The Mughal dynasty is not only significant because of what it represented and achieved, but also because its complexity that reminds us that Muslim civilisation cannot be equated solely with rigid, narrowly doctrinal interpretations of the faith. The Mughal rule represented self-confidence in the construction of many of the fortresses, masjids (mosques), bazaars (markets) and makbara (tombs) that still stand as emblems of their military strength, wealth, sovereign pride, religious commitment and aesthetic sophistication. The Red Fort in Delhi is one such fine example of it.
With the foundation for the fort being laid out in 1639, it took eight years for its construction to be completed at the cost of Rs. 1 crore at that time. Its master builders were Ustad Hamid and Ahmad. Popularly known as the Red Fort or Lal Qila (because of the red standstone used), it was initially called Qila-e-Mubarak or the Fortunate Citadel.
Located on the west bank of river Yamuna, the fort is octagonal in plan (with long sides on east and west and smaller side on north and south). The rampart walls are built of red sandstones and are covered with a succession of turrets, kiosks, balconies and perforated screens. It has 21 circular and octagonal bastions. The largest bastion with pavilion is located on the eastern wall, then there is Shah Burj in the north and the Asad Burj (in the south).
The fort has four gates — Lahori Gate (in the west), Yamuna Gate or Khzir Gate (in the east), Delhi Gate or Akbarabadi Gate (in the South) and Jahangiri Gate (in the north). The Jahangiri Gate connects to the Saleemgarh Fort, but was closed after the freedom struggle of 1857. It is the southern and western gateways which then began to act as the main entrance into the fort. These gateways are three-storied structures, consisting of several apartments flanked by semi-octagonal towers and screen chattri in the centre. These chattris were further crowned by seven miniature domes of white marble. The Delhi Gate is flanked by two life-size elephants that were destroyed by Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb in keeping with Islamic injunctions (as Islam prohibited building of human and animal statues). These statues were originally erected in 1903 at the initiative of Lord Curzon.
After the Mutiny of 1857, the British army not only captured the fort but also demolished most of the buildings and gardens, especially the western part and constructed several barracks to accommodate the army. In the eastern part, structures in the harem were dismantled and later used as quarters, hospitals and mess by the British soldiers.
As one proceeds further, one reaches Naubat Khana or Naqqar Khana, which stands at the eastern entrance of the palace. It was used to play the Royal Band five times a day. It was also known as Hatipol as people descended from their elephants at this point and proceeded further on foot. This rectangular building is three storied, and its walls were originally painted in gold while the interior was painted in other colours. The later Mughal rulers like Jahandar Shah and Farrukhsiyar Shah are also believed to have been murdered in the Naubat Khana. Today, the Naubat Khana’s uppery floor has been turned into the Indian War Memorial.
The Diwan-i-Aam (Hall of Public Audience) stands on an open courtyard towards the east of Naubat Khana. This was the place where the Mughal emperor received general public. At the centre of the eastern wall is a marble canopy or a baldachin known as Nashiman-i-Zilli-Ilahi (The seat of the shadow of God). Its roof has been done in typical Bengali style, and in front of it lies a four legged marble dais, probably used by the wazir.
The southernmost building in the row of palaces, along the riverside is Mumtaz Mahal. Originally, it was the apartment for royal princesses. It was converted into a military prison and sergeant’s mess after 1857. At present, it houses an archaeological museum.
To the north of the Mumtaz Mahal, lies Rang Mahal or Palace of Colours. It was the largest royal apartment constructed for royal concerts. During Shah Jahan’s reign, it was known as Imtiaz Mahal or the Palace of Distinction. It derived its name from its decoration. The compartments of its central hall are known as Shish Mahal or the Palace of Mirrors. Farrukhsiyar got the original silver ceiling replaced with a copper ceiling which was once again replaced by wood under the reign of Akbar II. The eastern wall of the palace is pierced by five windows, which were used by the ladies of the royal court to watch animal fights that were held on sand at the foot of the palace). Meanwhile, a marble water channel known as Stream of Paradise or Nahar-i-Bisht flows in its centre.
Between the Mumtaz Mahal and Rang Mahal is open space, which was originally occupied by a small pavilion called Chhoti Baithak (small seated gathering) or Baria Mahal, which was demolished after the mutiny.
The Khas Mahal or the Private Palace in Red Fort was a suite of rooms located between the Rang Mahal and the Diwan-i-Khas. It has been built in marble and boasts of beautiful peitra dura work, and comprises three sections —Tasbih Khana (chamber for telling beads), Khwabgh (sleeping room) and Baithakor Tosh Khana (sitting room).
There is an inscription in Persian over the southern arch of central room of the Khwabagh which states that the building was began in 1639 C.E. and completed in 1648 C.E. at the cost of 50 lakh rupees.
The Musamman Burj or Burj-i-Tila is the place where the emperor appeared to greet the public gathered below the fort for Jharokha Darshan. Even Also King George V and Queen Mary appeared before public at the Burj-i-Tila in 1911.
The Diwan-i-Khas or the Hall of Private Audience was also used by emperor to meet nobles of highest ranks and other visitors for official work. It also had a pavilion made in white marble, enclosed by colonnades, but it was removed after the revolt of 1857.
The pavilion consists of engraved arches on three sides except on the east. The chamber is surrounded by aisles of arches rising from the piers. Nahar-i-Bihisht runs through the centre of the hall. While the upper part is painted in golden decoration, the lower part is decorated with floral designs in pietra dura. The wooden ceiling of the hall was painted in 1911 and originally had a silver ceiling adorned by floral patterns.
Apart from architectural profoundness, the structure holds a lot of historical significance too. Nadir Shah received here the submission of then Emperor Muhammad Shah and deprived him of the most valuable treasures Peacock Throne (Takht-i-Taus) — the latter was commissioned by Shah Jahan— in 1739. The Peacock Throne has never been found since. However, many of the stones from the throne have been traced in Persian crown jewels or later even under the possession of British colonialists. After the Persian King removed it, a replacement of the throne was commissioned and it existed until the Indian Rebellion of 1857.
Interestingly, the arches of northern and southern end of central chamber are also inscribed with a famous verse of Amir Khusro — which has also been used to describe Kashmir — “Gar Firdaus Bar Ruh-e-Zameenast, Hameenasto Hameenasto Hameenast” (If there is heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here).
It was also here that Shah Alam II was blinded by Gulam Qadir Rohilla in 1788. The Diwan-i-Khas was the spot where sepoy’s proclaimed Bahadur Shah Zafar the emperor in May 1857. The British deposed him and seven months later, he was tried at the same spot for mutiny and exiled. Later, in 1911, King George V held a court here.
Hammam or the Royal Bath was used by the royal members for the bath. The compartment known as Jamakhana was used as dressing room. There were different compartments for hot or cold bath and fountain basins for the use of rose water.
Moti Masjid or the Pearl Mosque is situated to the west of the hammam. The masjid was built by Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb for his personal use in 1659-60 C.E. so that the prayer sessions of the common man at the Jama Masjid would not be disturbed.
This prayer hall is surmounted by three bulbous marble domes, which were added after the mutiny to replace the original ones that were covered in gilded copper. The mosque was initiated on the model of the mosque in Agra Fort, and was believed to represent the expression of ‘women wearing Burkha’.
Hayat Baksh Garden
Hayat Baksh Garden or the Life Bestowing Garden, situated to the north of hammam and Moti Masjid, is a fine example of classical Charbagh pattern. It is divided into arteries with channels between them. Originally, a large garden compound, the western part of it was used to occupy the military barracks after 1857. The marble pavilions on its north and south are called Sawan and Bhadon (which is the name of first two principal months of rainy season). The large tank in the centre of the garden is a roofless red standstone called the Zafar Mahal. It was built by Bahadur Shah II.
Towards the north east corner of the garden is Shah Burj from where the Nahar-i-Bisht entered the fort, flowing southward to the hammam and the other palaces. Due to the damage of 1857, the structure is now domeless.
Moti Mahal and Hira Mahal, two small marble pavilions, lie to the east of garden on an elevated strip of land. These too were built by Bahadur Shah II. The structural loss of Moti Mahal was the result of mutiny and now only the Hira Mahal remains.
A symbol of power, pride and Independence
While it represents the zenith of Mughal architecture, the art work is synthesis of Persian, Indian and European art. Musamman Burj, Moti Masjid, Diwan-i-khas are some of the structures imitated on Agra fort model.
Architectural historian Percy Brown has written that the Red fort, in 1942, was “the last and finest of those great citadels representative of the Muslim power in India, the culmination of the experience in building such imperial retreats which had been developing for several centuries”. The Red Fort, thus, symbolises the apex of Mughal cultural refinement and could be seen as most sophisticated theatres built in the world for unfolding the dramas of the Mughal court.
Thus, India’s most formidable feat in historical architecture had its origin in an emperor’s wish. It is an edifice that represented the pinnacle of Mughal palace fort building and symbolised political and economic power. Arched screens, marble inlay work, pietra dura representations, jharokhas, marble lattices and fine craftsmanship on the windows add to the beauty of painted mansions and residences that comprise the fort. The Yamuna flowing by enhanced its perfection. This effect is, of course, lost today.
Being the supreme seat of power it has witnessed many historical events and is seen as symbol of national pride and Independence. It is from here that the Prime Minister of the country addresses the nation on Independence Day. It was in 2007 that Red Fort was categorised as the World Heritage Monument, thus, becoming the third World Heritage monument of Delhi.