About the book
Delhi, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri: monuments, cities and connected stories
Shashank Shekhar Sinha
Pan Macmillan India
299 pages; Rs 999 (Rs 427 online)
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When you get your hands on a book with a title like Delhi, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri: monuments, cities and connected stories – the expectations are not too many. After all, there are so many books that you’ve read about these three cities and their landmarks or heard so many stories around them that you wonder if you really need to invest the time in another book. . However, barely past a few pages, you realize that this is a rare work, captivating and rich in detail.
Interestingly, there’s a 17-page prologue and 68-page intro that sets the context for this book. And it is here that you catch a fascinating discourse on the history of these three cities. The author, Shashank Shekhar Sinha, is an independent researcher and “public historian” who taught history at the University of Delhi.
In Delhi, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri , Sinha covers six UNESCO World Heritage Sites that these three cities are home to and is packed with so much detail and historical background that it leaves you in awe.
One thing that stands out from the book is how Sinha shows you around these monuments. Not only does it sprinkle the narrative with little-known stories and details, it also debunks a few myths. For every monument of the six it covers in the book, it leaves the reader more informed, more intrigued, and more attached to the monument and its historical significance. His skillful handling of myths and controversies reflects a learned detachment as he puts forward every possible angle and evidence that exists, leaving the power to the reader to pass judgment.
Ironically, it is this wealth of evidence that makes judgment quite difficult, and you can feel the author smiling between sentences at the reader’s predicament. Take, for example, his article on the myths about the source of the iron pillar at the Qutub Minar complex. Sinha tells you all the claims made by various historians attributing it to Chandragupta II of the Gupta dynasty to King Tomar Anangpal in Iltutmish of the slave dynasty. It also offers evidence as to why this pillar did not rust even after 1,600 years, despite being made of iron. And then you catch the author happily declaring that “the pillar is a curious combination of myth, legend and history”.
Equally intriguing and captivating are the chapters on Humayun’s Tomb, Agra Fort, Fatehpur Sikri, Taj Mahal, and Red Fort. Sinha examines these heritage sites in their wider geographical, socio-cultural and historical context, combining academic research in all disciplines such as history, archeology, architecture, etc.
With the help of site maps and photographs, the reader is virtually transported to these enchanting places. For someone like me, who was born and raised in Delhi, with the Red Fort as the backyard of my childhood home and the Qutub Minar complex as the location of every alternative picnic – it wasn’t quite clear what ‘there was more to this about places. Corn Delhi, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri takes you to the pass and takes you back to these all too familiar sites, leaving you with a whole new perspective.
The result is that, enriched with this fascinating background and story, one would want to spend a lot more time on these six sites than one normally does.
Curiously, Delhi, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri begins with a four-page guide on “How to Read This Book”. If it was the lack of conviction on the part of the editors that readers wouldn’t stick with the book and want to jump from chapter to chapter – then that seems like a big mistake in judgment. You read the book like you would read a thriller – from start to finish! The only downside is that the photographs are in black and white – which in those days and times today is a drag.
What prompted Shahjahan to leave Agra and why was Delhi chosen as the seat of the throne? How in some popular folkloric constructions did the iron pillar give Dilli her name? How was Akbar’s veneration of Sufi saints a factor behind the choice of Fatehpur Sikri as the imperial capital? And how did a change in his religious temperament lead him to abandon it and choose Agra? Answers to such posers are just a few of the many rewarding nuggets this book will leave you with. If such things can hypnotize you even if the reader is not a history student, then let more. And if this is how “public historians” can impact you, then there are more Sinhas.
(Giraj Sharma is a brand consultant. A full-fledged Delhi boy, he runs a tongue-in-cheek blog called State of Delhi)