The Jami Masjid mosque was one of the first projects undertaken at Akbar’s new city of Fatehpur Sikri, and was built in honour of the Sufi saint Sheikh Salim al-Din Chishti (1479-1572), who famously predicted the birth of Akbar’s first and much longed for son.
Completed in 1572 and occupying the highest point on the ridge at Fatehpur Sikri, for several centuries this was the largest mosque in India, until Bhopal’s Taj-ul-Masajid was constructed in the 19th century.
Having previously visited the Jami Masjid back in 2004, I made the mistake of not really allocating sufficient time to explore it this time around, a fact that I’m now deeply regretting as I’m sitting here compiling this post. My primary focus was to visit the tomb of the Sufi Saint which in all honesty I can’t recall at all from 15 years ago. But focusing on that drew me away from other highlights within the mosque complex, so at some point in the future I will have to make a third visit here.
Rising 55m above the road below (including the steps), the Buland Darwaza (Magnificent Gate) is the principal entrance into the mosque and is an unforgettable experience. Negotiating the very narrow steep steps with such a large building looming over you is incredibly intimidating.
Inside the gateway arch there is an Arabic inscription :
‘Jesus, Son of Mary (on whom be peace) said: The World is a Bridge, pass over it, but build no houses upon it. He who hopes for a day, may hope for eternity; but the World endures but an hour. Spend it in prayer, for the rest is unseen.’
The quote does not belong to mainstream Christian tradition and nor is it in the Koran. Jesus was of course a major prophet so this may have been a saying passed down by Muslim holy men. Interestingly it does closely match a saying of the Spanish theologian Petrus Alphonsi, a former Jew who grew up in Muslim Andalucia in the 11th century.
It is widely thought the gateway we see today was not the original one, but replaced a smaller structure. The theory is that Akbar remodelled the Buland Darwaza to commemorate his conquest of Gujarat and triumphant return in 1573, an event that also resulted in him renaming Sikri, Fatehpur or ‘City of Victory’.
I was particularly drawn to the ancient wooden gates, completely covered with horseshoes that had been nailed to the door, almost all of them aligned in the same direction forming a ‘U’ shape.
In the western world horseshoes have long been considered lucky. They were originally made of iron, a material which was believed to ward off evil spirits, and traditionally were held in place with seven nails, seven being the luckiest number.
Opinion is divided as to which way up the horseshoe ought to be nailed. Some say the ends should point up, so that the horseshoe catches the luck. Others say the should be pointing down so that the luck is poured upon those entering the home.
What confuses me is the fact that I didn’t think superstition was encouraged in the Islamic faith, so the exact purpose of this practise and what it symbolises I’m not entirely sure. If you have any thoughts on this, please comment in the section at the end of this blog.
The courtyard of the Jami Masjid mosque is simply enormous, with a layout very similar to earlier sultanate mosques. A large spacious colonnade surrounds the courtyard with a constant rhythm of arches fronting deep side halls.
Akbar seems to have been hugely influenced by Hindu structural forms, and many such elements can be seen in this mosque that had not been paralleled in northern India for 300 years. A good example of this are the flat roofs of the side halls that not supported on squinches as one world perhaps expect, but on corbels.
Although peaceful, the courtyard is full of activity – people selling their wares, meeting friends and chatting, the worshippers coming and going, others just having a moment of stillness, all blended together with the backdrop of hundreds (if not thousands) of tourists that flock to experience this monument on a daily basis.
This is the sort of place where you could just sit and watch the ever changing world go by for hours on end. Unfortunately, I didn’t have endless hours spare to do this.
Sitting off-center at the far side of the courtyard is a conspicuous little building, the white marble glistening brightly against the dark orangey-red sandstone colonnade behind. This was the little building I had come to see, the tomb of Salim al-Din Chishti.
Tomb of Salim al-Din Chishti
Originally built mostly in red sandstone and partially reconstructed in white marble during Jahangir’s reign, this exquisite mausoleum is clearly based on Gujarati models.
When the tomb was originally built there was only minimal use of marble. The outer screens and paved ambulatory were replaced with marble by Qutbuddin Khan Koka, Jahangir’s foster-brother, in 1606. The building we now see today had it’s “marble makeover’ completed as recently as 1866, when the exterior walls and dome were veneered with the white stone.
Salim al-Din Chishti (1479-1572) was a direct descendant of one of the early Chishti saints. Born in Delhi, he moved at a young age with his family to settle in what was then the small village of Sikri. He travelled to Mecca in 1524 and remained there until 1537, returning to Sikri and settling in a cell on the ridge above the village. In the last years of his life, Salim al-Din Chishti abandoned his cell and moved into a building designed specifically for gatherings of the Sufi brotherhood (khangah) to the north of the Jami Masjid.
He went on another pilgrimage between 1554 and 1564, and upon his return to Sikri the Emperor Akbar visited him and received the famous prediction that we would soon have a son – the future Emperor Jahangir.
Akbar acknowledged his deep gratitude and respect for Salim al-Din Chishti by ascribing the Jami Masjid mosque to him. Salim Chishti died on 14th February 1572 at the age of 92, just prior to the mosque being completed.
Construction of his tomb was completed nine years later in 1581, and is said to be located where his former meditation chamber stood. The burial of Sufis and other holy men on the very spot where they led their austere lives is a tradition that still persists today in India.
The tomb is a wonderfully atmospheric and peaceful space. The marble jali screens are so intricately carved, probably some of the finest examples to be found anywhere in India, and cast an ethereal light into the wide encircling ambulatory. It’s an immensely powerful experience.
Contrasting to the ambulatory, the central chamber containing the shrine is quite a compact space and receives a steady flow of pilgrims. His tomb not only attracts Muslims, but also people of other religious faiths, and in particular women who have difficulty conceiving.
His actual tomb lies in a crypt below and was once accessible by a flight of steps that had been walled up now for over a century.
Tomb of Nawab Islam Khan
Immediately to the east of Salim al-Din Chishti’s tomb is a red stone structure that was originally the Jamaat Khana, a religious house used by the most distinguished disciples of Salim Chishti. Scholars believe that after the death of Shaikh Hajji Husain in 1592, an eminent disciple of Salim Chishti, the Jamaat Khana was converted into a tomb for Shaikh Hussain and his descendants.
So this building was never specifically intended for Islam Khan, which is perhaps confirmed by the location of his tomb which is not centrally placed. Most of the floor of this building is covered with tombs, I presume of those related to Shaikh Hajji Husain.
Nawab Islam Khan (1570-1613) was the grandson of Salim al-Din Chishti and playmate of Jahangir in childhood. He married Ladli Begum, the sister of Abul Fazl (Akbar’s Grand Vizier and author of the Akbarnama), and Faizi (Fazl’s brother and poet).
A large amount of the space to the north of the mosque courtyard is occupied by tombs, there must be hundreds here.
Also known as the King’s Doorway, this was used by Akbar to join the congregational prayers in the Jami Masjid and is the eastern entrance to the mosque closest to the palace complex.
The great congregational mosque of Jami Masjid is the most dominant building in Fatehpur Sikri, reflecting not only Akbar’s profound reverence for Salim al-Din Chishti, but also his assertion of unrivaled dominance and imperial power.
As many of you will notice, this blog completely omits anything that can be seen in the prayer hall itself, which is a great shame and something I will look to rectify in the future.
There is simply so much to see at Fatehpur Sikri, including this mosque, the palace complex, other monuments that lie outside of the palace, and not forgetting the archaeological museum. It would be futile to attempt to take in all of this great city in one day, so be sure to plan your visit carefully and allocate your time accordingly.
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