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Fatehpur Sikri, India

Less than 25 miles from the renowned Taj Mahal lies a small, understated city with treasures unto its own.

Fatehpur Sikri was built by none other than Akbar the Great, the same man responsible for the Red Fort (New Delhi) and of course, the Taj Mahal (Agra.) No doubt people pass over this red sandstone city despite the fact that it was once the short-lived capital of the Mughal Empire.

We came to the town en route to Rajasthan, the state in India famous for its historical forts and palaces, and where we planned to spend an entire month.

A quick bus ride (less than an hour) got us from Agra to Fatehpur Sikri. Upon arrival, we checked into Hotel Goverdhan where owner, Mr. Saurabh, and his helpers (sons?) emphatically welcomed us. The hotel was nice and spacious with a lovely manicured courtyard out front. We seemed to be the only guests.

After the hustle and bustle of New Delhi and Agra, we were glad to be somewhere peaceful.

Fatehpur Sikri (“City of Victory”) is a pilgrimage site and its holiness (and opulence) becomes evident once inside the massive fortified complex. There are three palaces – one built for each of Akbar’s wives. It’s interesting to note each wife practiced a different religion: Hindu, Islam and Christianity. Apparently, Akbar decided to build his capital in Sikri because it was here that he was blessed by a Sufi saint, Sheikh Salim Chishti, who he attributes to the birth of his son.

After experiencing the Taj Mahal, it’s difficult not to compare every structure in India to it. But we found Fatehpur Sikri to be a marvel in its own right. We explored the grounds and all its many monuments, from the Diwan-E-Khas (“Hall of Private Audiences”) to the House of the Turkish Sultana. Many of the buildings were made for the emperor to spend time with his wives, from playing games in Aankh Michauli (“Blind Man’s Bluff”) to being entertained by court performers in Panch Mahal.

As we made our way through the complex, Indian tourists soon approached us – all with the same request.

They wanted to take our picture or better yet, be in a picture with us. This phenomenon had happened to us at the Taj Mahal so we weren’t totally caught off guard. Western tourists are still rare to India and many Indians, especially those traveling to famed tourist sights from small villages, may have never seen someone from a different country. Especially someone who looked so entirely different.

Before we knew it, it was a full-on paparazzi photo session. To get a reprieve, we began asking people if we could take their photo. A group of rowdy tween boys laughed gleefully at this notion. They struck all kinds of poses for us. Their colorful striped shirts and graphic jeans popped brightly against the muted backdrop. Their antics grew increasingly entertaining by the minute.

Much to their dismay, we told them we had to move on to continue our sightseeing. They insisted on getting a group photo with each of us before we left.

Finally, we made our way to the Jama Masjid, the most impressive of all the structures.

Built in the 16th century, the congregational mosque is one of the largest mosques in India. Upon entering, there must’ve been thousands of people milling around the massive courtyard, but the sheer enormity of the space engulfed them.

Jama Masjid is one of the most sought after pilgrimage sites by Muslim devotees and one of the most visited tourist destinations in the Agra district.

Akbar build the mosque in hi signature Indo-Islamic architectural style with the inclusion of Iranian architectural elements. It represents a fusion of Mughal, Hindu and Jain architecture leveraging the locally-quarried red sandstone known as “Sikri Sandstone.”

As we got closer, we saw men seated on concrete stones washing their feet in an ablution tank, or communal pool. This is part of the ritual preparation for prayer that observant Muslims undergo, usually multiple times daily.

We began to sense people approaching us to our right – and then, more people appeared to our left. The photo requests began. We quickly snapped a few photographs of Jama Masjid and with gracious smiles, began to retreat. We had expended all our energy on the tween boys. Stardom clearly does not suit us.

Outside the city walls, we escaped to the backstreets and realized not everyone in Fatehpur Sikri were tourists.

Passing ubiquitous roaming cows, a true working town was revealed. Vendors opened their storefronts as people busily went about their day among the constant whirr of tuk tuks and motorcycles. We especially enjoyed talking with some shop owners who seemed surprised to see us wandering around, but were very welcoming.

One man who owned what appeared to be an electrical store sat in a perfect agnistambhasana pose (a.k.a. “double pigeon” in yoga) perched atop his stool. His flexibility was as effortless as his outfit: a perfectly pressed shirt and pants, but no shoes.

Another man ironed clothes out on the street. The iron he used looked like it was from another century – it was heavy and appeared to use coal. Ironing wallahs apparently use push carts to carry these portable irons (which don’t rely on electricity) from door-to-door to iron garments for customers.

A young couple spotted us in the doorway of their home. Seeing our camera, the father brought out his shy kids. We eventually turned their furrowed brows of worry to big, happy, giggling grins.

Back at our guest house, we reveled in the quiet patio. We enjoyed an afternoon masala chai and some sweets we picked up at the market. Mr. Saurabh appeared – he wanted to know our impressions about the royal complex.

“Overwhelming… but incredible,” we said. And we thought to ourselves, just like the people of India.

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