The basement room is cool and dark, and it’s whitewashed walls are bare. The only light in the room comes from the passage leading to the room and an overhead lamp, hung directly above a marble sarcophagus placed in the centre of the chamber. The simplicity of the sarcophagus, and the bare unadorned room belies the achievements and greatness of the person buried there—Jalal-ud-din Mohammad Akbar, the third Mughal Emperor.
I am in the burial chamber of Akbar’s Mausoleum at Sikandra. The fragrance of incense and marigold flowers is pleasant, and instead of the claustrophobia one would associate with underground and enclosed spaces, I feel only peace here. There is nobody in the room, save the caretaker who offers to say a prayer on my behalf, and soon a sonorous prayer fills the room, a prayer that continues to echo in my mind for a long time afterwards.
Akbar’s Mausoleum is in Sikandra, a suburb of Agra. Today it has become so synonymous with the town’s name, that it is called Sikandra. Located on the busy and perennially jammed, historical Grand Trunk Road or the NH2, “Sikandra” is about 10 km from Agra city.
It was nearly 9 in the morning when I arrived at Sikandra, guide in tow, following a visit to the Taj Mahal and after negotiating horrendous traffic and road rage incidents.
The sounds of traffic fade away as I approach the entrance to the Mausoleum, which is a tall red sandstone gateway, nearly 70 feet high, and topped by four marble minarets. From a distance, the walls appear poly chromatic and it’s only when I am close enough that I realise that the effect is due to inlay work in white marble, yellow limestone and greenish black slate on the red sandstone structure, creating intricate geometrical and floral patterns on the walls. Delicate calligraphy in white marble stands in relief in the midst of all this inlay work.
According to inscriptions on the entrance gateway, construction commenced during Akbar’s lifetime in 1604. However, the mausoleum was only completed between 1612 and 1614 during his son Jehangir’s reign, and about 9 years after Akbar’s death. The original design as specified by Akbar was considerably changed to reflect Jehangir’s taste and sensibilities. One of the few things that was not changed was the layout of Akbar’s burial chamber.
The Mausoleum has been built in such a way that it is aligned perfectly with the cardinal points of the compass. Akbar’s tomb is at the centre of a walled complex that is square in shape and covers 690 sq.m. At the centre of each wall is a tall gateway, with inscriptions on it. While the southern gateway eulogises Jehangir, the inscriptions on the northern gateway eulogise Akbar. Broad paved avenues lead from each gateway to the Mausoleum with water channels (which were empty at the time of my visit) representing the four rivers of paradise according to Islam.
The gateways are in various stages of repair/disrepair. Three of the gateways are in very good condition with the entrance gateway being the best maintained. Only one gateway is in ruins. When I asked the guide for the reason as to why only one gate had been left in a ruined state, in an otherwise well-maintained monument, he said that since this gate opened into the town of Sikandra, and no tourists entered from there, there was really no need to restore it !
The Mausoleum is a 5-tiered structure with open terraces at every level. While the structure is built of the locally available red sandstone, the cupolas or chhatris and screens on the topmost tier are made of marble. This five-tiered structure with its pillared terraces and numerous chattris bears a striking resemblance to the Panch Mahal at Fatehpur Sikri.
The domes of the Mausoleum appear in their pristine, marble white today, but were once painted in brilliant hues. Today, this can be seen on only one or two domes (see photograph on the left).
In the past, the public had access to the upper levels of the tiered Mausoleum. But this access was stopped a few years back after some suicide attempts, and due to the deteriorating condition of the structure.
When I enter the Mausoleum, I am totally unprepared for the stunning, colourful and grand interiors, which range from the well-preserved to the badly damaged. There is a fresco that looks like a Kalamkari print, and another that looks like a thewa jewellery design. I feel breathless and giddy just looking at the variety and richness of the designs around me. Presenting a sample of that richness
The interiors of the Mausoleum are cool and light filters in through white marble screens fitted to the red sandstone arches. While the red and white effect is quite striking from the outside, the light filtering in from the screens lights up the richly decorated interiors with a soft glow. I can see many tombs in small chambers leading off from the central vault. The guide informs me that these are the tombs of other members of the royal family, including those of Shakrul Nisha Begum and Aram Bano, Akbar’s daughters.
After a visit to Akbar’s burial chamber, and with the prayer still echoing, I take a walk around the premises. There are hardly any tourists and the wide, arched passageways that run on all four sides of the Mausoleum are empty and peaceful. Some of the arches are covered with screens, while many of them are not leading to sunlight creating some beautiful patterns and light and shadow effects on the floors and walls. I spend quite some time delighting in this play of light.
There are a lot of birds here, particularly parrots and parakeets. The green of their feathers contrast quite beautifully with the red of the sandstone and create numerous photo-ops. A walk around the complex also reveals well-laid out and well-maintained gardens, with lots of trees and flowering beds. But the water channels stand empty, either due to a water shortage or fear of becoming breeding grounds for mosquitoes.
I spent almost 3 hours at Sikandra, a fact that puzzled my guide enormously as he had “budgeted” only half-an-hour for this place. He was also puzzled that I seemed to appreciate Sikandra more than I appreciated the Taj. I tried explaining to him that I needed time to separate my preconceived opinion on the Taj from what I actually experienced and that it would take time. But since I had no preconceived ideas of what Akbar’s Mausoleum was like, it was easier for me to express my views. But the guide was so upset with my lack of “proper response and reaction” to the Taj Mahal that he took it as a personal insult and sulked for the rest of the day.
History says that Akbar (1542–1605) was perhaps the greatest of all the Mughal emperors. He expanded and consolidated the Mughal Empire in India, and his liberal outlook and belief in all faiths, his patronage of art, architecture, literature and culture ensured that his reign was marked by growth in all spheres. It was because of this reason that I was surprised to see Akbar’s simple, stark and unadorned burial chamber which, in my opinion, is an indication of his greatness and humility. And yet, if one were to equate his greatness with the number of visitors coming to visit his tomb, it is like he has been forgotten. In fact, most people coming to Agra visit only the Taj and maybe Fatehpur Sikri, if they have the time. Sikandra, however, lies forgotten, but thankfully not neglected.
But you will not forget to visit Sikandra, if you are in Agra, will you?
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Read more about my visit to Agra:
- Fatehpur Sikri: Poetry in red sandstone and blue skies
- The Taj Mahal: An Ode to Perfection and Symmetry
- Agra’s other Taj: The tomb of I’timad-ud-Daulah