16 February 2020
In most countries, when you want a well, you dig a deep, roughly round hole and keep going until you hit water. Then you need a long rope and a bucket to haul up the water. Not so in 8th century India when the Chand Baori stepwell was built in Rajasthan. We stopped for a look on our way to Agra – by arduous car. In Chand Baori’s case, the dig was about 60 metres square at the top and it went down a dizzy 13 stories on three sloping walls, with the fourth forming a temple style building that reminded me of an Escher drawing. To get the water, all you needed was a team of strong young women who had to descend using 3500 steps, fill their buckets and carry them back to the surface on their heads. Easy!
The site is remarkably well preserved, although the water is now a suspicious green and there is a fence to stop people who might take on the dangerous decent but run out of puff on the return journey and have to be winched up.
The main reason we went from Jaipur to Agra by car was to stop at the world heritage listed Fatepur Skiri, a walled city built in 1586 for the Emperor Akbar and was the capital of the Mughal Empire for about 10 years. Made from red sandstone, it took 36,000 people 12 years to build, but the emperor only lived in it for four years before he got sick of the political wrangling and called in the removalists. From that point on, the place was deserted for 400 years, but did vandals destroy it, or squatters move in? No. Only vegetation was interested in occupying it until 1903 when Lord Curzon, the British Viceroy, said “I say, it is jolly well too bad that this damn fine place is choked with weeds and other unsightly undergrowth, tut tut. I’ll requisition a few pounds and do a spot of the old restoration thing.”
Today is it the most under-visited-yet-outstanding example of antiquity in India. It is almost fully restored and illustrates the rather nice life Emperor Akbar led. The city was home to around 700 people, 600 of whom were his concubines. Between those and three queens – each with her own palace, the emperor got plenty of sex – even if the women didn’t. He slept in a huge, elevated bed, accessible only by removable silver ladder. This not only gave him privacy but made him much harder to murder while asleep. At that time death was more matter of fact than it is now. Those found guilty of a capital offence were executed by an elephant called Hirn who, on command, stamped on their heads. This elephant was much respected for his one-hit skill and a monumental tower in his honour stands in a field outside the city wall.
When the emperor wasn’t busy being entertained or siphoning the python, he tried to start a new religion called Diney Elhai that encompassed all the popular religions he could think of. But his religion had too many competitors and not enough congregants, so it collapsed.
Another significance of Emperor Akbar is that he was the grandfather of Shah Jahan, who commissioned the building of the Taj Mahal – which is principally what we came to see in India. We took a room at the Agra Double Tree Hilton which promised a view of the Taj. Well, if that little blip through the smog is the Taj, the claim is correct. The hotel is full of rowdy, rude, oversize tourists – in contrast to the staff who try very hard to be pleasant.