The gates of the citadel be closed, for my fate hangs behind them ! Should I choose a cowardly refuge, or should I fight my enemies yonder ? And well, I still have a few friends left in the lands beyond. Will they offer succor ? But wait, the gates will close for them too !
A perplexed emperor Farrukhsiyar ( 2nd in line after Aurangzeb, and his great-grandson ) paces up and down his khwabgah ( dream house, literally, where the king would take his siesta after back to back state affairs’ meetings in the mornings ). Fate, and the drawing night, leads him to his harem for refuge; but even here, he’s unable to reverse the tide swelling against him. The Maratha army of 10,000 are by now inside the fort, under orders from an alliance formed with his nemesis, the Sayyid brothers ( army generals previously, but king makers after Aurangzeb’s death ). It’s only a matter of time !
The Naqqar Khana ( drum house ) heralds a new chapter in mughal history next morning, with the announcement of a new puppet king, and well, seals the fate of the now deposed emperor. It’s not long before history repeats itself and he’s brutally tortured and assassinated near this very building. Incidentally, his rise to the throne had been in a similar manner, with the assassination of his predecessor and uncle, the previous king Jahandar Shah.
One fine morning 300 years later, I find myself standing in front of the very same building, admiring it’s double storied architecture. The first floor is a sort of a colonnaded veranda with screens which may have been built later on, while an arched gateway below leads you inside the main precincts of the fort. The gateway still preserves some of the artistic works and colors from those days !
During the heydays of the empire, this drum house was used to seat musicians who would play here to announce different times of the day, and who would herald the king’s arrival at court. It houses a museum on the Indian freedom struggle now.
It’s not that there’s nothing to see before your rendezvous with the drum house, although a lot has been lost to destruction after the 1857 war. You enter the fort through the much pictured Lahori gate, provided later with a defensive battlement by Aurangzeb; something criticized by his father and emperor-under-house-arrest, that famous builder of the Taj Mahal, Shahjahan. It’s on this very battlement that the prime minister of India steps foot on, to address his countrymen on Independence day.
It’s easy to miss the smaller details in the gate’s construction, but if you stand there for a while and decide to feast on those, take your time !
Just as you enter the Lahori gate, the arched passageway in front presents before you a line of shops on both sides. This is the Chatta Bazaar of the fort ( meaning, market with a roof ), formerly known as the ‘Bazaar-i-musaqqaf’; which means the same thing. True to it’s name, this bazaar is enclosed within an arched roof, which was quite beautifully painted back in those days.
The bazaar was originally meant for royalty as well as visitors to the fort; items on sale including a rich collection of brocades, silk, gems and jewelry from far away lands. Excitement gets a lot many notches higher when one imagines scenes from one of the Mughal Meena Bazaars ( a tradition started by Akbar ), wherein all the ladies of the harem would try to sell something or the other to the emperor himself; no other male was allowed ! The bazaar was certainly a center of intense activity, as it is so today as well, although expensive wares have given way to some of the more common touristy stuff ( a replica of the Taj perhaps ) !
The bazaar has a first floor too. More recently, it was used to house the families of army soldiers stationed at the fort. That is when it was closed and cemented up to provide them privacy, although some of these alcoves have now been reclaimed as before. These spaces have a pleasant history of their own; being used as settings for musical evenings and for mushairas perhaps, as also a stage for song and dance festivities during the Meena bazaars. It is also said that they were used as administrative offices of the empire ( imagine munshis calculating various expenses of the day here ).
A painting from the late 1700s shows quarters of the salatin on either side of this bazaar, enclosed within high walls. This was sort of a royal prison where some of the previous kings ( now overthrown ), and their descendants were kept under guard, to avoid enabling them to stake a claim to the throne again. They lived on pension from the king, but in penury for the most part; especially during the twilight days of the empire.
The path out of the bazaar leads you straight to the naqqar khana ( the drum house mentioned above ), but not before a lookout on your left reveals huge military barracks built by the British after they demolished that part of the fort. Some of these barracks now house beautifully maintained museums. On your right after the bazaar is the way to one of the other important gates of the fort, the Delhi gate. It is said to be used by the royals, including the king when he would leave for Jama Masjid for his Friday prayers. Same can be said of the ladies of his harem.
A fountain now welcomes you on your way to the naqqar khana, and just before it. This is the only remaining portion of the waterway here that would run in both directions just after the bazaar ( towards the barracks and the delhi gate ), and culminate at the fountain. The entire fort, as well as the chandni chowk outside, was fed water from river yamuna through a lengthy network of many such waterways, an extraordinary engineering feat from those days. This entire water network was aptly named the ‘Nahar-i-behisht’ ( stream of paradise ), and we’re gonna encounter it again and again as we explore the inner confines of the fort !
Cross the Naqqar Khana and enter a large open area with a huge pillared hall at it’s end; the Diwan-i-Aam ( hall of public audience ), where emperors would hear grievances and petitions from the general public. That marble balcony in the hall holds ground even today ( together with it’s Bengal roof ), perhaps still waiting for it’s occupant to arrive from inside the door behind it. Covered in beautiful designs ( inlaid with precious stones ), the whole structure is an object of admiration, together with the marble platform below, on which would stand the king’s wazir ( minister ) to hand over petitions to him. This sight almost instantaneously made me wonder as to how these objects would have survived all the loot and plunder during the last days of the empire, and after it. The roof and the door panel behind it, especially, make for a very impressive picture. And well, the tall columns and the roof of this hall were supposed to be painted in gold ! A look at an old painting gave out a picture of the door behind being made of gold as well ( or at least painted with it ) ; treasures that were scraped and hauled off during one loot or another.
Turn around during your short walk from the naqqarkhana to the diwan-i-aam, and savor the sight of the slightly reddish glow from the morning sun falling on the former. Perhaps a signal to the drummers to start their day, and for activity to pace up inside the fort 🙂 ?
Go past the diwan-i-aam to enter the main princely area of the fort, with a beautifully manicured lawn in front, and an arrangement of stately buildings at the back, all in marble, and lined up in a single horizontal file. I was one of the first ones to enter the fort that morning, and so there was only a flock or two of birds to keep me company, even as the sun was now rising from behind those buildings. Quite a calm and serene sight in front of me I’d say !
The lawn, with the nehar-i-bihisht ( the stream of paradise ; water channels ) and a grand fountain on one side, presents for a very pretty picture. There’s an open seating area too, from where you can watch the light and sound show in the evenings. It’s a nice way to soak in the history of the fort, though you need to be wary of mosquito bites !
Over to the buildings; do you remember our protagonist emperor pacing up and down the Khwabgah ? That building now is in front of you, and in the center of the 3 main halls that you see. The Khwabgah is the smallest of them though, and it’s hard to imagine the emperor residing in it. It was perhaps meant only for his siesta during the day; his nights would of course be spent in the zenana ! One interesting aspect of the building’s architecture is it’s translucent marble walls which would allow the morning light to filter through them. I could revel in whatever I could see of them from the outside ( you aren’t allowed to enter either of these 3 halls, and even others, perhaps for want of restoration; it’s sad though, coz there’s so much interesting marble work on the inside ). The Khwabgah also has the ‘Jharokha’ (balcony) on which the emperor would make himself visible to the public just outside the fort walls, which means this line of buildings mark the end of the fort territory, beyond which, we now have a busy road running through. The river Yamuna which used to run close to the fort walls back then has backed off now, and the land, needless to say, ‘reclaimed’.
I was strolling about on the marble platform near the Khwabgah when I came up near the scale of justice on it’s rear side. A painting of Bahadur Shah Zafar seated below that very mark struck my mind, but what caught my attention were the exquisitely designed door panels on one of it’s sides, especially those cute little elephants with sombre looking mahouts guiding them. Perhaps only a fleeting glimpse of some of the designs which are still left in their originality inside the fort, and an indication of what could have been.
Below the Khwabgah is a walkway which ultimately leads you out of the fort through one of it’s back gates. It was this gate through which the great moghul Shahjahan entered the fort to inaugurate it, and it was this very gate through which the last moghul emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, had to flee through after the city fell to the siege laid by the British in 1857. What an irony !
This gate also has a high probability of letting the 1857 mutineers inside the fort ( and ultimately inside the city ), coming in as they were from Meerut, on the other side of Yamuna. The king was reluctant to do so, but it was the queen whose orders were heeded to, and a death knell sounded on an ’empire’ which had ceased to exist anyway. The nobility, as well as the city, would now have to bear the brunt of that decision made in May 1857.
To your left, and north from the Khwabgah, is the most talked about and perhaps the most opulent of the buildings in the fort, The Diwan-i-Khaas ( Hall of private audience ), where the king would meet his nobles and umras ( chieftains ), as well as receive guests from far away lands. Consequently, quite a few important decisions for the empire would be made here. Adorned with exquisite marble and gold work, as also designs in precious stones, this marvel of architecture and opulence must surely have been a cynosure of all eyes. However, just like the empire, it’s brilliance has also faded away with time and neglect; the marble now blackened, the gold and the precious stones lost. Some vestiges of it’s past still remain though, including that writing from Amir Khusrow which proclaims this building to be a paradise on Earth ! You have to have a keen eye to mark those words now, as you can’t go inside the building anymore ( restoration is in progress and I’m waiting for it to get back at least some resemblance to it’s glorious past ! ) .
The famed peacock throne ( commissioned by ShahJahan again ) used to be placed here for all to gawk at; studded and sprinkled with precious stones and diamonds of all sorts, including the Koh-i-noor. That was until 1739 when it was hauled off by Nadir Shah to Iran, along with almost all of Mughal India’s wealth. The empire could never recover back. For now, imagine rays of the setting sun falling on the stones and diamonds of the peacock throne ! Some glow eh 😉 ?
The British turned this building in to an officers’ mess post 1857, with a nearby queen’s palace being used as a kitchen ( Imagine black soot clinging on to the walls and ceilings of the palace ). British attitude had become increasingly hawkish preceding the war, and had ultimately led to it . The fact that they successfully suppressed the rebellion only led to more sombre manifestations of the same, including wanton destruction of fort buildings. The zenana apart from some chief buildings is nowhere to be seen; the royal kitchen seems to have disappeared; all the arcaded galleries have been destroyed for sure. The fort was almost full when the rebellion took place. Now, not more than 20% of the architecture remains, limited only to the principal buildings. But wait, there is still a part of the fort that cannot be accessed ( further from the Mumtaz Mahal ), so may be, there’s something more to be discovered when the restoration work is over.
Moving further on from the Diwan-i-Khaas, I pass by the hammam ( royal bath ). Legend has it that perfumed rose water once ran from it’s taps. I can only peer inside from one of it’s windows to see rich stone and marble work. I am not allowed inside. Just beside the hammam and to my left is the only embellishment to this fort by an emperor who otherwise proclaimed a saintly lifestyle; the last powerful emperor that the mughal rule could produce, and ultimately whose policies and actions did lead to it’s decline ; he who stood true to his name, Aurangzeb Alamgir ( conqueror of the world ). The empire stretched to it’s testing limits during his rule, but ultimately collapsed thereafter.
The Moti Masjid ( pearl mosque ) is a small building within the fort premises, made up entirely of marble, and features beautiful designs just like other palatial buildings. It seems to be the only building which has been to a large extent left untouched by the ravages of time; the marble is still pretty well maintained. It’s original copper domes, however, were lost to the war ( perhaps to cannon balls ), and have now been replaced with similar ones in ‘white’.
Moving on from the moti masjid, I see a vast garden in front of me, the Hayat Baksh Bagh ( life giving garden, anyone ? ). That original mughal ‘charbagh’ design still survives; the nehar-e-behisht dividing the garden into four squares, with a huge water tank in the middle. Bahadur Shah Zafar’s small abode in sandstone ( Zafar Mahal ) still stands inside the tank ; perhaps the last of the additions to the fort by it’s rightful occupants. The mughals could not afford marble by then for sure.
One can see 2 identical marble pavilions in the garden, one on either side of the water channel running from north to south. These were termed ‘Saawan’ and ‘Bhado’, the rainy months in the Hindu calendar. Precious stone as well as marble work adorn these pavilions, though once again time has taken it’s toll. The niches in these pavilions were where lamps would be kept at night, and water made to appear golden as it passed through ( as nehar-e-behisht ). It is also said that the marble would glow up on a full moon night . One can only imagine such arrangements now that the nights are as dark as anywhere else !
As I walk further from Moti Masjid on the garden’s perimeter, I pass another small marble pavilion constructed by Zafar ( a miniature compared to both the pavilions mentioned above, and without any adornments whatsoever; an indication of resources that were fast depleting for the last emperor ). I walk a little further, and come to another very important building inside the fort, the Shah Burj ( emperor’s tower ). Perhaps used by the emperor to watch over the yamuna for approaching enemy, this was also where water from the river was channeled into the nehar-i-behisht using a hydraulic system. The pavilion below the tower is said to have been built during Aurangzeb’s rule, where water from Shah Burj would enter first, before getting directed all the way till Chandni Chowk ( moonlit square of the old city ) !
The area further north from the Shah Burj has it’s entry barred. It is believed to have housed the princes’ quarters before the rebellion, among which only one building was preserved by the british, as a tea-house for soldiers. It may also be the area where the royal kitchen would dish up imperial delicacies every day !
Having had my fill from this part of the fort, I now retrace my steps back till the Diwan-i-Khaas, whence I start to move in the other direction towards the Zenana ( ladies’ quarters ) of the fort. This area was originally cordoned off from the rest of the fort using arcaded galleries which were later destroyed. Only 2 buildings have survived the onslaught, the first of which must have been a masterpiece in it’s own right. Imagine a water channel flowing right through it, with a heavily embellished marble basin and fountain in the middle. Envisage rooms with tiny pieces of mirrors embedded in walls and ceilings, and now imagine the flowing water reflecting through them; double it with light from the setting sun being reflected too. Rightly so, this building was called the Rang Mahal ( colorful palace ) of the fort.
The basement beneath would cool down the ladies during hot and humid summer months, and well, as fate would have it, this may be also be that likely spot where Bahadur Shah was imprisoned after the rebellion, even as the British were busy debating his future. The old king, a reluctant party to the mutiny, was quite uneasy during his confinement, and complained quite much of inhuman conditions in his ‘cell’. The British were relentless in their revenge, however, and concessions given were few and far between.
Admiring the almost non-existent mirror walls and roofs of the Rang Mahal ( the golden roof of the main hall had been taken down during one of the later emperors’ reign, for lack of funds otherwise ), I now move on to the last building in line, the Mumtaz Mahal. I can guess it to be the queen’s quarters going by it’s name, and it was indeed a part of the imperial zenana. It housed the British kitchen later on, before being converted into a museum of mughal artifacts.
The area further south of the mumtaz mahal is once again barred from entry, and our tour must end here. While returning back, you can explore paths that lead to the left and to the right just before entering Chatta Bazaar ( mentioned above ). The path to the right houses erstwhile army barracks as well as museums in some of the them. This path also leads to the Salimgarh fort which predates the red fort, and was used as a prison by the Mughals. This, as well as the path on the left ( supposedly leading to Delhi Gate of the fort ), is on my exploration list during my next visit !
My love for old delhi continues thence, and will manifest itself in descriptions/stories of buildings left over from the mutiny and before; the once prized possessions of this old city. The walk inside may start from Kashmiri Gate in the north, through which the British finally entered the city and captured the fort. This was also the British area of the city before the rebellion. Pockmarks from the battle still exist on gate walls, and so does a blown up magazine not far from there !
So long !
Psst .. the usuals ( stay and eating options ) have been discussed in a previous article on my love !