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,
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 ...in 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 city—the 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 Fort2. 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 century5. 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.
TO BE CONTINUED...
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