The Legacy of Fatephur Sikhri

I haven’t blogged for a couple of weeks, partly because world news has been so horrific that it didn’t seem right just to burble away over trivia. But a letter from a young friend of ours travelling in Northern India reminded me of our first journey to India. Our visit then took us to Rajastan, the most touristy area of the country, and with its glittering temples and mosques, its jewelled palaces reflected in lakes, its exquisite colours, it’s easy to see why people want to come. I think the most beautiful place we saw was the long abandoned city of Fatephur Sikri, built by the Mughal emperor Akbhar in the late fifteen-hundreds. Constructed of red sandstone in the centre of barren mountains, it consists of many ornate pavilions laid out among patterned gardens; a beautiful rose-red city, probably abandoned because of its lack of water, it survives almost intact.
Akbhar was an unusual figure among the autocratic rulers of the day. He was brought up as a Sunni Muslim, in a family that was more open to liberal ideas than many others. When Akbhar became ruler, he encouraged, art, calligraphy, architecture and poetry. He was saddened by the fact that though he loved Islam, many of its followers seemed to do nothing more than argue. In the rest of Europe and Asia, Catholics and Protestants were busy slaughtering each other, and the Inquistion was in full flow. One of the saddest memorials I saw in India was a plaque in front of the Portugese Catholic cathedral in Goa, marking the spot where two thousand Hindus had been burned to death for refusing to convert.
In Fatephur Sikri, Akbhar constructed a pavilion which he called the Ibadat Khana, the House of Worship, where Moslems could meet to discuss religion. Unfortunately, everyone argued, so Akbar invited Jesuits and other Christians to join in. They argued too. Akbhar decided that the only way ahead was to found his own religion, one in which people would become enlightened and tolerant. He called it ‘Din-i-llahi’ – ‘the Religion of God’, and unsurprisingly saw himself as its prophet. It was a fusion of Islam, Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Hinduism, a monotheistic cult, but as much an ethical system as a formal religion. Adherents were to be tolerant, pious and prudent. There was no priestly hierarchy, no sacred scriptures. They ate no meat and killed no animals. Sadly, the new religion never gained many adherents, and didn’t long survive the death of Akbhar.
And yet – it was a brave and thoughtful attempt on his part. A religion that doesn’t make the world a better place is a travesty. But it seems that nowadays, religions have become less, not more, tolerant and humane. Men seem to think that God demands burned and mangled corpses, rivers of blood. Perhaps we need another Emperor Akbhar, more ‘Houses of Worship,’ more tolerance, more talking. Let’s not send the world back to the murderous Middle Ages.