Fatehpur Sikri: Captivating art lovers
by Sandhya Jain on 14 Dec 2008 0 Comment

Archaeology of Fatehpur Sikri: New Discoveries is a meticulous work of excavation and discovery in an area once regarded as confined to the medieval era, with no new surprises to captivate art lovers. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) had no idea at all that any pre-Akbar ancient civilisation or habitation could be found in the area, much less that exquisite Jaina and Hindu relics would surface in the villages around Sikri.

The idea of excavating Fatehpur Sikri goes back to 1972, when Dr. Nur’ul Hasan, then Education Minister, directed Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and the ASI to excavate the ruins with a view to determine 1] the original boundary of the palace area under Emperor Akbar, and 2] the habitation area of the construction labourers. On account of this limited agenda, the excavations were confined to the medieval era and the Akbar township (1572-85) alone, and the framework was outlined by Dr. S.A.A. Rizvi in a national seminar on Fatehpur Sikri in 1972.

The excavations at Fatehpur Sikri, which lasted a decade from 1978 to 1988, were overseen by Dr. R.C. Gaur, chair, AMU history department. Being limited in scope, these essentially involved merely the removal of debris, as they had no archaeological objective in mind. Interestingly, this excavation exposed a Jaina temple near the south in 1982-3, but this was neither excavated nor reported. It was left to Dr. Dharam Vir Sharma, Superintending Archaeologist, Agra Circle, to later discover the purpose of the massive structure in the mound and further probe if Sikri was the nucleus for architectural activities during the 8th to the 11th centuries AD.

In December 1999, the remains of an ancient Jaina temple were unearthed near the Fatehpur Sikri palace compound, in a mound known as the Bir Chhabili ka Tila – mound of the Gallant and Graceful Devi. Here, in a man-made pit of red sandstone slabs, mutilated sculptures had been stored and the pit covered up in what is probably the first archaeological discovery of a visarjana (religious burial) of desecrated images.

The historical record suggests that the iconoclasts who visited the region, demolished temples and plundered their wealth included Mahmud Ghazni (1000-30); Muizuddin Muhammad Ghori (1192-1206); Delhi Sultans like Iltutmish (1211-36), Alauddin Khilji (1296-1316), Firuz Shah Tughluq (1351-88) and Sikandar Lodi (1488-1517). There is even today an Alauddin Khilji mosque in Sikri village, and Sikandar Lodi’s presence is recorded in a Persian inscription at Chuyari.

Among the ruins of Bir Chhabili ka Tila was recovered the most breathtakingly beautiful murti of a Jaina Saraswati, firmly dated 1010 AD from the inscription at its base. Also in the same visarjana pit were a number of exquisite Jaina Tirthankara icons, most dated between 977 and 1044 AD. There were many Svetambara sculptures, and one Digambara Tirthankara in kayotsarga (standing yogic posture), headless with no hands and feet. All 34 Tirthankara icons were mutilated; five were in the kayotsarga posture. Sharma has recorded his findings is painstaking detail and the quality of the reproductions make the jaw-dropping cost of the production worthwhile.

The Sikri-Nagar area of Agra district, where the Sikarwar Rajputs of Rajasthan originated before Turk invasions in the Sultanate period drove them to other places in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, was rich and flourishing from the 8th to 11th century. The cultural sequences unearthed show the region was inhabited in the Neolithic period (6th to 9th century); late Gupta period (9th to 12th century; the Jaina temple belongs to this era); and after a brief desertion was reoccupied from the 12th to the 18th century.

Sharma believes that the Pratiharas possibly dominated the region in the ninth and tenth centuries, though no epigraphical records have been found. However, one inscription shows that the Kachhapaghatas ruled Gwalior in the 10th and 11th century. The ancient highway from Mathura to Gwalior passed through Sikri, Bari and Muchkund, and was much shorter than Agra route. It was the main trade route and was also followed by invaders like Mahmud of Ghazni. It was preferred because all trade from prosperous Gujarat passed through Sikri, which was the meeting point of traders from north to south, east to west.

Given its proximity to Akbar’s famous though abandoned township, the excavations at Fatehpur Sikri became instantly controversial, as they were enveloped in the then debate over the writing of history textbooks. Although the ASI made no claim that the demolitions of the Jaina and Hindu temples was the handiwork of the Great Mughal, all sorts of wild allegations were flung, forcing the chief excavator, Sharma, to showcase his findings at the India International Centre and defend his work. It was a formidable corpus of work, and the book does full justice to it.

What agitated the outraged secularists and Marxists was the fact that the destruction of the Jaina temple, and the pathos associated with the finding of the visarjana chamber, could not be justified in terms of an equal Hindu aggression! Although Jains are valiant warriors, second to none on the battlefield, the community has an entrenched reputation for ahimsa, which could not be undone at a moment’s notice!

Much of the problem in the handling of the public discourse on the matter stems from the fact that for far too many years now the ASI has been headed by a string of non-professionals from the IAS who have no understanding of the discipline. Guided by political exigencies (or political masters), the organisation has been embroiled in controversies over the historicity of the Ram Setu, and the need to excavate the sites associated with the River Saraswati.

Sharma’s brief but explicit texts throws light on what happens to archaeology when politicians call the tune – ten years of nothingness. It is to be hoped that Srutidevi Saraswati, revealed Vedic goddess and Jaina Devi par excellence, will enlighten the minds of all who invoke her. The book is a must have for those who love beauty and worship knowledge.

Archaeology of Fatehpur Sikri: New Discoveries
D.V. Sharma
Aryan Books International, 2007
Price: Rs. 3500/-
Pages: 215

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