The plan was to pack up and roll out by six, but man proposes and sleep disposes. By the time we are outside the hotel, sipping on thick, milky tea and waiting for the luggage to be loaded into the car, it’s nearly eight. Even wrapped up in our warmest jackets, the cold makes me shiver, raising tiny goosebumps on my ungloved hands, as I cup the glass tumbler, savouring its warmth. Breath comes out in a fine white mist, and of course I pretend to be a frost dragon, spewing icy death at imaginary enemies. By the time I am prodded into the car by an impatient father with no time for games, the surrounding area is devastated by imaginary frost.
For just 15 years, Fatehpur Sikri, located 40 kilometers away from Agra, was the capital of the Mughal Empire. Acute water shortage allegedly forced Akbar to move his capital to Lahore, and today, most of the city is a crumbling ruin, but the imperial complex is incredibly well maintained.
We’ve been here once before, nine years ago. We made the mistake of hiring a guide, who took us on a whirlwind tour of the Buland Darwaza and the Jama Masjid courtyard, badgered us into giving money at the Salim Chisti’s tomb, and then disappeared without a trace, leaving us hanging. This time, we choose the much-less-likely-to-abandon-us-halfway audio guides.
Audio guides hired and tickets bought, we step through the gates and immediately, more than at any time during the trip, feel immersed in history. Taj Mahal was too grand, Agra Fort too crowded. But this? This is where people lived and breathed and worked and played and went about their daily chores. This is where life happened.
What a place this is! What a wonderful, quiet, contemplative experience it is to walk the streets and buildings, to touch the rough red sandstone walls, shrouded as they are in history and mystery in equal parts. To amble across giant courtyards where they played board games with human beings as game pieces. To stand by the lake where Tansen sang, seated on an elevated platform in the middle. To visit the room where the emperor let the music lull him to sleep.
There are no crowds here, perhaps because the weekend is over and Fatehpur Sikri isn’t in the middle of the city. We take our time, following the rough map handed to us at the counter and playing the guides where indicated. These are surprisingly well produced, with no histrionics or acting, just absorbing accounts of what these structures were when they weren’t attractions, but homes. There’s also a wonderful democratisation in visiting these places – in knowing that these streets, once exclusively for royals, can now be walked by almost anyone. And also that I personally enjoy far better plumbing than Emperor Akbar ever did.
The tour takes a couple of hours and even then we have to skip a few areas, but it’s late and we have over two hundred kilometers to go. But first, lunch!
There are a few eateries around Fatehpur Sikri, but of course, their credit card machines are all broken, so we press on. The police should really do something about these of credit-card machine vandalising gangs that seem to infest the state. Finally, we come upon an unbroken machine and post lunch, enjoy an uneventful drive across flat country until we reach Jaipur, and our hotel.
Father’s screaming seems to have worked, because our hotel is cleaner and far more comfortable, and I look forward to a much more pleasant time. So of course, the very next day I fall violently ill.