The Mughal Allure

Few meandering through the passages of Fatehpur Sikri today would realise the role this brief capital of 14 odd years played in making the Mughals great – and curating a culinary legacy we call the Mughlai cuisine. 

By Madhulika Dash


From 1571 (or 1569) when the stone was laid to 1585 when Emperor Akbar left for Lahore. It was for this very brief period of 14 short years (although debates are between 10 to 15) that Fatehpur Sikri was the capital of the Emperor Akbar. Yet, the charm of the city that had earned the once Mughal prince, his kingdom and the title of  Shahenshah never faded. Not even when the Emperor and his entourage left the city to make Lahore their next forthold. 

The domain that once served as a prime portal town of the Mauryas and later as the fortress of the fierce warrior clan, Sikarwar Rajputs, continued to draw its audience not just six centuries later, but years into the heydays of abandonment till it became one of the early British cantonment post 1857. Elizabethan leather merchant Ralph Fitch, who visited Fatehpur Sikri a year after Emperor Akbar left his designed capital in 1585, described it as, "Agra and Fatehpore Sikri are two very great cities, either of them much greater than London”.

A City Greater Than London

Interestingly, Fitch would not be the first or the last of the merchants travelling to Fatehpur Sikri to describe it with such glorious eloquence, famous Venetian emissary Niccolò de' Conti  whose travelogue was filled with his fascination with Vijaynagara kingdom and its king around the time too was smitten by the grandeur of this made in Sikri Sandstone city. 

Calling it a “symphony in red stone and black and white marble,” Conti's account of the city albeit brief remains a befitting ode to the art and architecture of the city and to Akbar's ingenuity that resulted in a city that was modern for its time and yet rooted in the different cultures that the king had come to learn about and appreciate – be it the Timurid forms and styles, the Stupa inspired domes, the  kashmiri screen work, the minarets, Buddhist origin arches and ribbed vaults, the Rajasthani parapets and the chajjas from the temples. 

But how did a city that had been planned to the last detail with ample scope of expansion later  – Fatehpur Sikri remains the first space to have not just a Church inside its peripheral walls but also a Western style hospital, dedicated space for the offices, sarai khana, hamam, chaugāngāh where elephants fight could be held and Daulatkhāna-i Shāhi where not just the Sultan's family but important nobility could stay – be abandoned? What purpose did this brief capital serve of Emperor Akbar who many historians believe not only got the approval as the king but earned the title of Badshah during his time in Fatehpur Sikri?


A Gateway to Statehood

While popular folklore credits Sheikh Salim Chisti, who the Great Mughal is said to have addressed as Sekhu Baba after he was blessed with his two sons, as the reason for the creation of Fatehpur Sikri; and the leaving of it as a result of water shortage, both the stories are at best, a lore. Although the Sufi Saint was one of the reasons for Akbar to visit the trade-happy town of Sikri once again, it wasn't the only reason. 

Sikri was first discovered by Babur during the Battle of Khanwa where he defeated  Rana Sangram Singh. Babar thanked the generosity of the local population for the support extended and as a part of Shukri or thanks had built a garden called Bagh-i Fath (The Garden of Victory). Years later, Akbar who by then had won a decisive battle in Gujarat decided to celebrate his victory and that of his grandfather by building the Fatah Darwaza also called the Buland Darwaza. 

Somewhere between building the gate, the birth of Salim during which time the queen stayed in the town and his admiration for the Saint who often predicted Akbar's future, the city of Fatehpur Sikri or Fathpur Sikri came to life. Of course, there was the power equation as well.  The young king, although had won many battles, had little to show by way of the win – the Agra fort where the family resided was originally built by the Rajpur King Raja Badal Singh and was called Badalgarh. Hence rose the need of the city that not only showcased his taste but cemented his philosophy that could get him acceptability and build an empire that was strong and united. 

Cementing An Empire

Fatehpur Sikri or City of Victory had to be the personification of Akbar's that very thought process. The selection of red sandstone was the first step towards it.  The second was the design that was a juxtaposition of different styles, format and architecture that showcased the ingenuity of the artist and designers working but also Akbar's ambitious plan to unite communities and royalties using art as the medium. 

Fascinatingly, even though the city's  layout was commonplace like any other city built at the time with the royal quarters on one side, the daftar khana on the other, the Diwan - i - Aam and Diwan- i – Khas, Anoop Talao,  Pachisi, Paanch Mahal, Marriam House, Ibadatkhana, Khwabgah among others, what really set this capital city apart was its the amalgamation of styles in building each space that made every corner of the city unique and lend them the character of the dweller too – be it the Rajasthani style Zenana Diyodi or the complex pillar-styled Khwabgha, Akbar's residence, next to the ornamental Anoop Talab where Tansen is said to have made it rain by singing. 

And of course the kitchens, at least seven of them excluding the one in Dawakhana that made food especially for the in-house patients. These kitchens along with the Tehkhanas and baolis or water bodies that were designed around the vicinity fed not just the royal family residing there and their entire retinue of people, visiting dignitaries and emissaries, the standing army but also those who came to pay their homage to the great saint at the Dargah, which soon became the last stop for those observing Urs. In fact, the Durgah 's association with Urs as its final stop  became the reason for the kewda scented pilaf called Urs Ki Biryani, a moist, fragrant, short grain rice dish that was created in one of the kitchens inside the walled city of Fatehpur Sikri.  


Of Kitchens and Dastarkhwan 

The kitchens followed suit of the architectural style of the city. Designed by Akbar's chief consort Ruquiya Begunm Sahiba along with a team of well appointed rakhbadars, maharaj and an efficient Mir Bakwal or culinary director of the time, the spaces reflected the coming together of different cultures, cooking techniques and practices. 

It was a one-of-the-kind  commercial kitchen set up that was equipped well to not only take care of an individual's sensibilities but could play to the whimsical palate while following a strict decorum and routine. In fact, keeping in sync with the temple kitchen designs then and those that he discovered in different palaces, the expansive kitchen was designed to have dedicated spaces for sweets, paan making, sharbats, bread making, butchery and even a procurement and stocking division that ensured ample food with minimum wastage. It is said that before the day ended, leftover food was checked before being distributed to the needy; and those that had spoiled were weighed before it was used for composting that was used in the gardening. 

Water, Water, Everywhere  

Water, which as per popular lore, became the reason for Akbar to abandon the city, was in good supply with extra effort made to create baolis and tank around that would constantly be replenished with fresh water from the river nearby; and tehkhanas that were used to store ice brought from Kashmir. The Hauz-i Shīrīn situated close to Diwan-i-Aam was named not only for its sweet, drinkable water but was preferred by Akbar as the base in which gangajal was mixed before he and his retinue consumed. 

A lone eater but a consummate learner, Akbar took his kitchen and his food seriously, and wanted to know every single detail of what went into food, its making, even the ingredients and how and where they were procured. Thus ensuring the different records, remnants of which today reminds one of the early years of the making of what came to be known as the Dastakhwan. 

The Kitchen For All 

The ability to cook and feed food close to 5000 people that fell under the palace preview was just part of what made these 16th century kitchens fascinating; the other was the culinary practices that were followed in these spaces. One such case was  the curation of the food menus that was fine tuned to one's need not craving, and seasonality.  Unlike the emperors after, Akbar was a firm believer of the ancient practice of wellness science and an ardent follower of the panchang calendar and ate accordingly. 

In fact, the kitchens under the prince often followed the diktat of the temples of Varanasi and employed the traditional practice of employing a team of hakims, vaids, later English doctors to work alongside the Mir Bakwal to ensure that the food cooked not only had the taste but the goodness of health. No menu was finalised without the wellness team approving it. This rule of eating was not only for the king but also for the queens, consort and concubines who were occasionally given the liberty to indulge as well. The Rajaswala time was such an exception along with celebrations and while hosting a dignitary.


The Kitchen Stories  

While seasonality and wellness was at the foundation of the kitchens at Fatehpur Sikri, the function of  each of the kitchens differed as per the location. The one close to offices for instance needed bulk cooking for the staff and the army; while that in proximity to Daulat Khana and Zenana Doydi had an approved menu by the Padishah Begum with the option of a pantry where the queens or one of the wives could come and cook on whim. 

One can find a similar kitchenette in what has been often mistakenly called the Jodha Palace, which in fact is an extended part of the haram. 

Similarly, those situated next to the cavan serais and the Ibadatkhana would serve an eclectic menu that boasted comfort food as well as those that were in trend. Much like today, these kitchens were often the place where the fusion of techniques would take place before wafting through the royal  corridors of their kitchen. An exception to this rule was when the kitchen cooked for a diplomatic table called Dastarkhwan. 

The Origin of Royal Buffet 

Although it is Emperor Shah Jahan who is often credited for the lavish spread, it was in Fatehpur Sikri, a city where Akbar used the idea of unity to bring Rajputs together, that food diplomacy, a concept started in Delhi Sultanate, was refined. From a simple get-together that Babar encouraged to build strong bonds with his amirs and wazirs, Akbar took the culture of Adab rather seriously. One such etiquette detail that the lone eater followed while dining with his wife or the extended court that many a times had visitors as well was the issuing of farman followed by a table setting where he would be positioned higher than others.  

The cooked food and beverages were taken from the kitchen to the Daulatkhāna and the ābdārkhāna (beverage house). From here, upon being tasted, the food was laid before the Emperor . On days when Akbar would have a meal with his queens, there would be buffet-style showcasing of food, of which  Akbar would select a few that would hold his fascination and be served at the table laid either at the haram or the ornamented room that today is mistakenly called the room of Ruqiya Begum. Often this showcasing would have one or two dishes from either of the queen's private kitchens, usually made under their supervision. 


The Farman of a Dastakhwan

For diplomatic tables however, the menu in the form of a farman would often be read out to the Emperor and Padishah Begum  for approval. Once approved the food would be cooked to specification and served in a sequence of a thal, a concept that Akbar adopted in India, or in courses with a paan as the finale. 

Each step is duly recorded by Waqiahnawis for future reference. In fact, these records would be useful if the king fell ill or the diet changed. Akbar who began as a meat loving prince took to eating vegetarian food during his stay at Fatehpur Sikri. While many historians explain it as a peacetime food for a frugal eating king, the functional diet that aided Akbar to rule of 49 years could have been result of such recording that helped the hakims and vaids to design a suited food routine for the king, even as he is entertaining his courtiers or forging new association. 

The fact that Akbar ate on a little high pedestal – lower than the golden throne his father sat on while dining -  gave him the privacy to enjoy his meal while looking after his guests with the food they were familiar with and the new creation. It is true that the kitchens became the epicenter of food theatrics after Akbar, but there is no doubt that Fatehpur Sikri and its many kitchens helped him design the perfect table that got people together by bringing different cuisines in one big platter. 

It was here that khansamas and rakhbadars were invited to work and enrich the repertoire of the kitchen that by the seventh year  had earned Akbar the loyalty of his subject, his place as the Indian king, and of course, the capital city, as scholars Michael Brand and Glenn D. Lowry stated, “that represents a splendid achievement of planning, design, craftsmanship and good taste”—a place that projected Akbar’s image as an “absolute ruler.”

By the time Akbar left Fatehpur to set base in Lahore, he had earned it all – a kingdom, the title of Shehanshah and in doing so set up one of the finest heterogeneous kitchens that would in the years to come bring together a new culinary culture called Mughlai.