Delhi’s Red Fort: A Theatre of History



It has been a grand symbol of imperial glory, a weary reflection of failure and vulnerability, a platform for rebellion and revolt, a shrine to martyrs and a pedestal for addressing Independent India. The Red Fort, one of India’s most visited monuments, has truly been a theatre of history. Situated in the heart of Old Delhi, amid the noisy markets and streets, it really packs in quite a story.

It wasn’t until the 17th century that Delhi started attracting the attention of the Mughals. The city of Agra had been their chosen capital since the middle of the 16th century. Emperors Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan, all ruled from Agra and that city continued to flourish. But in 1638, after a decade at the helm, the fifth Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, decided to shift his capital to Delhi. Agra had become too big and overcrowded.

The decision was a bold one, but also logical. Delhi, also on the banks of the Yamuna, had always been a crucial city. This is where the Delhi Sultanate was first established, there were important Sufi shrines here, and the city had served as a capital multiple times. Shahjahanabad, as the new city was to be called, would be north of Firoz Shah Kotla, the old capital of Firoz Shah Tughlaq, with the natural protection of the Aravalli Range on one side and the river on the other.

A view of Salimgarh Fort with Red Fort 
A view of Salimgarh Fort with Red Fort |Wikimedia Commons

The first monument built in the new capital was the Qila-e-Mubarak (The Fortunate Citadel) also referred to as Qila Shahjahanabad or Qila-e-Mualla (The Exalted Fort) – what we know today as the Red Fort. The site was chosen as there was already a small fort there, the Salimgarh fort built by Sher Shah Suri’s son in 1546.

Work on the Red Fort started in 1639, with Shah Jahan personally supervising. The fort was central to the plan for the new capital. Its main gate, the Lahore Gate, would face the main road or boulevard, today’s Chandni Chowk road. The boulevard ended in the Fatehpuri Masjid, commissioned by one of Shah Jahan’s wives, Fatehpuri Begum, also in the 17th century. Over time, pride of place was also given to a Jain temple, also in red, which can still be seen facing the Red Fort. This was a mark of recognition to the Jain businessmen who controlled a major part of commerce at the time.

The Red Fort took nine years to build, and when it was done it really was a city within a city. It held palaces, barracks, marketplaces, assembly halls and public areas. Shah Jahan moved there in 1648 and reigned from there for a decade until his overthrow and imprisonment by his son Aurangzeb, at the Agra Fort.

The Red Fort’s Glory Days

A bird’s eye view of the Red Fort, 1785
A bird’s eye view of the Red Fort, 1785|British Library

What we see today is just a fraction of what was the Red Fort. But thanks to contemporary records, paintings and descriptions, we can still get a sense of its grandeur during its prime. Francois Bernier, a French physician who lived in Delhi in the 17th century, wrote about the fort in his book, Travels in the Mogul Empire: AD 1656-1668. He described it as ‘one of the most magnificent palaces of the East’, and went on to describe the sprawling gardens, courts, busy markets. The gardens, he says, were ‘filled at all times with flowers and green shrubs, which, contrasted with the stupendous red walls, produce a beautiful effect’.

A view of Diwan-i-Am, painting by Ghulam Ali Khan
A view of Diwan-i-Am, painting by Ghulam Ali Khan|Wikimedia Commons

But did you know that the Red Fort wasn’t always all-red? While the walls were dressed in the red sandstone that can still be seen, most of the palatial complexes were a blend of red and white - the two favourite colours of the Mughals.

Another record that tells of the glory of the Red Fort is by Muhammad Waris, who was appointed by Shah Jahan to write an account of his reign. In his writing, Padshahnama: Vol 3, Waris elaborates on the fort. He says it had six gateways with as many as twenty-one bastions, of which some were circular and some octagonal. There were two markets inside, of which one – Chhatta Chowk still exists. Also detailed are the types of decorations in the palace, including the parchinkari (pietra dura), aina-kari (mirror work) and the use of a white plaster derived from a stone called sang-i-nihali which was quarried in Gujarat especially for the construction of these buildings.

Interiors of Diwan-i-Khas, painting by Ghulam Ali Khan
Interiors of Diwan-i-Khas, painting by Ghulam Ali Khan|Wikimedia Commons

Shah Jahan’s ‘paradise’ bore the finest decorations and art. Precious gems and stones, ornate arches and pillars, exquisite fountains featured in the large pavilions and apartments. One of the most celebrated elements of the royal court was the Takht-e-Taus or Peacock Throne of the emperor, which rested in the Diwan-i-Khas or hall for private audiences. The Diwan-i-Khas still stands, but the Peacock Throne was looted in the Persian invasion of 1739 and taken to Persia by Nader Shah. It is said that the throne was dismantled and parts of it integrated into the Persian Naderi peacock throne, which is now in the national treasury of the Central Bank of Iran. Another part is believed to be in the Topkapi Palace in Turkey.

Through the centre of this hall flowed the Nahr-i-Bihisht, or stream of paradise, which was the canal that flowed through the palace, embellished with gems and fountains. It is in the Diwan-i-Khas that the famous verse of Amir Khusro exclaiming ‘If there be a paradise on the earth, it is this, it is this, it is this’ is inscribed on an interior wall, so you can imagine the splendour of the palace that once stood here.

Naubat Khana
Naubat Khana|Wikimedia Commons

There were also special arrangements like rose water fountains and vapour baths for the royals. If you visit the Red Fort today, you can see the reflections of the Mughal past in existing buildings like the public hall or Diwan-i-Am, Rang Mahal and Mumtaz Mahal, which were part of the imperial seraglio (women’s quarters), the Hayat Bakhsh garden with its Sawan and Bhadon pavilions, the Chhatta Chowk market and the musicians’ assembly room or Naubat Khana.

Rang Mahal
Rang Mahal|Wikimedia Commons

But those were the glory days. After Shah Jahan, both his Red Fort and Shahjahanabad faced troubles. For starters, there was neglect. The battle-hardy Aurangzeb, who usurped the throne from his father in 1658, didn’t seem to care much for the Red Fort or the new city. And the feeling was mutual.

The Troubled Times

It is said that the prince Dara Shikoh, the eldest son and anointed heir of Shah Jahan (he was later killed by Aurangzeb) was the favourite of the palace and the people. The latter never forgave Aurangzeb for what he did to their emperor, his father. It is said that there was so much anger that stones were once pelted at Aurangzeb in the city. He was livid and added a barbican to the fort.

Even today the main gate of the fort is covered. Shah Jahan heard about this and was upset. Aurangzeb himself didn’t stay in the Red Fort for long; he returned to the Deccan in the early 1680s. A skeletal court remained at the Red Fort and the Mughal women managed its affairs. After Aurangzeb, as weak successors squandered the Mughal legacy, the fort too faced a steady decline.

The first major blow to it came at the hands of Nader Shah, who plundered the fort in 1739. Precious jewels and artwork, including the Peacock Throne, were taken away as booty. Subsequent raids by the Marathas, Sikhs, Jats, Gurjars, Rohillas and Afghans from the mid to late 18th century further weakened the Mughal stronghold. By the early 18th century, the Mughals were reduced to titular heads. By 1752, Marathas had taken control of the fort and Mughals were made puppet rulers under them.

The conditions were such that in 1760, the Marathas resorted to melting the silver ceiling of the Diwan-i-Khas to raise funds for the defence of Delhi from the armies of Ahmad Shah Durrani, an Afghan commander. In 1761, Durrani raided Delhi and conquered the fort. But he was soon replaced by the Marathas, who controlled it for two decades, until the Anglo-Maratha war in 1803, which they lost to the British East India Company.

A rather horrific event occurred in the palace in 1788 when Rohilla chief Ghulam Qadir locked up the then Mughal ruler Shah Alam and blinded him. He didn’t spare the royal family either. For days the Rohillas sacked the fort and murdered the people within.

The Recapture of Delhi, 1857
The Recapture of Delhi, 1857|Wikimedia Commons

After capturing Delhi in 1803, the British started taking control of the fort and of Shahjahanabad. By the time Akbar Shah II (r. 1806-1837) came to power, the Diwan-i-Khas had lost its charm and purpose; no darbars were held there. But Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor, gained some control again when the Indian soldiers of the British East India Company came from Meerut in 1857 and persuaded him to lead them in their fight against the Company. However, it wasn’t long before the British attacked and entered the walled city of Shahjahanabad, in September 1857.

Red Fort during 1860s-70s
Red Fort during 1860s-70s|The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The British troops destroyed more than two-thirds of the Red Fort’s palatial structures. While the palace was converted into quarters for the British garrison, the Diwan-i-Am was used as a hospital. A few more buildings were allocated to the troops. The precious stones, jewels and artworks that adorned the palaces were again looted. Several Mughal structures in the fort compound were demolished and in their place, British buildings such as army barracks, bungalows, administrative buildings, sheds and godowns came up.

Diwan-i-Khas with shamianas, painting by Ghulam Ali Khan
Diwan-i-Khas with shamianas, painting by Ghulam Ali Khan|Wikimedia Commons

The best visual reference to what the Red Fort looked like from within comes from the paintings of Ghulam Ali Khan, who was the court painter during the time of Mughal emperors Akbar Shah II (r. 1806–1837) and Bahadur Shah Zafar (r. 1837-1858) in Delhi. While these paintings are from a period when the British had already taken charge, they show how grand the Red Fort looked even then.

The Red Fort & India’s Freedom Struggle

Almost a century after the devastation in 1857, the Red Fort rose to prominence again, when the Indian National Army (INA) trials were held within the fort in the years preceding India’s Independence.

After the Second World War, in December 1945, three captured officers of the Indian National Army were put on public trial here under the charges of waging a war against British India. The chambers of the baoli or step-well, which is within the Red Fort but is believed to predate it, were converted into a prison. As the men stayed captive there, a nationwide campaign demanded their release. After compelling arguments, the three INA officers were finally set free.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru addressing the nation from Red Fort, 1947
Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru addressing the nation from Red Fort, 1947|Wikimedia Commons

With a history so rich and symbolic, it is not surprising that it was at the Red Fort that India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, unfurled the flag of Independent India on 15th August 1947. By choosing this as the venue, India was reclaiming its legacy, marking it as a place where important battles in our march to freedom had been waged. Since then, it has been from the ramparts of the Red Fort that India’s Prime Minister addresses the nation on Independence Day each year.

Cover Image: British Library


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