The Most Magnificent Palace in the East:

The Red Fort of Shah Jahan, the King of the World

Part II of the lecture delivered at the ATTIC, New Delhi


Anisha Shekhar Mukherji

The Red Fort - Lahori Gate

Within the Red Fort, the few Mughal structures that escaped total demolition, were looted of their valuable and decorative effects. Stripped of their gilded copper domes, the precious stones inlaid in their walls, their carved marble panels, they were used as military prisons, canteens, refreshment rooms, mess lounge, hospitals. Even after first being restored in the early 20th century, to present the Fort as a showpiece to visiting British royalty and aristocracy, they were mere shadows of their former selves. They continue to exist today as a strange mélange of a few forlorn pavilions amidst stern barracks, temperamental lawns, groups of trees, tarred roads and stagnant water. Thus, even the Fort.s custodians today may find it easier to relate its official title of Qila-i-Mubarak, the exalted fortress, with the earlier Mughal Forts such as those in Agra and Lahore which seem more imperial. It is only by resolutely ignoring the later intrusions and carefully examining the original components of the Red Fort, that one can discern and appreciate their beautiful proportions and the remnants of their stunning and intricate craftsmanship.

 Compare these views to the vibrant reality of the Fort.s appearance and functioning even two hundred years after its founding, under the later Mughal rulers. These panoramas of the Fort, now in the OIOC Collection of the British Library were probably drawn in the fourth decade of the nineteenth century. The first slide shows the southern part of the Fort, and the entrance from the Delhi Gate. The second shows the ceremonial Chatta Bazzar entered from the Lahori Gate, leading on to the audience-halls and imperial pavilions beyond. In both the views, the Fort.s proximity to the Yamunariver is clearly visible, as is its interface with the city and the multitude of activities and structures in it. We may do well to remind  ourselves that these date not from Shah  Jahan.s time but from the early decades of the  nineteenth century, almost exactly two hundred  years from the date when the Red Fort was  inaugurated by Shah Jahan. At this time, the  fortunes and power of the later Mughal rulers  were vastly reduced; their resources and  empire were a fraction of Shah Jahan.s .The  Fort.s appearance when it was inhabited by  Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb thus, would have  been many, many times more fascinating.

How was it that the Fort.s designed  form and function continued virtually  unchanged for two hundred years? That, even  when its buildings were shorn of much of  their trappings and decoration, their formality  diluted with additional structures constructed  in an inferior architectural style, when their  ruler was in many ways just a figurehead with  little money or actual authority, they were still  impressive enough to be widely admired? Not  only the inhabitants of the city for whom the  Fort symbolised much more than its physical  appearance, but even the marauding British  soldiers intent on plundering it in the days  after its last Mughal ruler, Bahadur Shah Zafar  was defeated and imprisoned, regarded it with  awe. Some of these soldiers later recorded  their memory of its .gorgeous domes and  minarets., .the vast size of this castellated  palace with its towering embattled walls., just  as Lady Emily Bailey, the daughter of the  powerful British Resident, Sir Thomas  Metcalfe who first saw it in 1848, recollected  its .sublimely beautiful buildings.. These  images of the palaces and pavilions in the Fort,  which she unreservedly praised as.exquisite  buildings of white marble the style of the  Taj. p. 168 were commissioned for her father,  Sir Thomas Metcalfe, barely a decade before it  was destroyed. Photographs of these buildings  from the mid-nineteenth century also show  the complexity, density and beauty of the  spaces in the Fort.

Before speaking of the attributes of  the Fort.s design which allowed it to retain its  original form for all these years between its  founding and these pictures, we need to first  comprehend the circumstances and times in  which it was established, and its importance in  the Mughal empire.

1. To begin with, we must realize that   right from its conception, to its   construction to its functioning, the   Red Fort is unrivalled anywhere in   the world. It was designed and built   as a holistic venture along with an   entire citythe only such urban   Mughal palace complex of its kind.   The construction of the Fort was   finished in just 10 years. In itself this   is a huge venture, as I am sure we can   all appreciate especially when we   compare this to contemporary   construction. Imagine an entire city   and palace being constructed in 10   years today, even with the aid of   modern technology! However, apart   from the remarkable managerial and   construction skills manifest in the   building of the Red Fort, the fact that   it and Shahjahanabad were planned   and built at one time, allowed Shah   Jahan.s builders to not only address   all the problems of access, or   overcrowding in the earlier, older   Mughal cities and Forts such as in   Lahore and Agra but also to plan for   future expansion and to provide a   magnificent enough setting befitting   one of the richest and most cultured   medieval kingdoms in the world. All   the earlier forts established by the   Great Mughals, whether at Agra,   Lahore, Allahabad, were built over   the reigns of different Mughal rulers   and were therefore amalgamations of   various styles and modes of   construction. The architectural forms   and spaces which had been   experimented with in the earlier Forts,   were thus brought to fruitition in the   design of the Red Fort.


Lahore Fort, Agra Fort and Delhi Fort

2. The Red Fort may therefore be said to be the grand finale to imperial   Mughal forts, just as the Taj Mahal,   Shah Jahan.s most famous act of   patronage was the grand finale to   imperial Mughal tomb-gardens. The   Fort set the trend for domestic as   well as ceremonial architecture all   over the Mughal empire; and for   subsequent and contemporary      kingdoms in the sub-continent. In   fact, in its original form, many parts   of the Red Fort had the same quality   of refined luxury as, the Taj Mahal   still does. Like the Taj, the Fort was   crafted and built with perfect   proportion and detail, by an imperial   array of master-craftsmen, mastermasons   and overseers. When the   Fort.s foundations were marked out   on the 29th of April 1639 AD, during   the second decade of Shah Jahan.s   reign, its design was reportedly led by   the master-architect Ustad Hamid   and his brother Ustad Ahmed Lahori,   who, some sources claim was   associated with the building of the   Taj Mahal too. Records show that the   best craftsmen and designers   decorated the Red Fort with Fatehpur   Sikri sandstone, the finest Makrana   marble, glass imported from Allepi,   and a range of semi-precious stones,   gold and silver from all over the trade   centres associated with the Mughal   empire. The same care that Shah   Jahan commanded his trusted aides,   master-masons and artists to expend   on the mausoleum of his beloved   wife, was used to craft his living areas   and those of his family. Shah Jahan.s   official court-histories record how he   often made detours in his   administrative or political visits, so   that he could inspect the construction   at the Fort.


Carved and Painted Ceiling, Diwan-i-Am, Red Fort

3. In fact, it is often forgotten that the   Taj Mahal and the Red Fort were   contemporary acts of building. The   Taj was finished barely two years   before Shah Jahan grandly celebrated   the completion of his magnificent   Red Fort in 1648. Both the Fort and   the Taj were thus, created at the peak   of Shah Jahan.s patronage, a period   universally recognized as one of the   pinnacles of world art and   architecture. They represent the   highly evolved design consciousness   of Shah Jahan and his team of   architects, artisans, craftsmen and artists.


Inlaid White Marble Decoration, in Tombs of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal at Taj Mahal, and in

Diwan-i-Am Throne, Red Fort

4.  However, the Fort was simultaneously far more complex and intimate than even the   Taj Mahal. While the Taj was   essentially designed as a mausoleum   set within a Mughal garden, with its   mosque and ancillary supporting   buildings, the Red Fort was   composed of many more kinds of   buildings, gardens, spaces and   functions. Not just a tomb or a   garden, or even a mere imperial   residence, which is the ordinary   western conception or definition of a   palace, the Red Fort was like a city   within a city. It was designed to   function simultaneously as a   showpiece of the Mughal empire, the   residence of the Mughal imperial   household, an administrative centre,   recreational space, as well as a cultural   focus for Shahjahanabad. To put this   into context, we can compare the   Escorial, one of the largest palaces in   Europe, constructed in the reign of   Philip II in the mountains above   Madrid in 1563, about eighty years   before the Fort. Its size at 204 metres   by 162 metres (670 feet by 530 feet),   made it closer than most other   renaissance royal buildings to the   scale of a small city. Yet it was five   times smaller in area than just the   inner palace of the Red Fort.

The Red Fort thus contained palace   pavilions, imperial gardens and art   objects to cater to the daily needs of   the Emperor, his queens and his   daughters, as well as administration   halls, courts of justice and formal   halls of audience. Additionally, it also   housed more prosaic functions such   as offices, retail markets, mosques,   kitchens, elephant and horse stables,   orchards, living quarters for the   resident soldiers, maids and   attendants who worked within the   Fort, and karakhanas and workshops   for skilled craftspeople who made   objects specifically for imperial use.   Kings, noblemen, petitioners, soldiers,   ambassadors, stone-setters, jewellers,maids, weavers, even the poorest of   the poor residents, came to work, to   seek justice or to pay audience to the   Emperor as part of the daily   ceremonial custom at Shah Jahan's   court. The true significance and the   scale of these activities can be   appreciated when we realise that this   is akin to it being a combination of   the Rashtrapati Bhawan, North and   South Blocks, Parliament House,   Supreme Court, Secretariat,   Cantonment, Crafts Museum, etc!


View of the Red Fort, 18th century

5. The Fort was actively and almost   continuously used as an imperial   Mughal Fort for almost two thirds of   its life. Shah Jahan chose to live in   the Red Fort for a greater part of his   remaining 10 year long reign, till he   was deposed by Aurangzeb. Most of   his later descendents too stayed here.   All through these years, the   multifarious activities within it   continued to work practically as they   were originally designed, without   intruding on each other. Despite the   huge daily traffic of visitors-great and   small, from within the city and   beyond the boundaries of the   empire, nobody got into each other’s   way within this mini-city.


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