Tuesday, March 24, 2009

India:Fatehpur Sikri

There are few options for accommodation in Fatehpur Sikri, but we were lucky to choose the Goverdhan Tourist Complex, a well-run place separated from the busy main road by a stretch of lawn and garden. Our motel-style accommodation opened onto a terrace overlooking this courtyard, where we could relax in comfy chairs with some cool drinks.

In the distance, the minarets of the huge mosque, part of the palace complex we had come to see, rose above the town.

When we left our table briefly to explore, we returned to find a monkey, a large male mandrill, trying to drink Michael's beer. Michael swiped at it with his sketchbook and it wasn't at all intimidated, merely snarled and lunged at him. The owner hurried up to see what the commotion was about, shrugged his shoulders and said philosophically, "It is the way of the monkey."
Nevertheless, he sent an underling with a stout pole to drive it away.

The room itself, which the Lonely Planet guide snobbishly describes as "odd" in its decor, delighted us with its walls painted in bright sari colours of saffron, red and lilac. The restaurant served excellent food, all washed and cooked in filtered water. The owner and his cook/right-hand man were charming.

Mid-afternoon we climbed the small hill towards the imposing red-sandstone mosque. It sits on a high plinth with very steep steps leading up to the entrance.

We decided not to climb these and skirted around to the right up a more gentle incline towards the palace itself. Also of red sandstone, it was built by Akbar the Great, who occupied it for a scant 15 years before moving on: he had inadvertently chosen a site without access to water.

Forgotten for the intervening time, the palace is remarkably intact. There are several buildings separated by spacious courtyards...

...and elegant colonnades.

The Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds) has intricate screens carved from single slabs of stone, each one a different pattern. From behind these screens, the maharajah's wives and concubines could look down on the activities in the courtyard below without revealing themselves to the public gaze.

The whole complex effectively combined powerful massing with delicacy of detail and airy open spaces. It remains one of the highlights of our visit to India.

Akbar was a learned and curious man, tolerant of all religions. In his hall of audience he liked to engage in discussions with scholars and foreign visitors, who sat on the floor of the hall while Akbar himself sat on an ornately carved "pulpit" reached by bridges from the four corners of the room.

With few visitors, the palace had a contemplative, slightly melancholy air. By contrast the mosque, which we then approached through Akbar's Gate, a short, level walk from the palace, was a hive of activity. Leaving our shoes in the care of man at the gate, who already had quite a pile of them in his keeping, we entered the courtyard to find ourselves approached by hawkers of postcards and persistent would-be tour guides. It seemed somehow inappropriate that this place of worship should be such a marketplace. Pausing only to admire the carved marble screens (but not the electric light configuration) around the tomb of a local saint ...

...we beat a hasty retreat, regaining our shoes only by payment of a small fee.

When we returned to our room, we found our chairs on the terrace occupied by a couple of American boys who had arrived while we were sitting there earlier. Despite other chairs and tables being available, they had moved our clean laundry, which the maid had left on the chairs for us, in order to sit there. Taking our cue from the owner, we shrugged and told ourselves, "It is the way of the American."

The following morning we set off for the bus station, or rather, the dusty yard that served as such, to return to Agra. Although this was going to mean retracing our steps, it would allow us to get a "deluxe" bus for the 5-hour journey to Jaipur instead of continuing on a slower and less comfortable bone-rattler. Michael filled in the wait by sketching the Fatehpur Sikri market scene around us. I managed to get a couple of photos before he attracted the usual small crowd of curious passers-by.

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