This popular day-trip spot between Agra and Jaipur is one of those strange places that Europe and the New World seem to lack: it's a deserted city.
I had envisaged windswept desolation, an area of wonderful sunsets and ancient histories, a landscape of lonely citadels and cobwebbed mosques; but what I entered when I stepped off the bus was the Indian equivalent of an English seaside town in the winter, and like the English seaside in the winter, it looked like it was going to be a thoroughly depressing experience. I found myself wondering how the ruins were going to make up for the town around me, and I was more than a little concerned.
With the mercury touching the upper forties, tourists were staying away in their droves. This meant the desperation of Agra had infected the local guides, who were so eager to enlist my employment that they practically begged me for my money. I was hot, tired and unimpressed by both my hotel and the lame excuses for restaurants lining the streets, but eventually I tracked down a guide who spoke good English and who didn't seem too pushy: the only problem was that he didn't have a licence ('It's being renewed,' he claimed), but after he promised that he could still enter the complex because everyone knew he was an official guide, I said I'd take him but he wouldn't get one rupee if he wasn't the best bloody guide in Fatehpur Sikri. He said I wouldn't be disappointed. I said I'd better not be.
Of course, I was. There's a Chinese saying, 'We can always fool a foreigner,' and I began to suspect that the Indians in Fatehpur Sikri had adopted it too: he was lying about being able to get into the whole complex, he was lying about having ever been a guide, and he'd been lying about the amount of shade available in the ruins (a major reason why I'd waited until 4pm to set off exploring, when I could have easily gone in the midday sun and relaxed in the cool shadows). I was a bit pissed off: it's indicative of the awful nature of northern India's tourist traps that the man was blatantly lying and knew he would be found out, but still went on with the scam. He couldn't care less. I could: he'd wasted my precious time.
So I ditched him and gave him Rs20 for the tour he had given me of the Jama Masjid (the mosque part of the old city that is still in use, and is freely enterable by anyone), telling him when he wanted more that he was bloody lucky I'd given him anything, the lying toad.
Keeping my eyes dead ahead to make sure I didn't attract the unwanted attention of any other guides, I went off on my own into the real ruins, and that's when I realised that a guide was not only unnecessary, it was a downright disadvantage: old Fatehpur Sikri's beauty lies in its silences, its hidden nooks and crannies, its feeling of Marie Celeste desertion. It has to be one of the most incredible sights I have ever witnessed.
Fatehpur Sikri was, when it was built, the capital of the Mughal Empire. The Emperor Akbar started construction in 1569; he was childless and, having tried all sorts of solutions to his plight, he ended up visiting a Sufi saint, Sheikh Salim Chishti, for help. Soon a son was born and, impressed and overjoyed, he started building on the site where he had met the saint. Fatehpur Sikri then became the capital of Mughal India between 1570 and 1585.
But things didn't work out and, owing to a serious problem with the city's water supply, the Mughals simply left Fatehpur Sikri after just 15 years and moved to Agra, where they built the fort and later the Taj Mahal. Meanwhile Fatehpur Sikri stood untouched, a complete mediaeval city of red sandstone that was pretty much uninhabited.
The old town is still pretty much uninhabited and it's simply marvellous. Fortresses are one thing, but Fatehpur Sikri has everything from huge central squares and exquisitely carved multi-tiered pavilions to precise gardens and amazingly detailed stone latticework, and everything is still immaculate. Wandering round the city with hardly another person in sight made me feel as if I'd been shrunk and placed in an architectural model: there was no litter, no pollution, no animal life, no people and no hassle. The trees were perfect and regularly positioned; the buildings had divine symmetry; birds flocked from spire to spire, outlined against the pale blue sky; high-domed ceilings covered cool terraces, overlooking the decidedly Romanesque central forum; and throughout it all I could picture the inhabitants living their everyday lives. I couldn't get enough: having marvelled at the Islamic brilliance of various defensive structures throughout the realm, I was finally exploring the place where the architects lived. I could have lived there myself.
Though as I watched the sun setting over the forum I was rudely reminded of where I was: not the reserved Middle East or strict Pakistan, but India. I spent the dying embers taking photos for an Indian man and his mother as they posed with typical solemnity in front of the various buildings. I couldn't refuse, but I couldn't help thinking that even in this show of politeness, I was being used. If anything sums up my experience so far northern India, it's that feeling.
Though the locals of Fatehpur redeemed themselves later that night when I came across a group of them gathered round a camel. It had fallen down a sloping ditch and couldn't get up, and they were trying to push it out. They enlisted my help, thoroughly entrancing me with their friendliness and willingness to incorporate a total foreigner into the carnival event of shifting a braying camel onto the road. I guess it's just impossible to generalise about the people of India...