The visual and spatial structure in Mughal urban design: the 16th century city of Fatehpur Sikri, India

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Virginia Tech


Fatehpur Sikri is a world heritage monument. It was commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Akbar and was constructed in less than fifteen years (1569-1574). Fatehpur Sikri served as the capital of the Mughal empire for a very short time, from 1569 to 1585. At present, most of its buildings remain in excellent condition. It is a city frozen in time. This dissertation has examined the city of Fatehpur Sikri in the context of its history, design theory, rituals, settings and principles of spatial design.

The layout of the imperial complex of Fatehpur Sikri is unique in its spatial organization. It has no streets, but consists of a series of interlocking courtyards set to the cardinal points. The design of individual monuments is based on symmetry but in the layout of the complex, the rules of symmetry are broken and asymmetry is deliberately employed. The dissertation concludes that this unique layout may have been employed to provide flexibility in order to accommodate different buildings and spatial conceptions. It creates a rich and dramatic visual environment within the complex. The layout also reflects the themes of Din-i Ilahi, the religion founded by Akbar and which was a synthesis of Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity.

The plan of Fatehpur Sikri is analyzed in the framework of the mandala, a Hindu concept of architectural spatial planning and town planning. The research concludes however, that the plan was not developed within this rigid framework. The dissertation also examines the layout of Fatehpur Sikri in terms of its social and court activities. It was found that there is a strong connection between the layouts of the imperial complex of Fatehpur Sikri and the Mughal camp. The spatial structure of the Mughal camp plan was organized on the concepts of functional zoning based on public, semi-public and private space.

The dissertation proposes solutions to the functions of the Diwan-i-Khas, the Turkish Sultana, Birbal's palace and the royal bazaar. The functions of these buildings are in controversy among various architecrural historians. The research establishes that the Diwan-i-Khas had a symbolic meaning. The interior arrangement of the building consists of four bridges connected to the circular platform on the richly carved column in the center. The central column symbolized the axis from which the emperor ruled; this axis was also a connection between the Emperor Akbar, God and the earth. The Turkish Sultana was used by the emperor as a special meeting place. Birbal's palace was the residence of one of Akbar's favorite queens. The building next to this was a royal bazaar where merchants came regularly to sell valuable items to the women of the harem.

The spatial structure was created through the use of the principles of asymmetry, multiple axes, enclosure, change in level, transparency, and the element of surprise. Human scale was achieved by emphasizing horizontal facades and lines. To create visual interest horizontal facades were punctuated by introducing monumental scale in the Panch Mahal, the Buland Darwaza and the Badshahi Darwaza. The buildings were also crowned by small pavilions which create a dramatic skyline. The visual image of Fatehpur Sikri is therefore reflected in its unique skyline as well as its landmarks: the Panch Mahal, the Buland Darwaza, Salim Chisti's Tomb, and the profusely carved central column of the Diwan-i-Khas. At present, very few visitors are introduced to the Rang Mahal, the Stone Cutters' Mosque, the caravanserai, the Hiran Minar and the Hathi Pol. The study recommends that a unified circulation system be developed to join together all these major monuments of Fatehpur Sikri in accordance with the historic era.



urban design, courtyards