On Extravagance

Fatehpur Sikri and Abhaneri (30 December 2013)

I got a call at my hotel on my last night in Agra that L was not going to take me to Fatehpur Sikri. It was quite a pity since after an entire day in Agra I had become used to his quiet patience with me. In his place came S who would take me to Fatehpur Sikri and then to Jaipur where he would be my guide too the next day.

I was still quite sick that day, and the weather in India that year did not help one bit. There was an unusual cold wave during that period and through the day I wished that I was lying in the comfortable bed in the Agra hotel instead. But I had to get to Jaipur which was my last stop.

After about an hour on the road, we arrived at Fatehpur Sikri. This was built by Akbar to be the new capital of his huge empire and he had chosen this area because it was where the Sufi saint Salim Chishti was buried. Less than fifteen years later however, Akbar abandoned his new capital and moved to Lahore. It is not entirely clear even today why he had left. The more accepted theories seem to be that there was insufficient water in the area to sustain the city or that the city was too close to turmoil stricken areas. In any case only a man as powerful as a Mughal emperor could have ordered an entire city built and then abandon it less than fifteen years later for whatever reason.

The palace complex and mosque that Akbar had built still remain today and are popular tourist attractions. They as expected exhibited yet again how well the Mughal emperors lived.

Panch Mahal, a five-storey pleasure palace

Central bay of Diwan-i-Am (Hall of Public Audience)

Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audience)

Central pillar of Diwan-i-Khas

Anup Talao

Akbar’s bed

Astrologer’s Seat

Camel stables

I learnt a little about Mariam-uz-Zamani while I was at Fatepur Sikri. She is also popularly known as Jodha Bai for some reason although there seems to be no historical basis to refer to her by that name. Jodha Bai was a Rajput princess and although married to a Muslim emperor was allowed to remain Hindu throughout her life. She was the mother of Akbar’s successor Jahangir and therefore Shah Jahan’s grandmother. I was given to understand that Akbar loved Jodha Bai most among all his wives and indeed she seemed to have had the biggest palace in Fatehpur Sikri among his wives.

Gateway to Jodha Bai’s palace

Inside Jodha Bai’s Palace

Akbar was apparently a man very liberal for his time. In fact he might be considered somewhat liberal even when judged by modern standards. He was highly tolerant of other religions and in fact made the effort to learn about them. We know that he married a Hindu wife and allowed her to practise her religion freely in the palace. His favourite advisor was apparently this Hindu man called Birbal and the man was so favoured that he was granted a home right in the palace complex.

Birbal’s house

Outside the palace complex is the Jama Masjid. The tomb of the saint that brought Akbar to this area in the first place is in there. The mosque is somewhat similar in architecture to the Jama Masjid in Old Delhi.

Going to the Jama Masjid

I had to remove my shoes before entering the compound and hand them over to a minder. Yes, they were just shoes, but that thought did not stop me from being horrified when I saw him stacking my shoes right underneath other shoes.

Inside the Jama Masjid, the big white tomb of Salim Chishti on the right

Buland Darwaza with honeycombs on the roof

Having visited the mosque, we started our journey to Rajasthan. After all of that red in Fatehpur Sikri, I was glad to see some green on the way. It was however getting foggier by the minute and quite cold. S and the driver were worried that we would not reach Jaipur before the fog came in and made the drive dangerous or at least difficult. S suggested that we should skip the last attraction since that would add at least an hour to the drive to Jaipur. He had heard from the driver, he told me very frankly, that I made very long visits. I refused to skip the visit but I did promise that I would not take too long this time.

Only the monkeys did not mind the cold

We made it to Abhaneri in good time. The moment I saw the Chand Baori stepwell I knew that I was right to refuse to skip the visit. It was like a skyscraper except in reverse and really quite amazing. The well is more than a thousand years old apparently.

Chand Baori

Near the well is a Hindu temple called the Harshat Mata Temple. Worshippers used to wash their hands and feet at the Chand Baori before going to the temple.

Harshat Mata Temple

Some shops in Abhaneri

As it was a long drive that day, I got to hear from S a lot. He lived in Jaipur and had to take a very early morning bus from there to meet me in Agra. Through much of the drive, he regaled me about the extravagant wedding parties rich Indians love to throw. I must say that his tales about too many days of partying, too much food, too much jewellery and too many expensive saris fascinated me.

S’s stories reminded me of this rich and influential Indian man in Singapore who got his two sons married off one after the other within three years some years ago. I now wish I had accepted one of his invitations if only to witness the pomp and pageantry. The only problem was that the rich man did not even know of my existence when he invited me to his first son’s wedding. As for the second wedding, I could not even be sure if he remembered who I was. But I guess his inviting me  all fit very well into the “extravagance” bit since the only reason I was even invited was because both his company and the company I was working for then had close dealings.

Driving around India however made me think a little about how money should be spent, or squandered. Could half of a rich man’s wedding budget be used to say build a school or mend some roads or feed some people for instance? How about buying some blankets for the homeless in India so that fewer of them would die from the cold that winter especially in light of the cold wave? Maybe I am being idealistic and I do not profess to understand Indian cultural norms entirely. But I did wonder if the rich really needed those extra gold, jewellery, saris and other luxurious things. I am sure that no one needed to live like Mughal emperors.

I could sense however that S’s wedding stories served two purposes. The first was to inform me about an aspect of Indian culture. The other was to convince me of the superior quality of Rajasthan’s natural resources and craftwork. I do remember hearing much about Rajasthan’s gemstones and carpets especially. S was definitely a clever man.

Rajasthan’s riches aside, S also tried to interest me in having a taste of some roasted peanuts sold by mobile vendors at toll stations. He seemed to have forgotten that I was Asian too. But he bought a bag and told me that since I was travelling I should try new things. I thought that that was an interesting thing to say to me. I have never believed in trying something just for the sake of it. Moreover, it was not as if I had never seen a roasted peanut before in my life. Surely I should feel some curiosity about something first before deciding to try it. In any case just to be polite I tried one roasted peanut. It tasted no different from the roasted peanuts I have had before in Singapore except that the shell of this one looked darker and dustier presumably because of the way it was roasted.

Nevertheless, when S and the driver decided to stop for a little tea I joined them. I knew that I would kick myself if I did not have tea made by a chai wallah at least once on this trip. And although the chai wallah’s equipment looked a little too interesting, and he had washed all his little tea cups by rubbing them with his fingers in the same bowl of hot water, I had a cup. And it was such gorgeous chai! It was piping hot (and therefore perfect in the cold weather) and had a hint of ginger in it. I might have finally found the origin of the teh halia that I had so often drunk in Singapore.

To make tea with

Making the original teh halia

We reached Jaipur before the fog came in and made driving difficult.

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