Falsifying History

The Red Fort Revisited

Anisha Shekhar Mukherji

The Red Fort

 

falsify: alter so as to mislead

history: the past considered as a whole

(Oxford Dictionary)

 

        In the beginning of March this year, I visited the Red Fort after a long time. I expected to find some changes. There were some, generally all for the worse. The walk at noon to the new location of the redesigned ticket house had increased. The new ticket house was both large and ungraceful. Though the green lawns made over the past five years in front of the Fort look pleasant from a distance and are good to pose against, they do nothing to help a pedestrian or a citizen. These water-guzzlers in a city afflicted by drinking-water shortage are a colonial hangover. They deliberately disregard the needs of our climate. The British, nostalgic for the meadows and rolling downs kept alive in the frequent rain in their country, perhaps had some excuse for trying to recreate large lawns in a completely different part of the world. What excuse do we have that we are unable to discard these ecological disasters? A hankering for the halcyon days of the British Raj, perhaps?

          The Mughal rulers and noblemen, as I had explained in my book, The Red Fort of Shahjahanabad, were far wiser. The French traveler and physician, Francois Bernier, who visited India in the mid-17th century, wrote that they ‘…always made it a point to plant trees in their gardens and courts for the sake of shade…’. Though a visitor from a completely different culture, he had the perception to appreciate the ‘peculiar pleasure’ that a landscape of luxuriant and green foliage yields ‘in a hot and parched country.’ When Bernier lived in Shahjahanabad during the early part of Emperor Aurangzeb’s reign, just over a decade had elapsed since the establishment of Shah Jahan’s newly constructed capital city and imperial palace at Delhi. Even though many of its orchards and gardens were still being developed, Bernier describes how beautiful the flowers and shrubs looked against the red walls of the Fort. Maps and drawings of Shahjahanabad and the Red Fort from the 18th and 19th centuries also show gardens of grape and rose, as well as rows of trees next to the Fort walls. Some full-grown trees around the Fort could still be seen when it was inhabited by the later Mughal rulers, who were by then politically reduced and symbolically downgraded to the title of mere ‘kings’, with even their financial allowances monitored by the British Residents.

And these gardens and trees were not just to be seen. Ordinary inhabitants of the city, three hundred years ago, were allowed to use them. The Mughal Emperors interestingly seem to have been more caring in contrast to our democratic governments. Today, the ‘colonial theme’ around the Fort is continued in the appearance as well as the intent of the gates and fences erected around the swathes of lawn. So not only do visitors get a completely wrong idea about the environs of the Red Fort as planned in Shah Jahan’s times, they are also discouraged from entering these lawns. In fact, even the ‘ungentrified’ stretches of land in front of the Fort that were used till about six years ago for popular fairs, circuses, and Ramlila performances, were far more inclusive and functional than these ‘pretty’ lawns.

          Within its walls, the Fort looked more run-down and uncared for than I remembered from my many scores of visits to each part of it since 1995. The Archaeological Survey of India is evidently unable to manage the huge and complex Fort. Especially, since they have neither the resources nor the skills that Emperor Shah Jahan had at his disposal. The proposal to move the Indian Army out and take over the management of the entire Fort under one body―as I had pointed out in my letter to the then Culture Minister, Shri Jagmohan―was both impractical and historically inappropriate. When the Fort was established, different portions of it were lived in and looked after by different parts of the Mughal retinue. For instance, during Shah Jahan’s time as well as that of his descendants, the restricted north-western section of the Fort was reserved for the Mughal Army. In that sense, the Indian Army’s ceremonial military presence in the Red Fort was important not only as the only continuity in the Fort’s original historical function, but also as an asset that could have been tapped to direct its appropriate maintenance. But when have we ever learned from history?

          The covered street of the Chatta Bazaar beyond the Lahori Gate was one of the most unique parts of the Fort. Originally designed as the ‘display-gallery’ and promenade for the beautiful wares of the Mughal Empire with walled gardens adjacent to it, it was the same crowded, confused and cacophonous souvenir market it had been on my visits some years earlier. This situation obviously must be remedied. I was however, relieved that the apparently approved plan for this, as printed in the Hindustan Times of 2nd February 2009, has still not been implemented. Unfortunately, the vision of the ‘restored’ Chatta Bazzar, as communicated in the newspaper report, does not extend to or evoke any of the facets of the original Mughal arcade. The theme, instead, again seems to be that of a colonial Victorian market, replete with cast iron light poles and sign posts, and glass and wood paneled doors. Such a conjectural reconstruction is nothing more than a figment of imagination. It is completely unjustified and at variance with how the Chatta Bazaar originally appeared, as I had written to some of the experts on the Committee, including the DG ASI. Neither does it represent the way in which the Bazaar looked or functioned at any stage of its existence.

          In fact, the Chatta Bazaar’s appearance under the British Army was that of a severe Garrison Market. The sealed windows on the first-floor of the Bazaar and its white-washed layers over the original painted decoration on its ceilings and walls, are a remnant of that time. And considering that the Red Fort suffered its greatest under the onslaught of the Victorians―even more than under Nadir Shah―the proposed reinterpretion of its main entrance arcade into an evocation of the ‘Victorian’ seems to be a great insult to what remains of the Fort. Most of us forget―or perhaps do not even know―about the desecration of the Fort under its occupation by the British Army. They demolished more than eighty percent of its Mughal pavilions, colonnades, walled gardens, houses, fountains, canals and courtyards soon after 1857. Its walls and floors were stripped of their marble slabs, the semi-precious stones in its inlay work including those behind the Diwan-i-Am throne were gouged out, gold from its domes (what the Crown Surveyor termed ‘moveable assets’) was removed.

          Will the Expert Committee on the Red Fort recognize the attempt to reinvent the Chatta Bazaar in Victorian garb as another falsification of its history, and take steps to stop it? I am hopeful, though not certain. Unfortunately, they are too late to stop such well-meant but ill-judged interventions to Shah Jahan’s private entrance under the Fort’s Mussaman Burj. This was the place from where Shah Jahan entered the Red Fort for the first time, after alighting from the river Yamuna―which flowed approximately where the Ring Road runs today. From its sandy banks, he walked up to his private pavilion attached to the regal gilded Burj. He then went on to inaugurate the formal joyous celebrations at the Diwan-i-Am court, attended by all the noblemen of the empire. The delicate latticed chamber above this entrance, is where Shah Jahan and even the later Mughal emperors, sat each morning in darshan to their subjects assembled on the banks of the river. King George and Queen Mary re-enacted this ceremony on their State Visit to the Fort in the early twentieth century, in an attempt to associate themselves with the powerful visual and symbolic link between the Mughal Emperor and his people.

Though this bank, the foreground to the most important part of the Fort, had by the 1990s been relegated to an unkempt no-man’s land, it was brought alive each weekend by a bustling book market. But now, it has been ‘converted’ into what looks like a municipal garden. Earth has been filled in for the inevitable lawns. So, ironically the level of the entrance around the tower has sunk to a pit. This pit below the ‘garden’ has been ‘finished’ in red sandstone, the steep steps leading down to it clumsily echoing the tower’s profile. To an uninitiated visitor it looks like a remnant of a well or simply a minor exit for discredited inmates of the Fort. Who would believe that the fifth Mughal emperor entered the Red Fort in state from here? Even the steps leading up from this entrance within the Fort, where Shah Jahan emerged with fanfare within the Fort, have been barred by two crude metal sections.

The Fort, it seems is caught between the devil and the deep sea, between neglect and willful misinterpretation. Instead of understanding or communicating the many fascinating layers of history in the Red Fort, it is being reimagined in inept and incorrect ways. At this rate, how much of the form and detail of the few remaining original parts of the Red Fort will survive, is a moot question. In another hundred years from now, visitors may well mistake this refashioning as the work of Shah Jahan’s builders, and with reason wonder if its reputation as the ‘Most Magnificent Palace in the East’ is more fancy than fact.   

 

Editor: Manohar Khushalani

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