The Red Fort in Delhi is one of the most iconic monuments in India, and it is from the ramparts of this glorious fort that the Prime Minister of India addresses the nation, every year, on Independence Day. And yet this colossal and grand structure, the former seat of the Mughal Empire, conceals a much smaller fort that predates it and is steeped in history.
This is Salimgarh Fort, which is now part of the Red Fort complex. Although the arched bridge connecting the two forts once spanned the Yamuna River, the bridge now overlooks a city.
Salimgarh Fort was built by the Suri ruler, Salim Shah Suri, as a bulwark against the armies of Mughal Emperor Humayun. The fort, in which Mughal Emperors, Princes and nobles were later imprisoned, was witness to some of the most tumultuous and brutal events that once shook Delhi. Today, it is a symbol of India’s freedom struggle.
Salim Shah Suri’s father, Sher Shah Suri, was an ambitious Afghan who served in the Mughal armies. After the defeat of the last Lodi Sultan by Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire, Sher Shah captured small territories and was always looking for ways to expand. He spotted an opportunity when a very young Humayun ascended the Mughal throne in 1530 CE. Sher Shah finally established the Suri Dynasty in North India after he defeated Humayun, first in the Battle of Chausa in 1539 and later in Kannauj in 1540.
Sher Shah was succeeded by his son, Islam Shah Suri, also known as Salim Shah, in 1545 CE. To protect his territory from potential attacks, Salim Shah built a fort in Delhi. Being a defensive structure, the location was chosen very carefully. Salimgarh Fort was thus built on a site that was hemmed in by the Yamuna River on one side and the Aravalli Hills on the other.
However, Salim Shah died in 1555 CE, before the fort was complete. This was also the year when Humayun returned from his self-imposed, 15-year exile, which he had spent in Persia. Internal power struggles had taken a toll on the Suri Empire and this presented Humayun the perfect opportunity to wrest control and reassert his authority as Emperor.
Humayun advanced towards Punjab and in the Battle of Sirhind, in 1555 CE. He defeated the armies of Sikandar Shah Suri, the sixth Suri ruler, and reestablished the Mughal Empire. He captured Salimgarh Fort and renamed it ‘Nurgarh’ because he didn’t want the original name of the fort to be used since Salim Shah’s father Sher Shah Suri had usurped his kingdom. Thus started the Mughals’ long association with the fort.
It is said that Akbar (r. 1556-1605), Humayun’s son and successor, gave Salimgarh Fort to Sheikh Farid, also known as Murtaza Khan, as a land grant or a jagir. Even though Murtaza Khan entered Mughal service under Akbar, he became an important figure in the Mughal court under Emperor Jahangir (r. 1605-1627), and even served as Governor of Gujarat and later Punjab. The city of Faridabad in Haryana is also named after him. Jahangir was a frequent visitor to Salimgarh Fort, where he used to camp en route from Agra to Lahore or Kashmir.
The fort of Salimgarh rose to prominence again, when Shah Jahan (r.1628-2658), son and successor to Jahangir, shifted the Mughal capital from Agra to Delhi. A site near Salimgarh was chosen for the construction of his imperial palace and fort – the Red Fort – in his new city of Shahjahanabad, which is synonymous with present-day Old Delhi.
It is said that before construction on the Red Fort began in 1639 CE, Shah Jahan stayed at Salimgarh for a while. When Aurangzeb succeeded his father, Shah Jahan, to the throne in 1658 CE, Salimgarh was being used as a camp site by the Mughals. But Aurangzeb turned it into a prison. History remembers Aurangzeb as a brutal ruler, who imprisoned his father Shah Jahan in Agra. In Delhi, he imprisoned his brother Murad Baksh and his daughter Zebunissa, in the fort of Salimgarh.
Murad Baksh had helped Aurangzeb in the war of succession against their brother and heir-apparent Dara Shikoh, but in 1658 CE, he was imprisoned by Aurangzeb for his failure to properly follow the laws of Islam. Murad Baksh was moved to Gwalior Fort and executed there.
Aurangzeb’s daughter Zebunissa is remembered as a poetess who wrote under the name ‘Makhfi’. But Aurangzeb did not approve of her love for poetry and music. He imprisoned her in Salimgarh Fort, where she lived for 20 years till her death in 1701-02 CE.
Over the next couple of centuries, Salimgarh saw the incarceration of princes, nobles and other VIPs. Many met their end here. Among the fort’s more famous prisoners was Jahandar Shah, who was the Mughal Emperor very briefly, in 1712-1713. He was held here for some time by his nephew Farrukhsiyar, who had overthrown him to become the next Emperor in 1713.
It is said that Shah Alam, the 16th Mughal Emperor who was blinded and tortured by the Rohilla Chief Ghulam Qadir in the Red Fort in 1788 CE, languished in Salimgarh until the Maratha ruler Mahadji Scindia rescued him and had the Rohilla tortured and executed.
During the Revolt of 1857, Salimgarh was a hub of activities and a prison for freedom fighters. Author and historian William Dalrymple in his book The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857 (2009) mentions that batteries of artillery had been erected at Salimgarh. The last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar had become a leader of the Revolt and is believed to have secretly met with freedom fighters here. The Revolt had thrown the Mughal Empire into such a shambles that “Mirza Mughal’s (Bahadur Shah Zafar’s son) men were so desperate for money that they had begun digging for buried treasure in the Mughal Bastille of Salimgarh”.
Bahadur Shah Zafar was taken state prisoner for his involvement in the Revolt of 1857. It is said that before he was exiled to Rangoon in Burma by the British, he was held at Salimgarh for a few days. Bahadur Shah is also said to have built the bridge that connects Salimgarh to the Red Fort although some believe it was Jahangir who built it. Bahadur Shah Zafar did, however, built a gate at the northern entrance to Salimgarh Fort in 1854–55 and named it after him.
Salimgarh was used as an army camp by the British but, during India’s freedom struggle in the 1940s, it was used as a prison once again. It became a symbol of the freedom struggle as soldiers of the Indian National Army (INA) were incarcerated and tried here. INA leaders such as Shah Nawaz Khan, Prem Kumar Sahgal and Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon, and many other soldiers of the INA were confined to the barracks in Salimgarh Fort.
In 1995, Salimgarh was turned into a memorial for Indian freedom fighters. It was renamed ‘Swatantra Senani Smarak’ and houses a museum that displays objects from the freedom struggle such as the INA uniform worn by Col Prem Kumar Sahgal, the riding boots and coat buttons of Col Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon, photographs of INA founder Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and plenty of other memorabilia. From being a defensive structure to a prison and then a memorial, Salimgarh Fort has had quite a long and eventful journey.
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