Divine India

The Mughals: Delhi, Agra, and Fatehpur Sikri
  |  Gorp.com

At the Red Fort, an entire complex of buildings and reception rooms, cusped-domed roofs, dry waterways and gardens. The true luster has dulled but it is not difficult to see how magnificent this once was. The years have tarnished but not tainted. A pervasive odor of dust and smoke hovers just above the ground. The crumbling stone flakes red into my hands as I pull around a pillar, slide off a ledge.

The Mughals were not shy about using their wealth for construction. Each of its greatest leaders wanted his own palace, a mosque built under his patronage, a glorious tomb prepared as a monument to his accomplishments, and so much more. Today, there are complex Mughal structures all over India and Pakistan. While the most enduring and impressive are clustered around Delhi and Agra, those located in provincial centers Srinagar (Kashmir), Lahore (Pakistan), Allahabad and Ajmer should not be forgotten. Our attention here will focus only on the structures in Delhi, Agra, and at Fatehpur Sikri.


Delhi is a city of eight cities. Unlike many cities around the world, many conquering invaders in Delhi opted to build new cities next to the old one rather than destroy and rebuild on the same location. Thus, today, spread across a wide plain on the west bank of the Yamuna River, lies evidence of many cities. Although there were older settlements, the oldest city of which there are significant remains is that of Qutb-ud-din Aibak, first sultan of Delhi and former deputy of Muhammad of Ghur, the first Muslim conqueror to take Delhi (1192 AD). Qutb-ud-din's city incorporated two older 11th-century forts; the older of these, known as Lol Kot, was the first city of Delhi. Six more Muslim cities were established between the 12th and 19th centuries. Little more than a few buildings and squat ramparts remain of the first four of these cities Siri, Tughlaqabad, Jahanpannah, and Ferozabad. The last two, Purana Qila and Shahjahanabad, built by the Mughal emperors Humayun and Shah Jahan, respectively, survive, the latter corresponding to today's Old Delhi and comprising the famous Red Fort and the Jama Masjid. The last of Delhi's eight cities, inaugurated in 1931, is the extensive New Delhi, designed by the British to be in keeping with India's grandeur.

Qutab Minar Complex

Although this is not a Mughal complex and the architecture is not at all Mughal, any look at Delhi's wonders would be lacking without mention of this 12th-century enclosure. The freestanding 238-foot tower, which gave its name to this complex, is the star attraction. Believed perhaps to have been ordered as a monument to the victory of Islam in India, the fluted, tapering Qutab Minar was begun in 1200 AD. It took 168 years for all five stories to be completed and stands as evidence of changes in architectural style and mastery in different building skills and the use of different materials (red sandstone on the lower levels and white marble at the top). Many Indians feel that this tower is the finest of India's monuments.

Also within the complex are the ruins of the 12th-century Quwwat Ul Islam Mosque, which unabashedly incorporated the delicately carved pillars of the twenty-seven Hindu and Jain temples that had occupied the location but were destroyed. Additions made to the mosque in the 13th and 14th centuries, like the Alai Darwaza gate are still in good condition. Two other curiosities in the complex are: the Alai Minar, the huge stump of an ambitious tower that was supposed to have twice as tall as the Qutab Minar, but never got beyond its truncated dimensions; and the Iron Pillar, a 4th-century AD column built in memory of the Gupta king Chandragupta II. Admired as a metallurgical achievement, the 98% wrought iron column has never rusted.

For admirers of Mughal architecture, outside the complex, in the nearby district of Mehrauli, there are a number of fine buildings, including the Madhi Masjid, the Jamali Kamali Masjid, the Tomb of Adham Khan, and the Zafar Mahal.

Purana Qila

Located at the eastern edge of Delhi on the banks of the Yamuna River, the ruins of Purana Qila are all that is left of the first of the Mughal Delhis. Construction commenced during the early years of Humayun's reign. When Sher Shah Sur defeated Humayun and forced him into exile, Sher Shah continued the work on Purana Qila. The two buildings that have survived to this day Sher Mandal and Qila-i-Kholina Masjid are both from Sher Shah's time, although Humayun used both structures when he reconquered the realm. The large mound in the center of this old fort is believed by some archaeologists to be the original site of Indraprastha, the first settlement along the Yamuna as described in the Mahabharata.

Known today as Old Delhi, Shahjahanabad was Shah Jahan's new city the last of the great Muslim cities built on the site and marked the return of the royal court to Delhi after many years of residence in Agra, Fatehpur Sikri and other distant provincial centers. Building began in 1638 and took only ten years. It included erection of the imperial palace, a fortified city wall, and the city's main streets and mosques. Other than parts of the wall and three of its original 14 gates, the biggest structures to have survived the subsequent centuries are the Red Fort and three mosques.

The Jami Masjid is the great mosque of Delhi. It is the largest in India and the last of Shah Jahan's projects. Work began in 1650 and lasted for six years, with more than 5,000 workers and artisans devoting their energies to it. The three gateways the largest once reserved for the emperor alone lead to a large courtyard and then to a triple-domed mosque. It is possible to climb to the top of one of the 130-foot minarets for an outstanding view over the city. A hair from the beard of the prophet Mohammed and one chapter of his hand-written Quran are housed in this mosque. Also within the Old Delhi city limits are the Fatehpuri Masjid and the Zinat-ul-Masjid, both Mughal-era structures.

The Lal Qila, or Red Fort, is the red sandstone star Mughal attraction in Delhi. With massive and dramatic ramparts stretching for 1.5 miles to enclose the imperial palace buildings, this complex has stood at the center of Indian history for 350 years. Pierced by only two gates, aligned with the old city's principal axes Chandni Chowk and Faiz Bazar the Red Fort was the city's political and commercial crossroads. Today, the interior of the Red Fort is a tranquil space more open than it was in the past. A number of elegant buildings still survive, including the Diwan-i-Am or Hall of Public Audience, an airy pavilion subdivided by columns and used for receptions involving dignitaries; and a string of the private royal buildings. The residences of the senior queens, known as the Rang Mahal, the private chambers and mosque of the emperor, the Khas Mahal and the Moti Masjid respectively, are in excellent states of preservation and reveal the lavish levels of comfort in which the Mughal leaders lived. The structure that attracts the most attention is the Diwan-i-Khas, the Hall of Private Audiences. Built of white marble on delicately carved columns, Shah Jahan was so enamoured of this building that he considered it a paradise on earth. The building has over time been denuded of its former ornaments, including its silver ceiling and the famous solid gold, jewel-encrusted Peacock Throne (carted off to Teheran in 1739). Other buildings, many of them later additions by the lesser Mughal leaders, certainly warrant a glimpse.

Other Mughal Structures
In and around Delhi there are other Mughal structures well worth a trip. These include: Humayun's Tomb, a magnificent red sandstone and white marble structure built in 1560 that set the standard for a series of great Mughal tombs and is considered by some scholars to be the first mature example of Mughal architecture in India; the Nizamuddin district, an ancient Muslim quarter hiding Akbar-period, 16th-century tombs and the Chaunsath Khamba, a white marble pavilion of 64 columns ordered by Jahangir; and Safdarjang's Tomb , referred to as the"last flicker in the lamp of Mughal architecture," a highly embellished structure built for a Mughal nobleman in 1753, during the period of quick decline of Mughal influence.


Agra was once the capital of India. For 80 years starting in 1570 when Akbar the Great transferred his court from Delhi to Agra's neighboring Fatehpur Sikri up until Aurangzeb moved it back to the new Red Fort of Delhi, Agra was the central site of imperial India. Typically, every emperor who set foot in this city saw fit to build there. Both Babur and Humayun had already undertaken some early projects there, but Akbar, Jahangir, and especially Shah Jahan raised fantastic structures at Agra, most notably the Agra Fort and, of course, the Taj Mahal.

Agra Fort

Akbar began work on the Agra Fort in 1565 and intended for it to be no more than a well-protected outpost. Late, however, when Shah Jahan was on the throne, it had become more of a palace. The 70-foot high, 1.5-mile long walls and 35-foot moat enclose a fabulous collection of well-preserved buildings, most of which were built in the 17th century by Shah Jahan. The only building ordered by Akbar and believed to have been either as a residence for his son or for women is the Jahangiri Mahal. Otherwise, all the buildings date from the time of Shah Jahan prior to his move to Delhi. The most memorable of these are: the perfectly proportioned white marble Moti Masjid or Pearl Mosque; the Diwan-i-Am and Diwan-i-Khas, identical in function and similar in design to those built later at the Red Fort in Delhi; the Musamman Burj or Octagonal Tower, which was built originally as a residence for his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, and later used by Shah Jahan during the seven years of house arrest prior to his death; Shah Jahan's private Khas Mahal with its cool underground rooms; and the Sheesh Mahal or Mirror Palace in which the walls are covered with tiny mirrors.

Taj Mahal

Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal as a shrine to his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal. After 17 years of marriage and 14 children, she died in 1629, not even three years after his accession to the throne. Laborers began work in 1631 and as many as 20,000 people are said to have participated in the 22-year undertaking. It is even rumored that the emperor was planning a second black marble Taj as a mirror-image tomb for himself. He was, however, imprisoned by his son and successor Aurangzeb before this was possible. After his death, Shah Jahan was entombed in the Taj alongside his wife.

The white marble Taj stands on a high terrace, which it shares with four tapering but nonfunctional minarets and two three-domed flanking buildings of red stone and marble, one a mosque and the other a jawab or echo intended to balance the mosque in the symmetry of the gardens. Outside the walls, there is an assortment of other mosques and tombs belonging to Shah Jahan's other wives. The Taj is richly decorated inside and out with inlaid jewels and semi-precious stone, floral carvings and Quranic script. Standing taller than the Qutab Minar and squatter than Humayun's Tomb, this unique study in sober perfection is the height of Indo-Islamic architecture.

Other Mughal Structures

In Sikandra, five miles northwest of the Agra, Akbar's Tomb rises in solitary splendor. Built in the tradition begun by his father, Humayun, it is a large, open-air, many-arched, multi-story structure built in the middle of placed gardens. Across the river from the Taj is the small, marble Tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah, a Mughal minister whose wealth allowed for an attention to decorative detail that is important in the development of Mughal architecture and foreshadowed the ornamentation of the Taj, construction of which began a few years later. Nearby are the ruins of Chini ka Rauza thought to be the tomb of one of Shah Jahan's Persian ministers and unique by virtue of the tiles that once completely covered it. A little farther to the north is a small garden known to day as Rambagh. This garden is one of the only surviving creations of Babur.

Fatepur Sikri

Located 25 miles west of Agra is the odd deserted city Fatehpur Sikri. Built to house the relocated Mughal capital when Akbar chose to leave Delhi, Fatehpur Sikri was mysterious and suddenly abandoned in 1586. The extensive display of structures that have survived unscathed by war and none the worse for weather reveal the architectural glory of the Mughal empire when it was at its apogee.

Legend has it that Akbar, concerned that he had no male heir, consulted a Muslim seer living in reclusion on a hill near Sikri. The latter's prediction of three sons came true. To honor his prescience and the provide fitting services to his wives and their attendants who had been transferred to Sikri to bask in the auspicious company of the seer, Akbar commanded that an imperial city be built: Fatehpur Sikri, Fatehpur meaning"City of Victory." The two surviving centers of attraction are the two principal structures: the Palace and the Jami Masjid.

The Palace is a group-all determination describing a collection of buildings grouped around a sequence of courtyards. The ensemble is notable for the pure "Akbarian" architectural innovations that do not find such clear expression elsewhere. The mix of Islamic and Hindu motifs and styles is remarkable and highly unusual and each building seems to have some unexpected surprise. For example, the Diwan-i-Khas, or Hall of Private Audiences, is unlike any other found in India. A single ceiling-high column supports a dais from which four bridges reach out to the corners of the building and terraces that run around the length of the second floor. This may have been the building in which Akbar questioned leaders of many religious faiths and was able to conceive of his own religion, Din Ilahi, a blend of the others in which responsibility for spiritual guidance lay solely with him and him alone.

The Anup Talao, a central pool, has the same kind of center-linked-to-four-sides plan. Another of the more remarkable buildings is the Panch Mahal, a five-story pavilion of progressively smaller floors and lithe columns. From the right angle the building appears like a delicate, truncated, off-center pyramid. This building may have been a residence for women, as were Jogh Bai's Palace, the residence of the emperor's most important wives, Birbal's House, a shadow retreat for these wives and other women. Many of the buildings are covered with fine carvings of animals and plants, or repeating motifs, some Islamic but many Hindu as well.

The Jami Masjid, completed in 1571, was larger than any other Indian mosque of the time. Its two most striking elements are the Tomb of Shaikh Salim Chishti and the Buland Darwaza (Lofty Gate). The marble tomb is the resting place of the ascetic who foresaw the birth of Akbar's sons. Completed in 1580, it is still revered by childless women of all faiths. The serpentine struts of the portico and carved marble lattice screens are particularly noteworthy. In contrast to the refined and delicate qualities of the tomb is the grandiose scale of the Buland Darwaza. Much larger than the rest of the mosque, this gate was added later. It is never really visible from any perspective other than directly below it as the farther away the viewer gets, the farther down a long flight of steps and then an incline he or she goes. The sense of height is further exaggerated by powerful vertical lines.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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