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Akbar's folly

DEEPTI RUTH AZARIAH

There are many legends as to why the beautiful city of Fatehpur Sikri lies deserted. This is one of them.


There are many legends about Akbar, the emperor. This is one such.

Emperor Akbar wanted a son. He went to visit the sage, Salim Chisti. The wise man told Akbar that he would soon have a son. A year later, the queen had a son whom Akbar named Salim. Akbar was so happy that he decided to build a city in honour of Chisti. He built a beautiful fortified city near the village of Sikri, and called it Fatehpur. You can see the city even today. It lies not far from Agra.

The villagers of Sikri were happy to have the protection of the emperor. Each of Akbar's queens had a palace. Many villagers went to the city to work in these palaces.

There lived in Sikri a dancer named Zarina. She longed to work in the palace like her friends, but her father wouldn't hear of it. Then one day, the emperor threw a grand party for some visitors. He called his musician Tansen to play for him.

"I must have dancers, Tansen," said the emperor.

"Very well," said the musician, "I will try, but I know of no dancers in this place."

One of the servant girls heard them speaking and when the emperor had walked away, she went up to Tansen and suggested he ask Zarina.

When the great Tansen himself asked Zarina to dance for Akbar, her father couldn't refuse. "One word of caution, my child," he said, when Zarina came to say goodbye, "Where there is power, there is also danger. Be careful, and remember that I am always here for you."

Zarina went to the palace and danced all night before Akbar and his courtiers. It was like a dream come true. The emperor liked her so much, that he made her stay in the palace so that he could call for her whenever he wanted.

Everyone in the palace liked Zarina except Madhavi, lady's maid to the queen, Jodha Bai. She was jealous of all the attention the emperor gave the dancer. Madhavi soon found a way to make Zarina lose the emperor's favour and affection. When the queen was bathing, Madhavi stole a golden bangle for her jewel chest. While Zarina was busy dancing for the king, Madhavi hid the bangle among the dancer's things.

When Jodha Bai found the bangle missing, she was furious. She ordered the palace to be searched.

"I'm sure I saw the bangle in Zarina's room," said Madhavi. When the bangle was found, the queen flew into a rage. She went to Akbar,

"Your little dancer is a thief." She cried. "What are you going to do about this?"

"Your Majesty, I didn't steal the bangle," cried Zarina. "Why should I? I wear much prettier bangles when I dance."

"Do you mean to say my jewels are not pretty?" gasped the queen.

"Can you explain why you have the bangle, Zarina?" asked Akbar.

Of course, Zarina had nothing to say. How was she to know what had happened? The emperor shook his head sadly,

"The proof is plain to see. You are a thief and a liar, Zarina," said Akbar sadly. "You know the punishment for stealing."

Zarina grew pale. A person who stole would have his hand cut off so that he could never steal again.

"But your majesty, I'm a dancer. I can't lose my hand. How will I dance? Anyway I didn't do it."

"Silence!" roared Akbar. "You will be punished first thing tomorrow morning."

He walked away, feeling angry and disappointed. Zarina seemed such a nice girl; Madhavi watched the whole scene gleefully.

Zarina wept all day. Then when night fell, she danced before the emperor as usual. It was a slow, sad dance, but the best the court had ever seen. Akbar was sorry she would have to go,

The next morning, as usual, Akbar called his courtiers together. He sent a guard to fetch Zarina. The guard searched the entire palace, but there was no sign of the dancer. He went to tell the king.

"Has anyone seen Zarina?" asked the emperor.

The courtiers looked at each other. Then an old man stepped out in front of the throne.

"You were wrong to accuse Zarina without proof, your majesty," said the man.

The king recognised Zarina's father. "Tell me where Zarina is, and I will see that justice is done," he ordered.

Zarina's father shook his head sadly. "You are too late. Somethings cannot be undone. You have brought great sorrow to my daughter, and Fatehpur Sikri will pay for its betrayal."

Before Akbar could ask the old man what he meant, he stepped back into the crowd and disappeared.

Two weeks later, the wells of Fatehpur Sikri ran dry. There was no water for the king's camels and horses and definitely not for the people. Akbar took his wives, children and courtiers to his fort in Agra, never to return to Fatehpur.

Even today, in the little village of Sikri, grandmothers tell the story of Akbar and Zarina. They teach children not to believe in gossip and tales, but to use wisdom. Some villagers say that on a moonlit night you can see a figure standing at the great gate of Fatehpur Sikri, the Buland Darwaza. It is Madhavi, waiting for Zarina to return, so that she may ask for forgiveness.

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