Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Life's Tough

“They may have had thousands of women in their harems, but life wasn’t that easy for them.”

So says our guide, leaning earnestly toward us, speaking of the Moghul emperors, particularly of the three most famous emperors of the 16th century, the ones who built the great monuments in Agra and created the short-lived city of Fatehpur Sikri.

“Maybe,” he says, “fifteen percent of their time was spent with the ladies. For eight-five percent they were doing war.”

We understand. We’re in a war of nerves, steel, and flesh, driving to Fatehpur Sikri on a narrow road designed for carts, but being used by buses, lorries, cars, motorbikes, motor rickshaws (I’ve learned to call them tuk tuks), camel taxis, bicycles, and pedestrians. All are going as fast as their respective feet, hooves, or wheels will carry them. All are hogging whatever right of way they can carve from the mob, channeled by the macadam which drops precipitously in a tire-eating, pastern-popping, ankle-breaking way. No one goes there. But petty merchants and entertainers, hoping for a customer, jump not infrequently onto the road. Even a boy with a dancing bear interrupts our passage.

War, the kind deliberately designed to produce fatalities, was a full-time occupation for the Moghuls, our driver says, conducted almost entirely by elephant, camel, and horse cavalries. Foot soldiers fleshed out the battle front and, sometimes, by their sheer numbers, frightened the opposition into surrender. But no one counted on them to do much killing. No one counted on much killing at all. War was rather like the roads of India are now … a place of bluff and bluster, where the loser retreats, the winner goes forward. With luck, no one gets killed.

We pull out to go around a bus, our driver’s horn blaring. There’s a car headed straight for us. I grab for a handhold as our driver’s head jerks back and he takes his foot off the gas. My mouth drops open in disbelief. We’re idling along, now, the oncoming car becoming huge, the bus alongside us a moving wall. “Go,” I shout, my voice one of many. “Step on it.”

Way too late the driver seems to realize where he is. He snaps out of his reverie and does step on it, again leaning on the horn. The bus is blaring, the arms of a man with a donkey wave, the face of the oncoming driver can be seen, imperturbable. His expression says that this happens all the time.

Maybe it does. He brakes, and we squeak through.

The Moghuls had nothing on us. Akbar, it is said, bluffed an enemy who could field tens of thousands of men with nothing more than gall and nine hundred mounted troops. The rebellious prince had led his uprising, believing Akbar too far away to do anything about it. Indeed, it was impossible.

But unwilling to be outmaneuvered in such a blatant manner, Akbar force-marched the most mobile part of his army, and appeared in the disloyal principality in record time. The prince, seeing himself surrounded, thought his intelligence wrong and surrendered.

Back to the Moghuls’ sex lives. We’ve just gone through the outer walls of Fatehpur Sikri and are idling along past the remains of long, stone buildings that are divided into small cells. “The market,” our guide says. The road begins climbing and, ahead of us along a high ridge, we can see a collection of peaked domes standing on pillars – typical Central Asian construction.

What’s any of this got to do with sex, you ask? These particular domes, indeed the entire town of Fatehpur Sikri as it developed under the Moghuls, came into being because a holy man predicted that Akbar’s wives would finally give him sons. And so it came to pass … but only after Akbar’s first wife spent her confinement living near the holy man’s retreat at Fatehpur Sikri.

Akbar was convinced. The place was a baby factory. So, rather than moving his wives back and forth from Agra, he relocated his capitol, built himself a city.

The child-bearing years came and went. New problems arose and drove him to relocate once more. Thus, fifteen years after it was built, Fatehpur Sikri was left to the heat, the holy men, goats, sheep, snakes, and, eventually, to tourists.

We sit on a bench in the middle of a life-sized Parcheesi board, where the ladies of the harem once danced and sang as human Parcheesi pieces, and we listen to more stories about Akbar. As promised, most of them concern war, and these weren’t always bloodless.

Nor was our trip to Fatehpur Sikri without casualties. We’re getting a new driver.