Takeaway

Red heart of Mughal power

Aditi Sengupta | Updated on: Feb 22, 2019

Set in stone: The fort was built over almost 10 years — 1639-48 — under Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, who first christened it Qila-e-Mubarak | Photo Credit: Kamal Narang

One of the country’s most-visited monuments, the Red Fort is finally getting a chance to erase the scars of war and neglect

Gar firdaus bar ru e zameen ast/ Hamin ast-o, hamin ast-o, hamin ast

(If there is a paradise on Earth/ It is this, it is this, it is this)

This famous Persian couplet is often used to describe the otherworldly beauty of Kashmir. Far from the chinars and lofty Himalayan peaks of the Valley, a slice of paradise once blossomed inside a fort that we now know as Lal Qila or the Red Fort in Delhi. Inscribed on its walls, the same couplet seemed to bear testimony to the magnificence of this red sandstone structure.

It was built over almost 10 years —1639-48 — under Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, who first christened it Qila-e-Mubarak. Master architects Ahmed and Hamid were no strangers to the ruling dynasty’s love for waterbodies and gardens. And they created their version of jannat with the help of a nahr-e-bahisht (stream of paradise). Drawn from the Yamuna river, this stream flowed in carved channels around the palace complex and the other buildings inside the massive fort. The same water was used for the gardens, ponds and fountains (of marble and silver) before it returned to the river.

The heady fragrance of camphor and the many varieties of flowers mingled beautifully with the music of the water all around. The flicker of a thousand lamps and candles lent a dreamlike quality to the setting, making the fort one of Shah Jahan’s best creations.

A century later, this picture of perfection began to fade. Ravaged by repeated attacks by the Marathas, the empire started shrinking. Many provinces and smaller kingdoms broke away from the crown and declared independence — Awadh and Hyderabad, among them. Then came the British, and eventually the Mughal emperor — once known as Badshah-e-Hindustan — was reduced to a pensioner.

When the last Mughal emperor — Bahadur Shah Zafar II — left the Qila in 1857, it was through the Water Gate that Shah Jahan had first entered. He took refuge in Humayun’s Tomb before surrendering to the British forces. This marked the end of the dynasty as well as the Revolt of 1857.

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Cut to 2019. Standing outside the Red Fort on a moody January morning, it’s hard to believe that I am seeing only 20 per cent of what Shah Jahan had built.

“When the British soldiers occupied it in 1857, they demolished 80 per cent of the buildings within. It was Lord Canning’s timely intervention that stopped them from destroying it completely,” says Rana Safvi, author, translator and historian.

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Author and historian Rana Safvi’s new book dwells on the last days of the Mughal empire.

 

Leading a group of journalists and bloggers around the fort that morning, Safvi refers to the vivid descriptions contained in her latest book, City of My Heart . The book captures the last days of the Mughal empire in India, based on the translations of four Urdu works by Syed Wazir Hasan Dehlvi, Munshi Faizuddin, Mirza Ahmad Salim ‘Arsh’ Taimuri and Khwaja Hasan Nizami. It recreates the essence of life inside the fort as well as the death and destruction that followed the fall of the empire. It also touches upon the lives of princes, princesses and begums, many of whom were reduced to penury. Some were even forced into mendicancy.

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City of My Heart: Accounts of Love, Loss and Betrayal in Nineteenth-Century DelhiSelected and translated by Rana SafviHachette IndiaNon-fiction₹499

 

The following words reflected the shockingly small radius of the Mughal empire in its final decades: “Sultanat e Shah Alam, az Dilli ta Palam” (the kingdom of Shah Alam II, the third-last emperor, stretches only from the Red Fort to only as far as Palam, which is less than 30 km by road).

“The last emperor hadn’t eaten for three days before he fled the Qila,” says Safvi as she walks us to the Lahori Gate (gates were often named after the cities or places that lay in their general direction). Hasan Nizami’s maternal grandfather, Khwaja Shah Ghulam Hasan, was the caretaker of the Nizamuddin Dargah at the time. The emperor, on his way to Humayun’s Tomb, went past the dargah. He asked the caretaker for some food but all that the host could offer was besan ki roti and chutney .

Bahadur Shah Zafar was brought back to the fort a few weeks later, as a prisoner under trial for joining hands with the rebels.

Facing the Lahori Gate are the ramparts from where every Prime Minister of Independent India has delivered the speech on August 15 every year. A few steps from the gate, in the other direction, lies the Chhatta Bazaar, said to be the first enclosed market in India. “This, too, was set up by Shah Jahan, who was impressed by a covered market he had visited in Kabul,” says Safvi as we walk past shops selling silver jewellery, Pashmina stoles, headscarves and even sunglasses.

I notice a perceptible improvement in the cleanliness and hygiene of the surroundings, having last visited the fort in 2011. Safvi seems to agree that the Monument Mitra — the ‘adopt a heritage’ scheme launched in 2018 — has brought about some changes for the better. In charge of the upkeep of the Red Fort till 2023, the corporate Dalmia Group has added to and improved the tourist facilities, including modern toilets, ramps for ease of access, signage and an interpretation centre.

Also underway is a restoration project under the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). “One of the targets is to remove everything that was built post Independence; structures that cluttered the area and spoiled the look of the fort,” says Safvi, who visits the Unesco World Heritage Site regularly for research and documentation. “The corridors of the Chhatta Bazaar have been given a facelift apart from a thorough clean-up of Diwan-i-Aam (Hall of Public Audience), Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audience) and the Naubat Khana (drum house or pavilion),” she adds. The cleaning work included removal of dirt and debris from the ramparts of the fort (reports suggest this alone took five months) and the application of Multani mitti (fuller’s earth) on the walls of the Diwan-i-Khas, a marble structure, to restore the original colour.

According to Safvi, only the walls of the fort were red. “Though it was made of red sandstone, everything was plastered before they made gildings and carvings,” she says as we halt at the end of the market. As the fortune of the Mughal empire dimmed, the fort came to be known as Lal Haveli or Badi Haveli. Slowly the plaster disappeared, exposing the red sandstone surface. The silver ceilings and the gold carvings were gone, ripped off by the Rohillas, the Marathas and also the British. Queen Victoria’s men eventually turned one room in the palace complex into a Mughal room, where one could “smoke a hookah, lean against bolsters and feel like an emperor”.

Sans the beautiful fountains one sees in the paintings of the fort when it was first built, the lawns today are a mere shadow of what they once were. Hordes of tourists — the Red Fort is still one of the most-visited monuments in the country — made things worse over the years. The fountains remain dry but the lawns are finally free of plastic and paper. Uniformed guards keep a strict eye on people trying to sneak in eatables or those leaning against the walls of the Diwan-i-Khas for photographs.

Another highlight of the restoration project is the mint-condition art museum at Barrack no. 4 (the fort has 10 barracks, all built by the British), which was inaugurated earlier this month. Named Drishyakala, this joint effort of the ASI and the Delhi Art Gallery features several illustrious names in its collection — the Tagores (Rabindranath, Abanindranath and Gaganendranath), Jamini Roy, Nandalal Bose, Amrita Sher-Gil and suchlike.

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Time zone: Barrack no. 4 — one of the 10 inside the fort — is now home to an art museum

 

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It seems natural for the Red Fort to have such a museum. It was, after all, a Mecca for all things refined. Even in decline, the Mughal empire flourished in terms of art, music and poetry. Says Safvi, “When you read the book, you feel as if the royalty had no work. Life here seemed to be a series of continuous festivals. People would wonder why — because the emperor had no empire to rule.”

The daily routine of the Mughal emperor, Shah Alam II onward, was about spending hours at the court without official work. Bahadur Shah Zafar, for instance, read his ghazals to his courtiers. He organised mushairas and mehfils — as also his son’s marriage — with money borrowed from local moneylenders.

The music, also of high calibre, came from the Naubat Khana where musicians played eight times a day, to indicate the hour for mealtimes, prayers and so on. There was a special tabla beat to greet the emperor. Disciples of the Delhi gharana are still heard playing the Lal Qila gat .

Only the royalty could travel beyond the Naubat Khana on horseback. In the days of Shah Jahan, says Safvi, commoners had to walk about 3 km the durbar from as far as Khari Baoli (a spice market in present-day Old Delhi). The lawns were waiting areas for those seeking an audience with the emperor. Ushers would summon them in one by one and they would climb onto a marble stool to hand over their plea to the emperor, all the while taking care to keep their eyes lowered, as no one was allowed to lock gaze with the emperor, who was nasheman zill-e-ilahi (the shadow of god).

The emperor’s throne at the durbar of the commons is today within a meshed enclosure, to protect it from selfie-seekers. Some of the carved panels in the background had been taken away by the East India Company. Years later, they were returned to their original place, brought back by King George V and Queen Mary during their 1911 visit.

The area adjacent to the Diwan-i-Khas was once the liveliest inside the fort (even in the days of the last emperor, more than 3,000 people lived here). The harem — the women’s quarters — was protected by an army of eunuchs, some of whom held positions of power in the court. A lal purdah (red curtain) marked this area from the other buildings in the palace complex. No man but the emperor had the right to entry.

The harem had many windows offering views of the Yamuna and the elephant fights on its banks. When the women stepped out to the riverside, the entire area was cordoned off.

There is nothing enticing about the Yamuna now — it only brings disease and foul odour. But standing at the end of the palace complex — where the women of the Mughal empire sang, danced and played games — it is not difficult to visualise what their paradise was like.

If you still find it hard, look for it in the pages of City of My Heart .

Published on February 22, 2019
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