“Go to Akbar’s tomb!” Every day I got the same answer from the sweet Chai walla (street Tea stall owner) whom I would visit almost every afternoon while studying in Agra. I wanted to explore that city, ensconced in the mighty shadow of the Taj Mahal. While drinking Chai at my friend’s, near the main Kandhari intersection, I would squeeze him for ideas and information about places in Agra that can challenge the symbol of India.
Had I only his suggestions to rely upon, my “Agra project” would have failed; he repeated over and over: “Go to Akbar’s Tomb!” Either he knew the name of only one place in his hometown, or he had found Akbar’s tomb so captivating that nothing else in the city could compare (not even the renowned Taj Mahal – which he never once mentioned).
At first, his fixation was incomprehensible to me. What was so special about this Tomb? Now my experiences compel me to say just one thing: “Go to Akbar’s Tomb!”
Why? The story makes a place worth visiting, and perfect harmony between a place and its story heightens the appeal. The story of Akbar makes it a “must” to visit.
Who Was Akbar?
Akbar was the third emperor of the Mughal Empire, which ruled in India (and other territories in Asia) from 1525 through 1857. In that year, England’s prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, presented India to Queen Victoria as the “brightest Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire.”
The Mughal Empire was the world’s largest in its time. In many senses, Akbar was the key to the empire’s tremendous power and far-reaching influence. Akbar’s rule represented the peak of the Mughal dynasty, while historically speaking, his death was quite literally the beginning of the end. Without getting into the complexities of his contradicting historical character, it is clear that as a Muslim ruler he was the only one who could overcome the enormous challenges of having Muslim minority to govern a Hindu majority in such an efficient way.
Akbar was never literate, but he was addicted to knowledge. When not overly occupied with expanding his empire through the employ of his charisma, he surrounded himself with intellectuals spanning the full spectrum of India’s various disciplines- both Islamic and Hindu. His constant dialogue with so many different voices from Indian society served to inform his rule.
Abul Fazal, his biographer, mentioned numerous times Akbar’s affectionate and protective approach with Hindus. Lord forbid what would have befallen poor Fazal had he mentioned some other, less benevolent, approach in his book Akbarnama. Aside from Fazal’s testimonial, there are various ‘objective’ documentations of Akbar’s favorable attitude towards the Hindus, such as that of the Portuguese friar Sebastian Manrique in The Travels of Fray Sebastian Manrique, a brilliant book for historical exploration lovers. Sebastian Manrique traveled in India during Akbar’s rule and was unfortunate enough to land himself in trouble by offending local Hindus beliefs in a small village in central India. Standing at trial he was amazed and shocked at Akbar’s tolerance towards the uncivilized pagans. Especially when he discovered that the Hindu-protective Mughal rules couldn’t be bent, even for a civilized western friar. What an outrage!
Although there has always been tension between Hindus and Muslims in India, there was something special about Akbar, either in his personality or in his genuinely liberal approach for not only allowing other’s faiths culture and ideas but even embracing them.
Akbar is perceived by many Indians as the penultimate of Kingship. Some even compare his qualities to those of the empyrean king Ram, the main character in the great epic The Ramayana (others think that would be going too far…).
His myth is very much as alive today as he was then (maybe, even more, …after all who likes authority?). It’s no wonder that the 2007 Bollywood movie “Jodha Akbar” has become one of the most celebrated films in India. The gorgeous Aishwarya Rai playing Jodha, Akbar’s Hindu wife, didn’t hurt its popularity either.
Anyways back to the tomb…
Who Built Akbar’s Tomb?
Akbar himself started construction of the Tomb during his lifetime around 1600. He was buried there after his death in 1605, and his son Jahangir completed the work between the years of 1605-1613.
The Architectural style of his tomb perfectly fits his philosophical vision as a ruler: the value of unity is higher than that of harmony. Akbar’s tomb is a blend of Hindu, Mughal and Persian elements. Like him, the tomb reflects an eclectic and experimental vision rather than a single defined style. The sloping dripstones, finials surmounting all the domes, balcony windows, and pierced screens are all local Hindu elements of architecture. Based on the pillar and beam principle, the tomb is built like a tiered wedding cake, using carved columns and brackets typical of Hindu construction which are meant to create openings on the upper levels. However, the pointed arches surrounding the base are Islamic, as are the inlaid geometric designs around the archways.
Like other monuments built at this time, Akbar’s tomb displays extensive use of Red Agra sandstone with white marble. The entrance to the tomb is through the bombastic reddish gateway based on the Buland Darwaza (giant gateway) architectural motif as seen in Fatehpur Sikri, Akbar’s former Capital.
The red gateway is decorated with floral, geometric and calligraphic designs. There are four white marble minarets at the four corners of the gateway. Through the gateway, there is a huge Charbagh style garden. This is an architecture motif meant to divide a space into four equal quarters. The tomb is at the center of the peaceful garden. Beautiful arches and floral, geometric and calligraphic designs in white, red and golden colors decorate it. The uppermost of five levels is crafted from white marble and Akbar’s tombstone is on the ground floor.
The spacious, relaxing garden around the tomb is a reason for coming by itself. It is one of the few places in the town where you can relax without being pestered by queries to take pictures or stares. The garden allows you to lay back a bit and enjoy some moments of urban nature. You can even see animals wandering, notably deers, monkeys, and squirrels, as if they were part of the original plans- didn’t I say Akbar liked fusion? If you have been in India long enough, trust me, you’ll appreciate this garden!
Bonus: Agra Juice (char Rang Ka juice or four colors juice)
I have already dedicated a post to that distinguished institution of Agra’s which calls so many people to drink and celebrate the art of juice making. This is the Taj Mahal of juices. Think I’m exaggerating? Check it out for yourself. The Juice stall near Sanjay roundabout is a mandatory stop whether you are going to visit Akbar’s tomb or you just came from there.
How To Reach Akbar’s Tomb?
Akbar’s Tomb is located 9 km from Agra towards Delhi, alongside the Delhi-Agra road. The place is referred to as Sikandra. Any motor rickshaw driver will know the way from Agra. If they tell you that it’s too far for them, ask to be dropped off at Kandhari junction where you can swap rickshaws.
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