Shahjahanabad was the imperial city founded in the mid 1600s when, having more or less completed his magnum opus, the Taj Mahal, the Mughal Emperor Shahjahan shifted his capital from Agra to Delhi.
Shahjahan’s shifting of the imperial capital to Delhi necessitated the building of a fortress to house the court – a court which was wealthy enough to be rivalled by only that of the Ming emperors of China. To showcase this wealth, and of course to show off his own undoubtedly refined aesthetic sense, Shahjahan built the Lal Qila (literally, the `red fort’, named for the deep red sandstone walls that surround it). The fort, also known as the Qila-e-Shahjahanabad and the Qila-e-Mubarak, was designed by the master-builders Ustad Hamid and Ustad Ahmed. Construction began in 1639 and ended in 1648, though additions continued into as late as the 19th century.
Today, only a part of the Red Fort’s original buildings remain; the rest were destroyed during the period after British troops occupied the fort in 1857. There is, however, enough left to give some idea of the grandeur of this splendid citadel.
An oblong, irregular octagon in shape, the Red Fort has a perimeter of 2.41 km and is pierced by two main gates, the Lahore Gate and the Delhi Gate (not to be confused with the Delhi Gate of the city further south). Although the Yamuna has now shifted its course, in Shahjahan’s time it flowed along the Red Fort and water was channelled from it into the moat that surrounds the fort. The main palaces – those occupied by the royal family – were situated along what was then the river front.
This gate consists of three separate sections. The bridge which leads to the entrance of the fort was built for Emperor Akbar II (r.1806-37). Shahjahan’s successor Aurangzeb added the 10.5m high barbican: the fortification enclosing the Lahore Gate and making its approach less straightforward.
Beyond the barbican, and at right angles to it, stands the Lahore Gate itself, a three-storeyed structure of red sandstone flanked on either side by half-octagonal turrets topped by open pavilions. This central portion of the gateway is a style Shahjahan used commonly in his gateways: a row of small chhatris, each topped by a white marble dome, and with a minaret at either end of the row. The Delhi Gate, facing south, is very similar in design to the Lahore Gate.
Just beyond the Lahore Gate lies the market that is today known as Chhatta Chowk, but in Shahjahan’s time was also known as Meena Bazaar or the Bazaar-e-Musakkaf.
In the 17th century, the shops along this covered, vaulted arcade sold relatively exotic wares: midgets, eunuchs, jewellery, brocades, etc. Today, they cater exclusively to souvenir-seeking tourists. If you make your way to the centre of the arcade, where an octagonal open court lets in sunlight, you can still see traces of the original decoration in the form of incised plaster.
Past the Chhatta Chowk is the Naubat Khana, or Naqqar Khana, the drum house. Built in 1639-48, the Naubat Khana originally housed the music gallery and was the main entrance to the Diwan-e-Aam. Musicians sat in the Naubat Khana and would play drums throughout the day on special occasions like the emperor’s birthday, five times a day if the emperor was in residence and thrice if he was travelling.
Originally there was a walled square in front of the Naubat Khana, with a tank in the middle and openings to a north-south bazaar street leading to the Delhi Gate on one side and to the north of the complex on the other. A channel of water ran down the length of this street. Visitors would alight in this square, leaving their carriages, palanquins, horses and elephants here. For this reason this was also known as Hathi Pol or ‘Elephant Gate’.
Upstairs, the music gallery of the Naubat Khana has been converted into the War Memorial Museum, with exhibits ranging from Mughal to World War I battles – you’ll see impressive old swords, shields, maces, powder horns and armour from Mughal times. The World War I section has an eclectic display, of guns, uniforms, badges, military decorations photographs, flags etc.
Beyond the Naubat Khana, a pathway flanked by lawns leads to the Diwan-e- Aam, the Hall of Public Audience, where the Mughal emperors would receive the general public and hear their petitions and complaints. The Diwan-e-Aam too originally had a large square before it, surrounded by arcaded apartments. The Diwan-e-Aam is a striking, beautifully symmetrical palace with open sides and front, made of red sandstone. The hall was originally covered with polished white shell lime plaster, with gilded ceiling and columns, and railings of gold and silver separating the rank and file from the nobility.
The highlight of the hall is the magnificent white marble throne that stands in the centre of the eastern wall. The throne is exquisitely decorated, with a curving Bangalda or whaleback roof, and carvings of flowers, particularly daffodils, all along the lower front of the structure. The wall behind the throne is inlaid in very fine and extensive pietra dura work depicting trees, flowers and birds. These decorative panels, much damaged and partly removed and carried off to England after 1857, were restored in the early 1900’s by an Italian artisan named Menegatti.
The Mumtaz Mahal was originally a part of the imperial seraglio. After the revolt of 1857 it was used as a prison, and later as a sergeant’s mess. It now houses the Archaeological Museum, an interesting collection of artefacts from the Mughal era like, fine samples of calligraphy, farmaans or royal edicts by Jahangir, Shahjahan, Aurangzeb and Sultan Abu Sayyid, the grandfather of Babur, the first Mughal emperor. There are old books (a 14th century Quran and a copy of Firdausi’s Shah Nama), some fine paintings etc.
Originally named for the paint work that decorated its walls (`rang’ means `colour’), as well as the colourful social life of its interior, the Rang Mahal was the chief building of the imperial seraglio. The palace, made of white marble and shell plaster, was also known as the Imtiyaz Mahal (the `palace of distinction’). In Shahjahan’s time it was ablaze with paint and mirrorwork, its length partitioned by heavy drapes. A wide, shallow water channel ran through it, with a central marble basin carved into the floor. Under the Rang Mahal was a tehkhana or basement, to which the ladies of the seraglio would move in the hot summer days.
After 1857, the Rang Mahal was taken over by the military, and served as the mess room for the regiment stationed at the fort. Today, a small chamber inlaid with fine mirrorwork still survives, fine strips of silvery mirror forming arabesques and geometrical patterns on the ceiling and upper walls.
Khaas Mahal, the private palace of the emperor, showcases finely carved white marble throughout. Exquisite jali (screen) work and the depiction of the scales of justice are present on the northern side of the Khwabgah (sleeping chamber), which also has beautifully worked metal doors, carved all over in a pattern of flowers, with unusual doorknobs in the shape of elephants with mahouts (person who drives an elephant) sitting atop them.
At the east end of the Khaas Mahal is the Musamman Burj, a semi-octagonal tower with carved marble jalis and a jharokha (oriel window) in the centre. The Musamman Burj was originally topped with a dome of gilded copper – what you see today was put in by the British after 1857. The jharokha of the Musamman Burj was known as the jharokha-e-darshan, where the emperor would appear at sunrise daily to show himself to his subjects.
The Diwan-e-Khaas, or the ‘Hall of Private Audience’, where the emperor met with his most select courtiers, is by far the most ornate of the Red Fort’s many palaces. Unlike the Diwan-e-Aam, this hall is made completely of white marble and was originally embellished with carving, gilt and fine pietra dura inlay. In its heyday the Diwan-e-Khaas was carpeted, replete with mirrors and gold-embroidered curtains, and with a vast canopy of red cloth stretching across the front. Towards the back of the hall, on a marble platform, sat the legendary Takht-e-Taawus, the Peacock Throne.
The Peacock Throne was described by the French jeweller and traveller Jean-Baptiste Tavernier as being surmounted by a `peacock with elevated tail made of blue sapphires and other coloured stones, the body being of gold inlaid with precious stones, having a large ruby in front of the breast, from whence hangs a pear-shaped pearl of 50 carats or thereabouts…’. The Peacock Throne was carried off by the invader Nadir Shah in 1739.
Near the Khaas Mahal and Diwan-e-Khaas stands an otherwise nondescript building, completely closed and with only a couple of glass windows on each side that allow visitors to peep in. Here you will be able to see some signs of what was once a favourite chamber for the Mughal emperors: the Hammam or bathhouse. The Hammam was traditionally a place where the emperor not just had his bath, but also often discussed important matters of state with the courtiers who attended him.
The Hammam comprises three main chambers, intersected by corridors, with a central basin for hot and cold baths. The interiors of the Hammam are of white marble decorated with pietra dura inlays and carving and a floor with pretty floral designs.
Beyond the Hammam is a four-sided pavilion of white marble, known as Hira Mahal. This small, simple, and sparingly decorated structure was built in 1842, during the lean times when the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah II survived on a pension given by the East India Company’s government in India.
At the far end of the line of buildings along the wall stands Shah Burj, which consists of two distinct sections. At the angle formed by the northern and eastern walls of the fort is the actual burj, the tower. This was originally a domed building, but the dome was destroyed in the aftermath of 1857.
What is seen of Shah Burj today is just about a century old; the structure was seriously damaged in an earthquake in 1904, as a result of which it had to be rebuilt almost from scratch. Attached to this is a five-arched pavilion of white marble supported on fluted columns and with low whaleback roofs.
Originally, the Shah Burj was the point from which water was distributed throughout the fort. Water was pumped up from the river, and at least in later times, also came in a stream through an opening in the western wall.
The water flowed down a carved white marble cascade (which can still be seen), and then into the channel known as the Nahar-i-Bihisht, the `Stream of Paradise’, which flowed through the buildings and palaces of the fort.
Next to the Hammam, and like it, off limits to visitors, is the ‘pearl mosque’ that was built in 1659-60 by Aurangzeb, the son and successor of Shahjahan. It is a small three-domed mosque dressed with white marble and used as a private chapel by the Mughal emperors and the ladies of their household. The Moti Masjid is surrounded by a high wall that hides the building effectively. The domes that are visible above are not quite original – they were initially covered with gilded copper plates that were badly damaged in 1857. Later repairs, in the wake of the revolt, did away with the copper and gilt.
Sawan and Bhadon Pavilions
At either end of the Hayat Baksh Bagh are two almost identical open pavilions of carved white marble, facing each other across the water channel that runs from one to the other. The two pavilions are named Sawan and Bhado, after the two rainy months in the Hindu calendar.
Both pavilions are beautifully carved, and of particular interest is the wall of small arched niches behind what would have been a cascade of water. In these niches lit lamps were placed at night, and vases of golden flowers during the day, and the effect of water flowing in front of these in a fine, shimmering curtain must have been quite picturesque.
Zafar Mahal and Tank
Zafar Mahal stands in the middle of a four-sided tank (constructed almost completely of red sandstone). Though the tank was part of the original construction of the fort, Zafar Mahal was added two hundred years later, in 1842 by Bahadur Shah Zafar, who also added a parapet to the tank. A bridge originally connected the pavilion to the edge of the tank. Incidentally, British troops in the Red Fort used the tank as a swimming bath for many years.
— All material for this exhibit has been taken from INTACH Delhi Chapter's publications.
CONVENOR — A G Krishna Menon
CO-CONVENOR — Swapna Liddle
PROJECT CONSULTANT — Annabel Lopez
PROJECT TEAM — Abhiram Sharma, Arpita Ghatak, Niharika Singh, Tanya Singh, Aditya Mehta, Deb Banerji, Pulkit Taneja