Built between 1604 and 1613 and set within 119 acres of gardens, Akbar’s Tomb is the second in a line of four monumental tombs belonging to four out of the six ‘great Mughal’ emperors. The first, Babur, is buried in a simple grave in one of his gardens in Kabul. The last, Aurangzeb, had increasingly turned away from building monumental structures and his plain grave is situated just outside Aurangabad in Maharashtra.
The four emperors between Babur and Aurangzeb were interred in four of the finest buildings to be found anywhere in the Indian subcontinent. The first is Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi, the second is Akbar’s Tomb here in Agra, the third is Jahangir’s Tomb in Lahore, and the final one is Shah Jahan who is interred with his wife at the Taj Mahal.
It is thought that prior to Akbar building his tomb here, the area was perhaps a garden. The local name for this area used to be Bihishabad (Abode of Paradise) which may reflect a connection between the tomb and the former gardens. The name for the local area, Sikandra, almost certainly comes from Sikandra Lodi who wanted to be closer to Gwalior in order to conquer it, and so moved to Agra.
Akbar’s Tomb complex is square in plan, with the main tomb structure at the center. Radiating away from the tomb at the cardinal points are four raised walkways with narrow water channels leading to three ‘false gates’ to the east, north, and west, and a proper gate to the south which is the main entrance in to the complex.
Anyone visiting this site would be forgiven for thinking that this is in fact the main tomb building, it is a hugely impressive structure in it’s own right. The gate is superbly decorated with red sandstone inlaid with coloured stone on both the front and the back, with bold geometric and floral patterns.
The four marble minarets have been restored, the cause of their damage is attributed to either an earthquake, or when they were used as target practice by the Jats in the late 18th century.
Main Tomb – Exterior
Although the tomb building is impressively large, access to the interior is only permitted to the main central tomb (Akbars), and rooms with subsidiary tombs either side. Viewed from a distance or at an angle, you can see an arcaded lower platform with two-storey chhatris projecting at intervals on the facade.
Above that is another smaller platform with corner chhatris, with a final level supporting a white marble screen that encloses the cenotaph which is open to the sky. Unfortunately, you can’t explore any of these upper levels.
Main Tomb – Interior
Entering the main southern entrance to the tomb takes you to an amazing ornately decorated vestibule.
I was last here in 2004, my first ever trip to India, which saw me do the typical organised ‘golden triangle’ tour at breakneck speed to Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. Of all the places I went to and the wonderful architecture I experienced over those 10 days, it is this room that I can recall with the greatest clarity. I would go as far as to say it is here that my passion for India completely solidified, and was the catalyst for my subsequent 20 visits to this wonderful, fascinating, and addictive country.
Back in 2004 my photographic skills and equipment was nothing like it is today, so you must forgive me for perhaps going a little overboard with the following shots. Visiting this vestibule was quite a nostalgic moment for me, so whilst I relive those moments through my lens I will give a very brief history of Akbar’s life.
Akbar succeeded the throne at the tender age of thirteen from Humayun, who died suddenly in a rush to attend prayers at Purana Qila in Delhi. His reign saw a period of both stability and expansion of the Mughal empire, relocating his court from Delhi to Agra after just two years of rule. He initially lived in the old fort in Agra which was demolished in 1565 and rebuilt, although many of the structures you can see there today are from later periods.
Akbar expanded the empire through conquest, treaties, and tactical marriage alliances. He was considered intelligent, brave, and intellectually curious, although interestingly he was never able to read. His many marriages included family members of Hindu chiefs, and it is recorded that he always sought to bring together disparate communities within his empire.
In his later years Akbar became increasingly interested and open to the ideas of other faith. He had a deep desire to engage in dialog with representatives of all religions in his empire; Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jains, and Zoroastrians (Parsees). At Thursday seminars they discussed the basic premise of religious faith; What is good in each ? What is bad ? These discussions even extended to dismissing the biblical and Muslim belief that the universe was created only a few thousand years ago. Akbar concluded that this notion was laughable.
In his search for spiritual truth, Akbar also became particularly interested in the sufi movement. This led him to a close friendship with Sheikh Salim al-Din Chishti of Sikri, who it is said accurately predicted the birth of his much desired son. Akbar subsequently established a new city and palace complex at Fatehpur Sikri, which became the short-lived capital for just fifteen years (more on that in a later blog!).
Akbar also adopted more Hindus as senior noblemen and administrators than any other Mughal ruler, which in part resulted in an increase in prosperity and relative peace throughout his reign. When conflict did occur, he radiated awesome power, he never suffered the embarrassment of defeat on the battlefield.
In battle, Akbar had a reputation for plunging himself in where the fight was the thickest and most dangerous. It is alleged that this often resulted in his officers deliberately frustrating his battle plans to save him from himself. Akbar’s high energy and stamina was not matched by his appetite or need to sleep. He only slept for around four hours a night, and was considered indifferent to food, being almost a vegetarian. Akbar once said :
“It is not right that a man should make his stomach the grave of animals”
Despite food not playing a major role in Akbar’s daily life, he was extremely particular about water. He preferred water from the Ganges (Ganga), which he regarded as the water of immortality. This was always provided to him wherever he was, which often involved complex transportation plans when he travelled to far-off places.
For cooking purposes rainwater was acceptable, as was water from the Yamuna or Chenab rivers, so long as it was mixed with a little Ganga water. Akbar was not a heavy drinker, but did have a fondness for arrack. Tobacco was introduced to India towards the end of his reign, but he did not take to it.
Contemporary accounts of Akbar refer to a mesmeric effect he had on people. A ruler is primarily a ruler of men, and Akbar was supremely masterful in that role. He was pleasant mannered, generally lenient towards offenders, and often kept in service those who betrayed him.
Pierre de Jarric, a French Catholic missionary writer who witnessed and documented his observations in Akbar’s court records :
“He was a prince beloved by all, firm with the great, kind to those of low estate, and just to all men, high and low, neighbour or stranger, Christian, Saracen, or Gentile; so that every man believed that the king was on his side.”
In 1605 on his deathbed, Akbar was obliged to acknowledge Salim, his only surviving son, as his successor. Tensions between Akbar and Salim had existed for many of the previous years, with Salim once rebelling and setting up his own powerhouse in Allahabad in 1600.
Although they subsequently reconciled, even on his deathbed Akbar suspected that his illheath (diarrhea and internal stomach bleeding) could be the result of attempted poisoning by Salim. Upon Akbar’s death Salim duly ascended the throne, and became known as Emperor Jahangir.
Having soaked up the wonderful decoration inside the vestibule, a narrow dark sloping passage leads to the central chamber. Photography is not allowed here, but the contrast between the burial chamber and the vestibule is stark.
The central chamber is completely plain, with no decoration or fleck of colour to be seen through the incredibly dim lighting. What might be seen as lacking visually is compensated for by the amazing acoustics in this chamber, I’m sure any attendant that takes you here will be willing to demonstrate that.
All three ‘false’ gateways served as both garden pavilions and accomodation. Each had a small gate beside it to allow direct access into the tomb complex from the outside. Although architecturally similar, they each have subtle differences. The most impressive and best preserved of these gates is the West Gate.
The highlight of the western gate is the wonderfully elaborate iwan, with an exquisite vaulted ceiling with arch-netting. The whole surface is richly decorated with painted patterns that have survived remarkably well considering they are partially exposed to the elements.
It’s sad that probably less than 5% of visitors make the effort to see this gate, probably because from a distance it doesn’t look any different to the main south gate entrance. But it’s only a couple of minutes from the main tomb building to see it, and it’s well worth that minimal effort.
Externally the east gate is almost identical to the west gate, but it does not have any paintings on the wall.
It seems curious that there is not even any slight trace of painting, so perhaps this was never applied to the east gate at all.
Ironically this gate was once the largest and grandest of all the gates at Sikandra, but it now lies in ruin.
The raised walkway is also in a poor state of repair, and even I did not attempt to get up close to it.
Either side of the entrance to Akbar’s central tomb are doorways leading to single rooms housing tombs of members of Akbar’s family.
There’s some great Jali work in some of the walls, but I have failed to identify who is actually interred in any of these graves.
Although not part of Akbar’s tomb complex, the Kanch Mahal is right next to the car park (to the east) and worthy of a quick look. Kanch Mahal means “Glass Palace”, named after the abundance of tiled decoration.
However, it is thought that this building is actually a gateway, if you look at the front and rear of the building you will see why.
The north side (front) is very richly ornamented with sandstone and marble, the south side (back) is completely plain. It’s not often you come across a building where the differences are quite so stark between the front and back elevation.
Early Mughal Tomb
Just south of the Kanch Mahal is another structure that you can quickly visit whilst you’re here. This is the ruins of an early Mughal tomb in a style known as a Baghdad Octagon.
The plan of the tomb has led to the misinterpretation that this is a Lodi era tomb. Note how the tomb perfectly aligns to the Kanch Mahal, which perhaps suggests that their origins may be relatively contemporary.
Akbar is one of only two monarchs in the entire span of Indian history to be called “great”, the other being Ashoka, who lived eighteen centuries before Akbar. Whilst there is no halo around Akbar’s head, he was considered a compassionate ruler, particularly in his later years. He was often regarded as a deeply troubled man, unhappy with himself and unsure of the world, but with an ambition to gather the diverse peoples of his empire and enable them to live in peace. In many respects this medieval autocrat was a thoroughly modern man, not just ahead of his time, but even ahead of our own time.
An inscription on Akbar’s tomb reads :
“These are the Gardens of Eden: enter them to dwell therein eternally”
Unfortunately, Akbar would not be left in peace in his grave. In 1691, just eighty-six years after his death, a band of Jats who probably had little idea of who Akbar was, broke into Akbar’s tomb and desecrated it. Ishwardas Nagar, Aurangzeb’s courtier historian records :
“They began their pillage by breaking in the great gates of bronze which it had, robbing the valuable precious stones and plates of gold and silver and destroying what they were not able to take away.”
The Italian traveller Niccolao Manucci who was in India at the time adds :
“Dragging out the bones of Akbar, they threw them angrily into the fire and burnt them.”
It’s a sad end to Akbar’s story, for a man who strived to understand and bring harmony to the many religious beliefs that existed in his empire. For a man who is probably still widely considered a Muslim ruler, it was a very Hindu end for Akbar.
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