The Panj Mahal is a rectangular colonnaded structure open on all sides and built from local red sandstone. It is positioned to act as a "transition" building between the semi-public spaces that surround the Daulat Khana courtyard and the more private spaces of the Royal Harem. Its function is unknown: some assumptions hold that it served as a pleasure resort for the Emperor or that it was used exclusively by the ladies and children of the court. For others, its interconnection with the imperial apartments (the Khwabgah complex) as well as the relation of the building’s main façade to the public court and its eastern orientation suggest that it might have been used for the Emperor’s daily ritual of Jharokha-Darsana, where Akbar displayed himself to the public assembled in the Pachisi court to worship him and receive his blessings.
As its name implies, the building is comprised of five levels, with the ground floor measuring 22.05 meters north–south by 17.65 meters east–west, and the upper floors decreasing in their horizontal dimensions as they rise, forming an asymmetrical pyramid stacked over the southeast corner. The final, fifth level is a domed chhatri. The total height of the structure equals the total length of its ground floor; however, the building appears vertically dominant, perhaps due to its being raised on a plinth approximately .75 meters above the level of the public court. With the exception of the chhatri dome, the building is a trabeated structure. On the east elevation, double and quadruple series of columns facilitate the transfer of load. The emphasis is visual as well as structural: the east elevation is the building’s principal elevation, overlooking the Pachisi Court.
The Panj Mahal has many entrances: it can be entered on the ground floor via a door from the courtyard of the Sonahra Makan to the south, via a small private entrance in the direction of the building with a central column, via a private entrance at its southeast corner to the Mahal-i Khass, and through an L-shaped passageway. One branch of this passageway connects the Panj Mahal with the Khwabgah; the other runs along the south side of the building and accesses the garden behind it. A staircase at the building’s southwest corner connects the ground level with the first floor terrace. A modern staircase, also on the southwest corner, leads to the upper floors.
The ground floor is laid out in 8 aisles running east-west and 6 running north-south, with a total of 84 columns. Given Akbar’s syncretic approach, it may not be coincidence that the number 84 is regarded as highly auspicious by Hindus. Double columns appear in the outer row along the east elevation; they are also used in the interior rows that align (in plan) with the location of the upper floor. The ground-floor columns are octagonal in section, with the exception of four circular ones. Originally, stone screens were installed between the columns to form a series of small cubicles. Two fragments of these screens are still extant, one near the private entrance and the other at the northeast corner. Evidence of others is still visible in the form of markings on the floor pavement. Several ceiling bays are roughly decorated (white upon a red ground) and many of the stone beams carrying the first floor are carved. The ground floor has a carved jaali balustrade, and no projecting chhajja.
The first floor above ground level is 6 aisles deep east-west and 4 aisles deep north-south, with a total of 56 columns. On this floor the external columns are doubled not only along the east elevation, but along the west and north as well. The corner columns form four-fold arrangements: the columns are round and each one of them bears a unique design. This floor is the most ornate and details in its carvings. A deep chhajja projects from the ceiling of the first floor outwards.
The second floor above ground continues to recede to the southeast, with 4 aisles east-west and 2 aisles north-south. As with the first floor, it has double columns on the eastern external side and a projecting chhajja with a carved frieze. The third floor contains 12 columns, doubled and bracketed along the exteriors. Instead of a projecting chhajja, it has a characteristic jaali balustrade. On its fourth floor above ground, the building is crowned by a square chhatri with a cupola roof. The pavilion is aligned with the second and third rows of columns of the floors below.
The Panj Mahal underwent a series of restorations between 1869-1927, interventions which significantly altered its appearance. No exact records were kept, but it is possible that the stone jaali screens that once divided the ground floor into cubicles, as well as the screens that fit between the columns on the upper floors, were removed at this time. The Panj Mahal may have been conceived of as a version of the Persian bagdir, or wind tower, intended to mediate the high temperatures of the Agra plains.
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