Given the Mughal tradition of magnificent tombs, it is no surprise that the mausoleum of the most distinguished Mughal ruler was one of the most ambitious structures of its time. Akbar’s mausoleum borders the side of the main highway to Mathura at SIKANDRA, 10km northwest of Agra. Rickshaws charge at least Rs120 for the round trip, or you could hop on a Mathura-bound bus from Agra Fort Bus Stand.
The complex is entered via its huge Buland Darwaza (Great Gate), surmounted by four tapering marble minarets, and overlaid with marble and coloured tiles in repetitive geometrical patterns, bearing the Koranic inscription “These are the gardens of Eden, enter them and live forever”. Through the gateway, extensive, park-like gardens are divided by fine raised sandstone walkways into the four equal quadrants of the typical Mughal charbagh design. Langur monkeys may be seen along the path, while deer roam through the tall grasses, just as they do in the Mughal miniature paintings dating from the era when the tomb was constructed, lending the whole place a magically peaceful and rural atmosphere.
The mausoleum itself sits in the middle of the gardens, at the centre of the charbagh and directly in front of Buland Darwaza. The entire structure is one of the strangest in Mughal Agra, its huge square base topped not by the usual dome but by a three-storey open-sided sandstone construction crowned with a solid-looking marble pavilion. The mishmash design may be attributable to Jahangir, who ordered changes in the mausoleum’s design halfway through its construction, Akbar himself having neglected to leave finished plans for his mausoleum. By the standards of India’s other Mughal buildings, it’s architecturally a failure, but not without a certain whimsical charm, and much of the inlay work around the lower storey is exquisite.
A high marble gateway in the mausoleum’s southern facade frames an elaborate lattice screen shielding a small vestibule painted with rich sea-blue frescoes and Koranic verses. From here a ramp leads down into a large, echoing and absolutely plain subterranean crypt, lit by a single skylight, in the centre of which stands Akbar’s grave, decorated with the pen-box motif, the symbol of a male ruler, which can also be seen on Shah Jahan’s tomb in the Taj Mahal.
Off the road on the opposite side, a kilometre north of Sikandra, lies the altogether more modest Mariam’s tomb, the mausoleum of Akbar’s wife and Jahangir’s mother Mariam Zamani.