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In the footsteps of Akbar

The great Mughal emperor, Jalaluddin Mohammad Akbar, was the most successful and powerful ruler of the Mughal dynasty. However, all the wealth in the world could not help him sustain an heir to his vast empire.


A view of the Badshahi mosque from Salim Chishti’s shrine. Pics/Waleed Hussain

In the quest for a male child, Akbar set off on foot to seek the blessings of Sufi saint Salim Chishti at Sikri. Akbar walked from his fort in Agra to the saint’s hermitage in Sikri, a distance of about 40 kilometres.

This feat was accomplished in the scorching summer of 1562, and inspired this writer to follow in the footsteps of the great Mughal. Armed with a bottle of water, a pair of sturdy boots and the faithful backpack, I set off for the arduous trip from Agra’s Idgah bus stand.

Scores of bus cleaners yelled out their destinations, “Bharatpur”, “Sikri”, “bypass”, but their yells and enticing offers did not persuade me to deviate from the task at hand. The journey up ahead had to be made, and it had to be completed on foot. After all it was a test of faith.


People who come to seek the saint's blessings tie a string to the marble screen of the dargah. Once the wish is granted, they return to open the string

A faith that believed the truth behind the legend — that no person returns empty handed from the court of Salim Chishti. Akbar had achieved the feat over 400 years ago, and I was about to find out how he did it.


Waleed Hussain. Pic/ Shadab Khan 

I set off in the direction of my destination — Fatehpur Sikri. As I exited from the hustle bustle of the city, a two-lane road greeted me that would take me to the gigantic Buland Darwaza. I looked at my watch — it was precisely 10:10 am. The distance milestone read Sikri 40 km. With the words, “Ya Shaikh,” I set off in the footsteps of Akbar, the great.


Several watch towers were set up by Akbar to ensure safe passage for pilgrims headed to Sikri

The first few kilometres were a breeze, with open fields on both sides and light traffic on the two-lane road. Jeeps, autos and small buses packed to the gills kept streaming by, so did a dozen air-conditioned SUVs ferrying foreign tourists. But I was not going to give in, at least not yet.

By noon, I had made it past all signs of civilisation and for several minutes, I was the only person visible on the long road. The frequency of vehicles diminished, the sun was up in all its glory, and my bottle of water had run dry — 12 kms covered and just 28 kms more to go.

The first roadside eatery appeared near a well by the road at the 20 km signpost. My jaded legs and dust-covered boots decided to park at the dhaba. Barring a few customers, mostly guzzling chilled beers, the place wore a deserted look. Fifteen minutes later, a very disinterested Shamshad bhai came over to ask whether I wanted a beer.


The shrine of the Sufi saint Salim Chishti

My request for, “Chilled water, please,” took him by surprise. However, he regained his composure quickly, having glanced at my wet t-shirt and sweaty face.

By now I had realised my folly of carrying just one bottle of water from Agra. Reality dawned quickly. Akbar had 10 elephants in his touring party to ferry water for the emperor but I had none. So all supplies had to be stocked up and ferried on my shoulder. I ordered for a lunch thali and after tanking up on four bottles of water, set off towards Sikri once again.

On the way I encountered many of the watch chowkies that had been set up by the Mughals to keep an eye on the road as well as to assist pilgrims visiting the Sufi shrine in Sikri. However, the farmers have now turned the chowkies into storerooms for grains.

A parallel rail track runs along the road that had the odd train whistle by during my journey. And by the half way mark, I was extremely tempted to hop on to the next chugging bogie. Fatigue, the blistering sun, and the vast emptiness of the region were taking its toll on me. How had Akbar managed this journey? Unlike me, he had a cavalry trudging behind him. There was no way that Akbar would have felt the loneliness that I was encountering at this stage.

By now it was 3 pm, and there was no sign of the Buland Darwaza or even the boundary wall of the legendary Mughal city. My hopes were down, and so was my water supply. Looking up at the empty sky, I begged the Almighty for strength to trudge on. I halted by the roadside and turned around to see the empty road.

For miles there was not a soul in sight. No autos, no jeeps, no buses, no people. For the first time in my life, I actually felt like I was transported to the medieval times.

Standing at that spot on the road, in the vast emptiness both ahead and behind me, and the wind blowing across the plains, I knew what Akbar saw at this juncture. The destination lay ahead on that road - that empty path that led to the hermitage of the legendary saint in Sikri. Akbar could have turned back, or he could have mounted a horse or his favourite elephant and strode to Sikri. But he did not do any of that. He continued to walk.

It was the will to achieve his goal that prodded him ahead. It had nothing to do with strength, wealth or power. I learnt another valuable lesson at this juncture. No matter how rich you may be, or resourceful or powerful, in the end what really takes you over the finish line is your own will power.

The roadside sign read Sikri: 9 km. I gulped down my last sip of water and pledged that I would have the afternoon tea at Sikri. Here was another goal for me, albeit a smaller and more immediate goal. By teatime, I should enter the famed city.

It seemed like I had gained a fresh boost of energy. The last sip energised me and my stumbling feet discovered a marching rhythm. “Ya, Shaikh, here I come.”

As I neared the five-km mark, I could suddenly see a stream of bustling bullock carts, autos, matadors and buses that were criss-crossing the two-lane road towards the smaller villages in the vicinity. A tea stall was the first establishment that I had spotted since the last 10 km. The temptation for a refreshing hot cup aroused my senses, but my feet refused to break their rhythm. I continued to walk.

The first sign of joy filled me when I reached the Bharatpur bypass junction. There ahead of me, barely 500 metres ahead was the gigantic door of the legendary city of Fatehpur Sikri. It was 4 pm in my watch, and I was there. I was on the threshold of the Mughal city.

Without wasting a moment I sprinted across the road and was accosted by a score of tonga wallahs, who wanted to ferry me to the Buland Darwaza. All I could muster was a smile. I had walked 40 km to get to this city, and I wasn’t going to give up for the last two.

I entered the gate of the city expecting to be welcomed by the Mughal grandeur. However, the splendour of Mughal architecture, the huge walls and the towering structures — all bore a deserted look. This was after all an abandoned city — an uncared for ghost town.

The first thing I noticed was the huge entrance façade to the royal residence atop a hill. But that was not my destination. The palace of the King, the Queen’s chambers, the residences of the nobles were all for later. I had to pay my respects to the saint.

As I climbed the incline towards the shrine of Salim Chishti, I was taken aback at the magnitude of the Buland Darwaza. The inscribed lines on the façade of the darwaza, “The world is just a bridge. Pass over it but build no house upon it,” made perfect sense after undertaking this journey.

I entered the compound and laid eyes on the shrine of the saint, built in white marble and laced with the most exquisite carved screens embedded in the walls of the mausoleum. The simplicity of the interiors were contrasted by its regal exterior. Akbar had made the shrine stand out, and the confluence of Mughal and Jain architecture was an apt tribute to the Shaikh.

I offered prayers, paid my respects to the saint and set off for that elusive hot cuppa at the base of the hill. This was a journey that taught me the meaning of will power and faith. “Ya, Shaikh. Thank you.”

The Legend: Child specialist
Salim Chishti (1478-1572) was a Sufi saint who lived in the hilly terrains of a small village called Sikri. Thousands of followers turned up at his hermitage seeking his blessings, and of the many followers most sought a male child. The saint blessed them and soon the word spread to every corner of the kingdom. So much so that the Mughal emperor Akbar was advised by the khadims at Ajmer to seek Salim Chishti’s blessings. Followers tie a string to the marble screen in the saint’s tomb at Fatehpur Sikri, and once their wish is fulfilled they return to the shrine and open a string to symbolise their gratitude

Emperor begs from a Fakir
in the scorching summer heat, Mughal Emperor Jalaluddin Mohammad Akbar set off on foot from his fort in Agra to pray at the mausoleum of the great Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer. The purpose of the journey was not political but in fact extremely personal. Akbar, by far the most powerful ruler of the Indian subcontinent, was yearning for an heir to enhance his lineage. Though he had scores of wives and hundreds of concubines at his disposal, none of the offspring born survived infancy. The distance was about 360 km and the great Mughal completed the journey on foot over 20 days.

His first daughter, Fatima Banu, and twins Hasan and Husain died in the first month of their birth. Unable to bear the loss of his children, a troubled Akbar sought the blessings of the Sufi saint. However, when he reached Ajmer and presented his case, the khadims advised the emperor to seek the blessings of Shaikh Salim Chishti who resided in Sikri. Akbar then set off for the hermitage of Salim Chishti in Sikri. There, the saint blessed Akbar and three sons were born to the Mughal emperor. He named the first-born Salim, in honour of the saint. Two more sons, Murad and Daniyal were born to Akbar.

In honour of the saint, Akbar decided to build a city around the saint’s hermitage and named it Fatehpur Sikri. The construction of the city began in 1569, and Akbar moved his capital and took up residence in Sikri in 1571. It was abandoned in 1585 owing to the lack of drinking water.
 

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