Four years after Magellan’s ill-fated voyage to Cebu, the Mughals (Mongols) burst through the northern frontier of India, sweeping through the plains of Rajasthan and conquered almost the whole country in1526. Led by their leader Babur (a descendant of that fierce warrior Ghengis Khan), they established one of the greatest dynasties in history which was the Mughal (or Moghul) Empire.
The view of the Taj from the banks of the Yamuna River.
The entrance gate crowded with tourists. Foreigners pay more (1000 Rupees) than the locals (40 Rupees).
Humayun, Babur’s son, took over the reins of power and consolidated the gains made by his father. However, in doing so, he was too busy fighting battles to suppress local rebellions that he didn’t have much time to build significant structures although it was during his time that red sandstone was introduced as a building material.
It was left to his own son, Akbar the Great, who took over the throne at a very young age in 1556, to start the building spree that culminated in the great edifices that until now, 450 years later, still stand to be marveled at by tourists from around the world. Never, I suppose, in his wildest dreams did he think it would come to this – his palaces, forts and cities becoming tourist spots.
These are the remains of the foundations for the black Taj by Shah Jahan that was later abandoned.
Akbar built the towering Red Fort in Agra – right on the banks of the Yamuna River – whose total meandering perimeter is almost 2 ½ kilometers long. Its 8-meter high red sandstone ramparts were ringed by a 10-meter deep moat filled with crocodiles that would have discouraged would-be enemies from even contemplating an attack on the fort. He was an open-minded, secular ruler (quite rare in those times) who tried to assimilate the people he conquered into his empire by marrying three of several wives from the three great faiths: one Muslim, the other Christian and the third Hindu. Smart move. Though, of course, he maintained a well-stocked harem of nubile women numbering in the thousands coming from all the compass points of his vast empire.
None of his wives, however, bore him an heir. So what did he do? Hearing about a holy man, the Islamic Sufi mystic Salim Chisti, who lived in an isolated cave in Sikri, he went to visit him for his blessing. The saint foretold that he would soon be having a son plus two more later on. Soon enough, the prophecy came true and, in jubilation, the Emperor named him Salim also. Not only that, he resolved to build a city on the natural ridge of that place in honor of the saint. Thus was born the magnificent city of Fatehpur Sikri, 40 kms. from Agra which was the capital of the Mughal empire for some time.
The view of the Taj from one of the openings on the thick walls of the Red Fort.
This son, who later took on the name Jehangir, succeeded his father and continued the building of great edifices. But this time he concentrated more on the beauty of the lines and delicacy of design as shown in the intricate patterns and floral designs that softened the architecture of Akbar’s more manly and robust structures.
When Shah Jahan, Jehangir’s first born ascended to the throne, there was a sea-change in the way things were done. He preferred white marble and a more sensuous approach was followed in the decorative arts. The emperor replaced some of the structures built by his grandfather inside the Red Fort with white marble and that included his own living quarters as well as those of his two favorite daughters.
The sprawling Red Fort.
This great architecture reached its zenith in the most sublime of edifices, the Taj Mahal, which he built in memory of his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died while giving birth to their 14th child. Apparently, not only was Shah Jahan an energetic builder, he was also a prolific child-maker. In his despair and great depression, he vowed to build her a resting place that nothing in the world could rival.
The highway to Fatehpur Sikri.
He had plans to build another Taj for himself opposite the one for his wife although this time it would be clad in black marble. A bridge linking the two mausoleums together would have secured their bond even in death. Work had started on this and an elevated platform was in fact already built (which until now can still be seen) when he fell ill and, alas! disaster struck.
His third son, Aurangzeb, had other plans in mind. After getting rid of his elder brothers, he deposed his father, imprisoning him in his own quarters at the Fort to live out his last years there. The guides at the place tell visitors that the old emperor spent his days of imprisonment longingly gazing at the Taj Mahal 2 kilometers away by the bend of the river. And when he died, his gaze was turned toward the edifice that symbolized his love for his wife. How romantic! Historians, however, have a different take on the subject. According to them, Shah Jahan died in a drug-induced stupor while boozing and fornicating at the harem which his son still allowed him to have. Talk about killjoys ruining a perfect love story’s ending!
The huge Buland Gate or Gate of Magnificence made of red sandstone that leads to the main courtyard of the Fatehpur Sikri complex.
Beautiful filigree carved out of white marble inside the mausoleum of Saint Salim keeps the glare of the sun out.
Exterior walls of the complex show you how massive the Fort is.
Remnants of the Fort tumble down into the wide open plain of the arid countryside.
Aurangzeb ruled for 49 years and engaged in various military campaigns that conquered more territories but emptied the treasury. Towards the end of his life, the empire, just like others that preceded it, began its slow decline leaving it weakened and open for invasion by the Persians and, later on, by the new rulers of India – the British. Thus ended the Mughal dynasty with its great emperors.
Rich decorations fusing Persian design and Indian embellishments are the main feature of Mughal architecture.
Remember this trio though: Akbar, Jehangir and Shah Jahan – grandfather, father and son. A succession of like-minded rulers who, not only presided over a mighty empire, but were also imbued with a keen desire to find meaning and expression in their lives that they dedicated a large measure of their time, skill and treasure to the arts. Rarely does this happen in history.