A few days ago, I had the good fortune of visiting the tomb of the famous Mughal emperor, Akbar the Great. Located in Sikandra, a small suburb on the outskirts of the city of Agra, Akbar’s Tomb goes by much unnoticed by large hordes of tourists, just like the plethora of the city’s numerous other monuments as compared to the universally popular Taj Mahal. Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar, widely known to be the greatest Mughal emperor by far and one of the most magnanimous rulers of the country prior to its democratic independence, reigned over his vast kingdom from 1555 A.D. to 1605 A.D. At the time of his death, the Mughal Empire stretched from Kabul in the west to Assam in the east, and from Kashmir in the north to Ahmednagar in the south.
Under Akbar’s rule, the country was united under a peaceful and safely secular co-existence, as he was responsible for abolishing the jiziya tax targeted towards non-believers of his religion, Islam, and bringing in more opportunities for all classes and castes under new, novel institutions, such as the mansabdari system. He united the country under a uniform, cultural, political, and administrative system, accepting its varied diasporas of religions, traditions, cultures, and customs with great tolerance and respect, thus earning the honorary title of “Chakravartin” from the masses, and the epithet of “Akbar the Great” from historians of every age. While Shah Jahan built the Taj and has been remembered by generations for the marvellous creation, the third Mughal emperor was just as illustrious a builder, and is credited with restoring and expanding the Agra Fort as we know it today, and the fabled city of Fatehpur Sikri with all its palaces, massive lawns, and various other royal structures in it, apart from many other monuments.
Set in over a hundred and twenty acres of open, fertile land, near the Jamuna River, the tomb commenced building in 1605 under Akbar’s behest only after he chose the site and renamed it “Bihishtabad”, which means heavenly abode. Akbar died later that same year, and his son and heir apparent, Jahangir built the monument of deep, red sandstone, as according to plan after that, completing its construction in 1613 A.D. The tomb is planned in the centre of a vast garden enclosed by walls on all sides, with a gigantic gateway on each side. The southern gateway is the largest and most intricate in its design, with two storeys, and four, circular, tapering minarets made from white Makrana marble of Rajasthan. The entrance portal here is 61 feet in height, and is flanked by double alcoves. Just the like the gateway to the Taj, this gateway also possesses Persian scriptures gorgeously furnished in marble relief, and an inlay of precious stones and gems in various designs. The twelve inscribed couplets eulogize Akbar and his tomb, and also reflect his philosophical views, apart from briefly mentioning Abdul Haq Shirazi, the head calligrapher on the project, and the date of the monument’s completion, 1605. The chhatri-styled tower incorporations have been inspired from the Char Minar in Hyderabad, which was built in 1591 A.D. by Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah.
The internal premises reflect the symmetrical charbagh (four gardens) architectural, which was a hit with the Mughal rulers, and true to its name, the garden is divided into four equal quarters, each separated by a high terrace or a causeway of stone masonry, 75 metres in width with a small water channel running in the centre and raised walkways on its sides. Distinctly raised from the present day deer-populated garden, these walkways can be accessed by staircases, which are accompanied by cascades and lily ponds. However, owing to the issue of devastating wildlife endangerment, the garden area is strictly off-limits for all visitors. In a distinguishing departure from most Mughal architectural pieces, Akbar’s Tomb does not feature any cypress avenues or flowerbeds rising from the causeways. This uniqueness is reflective of character, which is full of dignity, sobriety, and thoughtfulness, and peace, rather than the usual splendour, gaiety, delicacy, and superiority, associated with other Mughal monuments, and has thus been made in accordance with the personality of Akbar.
The main building is square in its outlay, and has five receding storeys. The ground floor has spacious chambers, with an elaborate marble entry portal to access each. The southern entrance of the tomb leads directly into the vestibule that opens to the main grave chamber. Austere in appearance, this chamber features Quranic verses in stucco and painting, an octagonal tower superimposed by an eight pillar chhatri (roof) and numerous arches. While the monument has been built mostly in sandstone by Akbar, as per old Mughal tradition, Jahangir’s architectural style is also reflected in the seamless incorporation of white marble in the gate minarets, entry portals, and the top storeys of the main building.
The upper floors of the monument have been cordoned off from the general public, and while it is not visible to the naked eye from the ground, tourist guides also mention a huge open-air square court on the top storey, 70 metres long on each side, and covered by arches. A cenotaph has been placed on the platform in the court, and has 36 Persian couplets praising Akbar carved on it. The tomb building is a four-tiered pyramid, surmounted by a marble pavilion containing the false tomb. The true tomb, as in other mausoleums, is in the basement. Apart from Akbar’s grave, many others of his family were also buried here, including a number of his queens and children, just like other Mughal mausoleums such as the Taj Mahal which contains the graves of both Shah Jahan and his queen, Mumtaz Mahal, for whom it was built. The tomb was severely damaged in the 16th century and was consequently restored by the Archaeological Survey of India between 1902 and 1911.