photo essay: delhi’s red fort, stories told and untold

Behind a pile of impregnable traffic barriers and guarded by the stern-lipped, but polite, Central Reserve Police Force [CRPF] is Delhi’s most prestigious fort, Qila-e-Mubarak, meaning ‘Auspicious Fort’. Or the Red Fort, as the British called it.

Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, who designed and built it in 1648 [the same gentleman who built Taj Mahal], would not have been too pleased about the barricades, both human and metal. He was not even happy when his son Aurangzeb built a wall around Lahore Gate, the public entrance.

With a direct line of view from Chandni Chowk to the Diwan-e-Aam [Hall of Public Audience], Shah Jahan argued that the enclosure was like putting a veil in front of a woman’s beautiful face.

One of the richest rulers in the 17th Century, ruling a nation which contributed 24 percent to global GDP, Shah Jahan’s home and office was the magnificent Red Fort. During his stay in its marble edifices, decorated in silks, gold, and mirror-work, Hindustan reached its cultural apex. It was also right here that the empire eventually collapsed, and was driven out from, by the British.

Every year, since the country’s independence on 15 August, 1947, India’s Prime Minister has unfurled the Indian flag and addressed its citizens from a platform in front of its Lahore Gate.

For a reason. Three times in Modern Indian history, Indians across all colour, creed, class, and caste came together as one. In the First War of Independence in 1857, the Red Fort Trials in 1945-6, and India’s independence speech on 16 August, 1947. And all three times it happened in Shah Jahan’s 17th Century ultra-luxury home-cum-office in Delhi.

A plaque in Shah Jahan’s bedroom inside is carved with an image of a scales of justice. He saw himself, first and foremost, as a just ruler. It is almost serendipity, that in the ensuing years, Red Fort became synonymous with democratic justice.

There are stories galore in the Red Fort Complex, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Some which have been recounted a million times, and some, hidden and quiet, waiting to be heard.

Intrigued? Come, see for yourself. ❤

The first sight one encounters on walking through the towering Lahore Gate [because it faced Lahore] is the Chatta Bazar. Chatt meaning ‘roof’. In a nation where bazars were traditionally uncovered and open to the skies, this market was an innovation in its time. A covered market, inspired by the markets in Kabul.

Chatta Bazar was built especially for the womenfolk living inside the fort. It was a place where they could shop for trinkets to dresses, from house decor to snacks, to their heart’s content.

The Mughals loved their music. Except for Shah Jahan’s son, Aurangzeb, who banned it in the empire!

But this was first Shah Jahan’s home, and it was only befitting that an entire building, which went by the name Naubat Khana or Naqqar Khana, was put up to house his royal musicians and serve as a venue from which they could play their royal compositions. Shehnais and cymbals were played five times a day in line with the five prayer times in Islam, as well as when the emperor came and went, and when dignitaries visited. This was also where visitors dismounted from their horses or palanquins, waited for their names to be called, and then went curtsying all the way to the Hall of Public Audience.

Chihil Satun—meaning 40 pillars—was the original name of the Diwan-e-Aam or Hall of Public Audience. It was a reference to Persepolis or Chihil Minar [40 pillars in Persian] in present-day Iran. Persepolis was believed to be the seat of the fabled just ruler, Jamshed.

The reference to Shah Jahan as the perfect ruler did not end at this. A figure of Orpheus, the Greek mythological musical hero whose music soothed all animals, both wild and tame, was set in pietra dura behind his gigantic throne.

Shah Jahan saw himself as no different from either Jamshed or Orpheus. He was the impartial and fair sole judge, jury, and executor of his vast empire; duties that he discharged to his subjects with much passion in the Diwan-e-Aam.

You may also like to read The Story of Persepolis from my travels in Iran.

So, was it all work and no play for Emperor Shah Jahan? Far from it.

Once a year, the Red Fort hosted an 8-day long Meena Bazar filled with theatre, dance, and song where up to 30,000 wives, sisters, and relatives of his nobles and officials put up stalls. Shah Jahan would be the only male in the premises. The event was, in essence, a pretext for him to select women for his harem. He would go to a stall in his palanquin and buy her wares to indicate the lady had been chosen. It could either be for a one-night stand or a long-term arrangement, the latter seen as a great privilege.

You may also like to read Poignant Taj Mahal: 7 Reasons Why Agra Should Be On Every Travel Bucket List from my travels to Agra.

Rang Mahal, true to its name, was a riot of luxurious colour and bling in the 17th Century. Traces of its sumptuousness still shine through. Covered in exquisite paintings, mirror-work and gilded flowers, and bisected with a stream and ivory fountain, it housed the royal harem and was guarded by an army of eunuchs. The only man allowed to enter inside was the emperor.

Keen connoisseurs of the arts—music, painting, and poetry filled the ladies’ days; live classical performances in the front courtyard, lit by thousands of fluttering lamps, kept them entertained at night.

Shah Jahan’s personal bedroom and prayer rooms, Khas Mahal, stands across a marble patio to Rang Mahal’s left. It is also, perhaps, one of the most beautiful palaces in the Red Fort. Filigreed jaalis, ethereal frescoes, and delicate pietra dura [an Italian craft] cover every visible inch. The amount of money spent on the palace is displayed prominently just in case you were wondering what it cost to do up a place like this back then. Rs. 5 million, which in today’s money would be Rs. 500 million.

Next to Khas Mahal are a flight of steps leading to a seemingly inconsequential gate. Oh, how looks can lie! This gate is where Shah Jahan entered his new capital in 1648, and where the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar was sent to exile from in 1857.

Flanking the eastern edge of Khas Mahal is Muthamman Burj where a Mughal tradition started by Akbar was enacted every morning, just after sunrise. Shah Jahan would stand at the window and give ‘darshan’ to his subjects standing across the river Yamuna, in the open fields below. It was an announcement that he was alive. That the emperor was still the ruler of Hindustan.

After India came under the British Crown, the British continued with the tradition. In December 1911, King George V and Queen Mary gave darshan to their Indian subjects from Muthamman Burj as part of their Imperial Durbar.

Qila-e-Mubarak’s most important building was Diwan-e-Khas, the Hall of Special Audience where Shah Jahan met his inner circle of advisers, nobles, and visiting dignitaries. Though bare now, it used to be filled with silk carpets, brocade curtains, and the world’s most expensive and extravagant throne—the golden jewel-encrusted Peacock Throne. Seven years in the making and topped with two jewelled peacocks which gave it its name, it was Shah Jahan’s brainchild and included the famous Kohinoor Diamond and Timur Ruby.

Red Fort aka Qila-e-Mubarak was Shah Jahan’s own personal paradise, and a series of engravings in Diwan-e-Khas reiterate it: “If there is a paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this.”

When Delhi was razed by Nadir Shah of Persia in 1739 in a fit of anger, 30,000 Delhi residents were massacred, the royal treasury emptied, and the peacock throne carried away. Nothing of the throne remains today except for its depiction in miniature paintings by chroniclers and the Kohinoor Diamond which ended up in the Queen of England’s Crown Jewels housed in the Tower of London Museum.

Closed to the public are the Royal Hammam and Moti Masjid, the latter sheathed in a white case. So, what makes this mosque special? It is what’s inside. A big part of the Mughal architectural style was a strict adherence to symmetry, at all costs. But what happens when there is a mosque built by a fundamentalist emperor [Aurangzeb] which needs to face Mecca, in this case, south-west? Simple. Build a mosque facing Mecca and place it in an enclosure aligned in perfect symmetry to the rest of the buildings. 🙂

According to the Koran, paradise is traversed with rivers of honey, milk, water, and wine. These nahr-e-behisht or rivers of paradise were recreated in Mughal buildings with waterways and fountains which criss-crossed gardens and went through buildings. The Red Fort was no different. Water from the river Yamuna, then below [the river has since changed course] was pulled up at Shahi Burj and worked its way right across the complex to Mumtaz Mahal at the other end.

A little story about Mumtaz Mahal warrants mention here. Shah Jahan’s eldest, most beloved daughter, Jahanara, lived in it, who he had forbade to marry so that there would be no possible competition to the throne, at least from her end. The charming palace ended up becoming a cosy haven for many a love affair in the beautiful, uber-wealthy, yet painfully lonely princess’ life.

When Bahadur Shah Zafar took over the reign of the Mughal empire in 1837, little did he know he would be its last emperor. True, the empire had shrunk to encompass just the capital city Delhi and the post was in name only. But it had chugged along in its collapsed state for the past few decades. Poetry thrived and India got some of its greatest Urdu poets, such as Ghalib and Zauk, from this era with many a poetry recital taking place at Zafar Mahal flanked with the Saavan and Badho Pavilions.

And so, it may have carried on, but for a miscalculation on the British East India Company’s part. Having arrived in 1608 under the guise of trade agreements, they had slowly edged their way into military control over India by 1803. In 1857 they introduced new, ‘better’ guns with cartridges covered in cow and pig fat which had to be chewed off.

This was absolute sacrilege to both the Hindu and Muslim communities. For Hindus, the cow is the essence of purity. For Muslims, pigs are the essence of impurity. But the British insisted, and this seemingly ‘little’ detail led to the unprecedented unification of the Indian regiments who turned to Bahadur Shah Zafar for leadership in their fight against the British.

What ensued was a blood bath at Red Fort from May to September 1857 and India’s first War of Independence. The British won. A victory accompanied with the Mughal empire’s wipe-out, the people of Delhi killed and looted, the Red Fort taken over and vandalized, and India brought under direct rule of the British Crown.

Ninety years of British Raj saw over 80 percent of the Red Fort razed to the ground and replaced with army barracks.

But all of life is full circle. Don’t you agree?

The same way the British pushed out the Mughals, the people of India ‘pushed’ out the colonial rulers and gained independence on 15 August, 1947. A momentous victory triggered by the oft-forgotten Subhas Chandra Bose-led Indian National Army and Red Fort Trials held right here at the Red Fort, the Qila-e-Mubarak.

The scales of justice on Shah Jahan’s Khas Mahal had won. Once again.

– – –

Travel tips:

  • Timings: Sunrise to sunset. The best time to visit the monuments is early morning. It gets crowded over the day. The museums are open from 9:00 am to 5:30 pm.
  • Ticket: Rs. 50 for Indians; Rs. 550 for foreigners. Photography allowed. Extra charge for the museums.
  • Guide: I explored Red Fort with Captiva Tour Audio Guide, a goldmine of fascinating insights developed by Ravishankar Iyer and Siddhartha Kongara, many of which have been drawn upon in this post with their kind permission.
  • I also watched three fantastic documentaries before touring Red Fort: The Great Moghuls, Talking History Delhi: Inside the Red Fort, and Grand Structures – The Red Fort Story.
  • There are four museums inside the Red Fort which I visited: Drishyakala, Museum of 1857, Subhas Chandra Bose Museum, and Yaad-e-Jallian.

9 thoughts on “photo essay: delhi’s red fort, stories told and untold

    • I was lucky I got to see all the palaces from inside. I had reached just after sunrise, was almost the only one at the site, and when I explained I was a blogger, the police kindly let me inside the marble edifices to wander at leisure and take my photos. The mosque and hammam, I understand, have always been out of bounds. The palaces are stunning at close quarters. I did not know they have closed off sections of Agra Fort to the public. When I explored it in 2014 it was all open. I guess the reason for the barriers is simply: vandalism and often disrespect for heritage. Sad, for those who care about heritage end up losing out.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Great. I don’t remember completely which sections are closed in Agra but it certainly was a mosque. I guess the reason some sections are closed in Agra is because either they are with some govt body or may be restoration. Even here in Jaipur, some sections of Amer fort are not accessible to the public. I don’t think it is about the careless attitude of public. I guess may be it has to do with cutting cost or manpower or some other logistic reasons. This is just a guess and may not be true for all locations.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. I know Delhi has so many monuments with impressive architecture and rich history. But through your words, one of the most famous of such heritage structure, really comes to life. It’s interesting to read about the stark differences between Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb, and about the twists of events behind the walls of the Red Fort. And as usual, your beautiful photos help your readers imagine how this fort was like during its heyday.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Bama. Shah Jahan and his son Aurangzeb were poles apart. Though the Mughal empire was geographically at its largest under Aurangzeb, his rule was also characterized with extreme fanaticism and was the beginning of the end of the empire. Red Fort is a beautiful fort, bathed in bloodbaths and passionate lives, where India’s medieval and modern history meet. I hope you get to visit it someday. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks much Aru! All we have today is only 20 percent of the original fort. 80 percent of it was destroyed in the 1857 war and its aftermath. What a sight it must have been back then. If you like art, do check out the art gallery inside run by Delhi Art Gallery. It is brilliant. I am truly happy you liked the post. 🙂


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