white, safari suits and peacock hats were worth the visit. As usual, there were many cows roaming the streets, including one we saw entering a restaurant.
Further east, the town of Orchha has some of the most remarkable buildings in the area. They are from the 16th – 18th centuries and all are within a few minutes’ walk of each other. Jehangir Mahal is a huge palace with a large inner court yard with many rooms on each side. Above there are three floors of terraces, wrapping around the courtyard. They look over the courtyard and the outside to the surrounding buildings. There were dozens of narrow, stone stairwells leading up to them. At the corners of the top terrace are large domed chhatris with smaller chhatris along each wall. The building has such elaborate architecture and so much character, it was one of the most interesting buildings we’ve seen. Even the monkeys like it. There was a troupe of Hanuman monkeys with very longs tails hanging out on the top tier of the Mahal.
The rear gate of Jehangir Mahal has a very impressive large wooden door with elaborate carvings on both sides of the door including two large elephant carvings. Behind this gate is a stable for camels with really tall doors. The palace is supposedly set in a lush garden, but it was in a disheveled yard from what we saw.
Across from Jehangir Mahal is Raj Mahal. It’s a much plainer looking building from the outside, but the rooms inside are very elaborate. They are decorated with gorgeous frescoes of people, horses, elephants, and the Hindu Gods Rama and Krishna. Many of the frescoes were quite damaged, but we were able to find a few in good condition.
A small building across the river, Palki Mahal, is in disrepair but has an interesting history. The owner was charged with committing adultery with his brother’s wife. To prove his innocence, he committed suicide. Now he is regarded as a hero by local women. There is a memorial for him in a nearby garden (Phool Bagh). Women believe he will grant their wishes if they walk five times around his memorial and tie a string to a fence. The nearby fence was covered in string!
Chaturbhuj Temple is very impressive from the outside. It has high spires that are elaborately decorated with many carvings. The inside however is quite ordinary with a simple shrine at the front. There are multiple stairwells to reach the temple’s roof. The staircases are very steep. Each step is almost knee high, but with a very small area for your foot so we had to go sideways. Climbing up was tough, but down was even worse. From the roof though, we had nice views of the river valley and the other buildings of Orchha.
Further down the river is a walled area with a well-maintained garden and 12 cenotaphs (monuments) for Mughal leaders from the 17th and 18th centuries. They are still in very good condition with a lovely garden setting. Orchha was a nice surprise as it’s not highly publicized but has such an incredible architecture and history.
Coming up next: Bodhgaya and Parasnath Hills.
To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.
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